Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The quasi-journalistic, quasi-objective voice that the narrator uses in “Eisenheim the Illusionist” is characteristic of Millhauser’s stories, in which, typically, a totally external view of the events is presented. Readers know absolutely nothing of what is going on in Eisenheim’s mind. The narrator can only offer rumors and speculation about Eisenheim’s thoughts and intentions. This method of narration, combined with the naming of actual historical persons, such as the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, has the simultaneous effect of both anchoring Eisenheim in and removing him from his historical fabric. For example, at the moment of Eisenheim’s apotheosis, some witnesses claim to see triumph in his face; others hear a “cry of icy desolation.” Could both be true simultaneously, in the sense of a famous quantum-physics thought problem? If they are, how can any of the reported or implicit facts of the narration be substantiated or denied?

Like many stories by Millhauser’s literary precursors, such as E. T. A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, and Vladimir Nabokov, and like other of Millhauser’s artist substitutes, Eisenheim has his double, his mirror image: first Benedetti, then Passauer. However, unlike Millhauser’s character Eschenburg, Eisenheim vanquishes his doubles: One vanishes, and one is transformed into Eisenheim himself. Millhauser also allows himself two puns on Passauer’s name: The first is when Eisenheim remarks “that Passauer’s hour had passed”—a pun not possible in German. The second occurs in the last line of the story, which states that Eisenheim “had passed safely out” of history. These intertextual reverberations echo the other mirrorings and doublings within the story: the characters who emulate and then turn into other characters, the illusions that resemble other magicians’ tricks, and the names of illusions that echo story and fable titles, such as the Vanishing Lady, the Blue Room, and the Enchanted House. These correspondences indicate that Eisenheim is not the only one who transgresses boundaries and threatens to break down the barriers between art and life, illusion and reality—which is perhaps the ultimate purpose of the story “Eisenheim the Illusionist.”