The Infant Prodigy

by Thomas Mann

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Last Updated April 9, 2024.

Introduction

Originally published in German, Thomas Mann's 1903 “Das Wunderkind” soon reached English audiences under several titles, including: “The Child Prodigy” or “The Wunderkind”). Today, audiences best recognize it as "The Infant Prodigy."  

A satirical sketch, the short story spoke to the absurdities Mann perceived in the artistic arenas he occupied. As a prolific writer and the winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize for Literature, Mann described a world with which he was intimately familiar. Though Mann often navigated the roles he so overtly condemns in "The Infant Prodigy," he was also a scathing critic of the high-brow arrogance he encountered.

It stands to reason, then, that Mann's early twentieth-century criticism of German and, more broadly, European society and culture would translate into mid-century advocacy, rendering Mann a vocal critic who spoke often and loudly against the rising Nazi regime. 

Summary

Bibi Saccellaphylaccas, a young piano prodigy, steps on stage to play a concert for a sold-out auditorium, one housed in an extravagantly decorated first-class hotel where front-row seats cost twelve marks a piece.

As he does, the audience falls silent, struck quiet by the boy's presence. After a pause, one audience member begins clapping, sparking resounding applause. Elegantly dressed in white for the occasion, Bibi still looks young, with audience members silently guessing to themselves his age. Though answers vary, they all align closely to his true age: eight years old.

Once the applause concludes, Bibi approaches his piano. Only then do the audience members look down at their programs, discovering that the entire show will consist of Bibi’s original works. Bibi sits down at the piano, modified with a device that makes the foot pedals possible for his short legs to reach, and makes an “artful” face designed to please the audience. 

After the first song ends “in a grand climax,” the audience is astonished, amazed by the young virtuoso. They burst into excited applause, yelling out adoration and admiration. On stage, Bibi feels disconnected from his audience, knowing they do not comprehend the complexities and nuances of his masterful art. In his mind, he pities their amateur ears and inability to understand the musical journey he is taking them on.

Although the crowd seems to adore Bibi, cheering emphatically throughout the show, several audience members have less pure thoughts. One old man envies Bibi’s talents, claiming it is nothing more than a gift from God that he was just lucky enough to be given, equating Bibi's performance not to skill or effort but to happenstance. A businessman does the math of the ticket revenues and the number of seats in the hall to determine Bibi's earnings from playing the show. A music teacher who bemoans her lost dreams and failed attempts to achieve acclaim criticizes Bibi’s skillset, insinuating that she is the superior musician. A critic recognizes Bibi’s talents but criticizes the very idea of art and stresses its uselessness, admitting that he cannot compliment Bibi too highly publicly.

Bibi’s final song turns into the Greek National Anthem, and the critic ponders how this type of pandering is the problem with art. Like anything else, music should earn money and induce pleasure, not evoke the deep questions of the human soul that Bibi's brochure insinuates his work investigates. 

Despite these negative inner monologues—all of which critique and demean Bibi and his performance—the crowd still erupts in applause when he finishes his performance. The concert organizer adorns Bibi with a wreath around his neck, and the crowd roars even louder.

After the show, a beautiful woman and her two young, handsome brothers receive their coats from the cloakroom and step outside. Meanwhile, a girl with “untidy hair” ponders what she just saw at the concert, proclaiming: “We are all infant prodigies.” The old man who envied Bibi during the show is confused by the statement but notices that her counterpart nods in agreement.

Then, the girl with “untidy hair” watches as the three attractive siblings walk away from the theater and around the street corner, staring wistfully at them until they disappear despite feeling disdain for their elegance and demeanor. 

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