Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099

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Doubleness in “The Wondersmith” is not simply the enabling mechanism of the plot; it also characterizes the story’s overall conception. From the outset, there is an insistence on the underside of the ordinary world. The unattractive environment in which the story is set deftly emphasizes the opposite of metropolitan zest, stimulus, and enterprise. It is in this environment that the story’s socially marginal characters ply their quaint but menacing trades and plot their revenge on the conventional world of Christmastime and stable family life. The commitment of Hippe and his underlings to instability evidently derives from the tradition of unsettlement and dispossession that their classification as Gypsies and bohemians connotes. Hippe’s scheme seems mindless in its cruelty, and he behaves throughout the story with a demented confidence in his own powers. Nevertheless, there is method in his madness. The scheme’s irrational component is its vengeful intolerance of innocence. However, its attack on innocence is located in an exploitation of material reality: Innocence is destroyed through the subversion of toys purchased for the holiday season. The slaughter of the innocents, as conceived by Hippe, certainly out-Herods Herod, but it is to be carried out by making normally dependable and trustworthy playthings duplicitous.

Hippe’s murderous anti-Christian designs are precisely counterbalanced or doubled by Solon’s loving spirit and capacity for suffering. The Wondersmith’s extraordinary artistic talent is negated by the simple integrity of the deformed bookseller. Fascination with Hippe’s malevolence is obliged to yield to appreciation for the hunchback’s morally upright stance. The author makes it perfectly clear that Solon is more significant for his moral courage, which his behavior unequivocally exemplifies, than for being a poet, a facet of his personality for which no direct evidence is supplied. Those whom Hippe seeks to punish, represented by the innocent and exploited Zonela, are ultimately delivered from degradation by Solon’s selfless intervention. As the climax of the story makes clear, deliverance is an end in itself.

The story’s double plot assists in establishing its conflict and lends distinctive color and atmosphere to it. “The Wondersmith” may be essentially a retelling, or translation to a New World setting, of standard folktale motifs or dualities such as the struggle between purity and danger, between the beauty and the beast, between artifice and honesty. However, these general, or even stereotypical, considerations are located firmly within the story’s specific context and emerge freshly as a result of the author’s strong sense of character.

To add depth to the darkness of Hippe’s evil mind, O’Brien gives the story a racial dimension. The Wondersmith’s obscure origins (he is “one whose lineage makes Pharaoh modern”) and his evident chieftainship of an international cabal embody convincingly a sense of otherness and threat. In addition, his access to ancient Gypsy lore and the dukedom with which his intimates invest him make a consistent contribution to a sense of his character’s essential foreignness. Drawing, perhaps, on popular superstitions that regard Gypsies as a lost tribe, the descendants of a dispossessed royal house whose ancient rites and usages they now deploy as secret weapons of revenge, O’Brien presents a comprehensive inventory of resources resistant to reason. Supporting the revenge motif is the background to Zonela’s captivity, which, interestingly, is Hippe’s method of confronting a legitimate “Hungarian nobleman.” Moreover, the combination of materials pertaining to foreignness and the nocturnal side of the world enables the author to make an obvious, but nevertheless deft, connection between Romany and romance. In this regard, Solon is not given specific cultural or national origins: His is the spirit of unadulterated beneficence.

While the struggle between Solon and Hippe is for possession of Zonela, a battle between science and poetry is also enacted (and in view of the destructively martial nature of Hippe’s carvings, battle does not seem too strong a term). Solon, a poet and reader of books, has learned to interpret the promptings of his heart. His use of a story to declare his interest in Zonela demonstrates what a valuable basis for behavior texts can be. Hippe, on the other hand, uses models and inventions of a more material kind for ends that are a terrifying inversion of Solon’s salvific objectives. Hippe’s aim is to change the world. Solon, on the other hand, simply wants to make it adequate. The resolution of the conflict, however, does not merely depend on the admirable nature of Solon’s personality. Hippe’s destruction results from a natural cause, an accident, a species of event that belongs to the ordinary world—which is where Solon desires to take up his natural, rightful place.

Solon’s implicit response to Hippe’s planned vengeance is to elicit the support of the animal kingdom. In a world controlled, however temporarily, by subversive and malevolent human beings, animals are a last hope, as Solon’s rescue by the monkey Furbelow suggests. Prior to this event, the story has already given an unnervingly vivid demonstration of Hippe’s powers in the attack on the birds. This episode, as well as confirming the important relationship between the animal, the natural, and Solon, also enacts the murder of song, an occurrence that is paralleled by the captivity of Solon the poet. An attack on nature is tantamount to the elimination of a beautiful attribute that is the natural creature’s singular attribute. Nature, for which innocence seems to be a synonym, is vulnerable because it is not duplicitous. Careful to dispel any suspicion of a schematic approach to animal symbolism in the story, O’Brien emphasizes that nature, too, can be cruel and devious by associating Hippe with a serpent. Not only does this association give the Wondersmith a suitably repellent appearance, but also it suggests a familiar link between temptation and destructive knowledge.

The story’s invocation of that link facilitates a subtextual consideration on the uses and abuses of knowledge. Hippe’s secret lore is capable of imparting poisonous, malevolent life to his artistic creations. He is not, therefore, using knowledge for its own sake, but for the sake of power. Not content to earn his bread by the socially sanctioned use of his talents as a carver, he makes his natural creative ability the vehicle of his blind, destructive urges. His carved models should be a natural source of childish joy. Imbued by the Wondersmith’s malevolence, however, they become terroristic automatons. The Wondersmith, thereby, reveals his true, or at least alternative, identity as the horror-monger and reveals O’Brien’s themes.