Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Doubleness in “The Wondersmith” is not simply the enabling mechanism of the plot; it also characterizes the story’s overall conception. From the outset, there is an insistence on the underside of the ordinary world. The unattractive environment in which the story is set deftly emphasizes the opposite of metropolitan zest, stimulus, and enterprise. It is in this environment that the story’s socially marginal characters ply their quaint but menacing trades and plot their revenge on the conventional world of Christmastime and stable family life. The commitment of Hippe and his underlings to instability evidently derives from the tradition of unsettlement and dispossession that their classification as Gypsies and bohemians connotes. Hippe’s scheme seems mindless in its cruelty, and he behaves throughout the story with a demented confidence in his own powers. Nevertheless, there is method in his madness. The scheme’s irrational component is its vengeful intolerance of innocence. However, its attack on innocence is located in an exploitation of material reality: Innocence is destroyed through the subversion of toys purchased for the holiday season. The slaughter of the innocents, as conceived by Hippe, certainly out-Herods Herod, but it is to be carried out by making normally dependable and trustworthy playthings duplicitous.

Hippe’s murderous anti-Christian designs are precisely counterbalanced or doubled by Solon’s loving spirit and capacity for suffering. The Wondersmith’s extraordinary artistic talent is negated by the simple integrity of the deformed bookseller. Fascination with Hippe’s malevolence is obliged to yield to appreciation for the hunchback’s morally upright stance. The author makes it perfectly clear that Solon is more significant for his moral courage, which his behavior unequivocally exemplifies, than for being a poet, a facet of his personality for which no direct evidence is supplied. Those whom Hippe seeks to punish, represented by the innocent and exploited Zonela, are ultimately delivered from degradation by Solon’s selfless intervention. As the climax of the story makes clear, deliverance is an end in itself.

The story’s double plot assists in establishing its conflict and lends distinctive color and atmosphere to it. “The Wondersmith” may be essentially a retelling, or translation to a New World setting, of standard folktale motifs or dualities such as the struggle between purity and danger, between the beauty and the beast, between artifice and honesty. However, these general, or even stereotypical, considerations are located firmly within the story’s specific context and emerge freshly as a result of the author’s...

(The entire section is 1099 words.)