Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840
Told in the first person by artist Roland Simpson to an unidentified listener, “The Bambino” is less a plotted story than a sketch revealing a dramatic situation and a set of characters. The anonymous listener prompts the story by asking Simpson if he painted a portrait hanging on his studio wall. Simpson replies that it is a study of Adela Archdale and her infant son painted by Frances Archdale, sister of Adela’s husband and at one time Simpson’s fiance. Jack Archdale collects modern pictures, and Simpson explains to the listener the circumstances that explain why he has not purchased this one.
According to Simpson, the key to the situation can be seen in the composition of Frances’s portrait of Adela and her son. The child is naked, standing between his mother’s knees, but the visual focus of the picture is Adela’s hands. “They’re in the centre of the picture, large and white and important, as if Frances had known.” For Simpson, the portrait captures the deadly combination of Adela’s chief traits. The first is her beauty; he describes her as a “slender Flemish Madonna” and implies that Jack Archdale married her because she appealed to his collector’s taste. The second is her clumsiness, both verbal and physical. Adela’s hands are always in motion and always dropping things; she does not seem to understand the extent of the damage she does when she drops an antique Chinese bowl, left to Simpson in the will of a friend, and replaces it with a modern blue and white bowl from a department store.
The conflict Simpson observes between Jack and Adela is objectified in a dispute in London about who should hold the baby, thirteen months old at the time. Jack is angered when Adela says that the boy is “more mine than yours” and confides to Simpson that he cannot wait until the baby, whom they both call the Bambino, grows up. “I can’t wait twenty years to know what he’s going to do, the sort of things he’ll say, what his mind’ll be like.” On the other hand, Jack continues, Adela would like to keep the boy a baby for the rest of his life. Although this tension between Jack and Adela, on the surface, represents the rather normal friction between the mother and father of any child, Simpson sees the conversation with Jack Archdale as ironic in the light of the Bambino’s fate.
Four years later, Simpson meets Jack in his sister Frances’s studio and accepts an invitation to drive down to the house in Buckinghamshire that Jack had purchased as a family home. Simpson, who has been out of touch with all the Archdales, notices a great change in Jack. He is short-tempered, withdrawn, and clearly under some sort of strain. The reason becomes clear when Simpson, on their arrival, asks to see the Bambino, who is now five years old. He was not prepared, he remarks to the listener, to see Adela return “with a baby in her arms—a baby too young to display excitement, too young to talk.” It is the Bambino, however, and not a second child. Simpson perceives immediately, “She had got her way. The Bambino would be a baby all its life. Its mind had stopped dead at fifteen months.” Adela, however, seems not to acknowledge this fact, attributing the child’s physical and mental slowness to the size of his brain, but Jack Archdale is fully aware of the significance of his son’s condition.
Frances Archdale explains to Simpson that when the Bambino was fifteen months old, Adela dropped him down a staircase. “She was coming down [the stairs] with the Bambino on one arm and the tail of her gown on the other. He caught sight of Archdale in the hall, and was struggling to get to him.” Jack clings to every shred of medical evidence that suggests that the effects of that accident will not be permanent, and he struggles with his negative feelings for his wife. Simpson tells his visitor of the terror on Jack’s face when, during that visit to Buckinghamshire, he saw Adela enter a room with a burning lamp in her hands. Frances explained then to Simpson that Jack lives in fear of the consequences of his wife’s every action. He does not want her to have any more children, Frances added: “He simply couldn’t stand seeing her hold them.” Painful as the effects of the Bambino’s condition are on Jack, Simpson tells his listener, he agrees with Frances that the greater potential for tragedy lies in Adela’s situation. Oblivious to the consequences of her actions, as she has been throughout her life, Adela faces the most painful realization when the Bambino is too old for her to rationalize away his mental retardation. She will have to face the terror and hatred she engenders in the husband who cannot bear to look at her hands.
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