Maddie’s Response to Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of Infanta”

Disability in literature has been met with numerous issues throughout history. As discussed in papers such as Simi Linton’s “Reassigning Meaning,” it has been an uphill battle to find fair and appropriate representation for those of the disabled community in literature. This change only became noticeable within the last 20 years or so, as political agendas, policies, and overall societal conversations begin to try and shift away from the ableist narrative. Despite it’s more recent rise to the spotlight, Oscar Wilde’s “The Birthday of Infanta,” discusses the lack of understanding and acceptance for members of the disabled community, and how they are often left with the glorification of their disability for amusement.
Wilde’s piece, written in 1891, talks about the ableist bias and lack of understanding exhibited by the general population. For Infanta’s birthday, a circus troupe comes to preform, bringing along all types of wonderful and exciting acts, including “the little Dwarf.” The Dwarf is recognized for the children’s fascination with his “waddling on his crooked legs and wagging his huge misshapen head from side to side” (Wilde 13). The Dwarf, however, finds joy in the amusement he provides to the children, specifically Infanta.
Through his walks in the garden, spurred on by the delight of pleasing Infanta, the Flowers themselves speak to the Dwarf’s “perfect horror,” going so far as to even suggest that his best course of action could be suicide. Instead of focusing on the physical onset of his disability, and the negative words that the Flowers say, just because they don’t find him beautiful, the Dwarf finds his joy with the Birds and the Lizards, who touch their wings to him and accept his presence.
Wilde’s choice to leave the Dwarf finding comfort in the animalistic characters of birds and lizards speaks to the presumed nature of the character himself. He is less than human, left to finding friendship and community with the animals. Anything that represents beauty rejects him.
This extended symbology comes to fruition when the Dwarf encounters his own face in a mirror and begins to interact with “the monster.” The Dwarf isn’t afraid of his own reflection, but instead, recognizes it as “grotesque” before realizing that it mimics him. Instead of turning away, he proceeds to investigate it more, until he realizes that his reflection is standing before him. The Dwarf can’t take this heartbreak and the own rejection of his image. In falling down, sobbing, the children come, and they only find it funny, laughing.
The interaction with the reflection demonstrates that, once again, the Dwarf is fine to be with the “monster,” until he realizes that that is how other people see him. The mirror isn’t a literal mirror, but instead symbolizes a greater realization of how those without disability see him, and what they recognize him for. It’s not the joy and understanding that the birds and lizards recognize in him, instead, it’s the outward image that nobody can look past, much like the Dwarf reaching out and only finding the cold, smooth mirror’s surface.
His death, also continues the same thought, as Infanta leaves with “’For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts,’” (Wilde 55), removing the idea of any life from the Dwarf at all. Infanta wishes to have similar guests to amuse her but doesn’t wish that they can truly feel, removing the idea of “humanity” from the Dwarf, failing to recognize his heartbreak, its cause, or the joy he gave her in life.

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