Fitz-James O'Brien Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The judgment of Fitz-James O’Brien’s friends that “The Wondersmith” and “The Diamond Lens” were remarkable stories and pacesetters for other writers was a sound one; the two stories represent the best of O’Brien’s short tales. The plots move quickly as the human characters interact with fantastic creatures, demons, and spirit mediums. Murder and mystery heighten the degree of horror evoked in the reader. The stories do not carry a message, moral, or meaning by which man is to pattern his life, although messages, morals, and meanings are evident. Written to entertain the readers of the Atlantic Monthly, these stories satisfied the desire for fictional horror. O’Brien held his audience by unfolding the plot through a series of dramatic episodes. By fusing fact with fiction, a blend of science and pseudoscience and good with evil, he created another world which came to life through vivid descriptive passages.

“The Diamond Lens”

“The Diamond Lens,” set in New York, is narrated by the protagonist, Linley, a master of deceit and cunning. This first deception involves his studying optics while telling his family that he is studying medicine. Setting up a laboratory in his apartment, he is a true scientist, experimenting, investigating, and theorizing about optics. Simon, a young French Jew then introduces the pseudoscientific element—Mrs. Vulpes, a spirit medium. She conjures up the spirit of Leeuwenhoek, which instructs Linley on the mechanics of the perfect microscope. He learns that a one-hundred-and-forty-carat diamond is necessary to construct the universal lens for the perfect microscope. Coincidentally, Simon has such a diamond. Linley murders him, rationalizing that his act is a service to mankind, although when the perfect microscope is made, it is to serve him.

When Linley examines a common drop of water, the reader is hardly prepared for the vision he sees: a gaseous globule infused with supernatural light with clouds and forests of unbelievable hues. Through the colored clouds, a perfect female form emerges which Linley calls Animula—the “divine revelation of perfect beauty”—and he promptly falls in love with the phantom figure. The impossible nature of the relationship is later recognized by the lover, who tries to break the spell to no avail.

Linley, frustrated by Animula’s inability to return his passion, seeks the company of Signorina Caradolce, the most beautiful and graceful woman in the world; but he finds her ugly and her movements grotesque, and he hurries home. There he finds Animula suffering, convulsed in pain, her beauty fading; her multichromatic fantasy world is growing dim, and she is dying. Linley checks the water drop; it has evaporated. Haunted by his memories, he goes mad. Even in his madness, he shows no hint of repentance of his deeds; he only weeps for his lost love. The author leaves the reader to discover a moral for his tale.

“The Wondersmith”

O’Brien’s skill is again apparent in “The Wondersmith,” which describes a deeper level of evil, cruelty, and terror than that seen in “The Diamond Lens.” The story revolves around murder, science, pseudoscience, and an unusual love story, along with rituals which demonstrate that demonology is not dead. Everything takes place on Golosh Street, a ghetto off Chatham Street in New York. To the passerby, Herr Hippe and Madame Filomel are ordinary residents of Golosh Street. He is the wondersmith, a maker of lifelike toys, and she is a run-of-the-mill gypsy fortune-teller. In reality, they are bohemians; O’Brien uses the words gypsy and bohemian interchangeably, but there is no doubt that these bohemians are special...

(The entire section is 1525 words.)