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“Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser is told in the form of a biography. While fictional biographies have a first person point of view as a general rule, this short story’s narrator attempts, to the best of their ability, to tell this from a third person dramatic point of view, employing first person terms such as “we” as little as possible (216). Millhauser’s choice to format the story in such a manner makes the reader believe in the reliability of the narrator, leading us to believe in the world within the story, because it is difficult to know who the narrator is. Another choice of Millhauser’s is to set the story in a historic time period and include actual events, places, and people. This also cements our trust in the narrator, as we know, or can discover, that all aspects of the world mentioned around the fantastic were indeed real at the time, such as “The Mysterious Orange Tree, a feat made famous by Robert-Houdin” (218). This increases the realism of not only the setting but also Eisenheim’s beginnings as an illusionist.

“Eisenheim the Illusionist” is a story about power struggles. The story is set in a time when the Hapsburg Empire “was nearing the end of its long dissolution” as magicians and illusionists became increasingly popular (215). The increase of magicians could be a metaphor for how people wanted to escape from the real world into a world of pretend. Eisenheim however did not stop at simply poking into the world of illusions from reality but instead “deliberately crossed boundaries” (235). By blurring the boundaries between reality and illusions he was perceived as attempting to injure the already weak empire by implying that boundaries did not matter between real and unreal which could be extrapolated to the boundaries between countries. He then, however, disappeared before he could be punished and like many failed revolutionaries faded from the memory of all but the most devoted of his followers.

One Response to “Steven Millhauser, “Eisenheim the Illusionist””

  1. “While fictional biographies have a first person point of view as a general rule…” This seems a bit confusing to me. Since biographies are the story of someone else (as opposed to autobiography), wouldn’t third person point-of-view be the standard narration for such stories?

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