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OPEN EYES WITH DESIRES, CLOSE MOUTH WITH DISMAY:

ANALYSING KEY IDEAS IN “THE KNIFE THROWER”

Naoya Makino

100106040

English 1127

Section 005
Trevor Newland

Langara College

1 August 2007

Stephen Millhauser has written a short story titled “The Knife Thrower”,

describing a knife throwing show in a small and peaceful town. Hensch—a knife

thrower—is famous for an excessive show, and the audience is fascinated with his

controversial show; its show ends up with a possibility of death of a young woman’s

participant. In this story, Millhauser shows the reader, metaphorically, society’s

numbness to violence in the real world in many stages: the progression of the knife

thrower’s act as harmful media in society, the passive and voyeuristic audience response

in the theatre as society’s lack of active response and voyeuristic behavior in society,

and the audience’s participation as indicative of society’s participation in morally

questionable activities.

The excessive performance of the knife thrower (Hensch) represents

detrimental media in society. In Hensch’s performance, he harms people as knife

throwing approaches to the climax. Generally speaking, a knife thrower is not supposed
to harm people, and harming people is controversial in society: however, he purposely

“crosses the line” (11) because he knows that “the realm of forbidden things” (11) grab

audience’s attention. This indicates that Hensch shows harmful knife throwing to get

people’s attentions; often media broadcasts violent shows to grab people’s attention.

James Potter states that “extraspecies fighting … generates energy”: “the media often

represents such stimuli” (11). This means that media broadcasts aggressive shows to

hold people’s attentions, and Hensch uses the same way to catch the audience’s

awareness. Millhauser expresses, metaphorically, that Hensch’s radical performance

symbolizes harmful media in society.

Even though Hensch, and media in society, progress excessively, the audience,

and people in society, respond passively. When Susan Parker stands up to participate in

the show, the audience “[remains] silent” (12). While the audience knows that stabbing

people is morally questionable, the audience—a silent mob—responds inactively. In

other words, even though the audience thinks this harmful show is morally debatable,

no one stands to stop the show. This audience’s response shows that the audience

watches stabbing the participant without being involved: “an onlooker” (Gabler par.7).

This disengaged behavior applies to people in society. In Galber’s article “Behind The

Curtain Of TV Voyeurism”, a Harvard professor Robert Putnam states that people in


society “have increasingly become disengaged from one another…and social

involvement” (par.11). This is especially true when people are watching broadcasts;

they watch TV shows passively without being involved in its events. Metaphorically,

the story connects the inactive audience in the show and those people in society who

watch TV shows with no involvement. Millhauser symbolizes the audience in the

theater as people in society and the audience’s lack of involvement as people in

society’s disengagement from others.

Not only does the audience watch the show passively, the audience’s behavior

is voyeuristic, signifying people’s voyeuristic that of society. For instance, while the

audience watches the knife throwing, they tend to behave “like pretending [he/she has

not] noticed” (6); the audience watches his aggressive show secretly as every audience

is fascinated with a “faint flutter of anxious excitement” (8). That is, the audience gets

excited about watching the participants’ suffering. Therefore, instead of involved in the

violent show, the audience voyeuristically observes morally questionable entertainment.

This audience’s voyeuristic behavior represents that people in society enjoy watching

and get excited about ethically problematic TV shows. As an example, one of the most

popular TV shows “Survivor” and “Big Brother” are “making the other side of glass

accessible to anyone who is willing to barter his or her privacy for it”(Gabler par.5).
This popular TV programs let people watch others’ privacy and suffering, fascinated

with “the wicked kick of peering through the keyhole”: voyeuristic behaviors (Gabler

par.8). People in society and the audience in the theater “fulfill [their] desires of”

excitement by peeking controversial shows (Ponce 102). These similar behaviors of

people in society and the audience in the theater indicate that both of them

voyeuristically involve controversial shows to get excited, secretly, about suffering

others. Millhauser says symbolically that both the audience in the story and people in

society are fascinated with watching morally questionable shows.

In addition to the audience’s passive as well as voyeuristic behaviors, natural

human desires of belonging to an elite group support the knife thrower’s success and

controversial shows, which reflect how society in general participates in morally

questionable activities. In the story, many young women volunteer to participate the

knife thrower’s show, wanting to be “wounded by the master and to bear his scar

proudly” (4). This desire implies that young women beautify his harmful shows. They

know involving in this harmful show is contentious; nevertheless, they are “eager to”

(13) take part in “master[’s]” controversial activities (4). Therefore, those people

support his dangerous show by encouraging him and glorifying the activity. Due to the

desires of being famous, these women get behind “forbidden things” (11). Like those
young women in the theatre, many people in society support morally questionable

activities unconsciously. In fact, an abundant number of people visit pornographic

websites everyday; in 2000, Robert McNatt reports on the Business Week that sex

industry in U.S. “generates over $1 billion annually” (10). This case proves that those

morally questionable groups, like the knife thrower, are able to continue their activities

because of a crowd of supporters (like the young women and the audience).

Figuratively, Millhauser tells the reader that plenty of supporters—the audience and the

young women—allow the knife thrower and morally questionable groups in society to

accomplish harmful activities.

In summary, Millhauser argues in his story “The Knife Thrower” that society’s

lack of sensation to violence by showing, symbolically, harmful Hensch’s knife

throwing, the audience’s passive as well as voyeuristic attitudes, and the audience’s

unconscious supports to his controversial show. Because of those people’s behaviors

and their desires, his show and media in society have “really gone too far” (18).

Millhauser asks whether people let media become more aggressive with their inner

desires or if they should close eyes and open mouth with courage; still today, a silent

mob keeps walking with “agitation and dismay” (18).


References

Gabler, Neal. "Behind the curtain of TV voyeurism. (Cover story)." Christian Science

Monitor 92.158 (07 July 2000): 1. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. [Langara

College Library], [Vancouver], [British Columbia]. 26 July 2007.

<https://ezproxy.langara.bc.ca:2443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/logi

n.aspx?direct=true&db=afh&AN=3292815&site=ehost-live>.

McNatt, Robert. "EVERYTHING HAS A PRICE..." Business Week (10 July 2000): 10-

10.

Ponce, Pedro. ""a game we no longer understood". Theatrical Audiences in the Fiction

of Steven Millhauser." 90-109. Review of Contemporary Fiction, 2006.

Academic Search Elite. EBSCO. [Langara College Library], [Vancouver],

[British Columbia]. 29 July 2007.

<https://ezproxy.langara.bc.ca:2443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/logi
n.aspx?direct=true&db=afh&AN=21409710&site=ehost-live>.

Potter, W. James. On Media Violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999.