The Birthday of the Infanta by Oscar Wilde.

I've always enjoyed Oscar Wilde's writing: I spent a year or so reading his most famous plays, the 'drawing room comedies' like The Importance of Being Earnest, and they were great fun, but it wasn't until I read his other plays like Salomé, VeraA Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane that I began to really appreciate what a powerful writer he was. That, I believe, is confirmed in his short stories: there is great beauty, darkness, and melancholy in his stories that never fails to leave an impression.

The Birthday of the Infanta is one such story. It is the second short story in Wilde's 1891 collection A House of Pomegranates and like many other of his works, beauty, charm, and grace exists alongside the ugly and grotesque, often showing the former to be nothing but a facade. The Infanta is the daughter of the king of Spain: it is her twelfth birthday and a lavish party is organised despite the fact that the king is still in mourning for the Infanta's mother. The highlight of the party is the performance of a dwarf, and he falls in love with the Infanta:
But the funniest part of the whole morning’s entertainment, was undoubtedly the dancing of the little Dwarf.  When he stumbled into the arena, waddling on his crooked legs and wagging his huge misshapen head from side to side, the children went off into a loud shout of delight, and the Infanta herself laughed so much that the Camerera was obliged to remind her that although there were many precedents in Spain for a King’s daughter weeping before her equals, there were none for a Princess of the blood royal making so merry before those who were her inferiors in birth.  The Dwarf, however, was really quite irresistible, and even at the Spanish Court, always noted for its cultivated passion for the horrible, so fantastic a little monster had never been seen.  It was his first appearance, too.  He had been discovered only the day before, running wild through the forest, by two of the nobles who happened to have been hunting in a remote part of the great cork-wood that surrounded the town, and had been carried off by them to the Palace as a surprise for the Infanta; his father, who was a poor charcoal-burner, being but too well pleased to get rid of so ugly and useless a child.  Perhaps the most amusing thing about him was his complete unconsciousness of his own grotesque appearance.  Indeed he seemed quite happy and full of the highest spirits.  When the children laughed, he laughed as freely and as joyously as any of them, and at the close of each dance he made them each the funniest of bows, smiling and nodding at them just as if he was really one of themselves, and not a little misshapen thing that Nature, in some humourous mood, had fashioned for others to mock at.  As for the Infanta, she absolutely fascinated him.  He could not keep his eyes off her, and seemed to dance for her alone, and when at the close of the performance, remembering how she had seen the great ladies of the Court throw bouquets to Caffarelli, the famous Italian treble, whom the Pope had sent from his own chapel to Madrid that he might cure the King’s melancholy by the sweetness of his voice, she took out of her hair the beautiful white rose, and partly for a jest and partly to tease the Camerera, threw it to him across the arena with her sweetest smile, he took the whole matter quite seriously, and pressing the flower to his rough coarse lips he put his hand upon his heart, and sank on one knee before her, grinning from ear to ear, and with his little bright eyes sparkling with pleasure.
It soon emerges that the dwarf doesn't know he's any different from the other children - his dancing and playing is from sheer joy rather than performance. But, when he goes in search of the Infanta after the party he comes across a room with a mirror:
When the truth dawned upon him, he gave a wild cry of despair, and fell sobbing to the ground.  So it was he who was misshapen and hunchbacked, foul to look at and grotesque.  He himself was the monster, and it was at him that all the children had been laughing, and the little Princess who he had thought loved him—she too had been merely mocking at his ugliness, and making merry over his twisted limbs.  Why had they not left him in the forest, where there was no mirror to tell him how loathsome he was?  Why had his father not killed him, rather than sell him to his shame?  The hot tears poured down his cheeks, and he tore the white rose to pieces.  The sprawling monster did the same, and scattered the faint petals in the air.  It grovelled on the ground, and, when he looked at it, it watched him with a face drawn with pain.  He crept away, lest he should see it, and covered his eyes with his hands.  He crawled, like some wounded thing, into the shadow, and lay there moaning. 
His heart is broken, and when he refuses to play again with the Infanta the Chamberlain explains this. But she doesn't care:
And the Infanta frowned, and her dainty rose-leaf lips curled in pretty disdain.  ‘For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,’ she cried, and she ran out into the garden.
And there ends the story. It truly is heartbreaking - he fantasises about the princess and how he could make her happy, showing that he is simply a young child who had lived a natural life undisturbed until his capture:
He knew the trail of every animal, and could track the hare by its delicate footprints, and the boar by the trampled leaves.  All the wild-dances he knew, the mad dance in red raiment with the autumn, the light dance in blue sandals over the corn, the dance with white snow-wreaths in winter, and the blossom-dance through the orchards in spring.  He knew where the wood-pigeons built their nests, and once when a fowler had snared the parent birds, he had brought up the young ones himself, and had built a little dovecot for them in the cleft of a pollard elm.  They were quite tame, and used to feed out of his hands every morning.
But once captured and in the artificial surroundings of high society he is perceived as monstrous, and so believes that he is unnatural and tainted. The power of the monarchy, and indeed society, leads him to believe that he is the one that is at fault, not them, not the Infanta, who shows herself to be heartless. A very moving story indeed.

And that was my 31st title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week - The Archdeacon by Anthony Trollope.

Comments

  1. a powerful comparison of the real with the invented social norms: one of the problems with humanity, imo: confusing the real with social values; people just don't understand what's actual and what's not... Wilde knew...

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    1. Agree completely, couldn't have put it better myself!

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  2. What a great short story this was.
    I didn't expect the ' talking flowers and animals'....but they brightened up this very heartbreaking story.

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    1. It did - I loved that element!

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  3. I am so glad to read this. I haven't read this one, yet, and am woefully behind on a lot of his short works. I appreciate what you write about Wilde's power and talent, though. So much. Yes, he was witty and clever, but so many take for granted what a giant he was, intellectually and stylistically. I need to get back to him soon.

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    1. I'm loving reading the short stories - my problem is I lent someone my copy to read just one story and they've lost it! Hoping to get it retrieved soon. Wilde's amazing, a giant as you say. Much prefer his stories to his plays though :)

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