Themes and Meanings
The style and storytelling method used in “The Knife Thrower” is consistent with that used in other works by Pultizer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser. Millhauser tends to select simple, realistic yet improbable subjects and to invest them with a quality of Magical Realism or, as in the case of “The Knife Thrower,” a kind of “satanic realism.” The power of the story is achieved through the suspense created by the general dangers of knife throwing and the specific peril of the artistic wound that Hensch inflicts. The use of the first-person plural narrator not only adds an element of mystery and collective implication to the story as it unfolds but also makes the reader part of the audience in a very intimate and complicated way. Just as the audience is both fascinated and repelled by Hensch’s audacity, so is the reader both drawn into the story by means of the author’s spellbinding skill and made to feel voyeuristic and implicated by continuing to read though the story moves toward a dire outcome. On reading the story, the reader, like the audience, comes to see his or her own dark side, the side of human consciousness that is fascinated by the forbidden, and is also relieved, as well as outraged, to find that the collective nature of human behavior may mitigate but does not absolve responsibility. Yet, the fact that Hensch’s final act is part of a performance leads the audience and the reader to take comfort in the fact that it was all a show, both Hensch’s knife throwing and the story itself. That comfort, however, is very measured as the reader and the audience are left to wonder if what took place before their eyes was real or fake.