Analysis of Dylan Thomas’s The Burning Baby

Entered in the “red notebook” (a notebook containing drafts of 9 stories) and dated September 1934, “The Burning Baby” was published in Contemporary Poetry and Prose in May 1936. The story is characteristic of Thomas’s early prose work with its surreal and poetic imagery, its obsession with the sexual and the pagan, and its inclusion of elements of Welsh folklore such as Druids and changelings. Thomas got the idea for his story while on a visit to Aberystwyth in 1934 to meet the Anglo-Welsh writer Caradoc Evans. Another writer Glyn Jones, told him the story of the Welsh doctor William Price of Llantrisant (1800– 1893), an intellectual and druidic figure who sang pagan addresses to the Moon and named his muchloved illegitimate son Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ), because he believed him destined to recover the lost secrets of the druids. When the son died at the age of five years, Price burned the body on a hill in Caerlan fields, chanting wild laments. Price’s successful defense of himself at a subsequent trial made cremation legal in Britain.

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This plotline underwent considerable changes in Thomas’s treatment of his material. Clearly influenced by Caradoc Evans, the story mocks religious hypocrisy in its grotesque portraiture of a lecherous and incestuous minister, called Rhys Rhys, who impregnates his own ugly daughter—“her hair smelt of mice, her teeth came over her lip, and the lids of her eyes were red and wet” (23)—and burns the fruit of their incest, a newborn baby, alive. The story begins with echoes of Old Testament language: “They said that Rhys was burning his baby when a gorse bush broke into fire on the summit of the hill. The bush, burning merrily, assumed to them the sad white features and the rickety limbs of the vicar’s burning baby” (22). Rhys Rhys, who falls in love with his daughter “on a fine Sabbath morning in the middle of summer” (22), is morbidly obsessed with the sinfulness of the flesh. On the same day he has touched his own daughter’s body for the first time, he preaches in church: “That night he preached of the sins of the flesh. O God in the image of our flesh, he prayed. His daughter sat in the front pew, and stroked her arm” (23). Thomas effectively satirizes and attacks here the guilt-ridden perversity ascribed to the Nonconformist clergy. The highly dramatic and apocalyptic scene of the immolation of the child again shows the vicar’s horror at the corruption of (his own) flesh: “Burn, child, poor flesh, mean flesh, flesh, flesh, sick sorry flesh, flesh of the foul womb, burn back to dust, he prayed” (27f).

The gothic character of the story is further enhanced by the vicar’s eldest son, a changeling and idiot with green hair and tuberculosis who has had strange sexual adventures, for his sister “was to him as ugly as the sowfaced woman Llareggub who had taught him the terrors of the flesh. He remembered the advances of that unlovely woman” (25). This is the first appearance of the name Llareggub (“Bugger all” spelled backwards), which was to reappear in Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood. This boy carries a dead, bleeding rabbit throughout the story, which serves to release feelings of cruelty and perverse emotion; he howls with the wind and in a “sanatorium he coughed his lungs into a basin, stirring his fingers delightedly into the blood.” Morbid horror, disease, sexual obsession, and disgust create a horror tale that combines cruelty, madness, and incest into a surreal, nightmarish story.

Written shortly before Thomas’s 20th birthday, “The Burning Baby” shows a solipsistic adolescent preoccupation with the ugly underside of sexuality, with insanity, violence, evil, sin, and redemption, as well as with the sinister connection among religion, sexuality, and death. Symbolist, surrealist, and gothic elements of Welsh folklore are intermingled in a kind of lyrical prose that presents reality as a phantasmagoria of images and perceptions, giving Thomas’s language intense sensual power, though perhaps less subtlety. This style is typical of Thomas’s early stories, which “explored the relation between immediate reality and archetypal symbols” (Vernon Watkins, quoted in Ackerman, 93). In 1938, after a three-year pause in the composition of prose, Thomas suddenly began writing in a totally different vein with “The Peaches,” drawing a clear line between his poetry and his prose.

Ackerman, John. Dylan Thomas. London: Macmillan, 1996.
Thomas, Dylan. Early Prose Writings. Edited and with an introduction by Walford Davies. London: Dent, 1971.
Peach, Linden, The Prose Writing of Dylan Thomas. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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