In The Repairer of Reputations, Hildred is an unreliable narrator. I felt that his role could be compared to the governess’ narration in The Turn of The Screw and our discussion of the “fantastic.”
The story heavily implies that Hildred is insane. First, we hear that years ago, he suffered a fall from his horse, hit his head, and was committed to an asylum for a period of time afterwards. Hildred, of course, tells us that this was a mistake and that his mind has always been sound, but that’s hardly a convincing claim in itself. We also learn that Hildred has read The King In Yellow, a script that is known to drive its readers insane. His behavior and his attempted political conspiracy certainly sounds like the delusions of someone experiencing some sort of paranoid psychosis, and his only confidante in this scheme is Mr. Wilde, a man who is regarded by others as a lunatic. Eventually, his schemes fail entirely, and he dies in an asylum for the criminally insane.
We do not, however, know for certain that Hildred is delusional. If his conspiratorial claims were true, they would still sound mad to people who didn’t know the truth; and it’s plausible that his enemies would thwart his plans by having him arrested and declared insane. There is nothing in the story that directly, conclusively disproves Hildred’s theories about the world, or Wilde’s network of information & profession as Repairer of Reputations.
As is the case with Turn of The Screw’s governess, it doesn’t seem like Hildred is simply knowingly lying to us – after all, he leaves in many incriminating details that point to his insanity and seem to weaken his story. This includes his descriptions of the reaction of various people around him, who clearly seem to think he’s insane. Also similarly to the governess, much of the ‘evidence’ we see for Hildred’s claims is provided by his internal interpretation of other people’s emotions and reactions, which, for all we know, he could be imagining. For example, when Hildred accuses Hawberk of secretly being the Marquis of Avonshire, this is seemingly confirmed by Hawberk’s and Constance’s reactions, which, from Hildred’s descriptions, seem guilty and defensive. However, they verbally deny these accusations, and all Hildred really tells us is that they look a bit taken aback/disturbed – which seems like a reasonable way to react if a friend is saying such strange and outlandish things to you.
However, unlike in Turn of the Screw, there are many events within The Repairer of Reputations which seem like they should be impossible if Hildred and Wilde are both completely mad. For example, someone claiming to be “Mr Steylette” visits Wilde’s apartment; Wilde claims this is the newspaper owner Arnold Steylette, seemingly confirming his profession as Repairer of Reputation and his role as orchestrator of this political conspiracy. At the very least, this event is hard to explain if we believe Hildred and Wilde are both entirely delusional. But there’s also plausible deniablity here: we don’t know for sure why this man came to visit; whether he’s really employed by Wilde to influence reputations, as Wilde claims; we also only hear his last name, so we don’t know for sure whether this is even Arnold; and, of course, this could all be a hallucination within Hildred’s mind.
Another similar event: Hildred tells Hawberk that Wilde knows where some missing pieces of important armor are; Hawberk is shocked that Hildred could even know they were missing, and he later says the armor was indeed found where Wilde said it would be. There’s no explanation for this if we accept that Hildred’s and Wilde’s grand claims are purely born of madness.
On the other hand, the story also depicts events directly suggesting that Hildred is mad. For example, Hildred describes the crown kept in a safe in his room; Louis sees both as unremarkable, describing the crown as made of “brass and paste” and the safe as a “biscuit-box.”
At the story’s climax, Wilde and Hildred attempt to blackmail a man – supposedly “Vance” – into killing Hawberk and Constance, while Hildred claims that he’s already killed Dr. Archer (despite the fact that we never directly see that happen). Wilde seems to have been commissioned to repair Vance’s reputation, which led him to discover Vance’s embezzlement. However, “Vance” doesn’t actually follow through on his execution. Also, we don’t know for sure that this man is really Vance – only Hildred’s observations of the man’s reactions seem to suggest this. We also know that “Vance” has read The King in Yellow, so it’s possible this is just another madman.
In this way, the unreliable narrator of The Repairer of Reputations is quite different from that of The Turn of The Screw. While there’s nothing stopping us from questioning any given detail in the governess’ account, we don’t need to do so in order to believe that she is mad. Only the appearance of the ghosts themselves needs to be a hallucination; the only other ‘evidence’ of the supernatural comes from the governess’ subjective interpretations of other people’s behavior. By contrast, in The Repairer of Reputations, we either have to believe that some amount of Hildred & Wilde’s information network/conspiracy is true and real, or we have to dismiss many directly depicted events as hallucinations totally fabricated by Hildred’s mind. By the end, it seems like anything could have been untrue. Mayne Wilde wasn’t even real, or at least, didn’t say the things Hildred thought that he did. “Vance” could have been anyone, or not existed. The events surrounding the missing armor may not have occurred at all.
The inclusion of the script of The King in Yellow in the world at large (and its presence in the other stories within the book) seems to indicate that there is definitely something supernatural afoot here, even if The King himself is not literally real, and even if Hildred’s particular conspiracy is imaginary. The text of The King In Yellow itself, at least, has some sort of supernatural effect. But we are not sure just what sort of threat it poses. Does the script cause people to become servants of The King, a real, evil, supernatural entity with an agenda? Or does it merely cause them to go mad and do dangerous things in the name of a fictitious king? The Repairer of Reputations leaves these questions up to the reader.