Style and Technique

The language used in the story is deceptively plain and simple and thus underlines the mounting horror and wonder. The fact that Millhauser does not name the assistant although he names each of the volunteers makes Hensch and his assistant seem to be a single, outside unit, in contrast to the volunteers, who are members of the community. The story suggests that a community can be spellbound temporarily by influences that are simply passing through; however, as the outcome of the story indicates, the community will be forever changed as a result. The story bears a resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in its mythic yet specific setting. However, in “The Knife Thrower,” the reader comes to realize that the evil in which a community partakes is often invited in and acts as a scapegoat for the community’s inability to face its own dark side. The community leaves the scene affirming the need for making a living but blaming Hensch for going too far. What this last line reveals is that the audience, even after such a terrifying performance, refuses to accept that Hensch himself does not go too far; rather, the audience not only encourages but also needs Hensch to perform for them so that they may be reaffirmed in their provincialism and may persist in their righteousness.

Literary Techniques

Millhauser uses color as a manifestation of the sides that the community is battling between and to demonstrate the rite of passage that the initiates must go through. The story is built around the white of purity, the black of the master and the initiated, and the red of the blood that is the process and effect of transgression. Likewise darkness and light are used as examples of the differences between what the community knowingly becomes involved with, what they do not know or expect, and what they wish to ignore in the service of their own excitement.

Millhauser also focuses on one night and one performance by Hensch to tighten the focus of the story. This, in addition to his choice of narrative voice, emphasizes the community and the emotions and difficulties it experiences as a result of Hensch's performance.

(The entire section is 141 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

Millhauser explores the odd fascination that some societies seem to have about things with which they are not supposed to be fascinated. Guilty pleasures seem to be the best kind for many people. From these "unnatural" pleasures comes a sense of identity, for those participating and for those just watching. Whether priority is placed on independence or community vigilance also seems to be a primary concern for this story.

1. Is the community's fascination with Hensch similar to the popularity of "reality television"? In what ways is it alike or different?

2. Should the audience have stopped the three volunteers from being marked? Why or why not? Would it have been different if the volunteers had been older? Why or why not?

3. Why would they each want to be marked? What is Hensch's appeal?

4. Do you think that the final act, "the ultimate sacrifice," was staged? Why or why not? If it was real and not a setup, how would that affect the community's opinion of the performance? How does that affect your view of the performance?

5. Should Hensch be held responsible for those that he harms? For example, should his act be stopped? Does it matter that the members of the act are volunteers?

(The entire section is 203 words.)

Social Concerns

"The Knife Thrower" begins with a community puzzled and bewildered with the knowledge that the infamous Hensch, the knife thrower, is coming to town. Thus begins a tale that explores the deep recesses of desire, the formation of identity and the fascination with controlled (and sometimes not so controlled) danger. Hensch is an outsider, a transgressor; he has crossed the boundary of his professional code. He has become a fascinating figure because he is on the outside of society, and he has turned his ostracization into a crowd drawing act: "in his early carnival days he had wounded an assistant badly; after a six-month retirement, he returned with his new act." His act draws crowds because it titillates the community's sense of guilty pleasures—tapping into their desire for the ability to watch what one is not supposed to watch and enjoy that which should only inspire disapproval. His popularity calls attention to where the community draws the line between entertainment and the infringement of decency, because Hensch is a transgressor; he does what he is not supposed to do: he wounds people.

The community goes into the performance willingly, with full knowledge of its dangerous potential. Again and again in the story the boredom of safety is contrasted with the excitement of danger as the community grapples with its own attraction to supposedly "unnatural" or "disapproved of" actions. For example, during the performance, the marking of the assistant...

(The entire section is 559 words.)

Literary Precedents

This story's closest literary relative is the work of Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote many short stories in addition to his numerous novels. The magical realism of this story finds a likeness with Nabokov's fiction, which often uses everyday events and lives to explore otherworldly dimensions and themes. A good example of a short story that explores similar themes is "The Aurelian," which takes as its subject a butterfly collector who is eerily watched by the specimens mounted in his shop. Another group of fiction that is somewhat similar to Millhauser's is Roald Dahl's fiction for young adults, as collected in The Umbrella Man. Dahl's stories, like Nabokov's often take unexpected turns at the end, or end unexpectedly, often leaving the reader to complete the train of thought at the end of the story. This can be used to explore different assumptions that the reader has made throughout. These authors play with literary traditions, manipulating stock characters and prejudices to manifest their themes.

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Related Titles

Millhauser's collection of three novellas, Little Kingdoms, also explores in similarly magically realistic ways the different desires that can consume and enchant. In each story a different art is considered, but in extremely different ways. The art begins to dictate reality to some extent, which is similar to "The Knife Thrower," and the community surrounding the art must deal with the effects of being consumed by a particular idea. The motif of the dagger, as well as the emphasis on a community's response to particular stimuli is present in the second novella, "The Princess, the Dwarf and the Dungeon."

(The entire section is 99 words.)