"No two people are alike," is an axiom generally accepted in our society. Whether differences of attitude and outlook between people lie in genetic combinations or in the social experiences of each individual is a topic for debate. Thomas Mann's "The Child Prodigy" effectively explores differences of perspective among a group of individuals all of whom are experiencing the same phenomena. How each interprets that experience brings out his/her unique persepctive. One thing all people have in common, however, is an urge to present themselves to others in a way that improves upon their own image of themselves. Self-image (our understanding of who we are) often differs greatly from persona (what we want others to see). We need others to esteem us, more than we esteem ourselves.
"The Child Prodigy" centers around a child who is said to be seven, is really eight, and looks to be nine years old. This child composes music and plays it on the piano for audiences who are stunned and impressed by his giftedness at such a young (though disputed) age. The conflict lies between the persona each characters presents and who each character really is inside. The little composer/pianist, for example, has learned how to please the audience, to appear innocent, and to make "shy, charming" gestures that suggest he and the audience are friends. In his heart, however, he despises the audience and has no respect for them. The distance is illustrated by his thoughts about the audience as it applauds his first selection. "Now I will play the fantasy. It is a lot better than Le Hibou, of course, especially the C- sharp passage. But you idiots dote on the Hibou, though it is the first and the silliest thing I wrote.' He continued to bow and smile." This theme plays out in all the characters and will be the focus of this paper.
When the story opens, the audience has already absorbed much publicity about the little genius, Bibi. They are receptive and ready to be "wowed" by his accomplishments. And they are not disappointed because "Ah, the knowing little creature understood how to make people clap!" Bibi has been well taught. "Bibi made his face for the audience because he was aware that he had to entertain them a little," and later " ... he cast his eyes up prettily at the ceiling so that at least they might have something to look at."
As the performance progresses and Bibi plays his compositions, the reader tunes in on the thoughts of various individuals in the audience. Some of them admire the child, while others see the "show" as a carefully thought-out illusion, created by the impressario. At the end of the story the reader sees these same characters as the interact with each other and in a sense "show their true colors." Thus, the conflict between how people want to be perceived and how they actually are inside gets replayed in how they treat those who know them well vs. The impression they wish to make for those who are seeing them for the first time.
For example, Bibi's very name implies he will forever be childlike. The name Bibi sounds like babytalk, as though the child named himself Baby before he could speak clearly, and the people around him took it up and called him Bibi, too. Indeed, his value lies in being a child and not an adult. He is gifted although not on the genius-level of a little Mozart who could score his own symphonic music at age 6 -- whereas Bibi "could not score them, of course, but he had them all in his extraordinary little head and they possessed real artistic significance, or so it said, seriously and objectively, in the programme." The artistic significance of Bibi's compositions comes into doubt, though, once we learn the impressario claimed it rather than someone who stood to gain nothing. Nevertheless, Bibi does truly love music and secretly allows music to transport him into states of bliss. Every time he faces the piano, it's a new and exciting adventure "where he might let himself be borne and carried away, where he might go under in night and storm, yet keep the mastery ... " This internal experience of surrender to music and transportation to other realms seems very adult. Bibi "sometimes had moments of oblivion and solitude, when the gaze of his strange little mouselike eyes with the big rings beneath them would lose itself and stare through the painted stage into space that was peopled with strange vague life." Bibi is much more adult inside than he appears on the outside. So is his secret attitude toward the audience. Bibi is a complex character because despite the knowing little person inside, Bibi believes he is uniquely different from others. He sees himself "elect and alone, above that confused sea of faces, above the heavy, insensitive mass soul, upon which he [labors] to work with his individual, differentiated soul." Of all the characters in the story, perhaps Bibi is the only one who doesn't realize yet that no two people are alike.
Unlike Bibi, the reader meets the impressario "in the flesh" only once in the story, and never gets to enter his thought or hear him talk to himself. We only get to see him through the other characters' eyes. Long before we meet him, we learn he is a clever showman who knows all the tricks of the trade. Only he knows Bibi's real name, for example, and keeps it a secret because the babyish name is more profitable than an adult name, which might not attract interest so effectively. He also knows how to create the impression that the child is a great artist and writes about Bibi in the style of an objective critic who "wrested these concessions from his critical nature after a hard struggle." He presents himself as a person of wealth and culture by wearing "large gold buttons on his conspicuous cuffs." The critic notes that the affection the impressario displays for Bibi is part of the show, designed to trigger a frenzy of emotion.
Of Bibi's mother we know little except that she is extremely well fed and perhaps a bit silly with "a powdered double chin and a feather on her head." Like the impressario, we do not know what she thinks or says to herself. She dresses in a manner that makes other people see her as the wife of a rich man (although she is really the mother of a rich child). Bibi is attached to her, though, and goes right to her after his performance. Perhaps, he willingly supports her because she loves him. We don't know. Maybe he simply represents a "gravy train," and like the impressario, she exploits him.
The princess is a royal person who behaves exactly as expected of royalty. She is restrained and ladylike, very conscious of her position. This princess values "sensibility" and supports the arts. Although she is old and shriveled, she has a royal image to maintain. "She sat in a deep, velvet upholstered arm chair, and a Persian carpet was spread before her feet ... And presented a picture of elegant composure ... " Although royal, she enjoys Bibi's performance as much as the rest of the audience. "Even the princess shared in the applause, daintily and noiselessly pressing her palms together." Perhaps it is not considered appropriate for royalty to clap loudly. Towards the end of the story the princess wants to meet Bibi. She asks him how he gets ideas for musical compositions and then guesses his response. "Does it come into your head of itself when you sit down?" Although Bibi politely agrees, he secretly thinks, "Oh, what a stupid old princess." The princess may be stupid; we don't really know for sure, but we do know she is obedient to rules of appearance.
Her lady-in-waiting is also obedient and maintains appearances appropriate to her station. Because she has less status than the princess, she cannot relax but must remain seated in an upright, alert manner. When she goes to get Bibi so the princess can meet him, she "smoothed down his silk jacket a bit to make it look suitable for a court function, led him by the arm to the princess, and solemnly indicated to him that he was to kiss the royal hand." She is very concerned with outward appearances, and what she thinks about her social inferiority is well hidden.
The critic, who views the performance in order to write about it, considers himself a clear-sighted judge of character. His judgements are without kindness and he harbors no thoughts of love for his fellow man. By the nature of his opinions about the child as an artist, it appears that he sees himself in Bibi. "He sat in…