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  • "'For the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts':The Affect of Pity in Oscar Wilde's 'The Birthday of the Infanta'"
  • Chris Foss (bio)

Oscar Wilde once famously (though perhaps only reputedly) remarked, "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing" (qtd. in Ellmann 441). This quip takes for its target a true touchstone of Victorian sentimentality, the tragic turn of events at the end of Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) when Daniel Quilp, a remarkably ugly and unsympathetic dwarf, hounds Nell Trent, a very beautiful and sweet thirteen-year-old girl, to her grave. Intriguingly, Wilde's superb fairy tale "The Birthday of the Infanta" features a remarkably ugly but sympathetic dwarf who hastens the death of a very beautiful but cruel twelve-year-old girl (the Infanta). Whether or not Wilde ever did serve up the sentimentality of his era with such a wonderful witticism (so equally playful and caustic), a critical articulation of Wilde with Dickens, the two writers whose rise and fall stand as such notable bookends to Victorian literary history, offers a generative lens through which to read "The Birthday of the Infanta," and hopefully a means of encouraging further explorations of Wilde's relationship to disability and freakery in any number of his.1

In fact, Wilde's "The Birthday of the Infanta" serves as an especially compelling example of a dis/enabling narrative that simultaneously offers insight into both disabling narrative conventions and enabling counter-narratives involving the representation of disability and/or freakery. A disability [End Page 337] studies approach to this work reveals several cruxes, none necessarily resolvable, but each crucial considerations for work on the intersection of disability studies, narrative theory, and nineteenth-century literature. Wilde here invites readers to interrogate the blurred boundaries between such binaries as beautiful/ugly, good/evil, and normal/abnormal; he also forces readers to face their own uneasiness surrounding disability and sexuality. Above all, though, he foregrounds the constructed nature of bodily spectacle in literature, and the dialectic of enjoyment and exploitation it enacts. Not only does Wilde's fairy tale manifest apparent self-consciousness regarding the emotional manipulation that many disabling narratives employ (particularly those with designs on the reader's pity), but it further encourages readers to acknowledge that manipulation—confronting not just the writer's role in creating an affect of pity, but also their own implication in the acceptance of disabled characters' pain, upon which so much of the emotional impact depends.

Much has been written on Victorian freakery in general, and Dickens is a writer to whom many disability-studies scholars have turned during the field's initial forays into nineteenth-century British literature, yet there have been no substantial explorations of Wilde's works from this important perspective.2 While it is true that the possibility for such an approach is not particularly apparent in his popular plays, disability/freakery maintains a significant presence across both volumes of his fairy tales (the genre with which he scored his first critical success as a creative writer) and, furthermore, actually serves in those narratives as a crucial component to his aesthetic choices and to the sociopolitical agenda inextricably intertwined with them. Scant scholarly attention has been directed toward "The Birthday of the Infanta" in particular; arguably, the only substantial critical study of this story to date is a chapter in Jarlath Killeen's The Fairy Tales,3 which analyzes dwarfism in relation to Wilde's Irish heritage with little relation to disability studies.

Consequently, the close reading of "The Birthday of the Infanta" in this essay will build on two applications of disability studies to Dickens instead of Wilde, one by Martha Stoddard Holmes, the other by Lillian Craton. As the former has observed of Dickens's most famous diminutive disabled character, Tiny Tim, the "connection between emotion and impairment" is longstanding; in the case of A Christmas Carol, "The emotional landscape of Tim's disability—what the characters feel, and what we [End Page 338] feel in response—tends to obscure other questions we might have about it" (Fictions 2–3). Seeing...


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