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Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.
Have you ever read anything that drove you crazy? Robert Chambers' tale ''The Repairer of Reputations'' was originally published in a short story collection called The King in Yellow. The collection is named after a fictitious cursed play: anyone who finishes reading it will go insane. Four of its stories—including this one— contain important references to this play.
Let's take a look at a summary of this story and analyze its themes and role as a commentary.
What do you imagine the state of the union will be like 25 years from now? ''The Repairer of Reputations'' is set in New York City in 1920, 25 years in the future from the collection's publication in 1895.
Chambers presents a so-called ''utopian'' future in which the U.S. has prevented Germany from attaining world domination. Contrary to real-life post-war reality, the U.S. is ''prosperous'' and unscathed by war, its military strengthened, its cities rebuilt with superior architecture.
Chambers writes that ''bigotry and intolerance were laid in their graves.'' Yet ''the Indian [Native American] problem'' is resolved by the military, blacks live in a separate, independent state, foreign-born Jews are banned from U.S. entry, and immigration in general is drastically reduced. Suicide is legal, and every city has an elegant public Lethal Chamber offering free painless death.
Narrator Hildred Castaigne tells us he fell from his horse four years ago and that a Dr. Archer diagnosed him with brain damage and placed him in a mental asylum. While institutionalized, Castaigne read the cursed play The King in Yellow and became convinced its fantasy world was real—giving readers two reasons to believe he's insane.
He is therefore an utterly unreliable narrator, a common literary device. Eventually Dr. Archer ''cured'' Castaigne, but the narrator wants revenge for what he views as unwarranted imprisonment.
Castaigne visits an antique armor shopowner named Hawberk. Hawberk's daughter, Constance, is in love with Castaigne's cousin Louis, and Castaigne believes the couple are actually members of the English nobility.
A Mr. Wilde, whom Hawberk calls ''almost demented'' and ''vicious,'' lives above the shop with a violent feral cat. Castaigne visits him and explains that Mr. Wilde is a ''repairer of reputations,'' or a savant who blackmails prominent people after concealing their misdeeds.
Wilde, who's also read The King in Yellow, has a manuscript called ''The Imperial Dynasty of America'' that names Louis as its future king and Castaigne as next in the line of succession.
Castaigne decides to eliminate Louis to gain the throne. When Louis makes plans to marry Constance, he demands that Louis not only abdicate the throne, but live in exile and never marry (so that no royal heirs can supplant Castaigne).
He explains that Dr. Archer has already tried to prevent Castaigne's reign by institutionalizing him, but that he (Castaigne) has killed him. Meanwhile, Wilde has blackmailed one Osgood Vance to murder Hawberk and Constance.
Rushing into Wilde's apartment, Castaigne puts on a white robe and crown and pronounces himself king. However, he finds Wilde's throat slashed by his cat, which he kills, and he's captured by the police Louis has called. Hawberk and Constance are alive and Castaigne is re-institutionalized, convinced that Louis has done this to seize his throne.
A final editor's note reveals Castaigne dies in the asylum.
''The Repairer of Reputations'' is a science fiction narrative that can be read as a commentary on political power, ambition, and corruption. There are disturbing parallels between the political background of the story and the narrator's actions.
For example, the U.S. government has segregated and subordinated its non-white citizens and banned immigrants it considers a threat. Similarly, Wilde blackmails and controls vast numbers of influential citizens ultimately destined to back his ''Imperial Dynasty,'' and Castaigne tries to block Louis from producing a ''royal heir.''
The story also deals with themes of paranoia (a baseless fear of others' malicious intent). Just as Chambers' U.S. feels unreasonably threatened by non-whites and immigrants, and just as the insanity produced by The King in Yellow play is ''an infectious disease,'' so the delusional Castaigne both imagines his right to rule and is deeply paranoid that others are determined to seize his power.
''The Repairer of Reputations'' can also be considered a piece of experimental literature, or fiction that challenges traditional narrative conventions. Normally, readers can objectively analyze events and characters, but because this story's narrator is so utterly unreliable, there is no way for readers to know which parts of the story are true.
Everything is called into question by Castaigne's insanity. This, in turn, prompts readers to consider the nature of reality itself, since all human perception is subjective.
''The Repairer of Reputations'' is set in a futuristic New York City in a U.S. that's prevented Germany from becoming too powerful, but whose government hypocritically subjugates its own minorities and immigrants to keep them powerless.
The narrator is the delusional Hildred Castaigne who was formally institutionalized and has read the play called The King in Yellow (rumored to drive its readers insane). He is therefore an unreliable narrator.
The story is about the struggle of Castaigne to become king in the ''Imperial Dynasty of America'' as imagined by his friend Mr. Wilde, who has also read The King in Yellow.
Castaigne believes he must exile his cousin to prevent the production of any heirs and in order to assume the throne himself. He also claims to have killed his former doctor out of related paranoia, but he's ultimately caught by authorities and institutionalized. He dies in the asylum.
This narrative can be read as a commentary on political power, ambition, and corruption because of the parallels between the actions of Castaigne and the xenophobic U.S. It also deals with themes of paranoia and conspiracy theory as both the American government and Castaigne share a delusion that others are conspiring to thwart their rise to power.
Finally, because the story's only narrator is insane, it can be viewed as a piece of experimental literature that challenges narrative conventions (rules for writing fiction) and calls the nature of reality itself into question.
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Back To CourseLiterature Resources for Teachers
9 chapters | 211 lessons
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