Edgar Allan Poe is most often remembered as the mid-19th century’s master of macabre tales. Many of us have probably already read “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” or “The Tell-Tale Heart.” While these and similar stories might be Poe’s most famous, he also wrote tales of ratiocination (detective stories, such as “The Purloined Letter”) and poetry. Although “Hop-Frog” is like many of Poe’s other stories in its dark tone and ominous ending, it is different from his other stories in many ways. First, while most of Poe’s macabre short stories begin on a dreary, foreboding note, “Hop-Frog” seems at first to have almost a fairy-tale atmosphere. Further, while most of Poe’s most famous short stories are narrated by mentally disturbed characters in the stories, the identity of the narrator of “Hop-Frog” remains mysterious throughout the work. The protagonist of this short story might be a hero or a villain, but it is certain that by the end of his story, he becomes more self-aware and seeks self-actualization.
When we studied “Hop-Frog” in the Poe and Emerson graduate course I took at Drew University in 2003, I was most intrigued by this particular story because it was so different from Poe’s other short stories. With Dr. Skaggs’ permission, I wrote a critical research paper about this short story, and after receiving her helpful guidance, I submitted it for publication by the Edgar Allan Poe Review. How thrilled I was when it was published!
The article in its full PDF glory is available here. But in case you don’t want to sign up for a free JStor account and view article in PDF, I’m including it right in this “poest.” Think of this as my pre-Halloween gift to you! (But please note: to see the citations in their proper form, you’ll need to view the document article through JStor.)
“‘My Narrative: The Story of the Non-Disinterested Narrator in Poe’s ‘Hop-Frog.’”
Edgar Allan Poe Review 5.1 (2004): 91-99.
In “Poe’s ‘Hop-Frog’ and the Retreat from Comedy,” Bruce K. Martin analyzes the “complex artistry” of the structure of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Hop Frog.” Martin believes Poe shifts the narrative vantage point from one close to Hop-Frog to a more distant perspective in order to call into question the need for Hop-Frog’s assassination of the king and of his ministers: “Having set the stage for comic punishment, Poe in the end brings about a moral reversal, whereby the demand for such punishment, earlier absolute and unquestioned, becomes relative and highly qualified.” While Martin’s analysis leads him to believe that the complexity of narrative technique in “Hop-Frog” creates ambivalence in the story’s shocking ending, it is likely that the conclusion is jarring because by not condemning the dwarf, the narrator actually endorses his actions.
Throughout his narrative, the narrator is an ambiguous character who projects his own consciousness and judgments into the story at every available opportunity. While highlighting his own viewpoint, the narrator aligns himself with the title character, but the source of the narrator’s knowledge remains ambiguous. It is unusual for one of Poe’s short stories not to be narrated by someone who is a participant in the action of the story, or not to be narrated by someone who at least could be an observer of the action; however, the narrator, never claiming an identity, neither shows how he was part of the action nor an observer of the action. In fact, it is impossible for the narrator either to have participated in or to have witnessed all of the action of the story he tells (notably the private audience of Hop-Frog and Trippetta with the king and his ministers). Who, then, is this narrator, and how can he, with authority, tell and impose his judgments on the happenings of a tale in which it appears doubtful that he himself is even involved? He seems authorial, having omniscient knowledge, but it remains unclear how the tale might serve the narrator’s own purposes.
Poe clues the readers in to the fact that the narrator is a significant filter through which his story passes by drawing special attention to the person of the narrator, beginning the short story with the word “I.” The reader may expect the narrator to clarify his identity somewhere in the short story, but he never does; rather, he makes his identity murkier for the reader by including his certain knowledge and presumptions about the thoughts of individuals and about what goes on behind closed doors. While the narrator implies knowledge of the antagonist king, he never directly states that he is familiar with this individual. In the first sentence, the narrator seems to set himself up as an authority by implying acquaintance with the king, but actually starts to show the ambiguity which is characteristic of this story. Declaring “I never knew any one so keenly alive to a joke as the king was” does not demonstrate knowledge of the king himself, but instead shows that the narrator does not know anyone who shows appreciation for humor to the extent that the king does. The narrator’s incapacity to know the king’s thoughts or his unwillingness to identify these thoughts is introduced in the second sentence and continues throughout the short story. By declaring that the king “seemed to live only for joking,” the narrator dismisses his own ability to ascertain the king’s real motives. Additionally, the narrator does not make clear to whom it seems that the king has a certain motive; the narrator’s own idea of the king’s motives may be entirely different from what the narrator proposes. The narrator may deduce the primacy of humor in the king’s mind from his observation that “To tell a good story of the joke kind, and to tell it well, was the surest road to his favor,” but this connection is not explicitly drawn, and if this is the connection that the reader is to make, then the reader must trust both the narrator’s private judgments and his public observations.
Although he does not explain why, the narrator continues to make his presence known throughout the story in places where his insertion of first-person pronouns is not apparently necessary. He calls the story “my narrative,” implying a certain degree of ownership over not only the telling of the tale but also of the tale itself. Additionally, if the story is his, then the narrator must be somehow implicated in it: if not in its action, then in its effect. However, it remains unclear what stake the narrator might have in the outcome of the events of his tale. Heightening the connection between himself and his audience, the narrator refers to the monarch as “Our king.” Although this is probably used as a device to emphasize the identity of the king, as opposed to other kings, it also has the effect of uniting the narrator with the audience and of insinuating the power of the king over the audience. Setting up the power of the corrupt king over the audience has the rhetorical effect of forcing the audience to side with those oppressed by the king. It increases indignation more than if the audience were to hear about the subjugation of more distant people. While he asserts his own presence and connects himself with the audience when it suits him, the narrator also feels free to back away from judgments he does not wish to pronounce. Using the passive voice, the narrator passes off what may be his own ideas and judgments onto others. He suggests that “it might well be supposed” that those attending the masquerade would have decided on what costumes to wear to the masquerade well in advance, but he does not tell us who may suppose this or why. The narrator’s suggestion manipulates readers into accepting this as likelihood and therefore into questioning the mental acuity of the king and his ministers, who cannot come to a decision. While he could be suggesting that the reader patronize the court, he does not make this clear. At the opening of the final paragraph, the narrator begins his description of Trippetta’s fate with “It is supposed,” without stating whether he supposes or the crowd supposes. However, by allowing the source of this pronouncement to remain ambiguous, the narrator leads the reader to believe that Trippetta’s compliance with Hop-Frog’s plan is a generally accepted idea, and therefore that the reader should believe Trippetta is implicated in Hop-Frog’s action. By maintaining his distance, the narrator leaves some uncertainty about the fate of Trippetta.
Another interesting feature of this narrator is his unwillingness to commit to certain facts that he presents. Instead of asserting that Hop-Frog is not the title character’s Christian name, he instead says, “I believe the name ‘Hop-Frog’ was not that given to the dwarf by his sponsors at baptism, but it was conferred upon him, by general consent of the seven ministers, on account of his inability to walk as other men do.” The narrator, in this sentence, asserts his uncertainty about the origins of Hop-Frog, and also juxtaposes the dwarf’s godparents with the ministers who, despite their willingness to assume the wisdom of God, are morally bereft. Emphasizing that he (wants the readers to believe that he) is not privy to certain potentially significant information about Hop-Frog, the narrator confesses, “I am not able to say, with precision, from what country Hop-Frog originally came. It was from some barbarous region, however, that no person ever heard of—a vast distance from the court of our king.” By suggesting that the region from which Hop-Frog comes is remote from civilization, even unknown by man, with no name, the narrator implies that he is an everyman character who has access to the same types of information to which others have access. This statement, however, implies that Hop-Frog, and by implication, Trippetta, are inhuman, since their homeland is not on the known map. It is possible that the narrator declines to provide information on Hop-Frog’s past because only the present is significant to the narrative itself, and therefore only Hop-Frog’s current identity is important for the narrator’s purposes. Although it is possible that his expressed uncertainty about the origins of Hop-Frog and Trippetta is a function of the narrator’s limited knowledge, it is unclear whether this is an exhibit of xenophobia on the part of the narrator or whether it is actually an ironic reflection of the limited knowledge of “our king.” In fact, the king may project his own barbarism onto others. Additionally, in describing the event for which the masquerade is held as “some grand state occasion—I forget what,” the narrator again is ironically degrading the importance of the event while simultaneously pointing to his own limitations as a narrator, who is able both not to know something and to forget. Because his possible irony can be understood as either an irony or as an admission of his limited knowledge, the narrator’s real place in this story remains unclear.
While his description of the motives of the characters in his narrative relies mostly on inductive reasoning from their outwardly visible actions, the narrator seems to be able to understand Hop-Frog’s motives from within the character himself. The narrator sees that “Hop-Frog endeavored, as usual, to get up a jest in reply to these advances from the king; but the effort was too much.” The narrator seems here to be able to see what the dwarf is trying to do, but he does not state whether the “large, bitter drops” of “tears [in] his eyes” are what led him to his analysis of Hop-Frog’s motives, or whether the narrator has some inside track to the working of the dwarf’s mind. At other times in the narrative, the audience’s guide to the tale observes Hop-Frog from a clearly exterior point of view. When the narrator describes the “low, but harsh and protracted grating sound which seemed to come at once from every corner of the room,” the narrator, who knows that Hop-Frog is the source of this noise, does not acknowledge from whence it emanates. Shortly hereafter, though, the narrator, in a reminder to the reader that he knows the end of the tale before he begins to recount it, tells his audience that Hop-Frog’s “mode of equipping the party as ourang-outangs was very simple, but effective enough for his purposes.” Hop-Frog, then, has a plan; this plan is not what the king and his seven ministers think it is, but the narrator is wiser than they (at least in retrospect) because he understands the plan. Although he might understand all of the dwarf’s motives, the narrator cannot reveal the entirety of Hop-Frog’s thoughts to the reader, since this would ruin the story and it would be unnecessary, or repetitive, to complete the story. His ability to see inside the mental machinations of Hop-Frog, whether or not he shares this information with the audience, connects his consciousness with that of his protagonist.
In other ways, also, the narrator and Hop-Frog are connected. Aside from using ironic insults against the king and his ministers, reflecting Hop-Frog’s attitude toward these officials, the narrator also makes judgments on Hop-Frog. He elicits pity from his reader by calling the dwarf, at the moment at which he is most pitiful, “Poor fellow!” By sympathizing with the title character, the narrator is heightening his own difference from Hop-Frog’s antagonists. Hop-Frog, the king, and one of the ministers speak in the short story, all of them using the first person in expressing their own points of view. Hop-Frog’s use of first person pronouns, however, like the narrator’s, is exaggerated. During the masquerade, Hop-Frog is excessively and needlessly self-referential: “‘Leave them to me!’ now screamed Hop-Frog, his shrill voice making itself easily heard through the din. ‘Leave them to me. I fancy I know them. If I can only get a good look at them, I can soon tell who they are.’” Aside from his setting up the mysterious masqueraders as distinctly different from himself, Hop-Frog here asserts his own voice, which, in its self-centeredness, echoes the narrator’s voice. The connection between the narrator’s perceptions and those of Hop-Frog are solidified when the narrator, who knows that the king and his eight ministers are those who have been tarred and flaxed, says that shortly after Hop-Frog threw his torch at them, “the whole eight ourang-outangs were blazing fiercely.” Hop-Frog saw these individuals as no better than brute animals, and by outfitting them as such, he confused the masqueraders’ perceptions of these men to the point that the only way they could identify the men was as “ourang-outangs”. The narrator, however, clearly knows that the “eight ourang-outangs” are “the king and his seven friends”; his decision to describe them as Hop-Frog sees them, and as Hop-Frog forces the king’s subjects to view them, shows that he identifies with the dwarf. Although this description of the king and his men is inaccurate, it accurately conveys the perception of Hop-Frog, and perhaps of the perception of the narrator, whose role in the whole story remains mysterious.
The narrator does nothing to suggest whether his narrative actually occurred, and he allows his story to act as a narrative in its own right, like a fairy tale or fable. His selection of this tale as his own has been interpreted in various ways based on the values with which critics associate Poe’s judgment of Hop-Frog’s actions, which many read in to the narrator’s assessment. David Ketterer asserts that the narrator, “an outsider, as if to ensure objectivity,” is telling a tale of Hop-Frog and his “alter-ego…[in] plural form.” Ketterer assigns the king, his seven ministers, and Trippetta the status of projections of Hop-Frog’s persona. He suggests that the connections between these characters requires that the ascent of any to a higher state or descent to a lower state be in proportion to the mobility of the others. However, Ketterer also states that the connection between Hop-Frog and the king is so tenuous that the division appears to be complete and the immolation of the outcast a mere formality.” It is certain that this story features elements of mirroring of actions and of rhetoric, both between named characters and between the title character and the narrator. Ketterer suggests that this last of Poe’s doppelganger tales, because of the chasms between the projections of a character, “reflect[s] Poe’s own increasing schizophrenic condition.” On the other hand, if Poe’s authorial narrator, is a part of Hop-Frog’s psyche, Poe assumes more agency for the narrator in the story.
Asserting the narrator’s identification with both the title character and Poe leads to readings of “Hop-Frog” that focus on power struggles suggested in the work. Scott Bradfield asserts that “Poe’s stories are always about power; and the man who wields the most power in any Poe work is always Poe himself.” This theory suggests that in “Hop-Frog,” the power of the title character and of the narrator, too, is the author’s own. Katrina Bachinger suggests that Hop-Frog’s fiery revenge in his “last jest” correlates with the experience of Poe, “a near-suicidal author who portrays himself departing this life victoriously after having appropriately reduced the tasteless critics who had attacked him to ‘a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass,’ an emblem for the mob much despised by Poe.” Like Hop-Frog, then, Poe makes a parting gesture of thumbing his nose at the literary establishment. The narrator’s judgment, independent of Poe’s concerns as well as Hop-Frog’s actions, however, remains outside this analysis.
The narrator’s judgment of Hop-Frog hinges on the hints that the narrator has given as to Hop-Frog’s motives, the narrator’s decision to tell this story at all, and his identifying it as “my narrative.” Martin believes that after Hop-Frog’s primacy as the agent in this story is established, the narrator retreats from his involvement with the title character and moves to “straightforward reporting of the action.” Giving Hop-Frog agency, though, challenges the authority of the narrator, especially since the tale is informed by Hop-Frog’s viewpoint. While Martin suggests that “Poe permits the reader to view Hop-Frog’s final actions with total objectivity and to weigh them against the previous deeds of his victims…[the result of which] comparison is moral indignation against the protagonist,” enough of a connection between the narrator and Hop-Frog has been already established to render unfeasible the narrator’s or reader’s total abandonment of the protagonist.
The (perceived) justification for Hop-Frog’s humiliating and torching the king and his ministers is perhaps the decisive factor in the audience’s evaluation of Hop-Frog’s series of murderous actions, considering that the narrator does not judge Hop-Frog’s final actions. Hop-Frog’s decision to invert power relationships by means of what appears to be a joke is a carnivalesque reversal of colonialism. While Hop-Frog and Trippetta are captives that the king gained by one of his generals’ colonial conquests, Hop-Frog (possibly with Trippetta’s help), John Carlos Rowe suggests, “has properly ‘mimicked’ in his monkey-like fashion…just the ‘hideous’ moral ‘blackness’ and ‘savagery’ of the tyrannical king[,]…thus rendering the nominal ruler ‘savage’ in comparison with the artist and his delegates, Hop-Frog and Trippetta.” By his actions, Hop-Frog liberates himself and Trippetta from their imprisonment, but he is only able to do this by imitating the king and by beating him at his own game.
While the role reversal that Hop-Frog institutes has colonial ramifications, it need not be inferred that Hop-Frog undertakes his plan as a form of racial revenge. The narrator is careful to omit any reference to race in the short story. As Leland S. Person points out, “Given Hop-Frog’s ingenious decision to dress the king and his ministers as orangutans and the common 19th century association of orangutans with African Americans, the racial dimensions of this revenge plot become obvious. Hop-Frog himself need not be construed as a black man. His ‘otherness’ resides primarily in his dwarfism.” Additionally, while Hop-Frog says that the orangutan masquerade is “one of [his] own country frolics,” the narrator does not tell the readers whether this is true. Judging from Hop-Frog’s ingenuity in carrying out the deadly plan, it is not beyond the dwarf’s capacity to have dreamed up the entire scheme on his own, thereby actively and willfully reducing those who behave as animals to a corresponding appearance, and then exerting the ultimate power over them: ending their lives.
Because he chooses to recount this particular story, which does not make a clear and decisive negative judgment on the vigilante dwarf, it is highly plausible that this narrator actually sympathizes with Hop-Frog’s plight, or that the narrator sees himself as being in a situation analogous to that of the title character. The narrator connects himself with the dwarf by showing Hop-Frog’s viewpoint, by the narrator’s insertion of himself into the story, and by his and Hop-Frog’s knowledge of the outcome of the narrative before it is completed. The narrator’s viewpoint is inextricably linked with the viewpoint of Hop-Frog, and the sentiments and the modes of self-expression of the narrator and of Hop-Frog mirror each other to such an extent that a rational judgment by the narrator of the actions of the hero of his tale is impossible. Because he reveals his biases to the reader and because of his choice to adopt this story as his own, suggesting that he has some interest in the story’s outcome, the narrator cannot but be considered an unreliable storyteller.
Bachinger, Katrina. “Together (or not Together) against Tyranny: Poe, Byron, and Napoleon Upside Down in ‘Hop Frog.’” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 33, no. 3 (1991): 272-402.
Bradfield, Scott. Dreaming Revolution: Transgression in the Development of American Romance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.
Ketterer, David. The Rationale of Deception in Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.
Martin, Bruce K. “Poe’s ‘Hop-Frog’ and the Retreat from Comedy.” Studies in Short Fiction 10 (1973): 288-90.
Person, Leland S. “Poe’s Philosophy of Amalgamation: Reading Racism in the Tales.” In Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, edited by Gerald J. Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg, 205-24. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Hop-Frog.” Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays. New York: The Library of America, 1996. 899-908.
Rowe, John Carlos. “Edgar Allan Poe’s Imperial Fantasy and the American Frontier.” In Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, edited by Gerald J. Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg, 75-105. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.