The Repairer of Reputations: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

'The Repairer of Reputations' is a dizzying journey through the mind of the narrator - a madman. We'll summarize and analyze this weird and fantastical short story.

Background: The King in Yellow

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.

A first edition (1895) of The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories including The Repairer of Reputations
The King in Yellow

A Futuristic and Contradictory Setting

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.

An Unreliable Narrator

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.

Mr. Wilde, the ''Repairer of Reputations''

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 suit of armor that might be found in the shop owned by Hawberk
Higgins Armory Museum

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 Conspires For the Throne

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.

How Castaigne probably imagines himself as he seizes the robe and crown
King George VI


A Commentary

''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.''

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