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The Moral Prerogative In Oscar Wilde: A Look At the Fairy Tales


ISSUE:  Autumn 1977

A curious strategy common to most studies of Oscar Wilde is the omission of his fairy tales, prose poems, and, more often than not, his criticism. The avoidance of these stories and articles suggests an unwillingness to treat material which is prima facie more serious and more moral than the amoral hedonism, the “studied triviality” so long associated with both Wilde’s life and his art. Even a recent book, Christopher Nassaar’s Into the Demon Universe (1974), characterizes Wilde’s literary art as demonic, or, at best, as an exploration of the latent evil impulses which reside in all of us. Wilde’s consistent indictment of selfishness, his celebration of love, his compassion for suffering—all evident both in well-known and unsung works—rarely receive attention today, just as they did not (for the most part) during Wilde’s lifetime.

To be sure, several scholars have noted a moral intent in Wilde’s art. Holbrook Jackson, Edouard Roditi, George Woodcock, Epifanio San Juan, and Hesketh Pearson, Wilde’s English biographer, at least mention this moral dimension, even if they consider it an anomaly in view of Wilde’s personal habits. But largely critics have emphasized aestheticism, Satanism, decadence, and degeneration in Wilde’s work and have hesitated to allow that the real Oscar, underneath the masks and poses, was a Victorian gentleman who could not altogether escape a Victorian predilection to preach—indeed, to be moralistic.

It is too great a task here to cover Wilde’s entire canon, underscoring all the while the moral argument of individual works. Rather, I would like to review the unheralded fairy tales, and claim that the moral direction so obvious in them is analogous to the morality Wilde espouses throughout his art, from the early poetry to his Epistola to Alfred Douglas (popularly known as De Profundis). Further, some of the tales reflect significant personal tensions regarding art and morality or art appreciation and religious obligation which also appear throughout the range of Wilde’s work. These tensions reveal a critical instinct that goes beyond clever aphorisms and self-indulgent paradoxes. They also illustrate a moral dimension in Wilde that is generally unexamined.

II

Wilde published two collections of tales: The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888 and A House of Pomegranates in 1891. The tales did not create the sensation that the novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890) or the subsequent plays did, although the tales were reviewed favorably by The Saturday Review, The Athenaeum, and the Pall Mall Gazette. Wilde himself said little of the two books, but a passing remark of his about one of the tales could be applied to all of them and to Dorian Gray as well: “The Happy Prince,” he wrote in a letter, “is an attempt to treat a tragic modern problem in a form that aims at delicacy and imaginative treatment; it is a reaction against the purely imitative character of modern art.” The “form” Wilde chooses is fantasy, which he clearly prefers to realism or the “purely imitative character of modern art”: Wilde can treat a tragic problem even in a fairy tale that is unconcerned with sordid details or with a fidelity to everyday occurrences, Wilde also said that the tales were not intended for children.

The tales examine a number of vices and virtues. Most of the tales expose and criticize selfishness and insensitivity. The Selfish Giant will not permit children to play in his beautiful garden. The Star-Child rejects “inferiors” as well as his own mother. The Infanta makes fun of a deformed dwarf who dances for the Infanta’s pleasure on her birthday. Big Hugh the Miller, ironically styled “The Devoted Friend,” hypocritically steals from his neighbor, little Hans. The Young King embraces an unaccustomed life of luxury and lives entirely for pleasure. The Roman Rocket in “The Remarkable Rocket” considers himself inexpressibly superior to lesser fireworks.

In a few of the tales, the main character recognizes his error, is repentant, and achieves something like a state of grace. This process occurs in “The Selfish Giant,” “The Young King,” and “The Star-Child.” In other tales, characters like Big Hugh, the Infanta, and the Remarkable Rocket remain blinded by their conceit and consequently unregenerate. Two of the tales, “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose,” deal with self-sacrifice and love and portray, unlike the other stories, virtues rather than vices. “The Fisherman and His Soul,” the most intricate of the tales, is another treatment of the doppelganger theme in which the body and soul are separated, as they are in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Some of the tales have been labeled “lessons in practical Christianity” by Pearson, but I suspect that Wilde would rather say “imaginative treatment” than Christian lesson, however Christian the moral of a particular tale might be. Indeed, Wilde warns his readers (and himself) against making the moral of the tale too blatant or sententious. At the end of “The Devoted Friend,” when the Waterrat leaves in a huff after hearing the Linnet’s account of Big Hugh’s abuse of little Hans, the Linnet muses;

“I told him a story with a moral.” “Ah! That is always a very dangerous thing to do,” said the Duck. And [the narrator adds] I quite agree with her.

Dangerous or not, Wilde still makes moral affirmations in his fairy tales, perhaps even at the expense of imaginative treatment. Generally, like Aesop’s fables, the tales reveal levels of human folly and wisdom while they also uphold virtuous behavior. Wilde’s tales are not, however, designed to encourage faith or advocate Christianity. Rather, in simple terms, they propose decency and generosity in human relations.

Hence their moral dimension, and hence Wilde’s fear that the moral of the tale intruded, at least potentially, on the art of the tale.

“The Devoted Friend” is not the only example of Wilde’s self-consciousness in the tales.”The Remarkable Rocket” can easily be read as a self-parody, although no one, at least in print, has done so. The Rocket, the ne plus ultra of pyrotechnics, brags of his parentage and superiority before a group of fireworks, He even tries to prove that he can wet his powder and still go off, But alas, he fails to ignite and is summarily thrown into a ditch, where he encounters a frog, a dragon fly, and later a duck, none of whom is impressed by his claims to fiery artifice. He observes, incidentally, that a person of his position is never useful. When two boys toss him into a fire he lights up, shrieks, “What a success I am!” and finally explodes. Unfortunately, no one sees him. He falls, a burnt shaft, upon a goose’s back.”Good heavens! It is going to rain sticks,” says the goose in dismay.”I knew I should create a great sensation,” gasps the Rocket and then goes out.

The Rocket bears a striking resemblance to Wilde, the aesthete, the braggadocio, the sensation of the season, the preeminent artificer, who is aware of his posing and of the unlikelihood of his affecting anyone; and who is also capable of making fun of himself. There are, to be sure, a number of warnings or adumbrations of failure in Wilde’s work dating from the publication of his book of poems in 1881.”The Remarkable Rocket” is by far the most comic of them. Significantly, it comes at the end of the second collection, and because A House of Pomegranates was published when Wilde’s fame (or notoriety) was pronounced, the comparison between the Rocket and Wilde is most inviting,

“The Young King” also seems to refer at least obliquely to Wilde, for the principal character becomes so enamored of artifice he turns his back on human suffering until a dream vision shows him the misery his subjects must endure for his sake. He then forswears his kingly pomp and demonstrates to his subjects the importance of spiritual integrity. It is typical of Wilde to play the instinct of aggrandizement against the instinct of religious sensibility. The narrator of “The Sphinx” (1894), for example, turns in horror from his sexual fantasies to bow before his pallid crucifix, In his own experience, Wilde shuttled regularly between the salon and the cathedral. But in his art if not always in his life, Wilde denigrates materialism while he extols the spiritual realm of human experience and constantly reminds his audience of the importance of the soul.

The tales of sacrifice and love, “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose,” depict characters who give their lives for others, in the former instance for the poor and in the latter for love. The world takes little note of these sacrifices, for it is indifferent if not hostile to selflessness. The Prince and his helper, the Swallow, are nevertheless carried off to heaven as a reward for their efforts.

“The Nightingale and the Rose” closes more bitterly. The Nightingale kills herself by crushing her breast against a thorn so that a rose, nourished by her blood, will grow, and a young student will have a flower to give to the girl he loves. But the girl rejects the rose because it will not go with her dress, and the young man, now spurned by what was once the object of his romantic ardor, sighs, “What a silly thing Love is,” and returns to his dusty studies.

The Nightingale, who sings magnificently as she dies, is clearly the superior artist to the Roman Rocket, whose artistry is only self-serving. The Nightingale may be the image of the artist Wilde would like to aspire to, while the Rocket seems to be the poseur he-fears he might never rise above. Regrettably, unlike the Prince and the Swallow, the Nightingale is not wafted up to heaven or in any way canonized, and so the conclusion of the tale leaves one with the feeling that it was all for naught. Wilde no doubt harbored that fear, too. Perhaps the true artist suffers more than the false one, and though both are vulnerable, the Nightingale’s vulnerability renders her situation tragic, while the Rocket’s is farcical.

III

The most interesting of the tales is “The Fisherman and His Soul.” It is told in a manner reminiscent of the Holy Bible and The Arabian Nights. The language is rich with sensuous imagery, and the episodes of the tale are both mysterious and arcane. The diction is archaic, that is, Elizabethan, and the repetition of words and adventures (things happen thrice, as they do elsewhere in Wilde’s tales and almost generically in folklore) affords the tale a stylized ambience which is less easily penetrated than that of the other tales, especially because of the puzzling richness of detail. Indeed, the story borders on the abstruse, although its moral remains accessible.

In the tale, a young fisherman elicits the help of the netherworld to separate his soul from his body, for he has fallen in love with a mermaid and cannot join her and her Sea-Folk unless he is, like them, soulless. He is forewarned by the local priest, who cautions that the Sea-Folk “are as beasts of the field that know not good from evil.” The priest adds that the “love of the body is vile.” Nevertheless, the fisherman decides to join the beautiful mermaid, and so he goes through a Satanic ritual, cuts his soul from his body, and joins his underwater beauty. The soul, however, is thoroughly distraught. It wanders about for three years gaining wisdom, riches, and an appreciation of sensuality in three separate and highly allegorical adventures; and it returns at the end of each year to tempt the fisherman with its acquisitions. The soul wants to reenter the heart of the fisherman, but none of its temptations proves captivating save the last: a dazzling dancing girl. Since mermaids cannot by nature dance, the fisherman is intrigued and accompanies his soul to see the girl.

During their search, the soul entices the fisherman to steal, to strike a child, and to murder a merchant: the man and his soul are now bound to each other by the commission of evil deeds. But the fisherman experiences terrible remorse over the crimes he commits, and so the soul tempts him to perform good deeds. Anything is preferable so far as the soul is concerned to the fisherman’s returning to the mermaid. But the young man is determined to be with his love once more.

In the meantime, the mermaid dies of loneliness and despair. The fisherman leaps into the sea in a frantic effort to rejoin her, but he is no longer innocent (that is, he now knows both good and evil through experience), and therefore he cannot live underwater. His heart breaks, and at the last moment his soul gains entry into his broken heart. The bodies of the fisherman and the mermaid wash onto the beach and are buried without benefit of clergy in an obscure corner of a field. Eventually, though, much to everyone’s amazement, gorgeous white flowers spring from the unmarked grave. The flowers are displayed upon the local church’s altar, and the priest, learning of their origin, undergoes a radical change of heart. His transformation is recorded in an appropriately biblical fashion:

And in the morning, while it was still dawn, he went forth with the monks and the musicians, and the candlebearers and the swingers of censers, and a great company, and came to the shore of the sea, and blessed the sea, and all the wild things that are in it. The Fauns also he blessed, and the little things that dance in the woodland, and the bright-eyed things that peer through the leaves. All the things in God’s world he blessed, and the people were filled with joy and wonder.

The priest’s sternness has given way to Christian mercy, much as the New Testament, to Christians, fulfills and supersedes the Old. The priest “spake not of the wrath of God, but of the God whose name is Love.”

The story differs from The Picture of Dorian Gray in that the soul brings the body to ruin rather than vice versa, But the common ground between the novel and the tale is the tale’s implication that the body cannot live or exist in a blissful state without the assistance or balance of a soul. Wilde usually held that the body and soul must live in harmony with one another, or, more precisely, that one’s soul is finally the unity of one’s mind and body. In separating himself from his soul the fisherman makes life with the Sea-Folk possible, but he becomes soulless as well as incapable of experiencing sin and repentance. Through his commission of sin and subsequent suffering, he not only regains his soul but God’s mercy as well.

And foremost, the fisherman and the mermaid, through their sacrifice for each other’s love, soften otherwise hard hearts. Love triumphs (albeit in death) despite society’s disapproval. The white flowers that bloom on the couple’s grave signify the innocence of their love while they demonstrate God’s sanction. Though the priest would not forgive the fisherman for joining the mermaid and indulging in “the love of the body,” God celebrates the fisherman’s love by adorning his grave. This act of divine mercy effects a transformation of cold human hearts, and all of God’s world receives a blessing.

IV

A miracle effected by divine compassion is not unique to “The Fisherman and His Soul.” White blossoms cover the Selfish Giant’s dead body after he has been invited by the boy-Christ to accompany the boy to his garden, “which is Paradise.” The poet of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) envisions red and white roses blooming above the unhallowed grave of the executed murderer. Again, the priests (as representatives of institutionalized religion) will not sanctify the grave of a sinner:

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonoured grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.

Perhaps it is not surprising in view of his life style that the Tannhauser motif and the theological concept of afelix culpa had a strong hold on Wilde’s imagination. He once joked that he expected his umbrella to sprout flowers during a visit to St. Peter’s. Perhaps he even sincerely hoped a sign of forgiveness would be shown to him. In any event, some critics have suggested that Wilde’s personal guilt prompted the definition of morality Wilde offers in his confessional Epistola to Douglas: Christ’s “morality is all sympathy, just what morality should be.” But Wilde championed sympathy long before he was incarcerated or involved in any public scandal. The strategy of sin and redemption occurs in several of the tales and in many other pre-Reading Gaol works as well.

Similarly, a movement from harsh judgment to empathetic tolerance characterizes another common strategy in Wilde’s art. At the close of A Woman of No Importance (1893), the puritanical Hester announces that “God’s law is only love.” She too has been transformed; she has abandoned an inflexible moral system. Arthur Goring, the dandy of An Ideal Husband (1895), informs his friend Lady Chiltern that “It is love, and not German philosophy, that is the true explanation for this world, whatever may be the explanation of the next.” Lady Chiltern eventually embraces Goring’s position and “forgives” her errant husband, Sir Robert. Lady Windermere also recognizes the necessity of charity in Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), and love unites the principals of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) in the traditional symbol of worldly harmony: marriage. It is further significant that Salome (1896), Wilde’s most important tragedy, achieves its tragic catharsis through the absence of love and the overwhelming presence of debauchery,

A more complex example of the moral dimensions expressed in several of the fairy tales is Wilde’s famous essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” (1890). Here, in probably his least disguised literary voice, Wilde chastens the rich for their indifference to suffering and their inattentiveness to the spiritual (emotional, aesthetic) spheres of human life.”The Soul of Man” is clearly a moral tract from start to finish. Its criticism of the wealthy and powerful stung many of Wilde’s admirers. Its invitation to selfhood and its advocacy of individualism and aesthetic sensibility evince a strong moral tone designed not only to pique Wilde’s readers but ultimately to improve his country’s attitude toward the downtrodden. And, in juxtaposition with the moral prerogatives found in Wilde’s fiction and drama, the essay can hardly be considered an anomaly. Nor should Wilde’s sentiments be regarded as in-sincere just because Oscar loved absinthe and boys. That is an old and tiresome argument; it deserves shelving.

Illustrations of Wilde’s moral prerogative are indeed manifold, but I promised I would not try to cover everything. Still, I must observe that many critics have done Oscar Wilde a disservice by omitting the abundant evidence of his interest in compassion, generosity, and love. He decried Victorian ethics and intransigent moral positions but not moral truths, truths of the human heart. In an 1882 letter to Charles Godfrey Leland regarding Leland’s son’s education, Wilde indicates the connection between “morals” and art which Wilde could proclaim without hesitation at the age of 28.

. . . a lad who learns any simple art learns honesty, and truth-telling, and simplicity, in the most practical school of simple morals in the world, the school of art, learns too to love nature . . . to be kind to animals and all living things . . . to wonder and worship at God’s works more.

Wilde did not alter his opinion on the subject as he grew older, although he rarely stated it so openly. Instead, he made the connection between art and “simple morals” through his own creative genius while he directly and indirectly formulated a new morality, or, if you will, a new attitude toward 19th-century morality. And he accomplished this end by telling a story with a moral, even if that is a “very dangerous thing to do.”

2 Comments

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nel's picture
nel · 2 years ago


hi, sorry for my english. The explanations in your article was so interesting as some of the tales, specialy the "fisherman and the soul". I will read both again. Thank you.

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Anastazia's picture
Anastazia · 2 months ago

I also feel the same. I just finished reading a collection of his 9 short stories from house of pomegranates, 3 nights ago and I was specially intrigued by the fisherman and his soul. Was Wilde influenced by Andersen for this idea, do you reckon? I just wanted to know why Wilde wrote these stories and how he came up with such beautiful and strange ideas. Its lovely, I love him. I love his work. :-) he was just amazing.

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