(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The sick child of the title is ten-year-old Jean. His legs are semiparalyzed, and he is extremely weak and emaciated, but pallor has given him an ethereal beauty. From the beginning of the story, the reader is led to expect that he will die. The description of the sickroom suggests a prosperous and cultured background.

The first part of the story establishes a delicate relationship between the sick child and his widowed mother, whom he calls “Madame Mamma.” He tries to conceal his pain from her; she tries to conceal her anxiety from him. They both know that they are deceiving each other in their determination to protect each other from the truth.

There is another and more compelling reason—which becomes the central part of the narrative—for Jean to keep his mother distanced from his real thoughts. He is conserving his daytime energy so that at night he can indulge in fantastic journeys of the imagination, which have become the reality of his sickbed existence. To conceal this reality from his mother, he has adopted a slightly mocking approach toward her, which gives him some power over her. His long-drawn-out illness has made him hyperreactive to sensations, with all the senses intermingled: He can hear smells, taste sounds, smell textures. He has become intensely involved with words and uses a secret vocabulary to describe the people and the everyday things around him.

His nighttime journeys are often sparked by his power to animate the everyday objects or sensations within his bedroom. The scent of lavender, sprayed by his mother, becomes a cloud of fragrance on which he can ride through the skylight into the world beyond. He can fly freely and flowingly, above fields and pastures, with complete control over his adventures and over everything within them. He laughs as he flies, although he never laughs in bed. He dreads landing back in bed, for he often bumps himself on the iron frame and wakes up in pain. He denies the pain that he feels, however, when Madame Mamma questions him.

Besides his mother, the...

(The entire section is 843 words.)