Saturday, February 26, 2022

Oscar Wilde, Short Stories


Opening Passages: Just a selection. From "The Happy Prince":

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. (p. 15)

From The Canterville Ghost:

When Mr. Hiram B. Otis, the American Minister, bought Canterville Chase, every one told him he was doing a very foolish thing, as there was no doubt at all that the place was haunted. Indeed, Lord Canterville himself, who was a man of the most punctilious honour, had felt it his duty to mention the fact to Mr. Otis when they came to discuss terms. (p. 127)
From "The Ballad of Reading Gaol":

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed. 

 He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day. (p. 359)

Summary: We mostly associate Oscar Wilde with wit and charm, but while there is wit in his short stories, they are primarily heavy on charm. They mostly have a whimsical, fairy-tale feel, and indeed, some of them are quite enjoyable fairytales. They are noticeably artificial in character -- Wilde has a tendency to dwell on beautiful descriptions and deliberately constructed subversions rather than push the story forward -- but the artificial fairytale is a respectable genre, and some of Wilde's are among the best. I thought that "The Nightingale and the Rose" and "The Young King" were the best of these. "The Nightingale and the Rose" captures in a heart-rending form a common theme in Wilde -- that nobody gives beauty and love their due appreciation -- as in it the nightingale gives her life for a true love that turns out not to exist. But, of course, the real beauty and love are in the nightingale's willingness to do so. In "The Young King" we find another common theme, that spiritual beauty is greater than material beauty, even though the former is also often not appreciated for what it is.

Among the more substantive short stories were Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, The Canterville Ghost, and The Portrait of Mr. W. H. The best of these, and indeed, I think of all of Wilde's short works, is the The Canterville Ghost. An American family buys a haunted mansion, and the ghost finds that the American merchant class is not quite so easily haunted as the British nobility. Wilde had just recently come from America, so he is spoofing American approaches to things, and much of this is quite funny. But what really makes the story is that it is also a story about an unappreciated artist. Wilde writes the Canterville Ghost as an accomplished actor, the haunted house his stage, and the Otises are like pragmatic managers and owners who, philistines to the core, have no appreciation at all for the finer points of the art. The ghost just wants to turn out great, highly melodramatic performances, and the Otises just keep ruining them, and, what is worse, clearly don't even recognize a true artist when they see him on the stage. It is, I think, the most perfect comic ghost story ever written.

A minor point of interest. The subtitle of the work is "A Hylo-Idealistic Romance". Hylo-Idealism was a philosophical position, mostly of popular appeal, that attempted to solve the mind-body problem by synthesizing materialism and idealism (hence the name). It held that matter was just the presupposition of ideas and ideas were just the manifestations of matter, and (in its most common form) that both were expressions and effects of one unified self. I find convincing none of the common reasons given by literary critics for the association with this tale; they usually depend on assuming a much cruder version than was commonly put forward even in very popular venues. Part of it may just be that Wilde is playing on the word -- the materialistic Otises being unified with the spiritualistic Canterville Ghost -- but (related to this) it could also be that Wilde had in mind the sometimes very public disputes between Theosophists, associated in the public mind with ghosts and seances, and the Hylo-Idealists, whom they regarded as crypto-materialists, in which case one could see the story as being built on a clash between two versions of reality, one Theosophistic and another Hylo-Idealistic.

I often look into adaptations. The Canterville Ghost is a popular one -- a non-horror ghost comedy that is about an unappreciated artist is inevitably going to be of interest to people who work on stage and screen. I picked the one from 1996 starring Neve Campbell and Patrick Stewart, and liked it quite a bit. It's less funny than the actual story; much of the humor of the story is that we directly get the ghost's melodramatic artist-with-hurt-feelings perspective, none of which can be easily translated to the screen. But some mild humor remains, and the adaptation did an excellent job of capturing a lot of the charm of the story. The updatings were interesting, and perhaps unnecessary -- they turned Mr. Otis into an unbelieving physicist. In the text, it doesn't take much to convince the Otises of the ghost's existence; much of the humor, and the ghost's indignation, arises from the fact that once they are presented with the evidence, they just take it completely in stride and try to work around it, like discovering that your nice new house has a problem with a rabbit in the garden or a temperamental furnace. Wilde is, I think, right that this makes a better story than dragging out the unbelief. But the movie does have its charms. To put it on screen, they had to build up the relationship between Virginia and the ghost, and I liked a number of ways they did it, including letting Stewart do some Shakespeare.

The Portrait of Mr. W. H. was also excellent. I think I've read it before, but if so I didn't appreciate it. What struck me this time was how very much it was like something that Jorge Luis Borges would write -- all done with a lighter touch, less ponderousness, than a Borges tale, but the idea, of a fictional interpretation of a set of texts, and the execution, in which people sometimes believe it so much that they forge evidence for it, but persuading someone of its truth makes one lose one's own belief in it, were very much along the lines of what you might imagine Borges to do.

The short story collection I read also had "The Ballad of Reading Gaol". Wilde, of course, had been sentenced to hard labor in Reading Gaol, so there is a vividly realistic strand showing through Wilde's Romanticism here which gives the tale a sharper bite than most of Wilde's stories have. However, the Wildesque habit of seeing situations in terms of their irony and poetry is also very strong here, and thematically it bears a number similarities to Wilde's De Profundis, which has previously come up in the Fortnightly Book. Of all the short stories, the poem is most closely linked to the fairytales, because it is perhaps Wilde's strongest statement of an idea that also runs through his fairytales, that the truest form of beauty is the spiritual beauty found with the poor and broken-hearted, because it is through the broken heart that God shines forth.

Favorite Passage:

‘My dear sir,’ said Mr. Otis, ‘I really must insist on your oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. It is said to be completely efficacious upon one application, and there are several testimonials to that effect on the wrapper from some of our most eminent native divines. I shall leave it here for you by the bedroom candles, and will be happy to supply you with more should you require it.’ With these words the United States Minister laid the bottle down on a marble table, and, closing his door, retired to rest. 

 For a moment the Canterville ghost stood quite motionless in natural indignation; then, dashing the bottle violently upon the polished floor, he fled down the corridor, uttering hollow groans, and emitting a ghastly green light. Just, however, as he reached the top of the great oak staircase, a door was flung open, two little white-robed figures appeared, and a large pillow whizzed past his head! There was evidently no time to be lost, so, hastily adopting the Fourth Dimension of Space as a means of escape, he vanished through the wainscoting, and the house became quite quiet. (p. 135)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Oscar Wilde, Short Stories, Sirius (London: 2018).