Young Archimedes

by Aldous Huxley

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048

The narrator and his wife, a young English couple, rent a house outside of Florence because of its astounding view. When they first consider the property, the landlady, Signora Bondi, seems charming and insists that everything in the house is in perfect working order. Once they move in, however, they discover that the house has many problems. Particularly annoying is a broken pump that makes it impossible to run bathwater. Repeated visits to Signora Bondi’s house bring only the answer that she is “out” or “indisposed.” The couple are thus forced to communicate with her through certified letters. When even these bring no result, they have the landlady served with a legal writ. Grudgingly, Signora Bondi agrees to replace the broken pump.

When the narrator unexpectedly meets Signora Bondi’s husband in town one day, Signor Bondi apologizes profusely. He knew from the beginning, he says, that the pump would need to be replaced; his wife, however, enjoys sparring with the tenants over minor repairs, and he hopes that the couple will forgive them. A short time later, the couple ask to renew their lease for a year, and Signora Bondi increases their rent 25 percent because of the “improvements” that she has made to the property. Only after extended negotiations does she agree to accept only a 15 percent increase.

Even while these problems are continuing, the narrator’s four-year-old son, Robin, develops a close friendship with Guido, the son of a local peasant family. Although Guido is somewhat older than Robin, he displays patience and affection for the boy. As the narrator comes to realize, Guido is exceptionally bright. At times, he falls silent and stares pensively into the distance. Then, just as suddenly, he resumes the game that he is playing with Robin.

Signora Bondi also takes notice of Guido and wishes to adopt him. Guido’s father asks the narrator for advice. He cautions the peasant against making any agreements with Signora Bondi. Her comments about Guido make it clear that she is not interested in the boy himself, but in how she can mold him. For example, she describes how she wants to dress Guido, almost as though he were a pet or doll. The peasant goes away persuaded that he should keep Guido for himself.

Shortly thereafter, the narrator’s gramophone and several boxes of records arrive from England. Although Robin is only interested when his father plays marches or light music, Guido takes an immediate interest in the pieces by composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. From the first, the boy makes a practice of coming to the narrator’s house each afternoon to listen to a short concert during Robin’s nap. Within a few days, Guido selects favorite pieces and shows a remarkable understanding of harmony.

Impressed with Guido’s aptitude for music, the narrator rents a piano and begins to give the boy music lessons. Guido progresses quickly, understanding the structure of canons almost intuitively and finding them easy to write. He is less inventive, however, when it comes to writing other types of music. Reluctantly, the narrator realizes that Guido is not the musical prodigy that he initially appeared to be.

One day the narrator sees Guido explaining to Robin the Pythagorean theorem. On further questioning, Guido reveals that he has not learned the theorem from anyone else, but has discovered it on his own. The beauty that Guido finds in mathematical proofs and the ease with which he learns to compose canons cause the narrator to realize that it is in mathematics, not music, that the boy may be a genius. If Guido is not a young Mozart, he is, in any case, a young Archimedes. The narrator explains that only geniuses such as Guido are “real men” in the world. He notes that most of the ideas taken for granted by humanity were discovered by a few dozen remarkable individuals. In the hope that Guido will grow up to be one of these few extraordinary individuals, the narrator adds lessons in algebra to Guido’s ongoing study of music.

As the summer arrives, Robin’s health begins to suffer from the intense heat of the Italian countryside. On the advice of a doctor, the narrator and his wife take him on an extended trip to Switzerland. After they have been away from Italy for several weeks, they receive a strange letter from Guido, who says that he is living with Signora Bondi and is terribly unhappy because she has taken away his mathematics books. He has lost his interest in playing music, although Signora Bondi forces him to work at the piano for many hours each day. He ends by begging the narrator to return with his family to Italy.

Only on their return to Florence do the narrator and his wife learn what has occurred in their absence. Immediately after they left, Signora Bondi began pressuring Guido’s father to allow her to adopt the boy. When the peasant refused, she threatened to evict him from the land that his family had farmed for generations. Eventually, the peasant acceded to Signora Bondi’s demands. They agreed that Guido would live with the Bondis for several months on a trial basis. Although Guido had no desire to leave his family, he went along with the plan because Signora Bondi promised him that they would go to the seaside, a place where he had never been.

When the Bondis returned to Florence from the coast, Signora Bondi did not tell Guido’s father that they were back in the area. Convinced that Guido would become a musical prodigy only if he applied himself, Signora Bondi compelled him to practice the piano for extended periods each day and took away his other books, calling them “distractions.” When Guido said that he wanted to go home, Signora Bondi told him that his father did not want him anymore. Guido’s father, thinking that the Bondis were still at the seaside, never visited him, so Guido believed that this must be true. In despair, Guido threw himself from a window and was killed. Signora Bondi had the boy buried in the Bondi family tomb. When the narrator returns from Switzerland, he learns that he has arrived too late.

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