Rediscovering Wilde’s Fairytales

In the midst of reading through my comps lists, I’m consistently tempted to “order off menu.”  I keep finding articles that I wish I would have included, some with key information like Josephine Guy’s work on the extent of Wilde’s plagiarism (I’m kicking myself!), and some involve threads of exploration I had no idea existed, like Poe’s accusation of plagiarism against something called the “Moon-hoax.”  Some of these threads, I have to, for the moment anyway, ignore, because I have bigger fish to fry and need to pass my comps exams, in hopes that I can eventually have a regular income.  *But* when the mood strikes me, burnt out of reading what I must read, I sometimes see that volume of Complete {insert author here} and guiltily dig in.


Recently, flipping around my “Complete Oscar Wilde” I happened upon his fairytales and was in for a big surprise—I already knew them!  As a kid, I had a thick book of fairytales organized not by author, but by types—princess stories, animal stories….  I’m not certain if the authors were even listed for the stories.  I loved this book because the stories weren’t “kid-proofed”: villains were boiled in oil or made to dance to death in hot iron shoes, and absolutely terrible things could happen to step sisters.  When I read Wilde’s Nightingale and the Rose, I knew I had read it before.  The story is basically this:


A young student is in love with a woman who insists on having a red rose before he takes her to the ball.  Red roses are out of season, so the student doesn’t have a chance with this girl.  But a nightingale overhears the student’s whining and asks around the natural world for help.  A tree says there is only one way to make a red rose in winter, and that is for the bird to sacrifice herself, forcing a thorn through her heart as she sings.  She does, and the student gets his rose, but when he brings it to his love, she just laughs at him.  The student bitterly throws the rose away and decides that love is not as practical as logic and philosophy.


Wilde includes a few masterful touches in this story, the main being his use of surprising reversals.  Wilde does this often in his epigrams: for instance, “The way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”  This and many of his other epigrams rely on the contradiction of an assumption—in this case, the assumption is that one should not yield to temptation.  In his fairytales, the reversals play a huge role often as a twist of painful irony.  In The Nightingale, the most valuable object is deemed worthless.  But there is another fun reversal here as well—in the story the woman’s father is the boy’s professor.  The boy indeed learns something from the professor’s house, but it is the opposite of the truth of the story.  There’s a little criticism of academia here, with the message that its lessons are far from beautiful or practical, but I don’t think Wilde is trying too hard for an overarching moral to this story, just a sort of beautiful agony—a feeling of bitter truth even while the story is fantastic.


In looking up these stories online, I found several saying that these stories aren’t for children due to the painful nature and use of death in them, and admittedly Wilde himself said that these were really “for childlike people from eighteen to eighty.” But I can’t help thinking that perhaps there is a surprising reversal in this audience intention as well—that the pain that these stories evoke is exactly what makes them appropriate for children.

At any rate, Wilde’s epigram has not proved true in my case—yielding to temptation has just whetted my appetite for more free-reading.

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