Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 119: Edgar Allan Poe, Hop-Frog (#32)

Edgar Allan Poe, "Hop-Frog" (1849) from Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales:

I'm a big believer in the idea that many of Poe's works have some deeper meaning, and often carry a sense of humor in the horrible. For instance, when "Berenice" begins with a digression starting with "Misery is manifold"; when "The Imp of the Perverse" slips a tiny murder story into a huge meditation on this human propensity to do the exact wrong thing; we can see that the horror is really part of something larger. So it's no surprise to read "Hop-Frog," the story of a crippled dwarf jester who takes revenge on a cruel king and his ministers, and find that people have noted a deeper--mostly biographical--meaning, as the LoA page notes:

The king requires broad entertainment, not nuance--which is what Poe sometimes accused critics and readers of being. "Hop-Frog" isn't the guy's real name, but is the name he was saddled with later in life--just like Edgar Poe was saddled with his semi-adoptive father's name Allan. Hop-Frog is overly excited by wine--and hey, didn't Poe have a drinking problem? And so on.

And yet, for all that this is clearly a story about amusement gone terribly wrong--which might have something to say about Poe's profession--the manifest content here is so strong that it would be a shame to miss the Guignol horror of this. And it would be two shames if we were to miss the terrible justice here: a prisoner is abused by cruel people; and then hoists the abusers by their own petard, getting them to agree and even ask for his help with every step, even as every step clearly brings them closer to their immolation.

The real mystery of "Hop-Frog" is why this revenge is isolatable to the king and his seven ministers and doesn't spread to the entire court or the entire country. After all, Hop-Frog and his friend (another midget, but perfectly formed) were originally captured in a war from a far-off country by some other people; and all these people at court laugh at Hop-Frog. So why not burn down the whole damn castle? Or the country? Why isn't this version of the Masque of the Red Death more terrible? So there is a way to read this story with a philosophical edge, leaning on one of Poe's favorite philosophical areas: morality.

The second mystery of the interpretations given on the LoA page is why no one mentions Hop-frog's beautiful friend. Why does the text say she's so beautiful that everyone is nice to her, even though the one major scene we see her in includes the king pushing her down and throwing wine at her? Why does the story focus on Hop-frog's horrible revenge, even though his friend is an accomplice in this murder?

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