“The New Automaton Theater” by Steven Millhauser


It should be noted that Steven Millhauser is a writer and author of many popular works that raise important philosophical and moral questions. He uses the images familiar to every individual and creates a small world, a micro-universe, into which the reader is immersed from the first lines. The purpose of this paper is to review and analyze the story by Millhauser called “The New Automaton Theater” through a close reading of the text.

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General Points

The text is written in an unusual manner due to the author’s use of two contrasting approaches. On the one hand, Millhauser has applied a realistic and psychological approach to writing the story. On the other hand, the peculiar atmosphere is created through the elements of fantastic fiction. It can be assumed that he has employed this strategy to catch the attention of readers. At the same time, he also wanted to push them to reflect on such topics as the influence of technology on morality and people’s lifestyle focused on entertainment. Interestingly, the reader does not have to decompose this story to detect the issues raised as they are an essential part of the plot (Cushing Stahlberg and Hawkins 151).

The author has managed to achieve such a form of interaction with the reader through narration. The storyteller does not stand aside but is one of the crowd. When people in the story experience different conflicting feelings, the narrator goes through the same process together with the reader.

It is curious that the story has elements characteristic of utopia. In particular, the plot is based on the aspiration to replicate life. The masters who design automatons strive to transform the life around them into a copy. They do it gracefully and skillfully until, at some point, the copy occupies the place of the original (Millhauser 576). The robots exhibit both likeness and unlikeness to people, which makes them so fascinating and entertaining, and, at the same time, these feelings are disturbing.

It can be assumed that the story reveals the author’s understanding of art and the artistic process. In his writing, Millhauser makes a distinction between children’s theatre and the new automation theatre intended for the adult audience (567). In the first case, the portrayal of characters is based on naive realism, which strives to create and supporting a fictional atmosphere. In the second case, fiction is exposed, and the audience needs a realistic ambiance.

Realist Discourse

To understand the core of the story, it is necessary to analyze the relationship between replicas and the realist discourse. It should be noted that the realist genre has particular features, which can be traced throughout the story. The author introduces replicas through descriptions and lists (Pettersson 67). He is accurate in visual details and describes the features of different objects throughout the story. This is done to produce a life-like effect, which is typical for the discourse.

Importantly, the writer’s objective is to show the reader the way miniatures reach their goal, which is to deceive. In the same manner, the main hero in the story strives to achieve life-like perfection. According to the text, for many years, Graum “analyzed and dissected the automaton face, studying the works of the masters and trying to penetrate the deepest secrets of expressivity” (Millhauser 568). Therefore, meticulousness is the trait exhibited not only by the author but also by his characters.

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The writer further explains that during these six years, the main character “completed not a single figure, but instead accumulated a gallery of some six hundred heads, many of them in grotesque states of incompletion” (Millhauser 568). The aim of Graum is to learn how to recreate any minor detail to make his automatons look authentic. Nevertheless, this realist propensity takes the entire story to a new level and turns the author into the greatest illusionist. It should be stated that the textual world he has created is another form of a replica.

The realist discourse is accompanied by fiction in a remarkable way. As the author puts it, “the real is used to bring forth the unreal” (Millhauser 562). He follows a similar approach to produce the necessary effect on the reader. For instance, the writer describes historical objects and artifacts that exist in reality, such as “singing birds of the hero of Alexandria” and “Vaucanson duck” (Millhauser 560). Next, he states that such creations are just some of the little things, which any talented master in the city can create. The writer further depicts even more sophisticated automatons, which are beyond the capacity for understanding.

Creative Process

It can be assumed that the story reveals the author’s understanding of art through the art of designing automatons. Curiously, the greatest part of the story explores the endlessness of artistic ability through the creation of highly complex miniatures. However, the last paragraphs of the text reveal that the artistic effort has its limits. Graum was a master in creating machines that would imitate humans. However, in the end, he proposes a new artistic idea, which lies in the creation of automatons, which have souls.

At this point, the author stresses that they “do not have the souls of human beings; they have the souls of clockwork creatures, grown conscious of themselves” (Millhauser 575). These machines exhibit their own form of suffering, which does not imitate the feelings of the human world (but that of the world of the automata). Therefore, machines have evolved to become the projection of the human mind. This idea roots from the subjective identification with the artistic concepts.

Millhauser’s interest in replication is directly related to his understanding of art. In the story, every master spends much time investigating how automatons can be improved to reflect the world to an even greater degree. The intention to replicate nature mirrors the desire to comprehend the way an artwork is related to the world. In particular, the story investigates the degree to which automatons copy the original while the author explores the way art stems from the real world (Pettersson 267). Therefore, it can be suggested that the different levels of replication are a method of investigation employed by the author.

Importance of Narration

It is interesting that the story by Millhauser is written both in singular first-person and plural. In the majority of cases, the use of first-person plural forms dominates. Nonetheless, the writer switches to the first person singular to allow the narrator to talk to the reader and stress the most significant details (Huber 70). Meanwhile, the use of plural pronouns and forms ensures the people in the community may speak for themselves.

The story opens up with the narration from the community’s point of view. The citizens say: “Our city is justly proud of its automaton theater” (Millhauser 559). The use of the plural first-person serves as a barrier, which allows individuals to conceal themselves and simultaneously produces the impression of unity. In addition, impersonal narration allows the reader to comprehend the boundary between the theatre and citizens, which is not strictly maintained.

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In the text, the people are earnest consumers of art. Theaters and robots are not simply entertainment for the residents but rather an essential part of their living. The following quotation illustrates the importance of machines greatly: “In childhood, we are said to be attracted by the color and movement of these little creatures” (Millhauser 559). When people get older, they are attracted by the truthfulness of the emotions and “the timeless perfection of an art” the automatons enact (Millhauser 560). Therefore, the people in the story identify themselves with the city through automatons.

Graum’s latest invention had provoked a clash of opinions, but most people found it disturbing. His intention was not to create miniature people but a “new race” capable of self-awareness (Millhauser 575). Notably, the author allows the audience to respond to this creation through different text fragments. At first, the audience says: “My laborious remarks obscure the delicate art they seek to elucidate” (Millhauser 576). Then the community expresses its collective viewpoint saying: “We seem drawn into the souls of these creatures, who assert their unreal nature at every jerk of a limb” (Millhauser 576). The narration switches between first-person singular and plural to allow people to speak.

Moral Indecisiveness

It is possible to assume that the author has decided to write the majority of the text using plural first-person to exhibit moral indecisiveness. If the story was told from the point of view of a single narrator, the produced effect would be different (Huber 78). One person may avoid making moral choices, and this occurrence will not have the same weight as the situation when an entire community prefers to evade decision-making. Therefore, indecisiveness characteristic of the community becomes a public and even political phenomenon.

Despite the fact that the method of narration chosen by the author mirrors communal voice, it does not have a social connotation. It can be suggested that this voice is anonymous and reflects collective consciousness. Millhauser was trying to appeal to the Western reader so that any person could relate to the ideas expressed in the story. Moreover, the audience is implicated in the life of the city and becomes witness to the events (Huber 79). Through the use of the collective voice, the reader is first carried away by the beauty and perfection of automatons (and that of the old theater), and then the new theater changes their perceptions.


Thus, it can be concluded that the story written by Steven Millhauser is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. The text allows decomposing the author’s understanding of the creative process while immersing the reader into the atmosphere of realistically mimetic art. The writing combines the features of both fiction and realist discourse to reveal a complex connection between technology and morality. The narration method employed by Millhauser ensures every reader becomes part of the community.

Works Cited

Cushing Stahlberg, Lesleigh, and Peter S. Hawkins. The Bible in the American Short Story: New Directions in Religion and Literature. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Huber, Irmtraud. Present Tense Narration in Contemporary Fiction: A Narratological Overview. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Millhauser, Steven. “The New Automaton Theater.” The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction, edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher R. Beha, Ecco/Harper Perennial, 2008, pp. 559-578.

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Pettersson, Bo. How Literary Worlds Are Shaped: A Comparative Poetics of Literary Imagination. Walter de Gruyter, 2016.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, July 17). "The New Automaton Theater" by Steven Millhauser. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/the-new-automaton-theater-by-steven-millhauser/

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""The New Automaton Theater" by Steven Millhauser." StudyCorgi, 17 July 2021, studycorgi.com/the-new-automaton-theater-by-steven-millhauser/.

1. StudyCorgi. ""The New Automaton Theater" by Steven Millhauser." July 17, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-new-automaton-theater-by-steven-millhauser/.


StudyCorgi. ""The New Automaton Theater" by Steven Millhauser." July 17, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-new-automaton-theater-by-steven-millhauser/.


StudyCorgi. 2021. ""The New Automaton Theater" by Steven Millhauser." July 17, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/the-new-automaton-theater-by-steven-millhauser/.


StudyCorgi. (2021) '"The New Automaton Theater" by Steven Millhauser'. 17 July.

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