Wed. September 26
A Child’s Garden of Sacrifice
Oscar Wilde’s life has the shape of a morality play, but the moral keeps getting rewritten. He’s been a symbol of poisonous decadence and a gay martyr, an icon of vice rightly punished and a scapegoat in a tale whose real villain was Victorian repression. But the final act of Wilde’s life was conversion to the Catholic Church, the femme fatale with whom he’d flirted on and off throughout his adult life. And he may eventually, in yet another overturning of the many myths of Oscar Wilde, gain the reputation he deserves as one of the greatest Christian children’s authors in the English language.
Wilde wrote two books of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and The House of Pomegranates. These can be found with some of his other writing, including the delightful tale “The Canterville Ghost” and the obsessive, acidic story of “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” in collections of his short fiction. The stories in The Happy Prince are better-known, and rightly: The later tales tend toward sentimentality, and while some children will find their extra-luxe descriptions of jewels and clothes mysterious and enchanting, I confess that as an adult I find them over-egged and syrupy.
The stories in The Happy Prince, by contrast, are basically perfect. Wilde’s worldview is completely consistent throughout. Selfless love and sacrifice are the only proper responses to a world full of want, inequality, and suffering. Self-centered people are the great villains. Social norms mostly get morality wrong—the ugly outcast usually has a moral beauty which goes unrecognized until the end of the tale, when the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone.
Sometimes the story has a certain lightly-worn cynicism, as in the tale of “The Devoted Friend” who allows himself to be cruelly exploited in the name of friendship. Sometimes it’s explicitly Christian, as in the ending of “The Selfish Giant,” in which the Christ-child appears bearing “the wounds of love.” The imagery is violent, beautiful and painful—a nightingale voluntarily impales herself on a thorn in order to color a rose with her blood; a swallow plucks out a sentient statue’s eyes in order to give the jewels to the poor. This is the kind of swoony, shivery tale which haunts a child and shapes her sense of the world, heightening both her moral and her aesthetic sensitivities. If you love “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and “The Snow Queen” you owe it to yourself and your child to pick up The Happy Prince.
I’ll add a special plea on behalf of “The Canterville Ghost,” which often gets overlooked even by fans of Wilde’s fairy tales. (Like all of his works, it’s available free online due to the magic of limited copyright.) This is the story of an ardently republican American family who buys a haunted house in England and proceeds to terrorize the ghost. They use “Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent” to clean up his everlasting bloodstain, and try to get him to oil his clanking chains; they scold him, play pranks on him, and turn him into a shadow of his former shade. There’s gentle satire of the Americans’ fix-it attitude and bumpkin artistic pretensions, but the English are also pretty silly, with their huffy acceptance of the status quo.
In order to resolve the story, however, Wilde shifts from light satire into an eerier, dreamier tone. The shift is somewhat similar to the entrance of the sublime into The Wind in the Willows, with the description of the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The ghost draws the little American daughter into his world, and she returns to her family shaken, determined to lay his soul to rest once and for all. “The Canterville Ghost” becomes a tale of penitence and forgiveness—two more great Wildean themes—as its sketched-in characters take on darker and richer tints.
If you want your kid to love Dostoyevsky later, you might start her out on Wilde now.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs athttp://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/. She has written for Commonweal,USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.