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Ryan Johnson
Engl 4300

Spring 2002


Of Reality and Illusion

x Ryan's title announces his thesis: the paper will be about reality and illusion. Adding the phrase "In Stephen Millhauser's 'Eisenheim the Illusionist'" would have made the title a little stronger.
"Can I show you something that transcends the mind?" 
  -David Blaine, street magician
  Note the prompt is related to his theme and is NOT specifically about Millhauser. Ryan identifys the source, and centers the prompt and sets it in a smaller font size to give it visual appeal.


The concept of what is "real" and what is not has plagued and delighted man since the dawn of time.  In this "high-tech" day-and-age, we have conformed to believe that what we call technology is in fact "real"; that the flickering images on our televisions are caused by definable means, that the processes completed by computers have more to due with electrodes and diodes than gnomes and conjuring.  Our highly specialized and "evolved" minds have taken away from us the spark of imagination and the wonder we once each possessed as a child.  In Steven Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" part of his collection The Barnum Museum, the wonder has returned.  As Eisenheim's character is revealed to the reader the line between reality and fantasy entwine more and more until that line no longer exists.

  An excellent introduction (except for the cliché "dawn of time") that not only sets up a context for the essay first, before getting to Millhauser, but also is thoughtful and very nicely written. He doesn't rush into his subject. Note especially the flow and complexity of the second sentence. The last sentence of this intro is the thesis for the essay; all subsequent paragraphs will develop and support this thesis statement.


Eduard Abramowitz, Eisenheim's given name, is born halfway through the nineteenth century to a talented cabinetmaker.  Well on the way to becoming a craftsman himself, fate intervenes in the form of a traveling magician, mystifying young Eduard and subsequently awaking Eisenheim into existence.  The boy begins to drift more toward magic and illusion, practicing new talents and exercising old ones.  He combines his talent for crafting with his desire for magic to create devices for illusions; such as "[A] small beechwood box, with its secret panel, was able to withstand the most minute examination"(216).  In his early twenties, Eisenheim appeares in more and more private appearances until one day, "As if suddenly, Eisenheim appeared at a theater in Vienna"(217).  This marks the beginning of the transformation of Eisenheim.  Until now, Eisenheim had been a cabinetmaker performing tricks on the side.  He now is to be a full-time magician.

  Because this essay is partly a character analysis, showing how the protagonist changes over the course of the story, Ryan first establishes what Eisenheim is like at the beginning; in other words, this paragraph gives character background., Note that Ryan supports his assertions by directly quoting from the story (and adding parenthetical page citations for reference).


Once in Vienna, Eisenheim begins focusing solely on his art.  As with any profession, he has to pay his dues.  In this case, he begins to imitate variations of already prominent acts, except Eisenheim always has to do something bigger.  "It was clear that the restless young magician would not be content with producing clever variations of familiar tricks" (219).  Eisenheim, now including original illusions in his act, emerges at the forefront of magic.  His act begins to take on dark characteristics.  The illusions he produces himself include "The Tower of Babel," "The Satanic Crystal Ball," and "The Book of Demons" (221).  In one original trick, "The Pied Piper of Hamelin," where Eisenheim leads children from the audience to a cavern, only to have them reappear in a black chest, "a frightened child told his mother that he had been in hell and seen the devil"(221-222).  This begins the second change in Eisenheim.  He has now become a powerful magician of whom it has been said, "that Eisenheim was not a showman at all, but a wizard who had sold his soul to the devil in return for unholy powers" (220).  At this point the reader is challenged whether to think that Eisenheim is merely a talented and convincing illusionist or if he had in fact allowed the "supernatural" into the story. 


This paragraph continues the development of the idea of Eisenheim's evolving character, specifically focusing on the "demonic" aspects of his art. Note again how Ryan supports every assertion with direct quotes from the story.

Even though "Eisenheim the Illusionist" is written in past tense, Ryan follows the convention of writing about literature in the present tense. Thus "Eisenheim leads children"(not "led children") and "His act begins" (not "His act began"). The quotes are in past tense, but Ryan's summaries are in present.



The next change occurring to Eisenheim comes at the appearance of a worthy rival.  Ernst Passauer is the name given to the magician who threatens Eisenheim's stranglehold on the elite magic world.  Both men thrive beyond normal expectations of the day.  "It was as if the two of them had outsoared the confines of the magician's art and existed in some new realm of dextrous wonder, of sinister beauty" (223).  With each man performing at the same venue, the Eisenheimhaus, the inevitable rivalry comes to a boiling point during what would become Passauer's final performance.  That night, after a performance of "frightening brilliance," Passauer begins to make the contents of the stage disappear.  Once everything has vanished, "he burst out into a demonic laugh, and reaching up to his face he tore off a rubber mask and revealed himself to be Eisenheim" (225).  Now the story has shifted.  What is the reader to believe as "reality"?  The tone of the story has shifted none, and yet the reader who believably is reading an account of a magician is thrown a fantastical situation.  The realm of magic that Eisenheim lives in has seeped into the context of the story, blurring what's "real" and what's not in the mind of the reader.

  In this interesting paragraph, Ryan discusses a turning point in the story and how it affects the reader. He is now incorporating the ideas of reality and illusion (established in his title and intro) into the analysis of Eisenheim's character. Again, note the quotes.


The twist that the story takes on next is nothing less than inexplicable.  After a yearlong sabbatical, Eisenheim returns again to performing for people.  His new illusion, however, nobody is prepared for.  Eisenheim sits alone on a stage blemished only by a wooden chair and a small glass table.  The illusionist takes his seat, "leaning forward slightly and appearing to concentrate with terrific force" (227).  After a time, the space in front of him begins to blur, until he has, presumably, created a small black box.  The box, upon inspection by an audience member, does not have any physical properties, other than it can be seen.  Eisenheim then proceedes to create a ball and a wand, each with the same unlikely characteristics as the box.  Eisenheim's following performances continue to defy explanation as he conjures into existence images, his most popular being Elis and Rosa who, of course, become friends (233).  At this point, Eisenheim's shows consist of him in deep concentration while these masses appear and interact with the audience.  As the story states that these images can find no explanation, "reality" has become one with illusion.  If the reader is to take this story in as an account of a renowned magician, then he/she has to believe the progression of Eisenheim from master illusionist to manipulator of reality.


This paragraph on first glance seems to merely summarize the action of the story, but on closer reading, it's clear that Ryan is focusing on his theme of illusion and reality (the question of what is "real"); in other words, this paragraph supports and develops his thesis.

Note that the middle of the paragraph contains a paraphrase. Ryan is not quoting, but he summarizes a certain episode in the story, and even though he's using his own words, he still has to show the source--which he does correctly by inserting the page number, 233, in parenthesis.



The final act and transformation of Eisenheim proves to be the most enigmatic.   While the plot of the story thickens, Eisenheim comes into conflict with the watchful eye of Viennese Chief of Police, Walther Uhl.  "The official reason given for the arrest of the Master [Eisenheim], and the seizure of his theater, was the disturbance of public order" (234).  The night of the organized arrest comes and twelve uniformed policemen where in attendance of the show.  Eisenheim begins his show as he would any other night, but when he invokes Rosa into existence, the police make their move.  The policemen make their way to the stage where they pause (out of respect, or fear?).  When Eisenheim neglects to get up, Police Chief Uhl, goes to grab him by the shoulder.  "That was when it happened: his hand fell through Eisenheim's shoulder" (235).  Eisenheim then turns to the audience, bows and begins "his unthinkable final act: bending the black flame of his gaze inward . . . Wavering, slowly fading, he stood dark and unmoving there" (236).  Eventually, Eisenheim is no more. 



Another "quote format" item to notice: when in the first quote the term "Master" is used, Ryan thoughtfully inserts an indentification for his reader, since we might not realize who "Master" refers to. He properly does this by using brackets, not parentheses.

Some of the summary in the second half of the paragraph is a little rough and could use a bit of polishing, but the writing is still clear and grammatical.


As with every character-related story, the character goes through a change, development or transformation.  In the case of "Eisenheim the Illusionist," he simply grows dark and ceases to be.  Who began as a cabinetmaker's son transformed into a magician, who transformed into an awe-inspiring manipulator of minds, who vanished his atoms from existence.  As Eisenheim grew into his magic, he needed constant competition.  When he outgrew his competition, he created his own.  When he outgrew himself as a magician, he was no more.  In this amazing story, Millhauser creates a character that transcends his own mind and being. Is the illusion in the disappearance of Eisenheim, or in the creating of Eisenheim?

  For his conclusion, Ryan puts the story into a broader context, showing how it follows the conventions of other character-based stories. He returns again to the concept of illusion and reality in the reader's mind, and gives a nod to Millhauser, the ultimate illusionist, for his creation. Because these questions cannot really be resolved, Ryan ends on a question himself-- a fitting conclusion to an analysis of this wonderfully ambigious story.

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Copyright © 2002 by Ryan Johnson.  All rights reserved.