The Infant Prodigy Themes
by Thomas Mann

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Thomas Mann has spoken of this sketch, along with several others written at about the same time, as wearing “the impress of much melancholy and ironic reflection on the subject of art and the artist.” Clearly, there is cynicism on the part of both artist and audience. The performance is not staged as an aesthetic experience but is designed to draw the greatest possible reaction from an audience composed of those whom Bibi views as idiots. Everything is calculated to appeal to emotionalism, from Bibi’s dress and the misrepresentation of his age to the timing of bows and the selection of compositions. There seems to be more gimmickry than art, and the story hints that the impresario, who manages the show, may be more responsible than Bibi for its final effect. Even the title of the story calls attention to the age of the performer rather than to the artistry of the event.

Those in the audience respond in terms of their own preoccupations and needs and, thus, cannot give themselves over to the music. The piano teacher is unable to relinquish her claim to expertise, and the young girl relates all to her feelings of sexual passion. The music critic is determined to demonstrate his intellectual superiority, although at times he seems to regret his inability to participate emotionally in the concert. The performance is a social occasion, with even the seating divided by class and with the audience responding similarly to Bibi and to the aging princess. The unkempt girl sees herself, like Bibi, as an artist, but clearly she envies the beautiful socialite.

Although the sketch questions the motives of artist and audience, it leaves open the possibility that the illusion created is, as the music critic suggests, “the most artistic thing of all.” Art, by definition, is contrived; it is artifice.