Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760
Fitz-James O’Brien’s short story “The Wondersmith” is divided into seven sections. The first, entitled “Golosh Street and Its People,” establishes the location and dark tone for the tale. The first-person, anonymous narrator is a strong presence in this section, describing the dirty street. The “eccentric mercantile settlement” contains a bird-shop with rare birds, a second-hand book-stall, a shop owned by a Frenchman who makes and sells artificial eyes, Madame Filomel, a fortune-teller, and the shop of Herr Hippe, the Wondersmith.
In section 2, “A Bottleful of Souls,” Hippe is described as tall and thin, with a “long, thin moustache, that curled like a dark asp around his mouth, the expression of which was so bitter and cruel that it seemed to distill the venom of the ideal serpent.” At a knock on the door, Hippe raises his head, “which vibrated on his long neck like the head of a cobra when about to strike.” Filomel, a fortune-teller and midwife, enters with a bottle of fiendish souls. The evil plot of the pair is revealed: The souls will animate the evil-looking wooden soldiers and maidens carved by Hippe, the dolls’ swords and daggers will be dipped in poison, and these fatal toys will then be given to little Christian children. Another knock is heard at the door, and Kerplonne and Oaksmith, “true gypsies,” enter. The conspirators are all gathered. They animate the manikins, dropping a gold piece among them to provoke a vicious battle. The souls are then gathered back into Filomel’s bottle, the manikins are replaced in their box, and the “four gypsies” depart to turn the dolls loose in the bird-shop.
Part 3, “Solon,” introduces the second plot, the love story between Solon, the hunchbacked vendor of secondhand books, and Zonela, the child of a nobleman who was stolen by Hippe. Zonela is an organ-grinder with a little monkey named Furbelow. In a song, Solon confesses that he is a poet and that he loves Zonela, and as the girl and the monkey begin to dance, an enraged Hippe enters the room.
In section 4, “The Manikins and the Minos,” the four Gypsies are revealed in the bird-shop as they animate the manikins, open all the cages, and turn the savage dolls loose to kill the helpless birds. Hippe expresses his pleasure with the dolls’ ferocity, saying: “They spill blood like Christians. . . . They will be famous assassins.”
“Tied Up,” section 5, cuts back to Solon and Zonela caught by Hippe. Hippe viciously kicks Furbelow into the corner of the room and insults Solon. Solon, at Zonela’s touch, experiences the “great sustaining power of love,” and finds the courage to speak against Hippe. Hippe responds by telling of his son who was destroyed (inadvertently) through the drinking of brandy with a Hungarian noble; in retaliation, Hippe stole the Hungarian’s daughter, Zonela, and destroyed her life through poverty and misery. Now Hippe delights in the prospect of killing her lover. Hippe wraps Solon in a web and locks Zonela in her room.
Part 6, “The Poisoning of the Swords,” takes place on New Year’s Eve. Children all over the city “were lying on white pillows, dreaming of the coming of the generous Santa Claus.” In Hippe’s house, the four conspirators are painting the manikins’ little swords and daggers with poison and are planning to let the dolls kill Solon for practice. Filomel, when questioned by Hippe, slides the black bottle of souls from her pocket to show that she has it; when she lets it slide back, it does not return to its former place, and “balance[s] itself on the edge of her pocket.”
The final section, “Let Loose,” opens with Solon locked in his closet, having overheard the plan for the terrible death in store for him. Something leaps from the ceiling and “alight[s] softly on the floor. . . . His heart leaps with joy” when he realizes that Zonela has sent Furbelow with a knife. Solon cuts his cords, opens the door, finds Zonela, and peeps through the keyhole at the four drunk and sleeping conspirators. Filomel’s rocking chair gives a sudden lurch, and the black bottle shatters on the floor. The manikins spring to life and begin stabbing the four Gypsies. Maddened and already dying from the poison, the four begin hurling the manikins into the fire; some of the figures escape and set the room ablaze. Solon, Zonela, and the monkey escape, and by morning all that remains of the conspirators and Hippe’s home is “a black network of stone and charred rafters.”
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