"The Birthday of the Infanta" is a historical fiction short story for children by the Irish author Oscar Wilde. It was first published in the 1891 anthology House of Pomegranates, which also includes "The Young King', "The Fisherman and his Soul" and "The Star-Child".
The action of "The Birthday of the Infanta" takes place in Spain at an unspecified point in the past. It is the twelfth birthday of the Infanta, the only daughter, and only child, of the King of Spain. For her entertainment, an ugly young dwarf dancer is brought to the court. The Dwarf is completely unaware of how hideous he looks and does not realize that the reason that others laugh in his presence is because they are mocking his appearance. When the Dwarf sees his own reflection for the first time in his life, the consequences are severe.
The Austrian composer Alexander von Zeminsky adapted the story as the opera Der Zweig (The Dwarf), which was first performed in 1921.
The King of Spain has been a widower for nearly twelve years, the Queen having died shortly after their daughter the Infanta was born. The Queen's death has left the King a deeply melancholy man. He cannot bear to look at his daughter for long because she reminds him too much of her late mother. Consequently, on the day of the Infanta's twelfth birthday, the King withdraws from the celebrations early, leaving the Infanta in the care of her uncle Don Pedro and other courtiers.
The Infanta is very happy on the day of her birthday. Ordinarily, she is only allowed to play with children of her own rank. Since there are no other royal children in the kingdom, this means that she is usually not allowed to play with anyone else. However, on the day of her birthday she is allowed to invite any children she chooses to the palace. A series of entertainments are arranged for the princess and her guests. The first is a mock bullfight, in which the matadors and the bull are played by boys in costumes. This is followed by a puppet show, choir singers, a magician and Gypsy musicians with a performing bear and monkeys.
Everyone agrees that the best performer of all is a young dancing dwarf. The ugly Dwarf has crooked legs, a hunched back and a large head. Some hunting courtiers had come across him only the day before in a forest. His father, a poor charcoal burner who considered the boy to be useless, was happy to sell him to the courtiers. What makes the Dwarf most appealing to the courtiers is the fact that he is completely unaware of how ugly he is. When children laugh at him, he laughs back just as heartily. At the end of the Dwarf's performance, the Infanta throws a white rose at him, imitating how she once saw her aunt reward an Italian opera singer. The princess declares that the Dwarf must dance for her again.
When he is told that the Infanta wants him to dance for her again, coupled with the fact that she has already given him a white rose, the Dwarf concludes that she must love him. He goes out into the garden, jumping for joy. He begins to fantasize about a future life with the Infanta, hoping that he can persuade her to come back to the forest with him where he can teach her nature's secrets. He decides to look for her and goes back inside the palace.
After having passed through several beautiful rooms but having seen no sign of the Infanta, the Dwarf notices a monster at the end of one room. He notices that the monster copies every movement that he makes. He finds that he cannot touch the monster because there is something cold and hard separating him from it. The puzzled Dwarf then notices that everything in the room has a double in the room containing the monster. The horrible realization comes upon the Dwarf that he is looking at his own reflection. He suddenly realizes why other children always laughed in his presence. Understanding that the Infanta does not love him but was mocking him also, he tears the white rose to pieces and falls to the ground sobbing.
The Infanta and her guests come upon the crying Dwarf. They believe that he is merely acting and begin to laugh. The Dwarf gasps, falls silent and becomes still. The princess demands that the Dwarf dance again. Don Pedro threatens to whip him if he does not get up and dance. However, another courtier notices that the Dwarf has died, which he thinks is a pity because the funny Dwarf might have been able to cheer up even the melancholy King. He tells the princess that the Dwarf will never dance again because his heart has broken. To which the Infanta replies, "For the future, let those who come to play with me have no hearts."