The genre of the short story “The Knife Thrower” by Steven Millhauser would probably most aptly be described as satire. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines satire as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn,” which seems a fitting description of the story and its author’s objectives.
The general tone of entertainment masks the much darker themes below the surface of the overt story. Just as Jonathan Swift assumes a lighthearted tone to discuss poverty and hunger in his satirical essay “ A Modest Proposal,” Steven Millhauser assumes what also seems to be a light approach to discuss people’s hunger for the macabre or for a cathartic means of dispelling their own violent energy.
Just below the surface of a story that appears to be about a traveling entertainer and his beautiful assistant, the story focuses on the reactions of the audience as the eponymous knife thrower actually draws blood. The audience craves more and goads him and other audience members to escalate the visual assault, as one by one audience members volunteer to “be marked.”
“The Knife Thrower” is therefore also an allegory of man’s craving for blood sport or bloodthirsty desire to engage in—or more often to be a spectator—at violent events. History is full of examples. For instance, think of the Roman gladiators and the entertainment that they provided. More recently, think of bullfighting in Spain and in many former Spanish colonies. Even today, the so called sport of boxing draws huge crowds who pretend to be shocked when one boxer draws blood from the opponent.
The conflict between the entertainment value of the blood sport and society’s public disapproval (but private enjoyment) is acknowledged in the first lines of the story. The narrator says,
When we learned that Hensch, the knife thrower, was stopping at our town for a single performance at eight o'clock on Saturday night, we hesitated, wondering what we felt. Hensch, the knife thrower! Did we feel like clapping our hands for joy, like leaping to our feet and bursting into smiles of anticipation? Or did we, after all, want to tighten our lips and look away in stern disapproval?