Saturday, October 24, 2020

Quote of the Day (Edgar Allan Poe, on a Jesting Dwarf’s Revenge on a Sadistic Leader)

[Hop-Frog the dwarf-jester said to the king]: “ ‘Just after your majesty, had struck the girl and thrown the wine in her face…there came into my mind a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades: but here it will be new altogether….I will equip you as ourang-outangs…. The resemblance shall be so striking, that the company of masqueraders will take you [the king and his seven advisers] for real beasts—and of course, they will be as much terrified as astonished…’.

“And now, while the whole assembly (the apes included) were convulsed with laughter, the jester suddenly uttered a shrill whistle; when the chain flew violently up for about thirty feet— dragging with it the dismayed and struggling ourang-outangs, and leaving them suspended in mid-air between the sky-light and the floor….

" ‘Ah, ha!’; said at length the infuriated jester. ‘Ah, ha! I begin to see who these people are now!’ Here, pretending to scrutinize the king more closely, he held the flambeau to the flaxen coat which enveloped him, and which instantly burst into a sheet of vivid flame. In less than half a minute the whole eight ourang-outangs were blazing fiercely, amid the shrieks of the multitude who gazed at them from below, horror-stricken, and without the power to render them the slightest assistance….

“The dwarf seized his opportunity, and once more spoke:

“ ‘I now see distinctly,’ he said, ‘what manner of people these maskers are. They are a great king and his seven privy-councillors,—a king who does not scruple to strike a defenseless girl and his seven councillors who abet him in the outrage. As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester--and this is my last jest.’

“Owing to the high combustibility of both the flax and the tar to which it adhered, the dwarf had scarcely made an end of his brief speech before the work of vengeance was complete. The eight corpses swung in their chains, a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass. The cripple hurled his torch at them, clambered leisurely to the ceiling, and disappeared through the sky-light.”—American short-story writer, poet, and essayist Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), “Hop-Frog” (1849)

Years ago, I read numerous tales by Edgar Allan Poe for my high school and college English classes. But I had never focused on this late story until I read an essay on the horror and suspense maven in Neil Gaiman’s nonfiction collection, The View From the Cheap Seats (2016)

Gaiman hailed this story’s “terrible and appropriate cruelty,” and it has taken on other implications than those suggested when it first appeared in print. (Some critics believed at the time that this was Poe’s vicarious vengeance on those who questioned his courtship of a couple of women; others thought it arose from the revolts that had occurred in several European countries in 1848.)

Contemporary readers might point to other elements of the central characterization here: a leader who is caustic, abusive towards women, and mocking the disabled, who at length goes too far, triggering a spontaneous retaliation against himself and his corrupt toadies.

A chain, once used to facilitate oppression, becomes a means of liberation. The king’s counselors, who enable his sadism and abuses of power by cheering him on, share in his downfall.

Their fate also mirrors their relationship to the king and to each other while they were alive: “a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass”—a warning that retribution, though coming late to men who exploit the marginalized and defenseless and to the circle that excuses these crimes, will surely arrive nonetheless.

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