Morality's Ugly Implications in Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales
Jones, Justin T., Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900
Justin T. Jones. Morality's Ugly Implications in Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales
In Oscar Wilde's two volumes of fairy tales, "The Happy Prince" and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891), many central characters meet with premature death or physical disfigurement after learning a bourgeois moral lesson. In an attempt to explain this unconventional phenomenon in the fairy tale tradition, this essay examines Wilde's stories through the lens of his aesthetic ideology and demonstrates how the superficial morality of the Victorian bourgeoisie corrodes each tale's aesthetic integrity, causing the characters to either deny morality outright, assume the guise of Christian philanthropy, or die as the result of their moral reformation.
Beauty has always been an important topic in fairy tale literature. Cinderella's magnificent beauty makes her stepsisters appear odious by comparison--though none of the variations of the tale refers to them as ugly--and Snow White's beauty is the envy of the kingdom and the primary cause of all her troubles. Beauty is personified in Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's "Beauty and the Beast" (1757), and her lovely appearance outwardly reflects the compassion she has for her beastly suitor. (1) Moral rectitude almost always goes hand-in-hand with physical beauty in these tales, but few characters lose their beauty as they face their moral tests. Indeed, the authors of more conventional tales usually ascribe ugliness to those characters portrayed as morally confused or completely immoral: witches, giants, ogres, trolls, goblins, and sometimes animals such as wolves or serpents. Thus Snow White's evil stepmother "stain[s] her face" to enact her heinous plot to kill the young girl, effacing her terrible beauty to become the ugly old woman. (2) These characters' outer ugliness often reflects their inner deformities of vice and corruption. (3) Such are some of the typical conventions that govern the genre, but Oscar Wilde's fairy tales are, quite literally, another story.
In Wilde's unorthodox tales, ugliness frequently accompanies the often brutal moral instruction of his most beautiful characters. This ugliness is not always manifested physically, but whenever it occurs, it disrupts the fairy-tale-world aesthetic completely, causing either the death of a main character or a shift in the tale's fundamental concept of beauty. Incredibly, many of Wilde's critics read his tales as traditional homilies because of their inclusion of such apparently blatant moral lessons. John Allen Quintus suggests that Wilde was simply a product of his age and could not resist the Victorian "predilection to preach," (4) and Robert K. Martin claims that Wilde's most popular tale, "The Happy Prince," is a semi-autobiographical account of the author's "change of heart," resulting in his sudden contempt for "hedonism and aestheticism.', (5) Other commentators on the tales have been less willing to believe in Wilde's "moral prerogative," but these readers generally go to the opposite extreme and focus exclusively on the tales' alleged homosexual or pederastic undertones. For example, Naomi Wood writes that Wilde's tales are textual opportunities for "soliciting" his younger audience members "with more than words"; Wood asserts that Wilde's stories "encode the vision of an idealistic pederast." (6)
In contrast to the tales of the classical tradition, however, Wilde's fairy tales challenge the superficial moral tenets of the British bourgeoisie. In his essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891), Wilde affirms that many of his contemporaries exacerbate the plight of the poor and ruin their own chances for a fulfilling life through misguided humanitarian endeavors: "The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated al-truism--are forced, indeed, so to spoil them." (7) The source of this compulsion, Wilde explains, is the rigid set of "altruistic virtues" …
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Publication information: Article title: Morality's Ugly Implications in Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales. Contributors: Jones, Justin T. - Author. Journal title: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. Volume: 51. Issue: 4 Publication date: Autumn 2011. Page number: 883+. © 1999 Rice University. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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