My immediate response to these works by Oscar Wilde is that they are charmingly light-hearted, evocative, challenging in content and meaning, and that the Fairy stories, in particular, are a delight to read.
With his fairy stories, Oscar Wilde has fused a traditional literary form with contemporary social issues. His stories use evocative imagery, personified animals and objects and fantastical situations, all in the manner of traditional fairy stories. But Wilde, through both direct and symbolic channels, imbues his works with an acidic bite. Unlike conventional children’s’ stories, his concern themselves with unrequited love, unnoticed death, and social injustice and several of them end unhappily or at least with a bittersweet tinge to their resolutions. Wilde manages to set up and utilise rhythm in his stories through the repetition of actions or motifs, but then breaks with that rhythm to give the reader the unconventional ending. ‘The Devoted Friend’ is a good example of this as it deals with the continued and repeated mis-treatment of an individual and ends with his death. The repetition is broken and we are left jaded and in reflective mood.
Wilde is successful in lampooning the institutions of religion and the class system because his comments on them fit in neatly to the narrative of the stories and the language he uses to express his sentiment is economical. In ‘The Happy Prince’, for example, he says of the town councillors, ‘When I last heard of them they were quarrelling still.’ Language plays a key role in these stories. The biblical language and references to heaven and God dignify Wilde’s project and protect\it from attack. He uses the language of satire and he is very aware of voice and the style of narration he employs. In ‘The Devoted Friend’ the narration is given through a narrator in the story, the Linnet, but we are always aware of Wilde’s own voice, with his quips and asides that are epigrammatic in style. It is in being able to imagine Oscar telling these stories to us personally that gives these works that added edge of delight.
It is fair to say that Wilde was right when he said his fairy stories are for children of all sizes, for the mix of exotic fantasy images, social comment and the pure readability of them, means they can be enjoyed by anyone of any age. One main element that allows us to buy into the fantasy settings and animal characters is that Wilde immediately gives us a position towards the text and maintains this throughout each story. For example, ‘The Selfish Giant’ begins with the line ‘Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden.’ In this line we are taken to the everyday world of the child and perhaps even our own childhood memories are invoked and as we are led directly into imagining this scene, the reference to the giant is entirely acceptable. Subsequently, as the adult reader has bought into the premise, they are then more open to the intentions of the author and the issues he raises.
These stories by Wilde are beautifully written and they concern themselves with images and concepts of beauty. In ‘The Selfish Giant’ the swallow talks of ‘the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal.’ But more than just relaying images of beauty, Wilde offers to us the beauty of human action and sacrifice: ‘the Nightingale made no answer, for she was lying dead in the long grass, with the thorn in her heart.’ The heroes of the stories are imperfect and yet, as a reader, you gain a warm feeling from their actions as they try to do what they feel is right. What is conveyed is an honesty that is far truer to real-life than anything found in Sleeping Beauty and something which draws out the positive from the negative, leaving a sense of hope in the reader’s mind.
In The Decay of Lying Wilde utilises his own techniques of essay writing to good effect. He uses the characters of Vivian and Cyril and the setting to distance himself from the essay, but his own voice still maintains a dominance throughout. He takes this opportunity to speak forthrightly, for example, he openly attacks anything from America and George Washington to Shakespeare and Realism. His caustic wit and comedy is often used in conjunction with these statements: ‘facts are […] excluded on the general grounds of dullness’. We also see several techniques employed in his Fairy stories put into service in his essay, for we are taken to a place of ‘winged lions’ and told of the ‘chilling touch’ of facts. We are also drawn into the text through Cyril as he personifies the reaction of the reader, drawing us personally into the debate. All these techniques serve to maintain the interest of the reader and the charm they create makes us more open to the essay’s issues.
Wilde uses opposing symbols to exemplify the difference between art and nature in The Decay of Lying. The discussion between Vivian and Cyril is given the fictional setting of a library, which in itself contains fiction, or the representation of art. But much of the discussion concerns itself with what lies beyond the threshold of the interior – the outside world, or nature. The reader, if able to remain aware of the setting amid Vivian’s lengthy speech is then aware of the diametrical positioning of the sentiments of the text in relation to its setting. But Wilde also uses irony to good effect in playing with this idea. The lengthy debate is ignited when Cyril, upon entering the library from the terrace, extols the beauty of the day. But despite all that is said about art being superior to nature, the essay concludes with Vivian and Cyril departing from the interior world to enjoy the outside world. This irony of Wilde’s reflects the light-heartedness of his reasoning and puts into question Wilde’s volition in what he has conveyed. I really enjoyed this playfulness as it added a dynamic to the text in retrospect.
In the seminar we discussed some of the broader ideas of Wilde’s The Decay of Lying. We questioned the validity of ‘lying’ and the maxim that art is superior to nature. On one side we considered Plato’s The Republic, which conveys a fantasy utopia from which poets are excluded for their untruthfulness. But, in Wilde’s terms, ‘lying’ is merely another way of saying imagination. A place without poets and without art would, therefore, be a place devoid of imagination and creativity. What a thought! Wilde justifies the place of art by saying ‘Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life’ and gives a somewhat rudimentary example of how life imitates art in the story of the boy burglars. In discussion, we came up with modern examples of life imitating art: copy-cat crimes, fashion and musical tastes, and, of course, the ‘Free Deirdre Rachid Campaign’, a la Coronation Street.
This week’s writing exercise was to write a fairy story, or part of a fairy story, using themes and stylistic devices which seemed to me to be characteristically Wildean. First, I thought about what my fairy story might be about. I decided that I would utilise the device of the bird that Wilde had used in several of his stories. The bird would act as a guide through the narrative. Deciding upon a central theme for the story was easy, as two of Wilde’s main textual ideas is prejudice and acceptance.
My story, using the characters of two mice, deals with the possibility of and social/religious barriers surrounding the concept of gay marriage. Using my reading and seminar notes I identified key themes, such as religion, exoticism, social commentary etc. and tried my best to incorporate as many of them as I could into and around the narrative. When writing the story I applied what I believe to be a hybrid of Wilde’s wit and my own. So, the process, for me, was a simple and enjoyable one, and I am very pleased with the finished piece.
The Happy Princeby Oscar Wilde
Animation by Benny Guitar Carr
The Happy Prince, a short story by the infamous Victorian writer Oscar Wilde.
It tells the tale of an ornately decorated statue who is saddened by the poverty around him and so he asks his only friend, a little sparrow, to take his jewels to those in need.
When the Happy Prince has given all he has, and is no longer so beautiful, the rich men of the city meet to decide his fate.
The story was first told by Wilde, in 1885, to a group of friends in Cambridge. It wasnt until 1888 that it was published as part of a collection of Wildes fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Stories. Wilde described the book as being meant partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy.
High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.
He was very much admired indeed. "He is as beautiful as a weathercock," remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes; "only not quite so useful," he added, fearing lest
people should think him unpractical, which he really was not.
"Why can't you be like the Happy Prince?" asked a sensible mother of her little boy who was crying for the moon. "The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything."
"I am glad there is some one in the world who is quite happy," muttered a disappointed man as he gazed at the wonderful statue.
"He looks just like an angel," said the Charity Children as they came out of the cathedral in their bright scarlet cloaks and their clean white pinafores.
"How do you know?" said the Mathematical Master, "you have never seen one."
"Ah! but we have, in our dreams," answered the children; and the Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve of children dreaming.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince. NARRATOR: Once upon a time, high above the city stood a beautiful statue of a prince, clad in gold, with two sapphires for eyes and a bright ruby on his sword. Saddened by the poverty around him, he asks his only friend, a little swallow, to take his jewels to those in need. When the happy prince has given all he has, and is left blind and ugly, the rich men of the city meet to decide his fate.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Now, I'm looking for the courageous, hard-hearted person that says they were unaffected by The Happy Prince. Julia, tell us why you loved this.
JULIA BAIRD: Not me. Look, it's just such a moving tale. I think the thing about Oscar Wilde is we remember him for his epigrams and his wittiness and 'Nothing to declare but my genius' for the scandalous trial. And, yeah, he's kind of a big softie and he writes about these grand themes of friendship and sacrifice and they're not pretty endings. And I think that's why I've always remembered this being read as a child, because it's deeply sad and beautiful at the same time.
JENNIFER BYRNE: It was read to you as a child? It doesn't seem to me much of a kids' fable.
JULIA BAIRD: But it's part of the whole Grimm tradition. There's another one of his books, of his stories, what, is it The Star-Child? It's this whole trajectory about this journey of a child, and at the end he becomes king and the everything is wonderful, but he died three years later, then there was an evil king. That's the last sentence. It's like, 'Oh!'
JASON STEGER: Fairytales are never supposed to have happy endings.
JULIA BAIRD: Quite. Disney ruined it.
JASON STEGER: They're all grim. Literally.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Do you think it's a fable? Is it a fairytale? Is it a moral tale?
JON RONSON: It's a morality tale. I was kind of unmoved. I didn't care whether the swallow and the prince were happy or not. I just didn't care.
MARIEKE HARDY: Jon, you brute!
JON RONSON: I just didn't care. I read it twice. After the first time, I thought I've got to give it another... I was left unmoved. Especially because, did you notice the casual anti-Semitism in there? The little swallow.
JULIA BAIRD: That's interesting.
JON RONSON: I watched the cartoon of it, and they didn't have this bit. The little swallow, who's learning all about kindness, is distributing the emeralds to this and that, and, at one point, the swallow flies over some Jews who go like that. And I thought, 'Jesus!'
JENNIFER BYRNE: They were in a counting house, aren't they? Bargaining or something.
JON RONSON: Yeah, yeah. I know it was a different time, but still, it's like, 'Jesus'. If the happy prince and the swallow are that nice, they wouldn't have hated Jews so much.
JON RONSON: Hated the Jews, that swallow. I think that's probably why I was left unmoved.
JENNIFER BYRNE: You thought, what, hypocritical swallow?
JON RONSON: Yeah, well, just an anti-Semitic swallow. I'm very watchful for anti-Semitic birds.
MARIEKE HARDY: I liked it very much. It's not my favourite story in the book. The Nightingale And The Rose to me is more shocking, saddening, beautiful, piercing. I had friends that did The Nightingale And The Rose as a puppet show for children. And I cried so hard, some of the children had to leave. It wasn't, 'I'm in a theatre and having a little cry.' I was racked with sobs and passing tissues and it completely broke my spirit. These poor children were being taken from the room with shielded eyes and ushered out. So that story still has that effect on me.
JULIA BAIRD: But it's of sacrifice - it's a similar idea in that.
MARIEKE HARDY: It's painful. It is, so yeah.
JASON STEGER: I see it as a question of sacrifice and this question of value as well. And I still can't read it without tearing up at the end. When I was reading it, I used to read it to my kids and I'd get to the last couple of paragraphs and Gabriel.
MARIEKE HARDY: 'Dad's crying again.'
JASON STEGER: 'Dad! You're crying!'
MARIEKE HARDY: I love how he first started off telling this to people at parties. No-one would invite Oscar Wilde to parties anymore. 'Everyone, I've got a story. Let's all have some wine. And then everyone died.' It's actually quite gloomy, and that's how it started off - he was telling them. But I guess it does bring to life, you know, the thing about the Marx Brothers touring all their shows before they made them into films, so they knew where to pause. If he was telling these as stories in mixed company and then writing them down, I think he does know. He knows his audience. He knows the moments to pull his audience.
JON RONSON: That's what David Sedaris does.
MARIEKE HARDY: Yeah.
JON RONSON: He writes a story, then he reads it out and works out which bits are playing well, which are dragging, then rewrites it. It's a good way to do it.
MARIEKE HARDY: It is good, isn't it?
JULIA BAIRD: I think Wilde was also reading these to his two sons as well. You kind of also forget that he had sons that he was writing stories for.
JASON STEGER: I can remember being read it, and I loved it.
MARIEKE HARDY: That explains a lot. Your dark heart.
JASON STEGER: Lead heart, yes.
JENNIFER BYRNE: It's still got the feeling of Oscar Wilde. Every now and then, he just sneaks in something which is clearly not for the children, like when the swallow complains that the Reed, who he falls in love with for a while, 'She had no conversation.'
JON RONSON: 'She was rooted to the ground.'
JULIA BAIRD: And she bent with every wind.
JASON STEGER: She curtseys the wind.
JULIA BAIRD: Curtseys, right.
JASON STEGER: It's very witty.
JULIA BAIRD: Loved her narrow waist, though.
JENNIFER BYRNE: He did love her narrow waist. And the master of mathematics, who, when he heard his students had been dreaming of angels, and Wilde notes 'He did not approve of children dreaming. Not at all.' So it is still quite Wildean.
JULIA BAIRD: Yes.
MARIEKE HARDY: It sometimes does stories a disservice to pick them apart. I know that's what we're doing. But it's about kindness and happiness, and I think to look further does the story a...
JULIA BAIRD: It's also about seeing suffering and responding to it. I think that is what you really think as a child, that no-one would ever not respond to someone else's suffering if they knew they were in pain. If they knew they needed bread or shelter or anything. Or if you had something that might make their life better.
MARIEKE HARDY: That your life is enriched by doing so.
JULIA BAIRD: Yes, and the sparrow came back and his heart was warm and the statue says, 'Because you've done a good thing for someone.' There's something in the childish sensibility that really reacts to that.
JASON STEGER: So we should be giving this to all the politicians in the world.
JON RONSON: There's a strange connection with A Visit To The Goon Squad, 'cause in both books, people get pleasure from gold leaf.
MARIEKE HARDY: Yeah!
JON RONSON: In A Visit To The Goon Squad, Bennie Salazar flakes gold into his coffee as an aphrodisiac.
JENNIFER BYRNE: To keep him young.
JON RONSON: To keep him young. And in The Little Prince, the swallow strips off the gold and hands it out to the people because stupid people think gold will make them happy.
MARIEKE HARDY: It does make them very pink in the cheeks.
JULIA BAIRD: That's right.
MARIEKE HARDY: Yeah.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Yeah! I just want to have a look. Is this your old one? Is this it?
JASON STEGER: Yeah.
MARIEKE HARDY: The one you were read?
JASON STEGER: Yeah. I got it for my birthday in 1962.
MARIEKE HARDY: Aw!
JASON STEGER: It's even got my name.
JENNIFER BYRNE: Oh! He's written in it!
MARIEKE HARDY: Oh! 'Jason Steger.' You spelt your name right.
JENNIFER BYRNE: It's got his six-year-old writing. Oh, that's so sweet!
MARIEKE HARDY: He did that before the show to make it look authentic. That's his actual handwriting now.
JENNIFER BYRNE: The Happy Prince, and because it's so tiny, it always comes with other wild fables, and so you get, you know, five for one, including The Nightingale And The Rose.
That is our club for another month. It's a big thank you to tonight's Book Clubbers. Won't you please thank Jon, Marieke, Jason and Julia.
I love this story, and The Selfish Giant. It's great to see them crop up for discussion, because I thought these fairy tales were becoming lost to this generation. I use them in my English classes whenever I have the opportunity. The themes of what is truly valuable and of sacrifice are timeless.
17 Feb 2012 9:33:34pm
I had never read this, or had this read to me as a kid, so it was such a pleasure for this recommendation.
The story was gorgeous, just pure children story-telling. And there were enough sly adult-related nods and Wildean epigrams to delight any reader.
The description of the swallow noting a group of Jews counting money in a drak alley (or something along those lines) was one such example. Let's not get too PC here - the story was written in the 19th century, and whether it's either pre- or post-WWII, everyone can appreciate the wit without being put on the back-foot.
I also read the other stories of this collection too, and I would recommend The Selfish Giant as the best of the lot. A very simple story that opens up into religious considerations at the end.
15 Nov 2011 9:42:58am
The happy prince is like a rich religious org. who collect tonnes of gold, and use the gold to buy limos and lands. instead of charity, but changes, i guess.
06 Nov 2011 5:07:19pm
>> write a review
Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a noted surgeon and eye specialist. His mother Lady Jane Wilde was an Irish nationalist, poet, journalist and women rights activist.
Wilde studied Classics at Trinity College in Dublin, and then in 1874 won a scholarship to study at Magdalen College, Oxford. Whilst at university Wilde was greatly influenced by the ideas of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, both prominent English academics based at Oxford who were figureheads of the aesthetic movement. Wilde became an acolyte of the movement that valued art for arts sake, beauty and pleasure above all else.
Wilde was a very good student, whilst at university he obtained a double first in Classics. He also won the Newdigate Prize for a poem he submitted Ravenna.
After university Wilde moved to London and began to immerse himself in London society and literary scene. He developed a reputation for his wit, flamboyant dress sense and writing skill. He became a journalist, and eventually an editor for a society womens magazine called The Womens World. In 1881 his first poetry collection, aptly titled Poems was published. In 1882 he embarked on a lecture tour of America. On his arrival in the United States he is famous for stating to the New York customs official I have nothing to declare except my genius.
In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, they soon had two sons Cyril and Vyvyan. Some claim The Happy Prince was written for his sons, but at the time the collection of stories were published in 1888 they were only two and three years old.
Throughout the late 1880s Wilde continued to write essays on art and aestheticism, political essays, short stories, poems and plays. His only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1891.
Wildes fame as a wit and sharp observer of late-Victorian society grew with the release of several popular comedic plays including Lady Windermeres Fan (1892) and his most famous The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). His dramatic play Salome (1891), which was originally written in French, and was first performed in Paris in 1896. Deemed too scandalous for the British public, the play was refused a license to be performed in England.
It was around 1887 that Wilde began to have extended affairs with men. His most significant and infamous homosexual relationship was with Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglass father the Marquis of Queensbury disapproved of his sons relationship with Wilde. Queensbury eventually publicly insulted Wilde, leaving a note at his club that said For Oscar Wilde posing Sodomite. This prompted Wilde to sue Queensberry for libel resulting in a trial and the eventual prosecution of Wilde for homosexual offences, for which he was imprisoned for two years with hard labour. His imprisonment, from 1895 til 1897, left Wilde financially, socially and physically weakened.
Upon his release from prison Wilde lived in poverty in Paris. He also lived briefly in Naples, reunited with Alfred Douglas for a short time. It was in France that Wilde wrote his most famous poem about his time in prison, the Ballad of Reading Gaol. The letters he wrote to Alfred Douglas in prison were published as De Profundis in 1905.
Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900. Several days before his death his was visited by a Catholic priest who baptised him. Wildes tomb is in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the epitaph on the tomb is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.