A critical commentary on Poe’s short story
‘Hop-Frog’, like many of Edgar Allan Poe’s best stories, carries the force of parable. It is a curious mixture of revenge, horror, and spectacle, about a dwarf who exacts spectacular brutal vengeance on a cruel monarch. The story was first published in March 1849; by the end of the year, Poe would be dead. You can read ‘Hop-Frog’, on which we now offer a few words of analysis, here.
In summary, ‘Hop-Frog’ is about a king who keeps a jester who is also a ‘dwarf’ and a ‘cripple’, who has been given the name Hop-Frog on account of his unusual way of walking which was actually ‘something between a leap and a wriggle’ (owing to his disability). Hop-Frog, and Trippetta, a young dwarfish girl noted for her dancing, had been given to the king as presents by one of his conquering generals, who had brought them back from a ‘barbarous’ part of the world the king’s generals had invaded. Hop-Frog and Trippetta have grown close, thanks to their shared status as slaves at the royal court, and look out for each other. One day the king orders a masquerade to be put on for his amusement, and forces Hop-Frog to drink wine and be ‘merry’. When Trippetta begs with the king to leave her friend alone, the king violently pushes her to the floor, and then furiously throws wine in her face. Hop-Frog becomes quietly angry at this, and hatches a plan for revenge on the king and his fat, evil ministers. He persuades the king and his seven ministers to take part in a ‘jest’ which Hop-Frog calls ‘the Eight Chained Ourang-Outangs’. To prepare them for this jest, Hop-Frog gets the men tarred and coated with flax to suggest the fur of the orangutan, and then chains them up.
They then make their way into the main chamber, chained together, much to the shock and amusement of the guests present at court. Hop-Frog then has them chained to the ceiling, and proceeds to clamber up and pretend to examine them with his torch. He then announces that this has been his revenge on the king for striking his friend Trippetta, a defenceless girl, before setting the king and his seven councillors alight with the torch. Thanks to the tar and flax, they burn quickly, with the assorted guests unable to come to their aid, able only to look on in horror as the king and his men burn to death. Hop-Frog announces that this was his last jest, and then escapes through the sky-light. Everyone assumes that Trippetta had been his accomplice, and that the two of them fled to their native land, for they were never seen again.
‘Hop-Frog’ shares a number of links with Poe’s other classic stories. The ourang-outangs recall the orangutan in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, while Hop-Frog’s dislike of wine echoes Poe’s own love-hate relationship with the drink, which probably fed into his portrayal of the drunken sadism of the narrator of ‘The Black Cat’, one of Poe’s most unsettling stories. But what is the meaning of ‘Hop-Frog’? How should we analyse it?
The story is normally interpreted as being Poe’s revenge on his critics – or, more specifically, on those who were spreading gossip about Poe. But the story would have limited appeal if this is where its meaning began and ended. As it is, ‘Hop-Frog’ can be analysed as a story about tyranny, slavery, and revolution. ‘Hop-Frog’ was published in 1849, one year after the Revolutions of 1848. Although these occurred in Europe rather than America, such ideas spread across the Atlantic. 1848 was also the year that Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, whose rousing final words inspired the slogan, ‘Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.’ Chains play a symbolic role in ‘Hop-Frog’: the title character’s metaphorical chains keeping him in bondage and servitude are replaced by the literal chains he places around his oppressors. The punishment he exacts on the king and his ministers incorporates the historical act of tarring and feathering, which has strong suggestions of mob rule, and reinforces the idea of Hop-Frog’s revenge being a sort of one-man (or, assuming Trippetta’s involvement, one-man and one-woman) revolution, in which the tyrannical ruling class is overthrown.
Of course, such an interpretation cannot be taken any further: we cannot say that Hop-Frog is performing a revolution per se (after all, he clears off once he’s had his revenge), but the idea that Poe draws on revolutionary ideas in this story is tenable, even if it doesn’t tell the full story. The fire – specifically, the act of burning alive the king and his corrupt politicians – carries connotations of hellfire and damnation.
However we read it – and we may choose to sit back and see ‘Hop-Frog’ as simply a tale about the little man (literally, in the case of the poorly served hero) triumphing over his evil oppressors and earning his freedom in a literal blaze of glory. It’s not Poe’s most famous or best-loved story, but it’s an enjoyable tale, albeit one that doesn’t require the same analytical scrutiny as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ or ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’.