The Fall from Paradise in The Birthday of the Infanta
Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, The Birthday of the Infanta interweaves two ancient myths whose variants are found in many different cultures. The first – the Fall from Paradise – is undoubtedly best known to those of us in Europe from the Old Testament tale of Adam and Eve, though it also appears in a great deal of modern fiction. The second tells of the destruction of either a kind-hearted person or a loving couple by a cruel and uncompassionate world. The most famous modern rendering of this genre of tale would be Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
The plot of Wilde’s story is fairly simple…
In Spain, at the time of the Spanish Armada, a Princess celebrates her twelfth birthday with an opulent party. Amongst the entertainers at the celebration is a hunchbacked Dwarf who has been stolen from his forest dwelling by two noblemen who spotted him while they were out hunting. The Dwarf’s exuberant dancing elicits mockery and ridicule from both the children and adults in attendance, but in his innocence, the little man believes that the audience is laughing with him and not at him. Wilde writes, “Perhaps the most amusing thing about him was his complete unconsciousness of his own grotesque appearance... And when the children laughed, he laughed as freely and as joyously as any of them.”
The high-spirited Dwarf soon becomes fascinated by the young Princess. “He could not keep his eyes off her and seemed to dance for her alone,” Wilde tells the reader. And so, when she tosses the tiny young man a white rose that she has been wearing in her hair, he falls in love with her. Hoping to meet her and express his tender feelings – and eager to bring her back with him to his idyllic forest – he steals into the palace. After crossing through various rooms (spiritual gates!), the Dwarf happens upon a small and hideous monster who copies all of his gestures and expressions. Who could this repulsive little man be? As the reader soon comes to understand, he is none other than the Dwarf himself, for he has chanced upon a huge mirror! In consequence, the innocent-hearted young man becomes aware of his misshapen body and ugly appearance for the first time. He is crushed by this sudden understanding and falls from Paradise.
Upon seeing himself for the first time, Wilde tells us that the Dwarf “gave a wild cry of despair and fell sobbing to the ground.” His sorrow becomes too overwhelming to bear when he realizes that the Princess, whom he had believed to be in love with him, “had been merely mocking his ugliness and making merry over his twisted limbs.”
Exactly where does the Dwarf find himself now that he has been exiled from Paradise?
The world of 16th Century Spain that Wilde describes is one of great pomp and comfort for the aristocracy. Yet he makes it clear that beneath the gilded pageantry, Spanish society is cruel, ugly and spiritually distorted – just as the Dwarf is physically distorted. Indeed, the Spanish court is characterized as merciless and perverse, especially since it has “cultivated a passion for the horrible.”
Wilde makes it clear in various places in his story that much of the cruelty of Spain has been generated by the Inquisition, which started persecuting, torturing and burning converted Jews and Moors – as well as foreigners of different nationalities – in 1478. In Wilde’s narrative, the Holy Office reins behind the scenes with terror, and he makes references to Gypsies recently hanged for sorcery and an “auto-da-fé in which three hundred heretics, amongst whom were many Englishman, [have] been burned.” While recounting the Dwarf’s Fall, Wilde also mentions that the Inquisition has recently been established in Mexico. It seems his subtle way of informing the reader that there will be no mercy for loving misfits like the Dwarf – or Englishmen, converted Jews and Moors – anywhere in the Spanish Empire.
In this perverse world, the King himself has become mired in a grotesque form of grief following the death of his Queen, whom he suspects to have been poisoned by his brother. He exhumes and embalms his wife’s body, and covers her face with kisses in the hopes of reviving her. This element of the tale is, of course, reminiscent of the story of Inês de Castro.
Wilde’s fictionalized Spain is also dominated by a rigid class structure. The Princess herself is “only allowed to play with children of her own rank.” The purpose of those of lesser rank seems largely to keep her and the rest of the nobility entertained.
Even flowers are evil in this fairy tale, and what one of the tulips says about the Dwarf is emblematic of their nasty frame of mind: “He is really far too ugly to be allowed to play in any place where we are.”
And so, when the Dwarf tumbles out of Paradise, he isn’t met with understanding and encouragement by those who come upon his prostrate body. Instead, they treat him with derision and physical violence.
“My funny little Dwarf is sulking,” the Princess cries. And she tells the Chamberlain: “You must wake him up and tell him to dance for me.”
An aristocrat – Don Pedro of Aragon – enters the room and slaps the Dwarf on the cheek with his embroidered glove. “Petit monstre,” he says. “You must dance. The Infanta of Spain…wishes to be amused.”
His insult and his orders fail to rouse the Dwarf, so he suggests that a “whipping master” be sent for.
It is then that the Chamberlain discovers that the Dwarf has died of a broken heart.
The Princess is given the last word in the story: “For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,” she cries.
And so, in the future, only those beings devoid of feelings – of love, exuberance and compassion – will be fit to inhabit Spain and keep it aristocracy entertained.
In writing this story, did Wilde predict his own fall from grace? Only four years after the publication of The Birthday of the Infanta, he initiated a lawsuit for criminal libel against his lover’s aristocratic father, who had accused him of being a sodomite. Wilde lost the legal action, and in a second trial, he was convicted of gross indecency. Soon afterward, he was sent to prison, disgraced and broken by a hostile world that refused to understand and sympathize with the workings of his heart.
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