Listening to the “Unheard Lyric”: Amplifying Faint Discourses in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales

It’s interesting how easy it is for me to forget songs and stories that I heard last year, yet at the same time, it’s so easy for me to recall songs and stories that I heard as a child. Ask me something about the plot of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and I might need a few minutes to collect my thoughts and remember what the novel is even about. However, ask me a question about Maurice Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are, Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, and the act of recalling and remembering is instantaneous. There is something about the apparent simplicity of Children’s literature that makes it not only easy to remember, but ostensibly easy to understand and deconstruct. However, underneath this aura of simplicity is a complex struggle of ideas, aims, and goals: Children’s literature is anything but simple, and I think Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales attest to this notion.

Notice how the name of the genre implies possession: children’s literature. But a question that surfaces simply by looking at the label of the genre is: does this literature, as the name implies, truly belong to children? After all, how many children’s books have we seen out there written by actual children? What does this imply? How is the notion of children’s literature complicated as we realize that the genre has become a fad, and virtually anyone with influence or social status can write and publish a children’s book? Everyone from Madonna, to Bill Cosby, to Billy Crystal, to Whoopi Goldberg, to Queen Latifah, to Brooke Shields, to Ray Romano has published a children’s book. Is it because they’re easily marketable or easy to write? This, of course, greatly affects the perception of the genre within academia. However, what mostly makes children’s literature an ignored area within literary criticism is not only its apparent simplicity and its marketability, but also to its didactic nature. In his book Sticks and Stones, Jack Zipes brings most of these problems to the surface, offering a somewhat fatalistic and negative view of children’s literature as a hot commodity, which leads to the production of formulaic books that follow the same patterns and that serve to mold and construct how a child should be—his attack on the Harry Potter series is well-known amongst those who study children’s and young adult texts. But his tirade against children’s literature, interestingly, is interpreted through the lens of an adult ideology. How do children perceive the literature that is designed for them? Do notions such as formulas and patterns truly bother them? What do we do if our children love Harry Potter? Tell them that their tastes are horrible and that they should be embarrassed to embrace such a redundant and formulaic text? In due course, Zipes’ assertions attack children’s literature by ignoring the very values and the audience that defines the genre.

Debates on the usefulness of art aside, and whether or not children’s literature is or isn’t art, or even if the genre overuses patterns or formulas, one thing is absolutely clear: children’s literature is deemed to be inherently useful and instructive. Not only is it meant to entertain, but it also serves as a heuristic aid that feeds children a set of ideas, or better said, dogmas. Whether or not the text constructs the child or aids the child in his or her own identity construction is open to debate, but nonetheless, we must realize that the lessons in the genre are looming, and the sense of didacticism that they possess is absolutely real. Recalling the children’s works I mentioned earlier, notice that each and every one of them instills an important lesson that children carry with them for the rest of their lives, and notice how this lesson is extremely reliant on what the author thinks a child should know. I mentioned these three books because they were some of my favorites as a child; however, it was after I reflected on this choice that I realized that in essence, all of these works tell the same story: Where the Wild Things Are, Peter and Wendy, and The Wizard of Oz emphasize on the idea that there IS no place like home. It’s strange that now that I look back, the notion of home was a central concern to me: after moving from New Jersey to Puerto Rico at the age of 8, there was always a desire to return home. But Peter Pan never arrived at my window to whisk me away, clicking my heels three time never brought me back to New Jersey, and I metaphorically never escaped the island where the “wild things” were found.

Perhaps the first break that we make from the realm of children’s literature occurs at that moment when we realize that their lessons, aims, and methods fail to sustain in our own lives. This does not mean, however, that these lessons have no value. We have to admit that children’s literature predominates in our own lives in a time when innocence presumably reigns supreme: it is a time in which we are empty canvases. We are open to the world, and we approach the content and message of children’s literature in an unpretentious fashion: we are usually unaware of the possibility of embedded subversion peppered throughout a text, we definitely don’t think about how useful or useless a text is, and our perceptions are not influenced nor bound by critical and ideological lenses. In other words, we could care less if The Wizard of Oz represents a struggle of classes as exemplified by the dynamic between the wicked witch and her henchmen, we are ostensibly oblivious to the struggles of humanity and animality in Where the Wild Things Are, and we certainly don’t give a damn in terms of the implications of space and place in Peter and Wendy. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge when approaching children’s literature from a scholarly perspective: keeping in mind that the audience for a children’s text is a child, how are we able to approach these texts from a critical and scholarly perspective without ignoring the genre’s target audience, and the assumed ignorance and innocence laced the ideal child? In other words, how do we learn to listen to that child-like voice inside of us, while still complying with our adult desire to analyze, deconstruct, and understand?

I think Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales provide a lot of food for thought when it comes to these questions. After all, the notion of Oscar Wilde writing children’s literature seems to be bewildering in every sense of the word. How can an advocate of the uselessness of art devote his precious time towards crafting a text that is essentially instructive and pragmatic? How does Oscar Wilde view his target audience? Even more so, keeping in mind Wilde’s affinity for subversion and refusal to be confined within conceptual boundaries, how does Wilde attempt to transform and challenge the notion of a children’s literature via his unique take on fairy tales? First of all, perhaps it is important to know why Oscar Wilde wrote children’s tales in the first place. In a letter that he sent to G.H. Kersley on the reason why he wrote the short story The Happy Prince, Wilde presents the fairy tale as a genre capable up reaching the deepest trenches of the imagination, those trenches that are inaccessible to most people in society. He writes that The Happy Prince

is an attempt to treat a magic modern problem in a form that aims at delicacy and imaginative treatment: it is a reaction against the purely imitative character of modern art – and now that literature has taken to blowing loud trumpets I cannot but be pleased that some ear has cared to listen to the low music of a little reed.” – Letter to G.h. Kersley on the Happy Prince. (Kohl 51)

Notice that the actual short story definitely complies with this aim. What is so surprising about The Happy Prince is that at first, we are given the impression that we are about to delve in a very realistic story. Rich description is provided in terms of the prominence of the statue located above a tall column, and conversation is focused on the fact that children shouldn’t cry because the happy prince, a statue, doesn’t cry. This sense of realism suddenly takes a turn as the focus of the story shifts towards a Swallow and his infatuation with a reed. Notice that the reed, although personified, has no concrete method of expressing its desires in a way that a human or living creature can. The swallow is constantly mocked by its peers, seeing as the reed is unable to communicate with the bird, and seeing as it is presumed that the reed has nothing valuable to offer. The swallow, however, is able to look beyond what is expected from a typical communicative relationship, and learns how to approach the reed in a different fashion. The bird focuses on the rhetoric of the reed’s movements, as guided by the influence of the wind. The reed bows down to the bird as if accepting its courtship and the swallow keeps the reed company for a while. The swallow even goes as far as to describe the reed as flirty or as a coquette, interpreting its subtle swaying as an act of seduction. What is clear here is that the swallow is open to a language that is not directly interpretable by the other birds that surround him, which in due course not only demonstrates the sensitivity that the bird possesses, but also its openness to listen to the voices of those who cannot speak.

This obviously resonates with ideals that Wilde was trying to promote at the time; indeed, with his active experimentation with homosexuality during the crafting of the Happy Prince and Other Fairy Tales, many of the messages within these stories seem to give voice to the Other, while in turn, attuning people’s ears to the sound that the metaphorical reed makes. But it is also uncanny that the story alludes to the voice of the child: one of the most ignored and snubbed voices within culture and society. Indeed, there is definitely a resemblance between the Swallow and the child, seeing as both are able to hear and see things that are disregarded by adults due to their experience and their embracing of cultural restraints. Children definitely embrace imaginative treatment while adults, especially within Victorian times, tended to reject it. The correlation between the child and the animal is indeed a common parallel within children’s literature. As Sue Walsh points out in her essay “Child/Animal: It’s the Real Thing,” both the child and the animal allow one to frame and express ideas about human identity more than any other idea, and this is because both concepts engage in a similar discourse that avoids any sense of mastery. In other words, although one can presumably write about children and animals, one could never fully master what the concept of animal or child means. This makes the use of these concepts especially useful for infusing one’s own ideologies and beliefs within a text.

It is obvious that both children and animals are central figures within Wilde’s tales. Not only is an animal one of the central figures within The Happy Prince, but they are also central in his tale known as The Star-Child, in which animals are first mistreated and ignored by the beautiful child, but then they become key towards the star-child’s salvation (recall that it is the rabbit that helps him find the different colored pieces of gold). This sense of leveling between the adult, the child, and the animal seems to portray a utopian ideal within Wilde’s tales, an ideal that may even be deemed socialist or Marxist, especially when taking into account Wilde’s values and ideas—recall that Wilde is, after all, the author of a 1891 essay titled “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” which approaches capitalism as a disease that suppresses the soul and prevents individuals from discovering their true talents. It would be unwise to ignore how influential egalitarianism is in all of the tales that we have read for today’s class: The Star-Child ultimately roots for a sense of cohesion between beggars and royals, implying that inherently, there is no essential difference between the two. The story, as I already mentioned, also strives to smooth the differences between humans and animals. The Selfish Giant invokes the values of compassion to demonstrate that those with property should be willing to share said property with individuals who do not possess the same amount of power or ownership. Even in The Happy Prince, we observe that wealth is being distributed to those who are in need of capital in order for their talents to thrive. The Marxist undertones of the stories seem to be blatantly obvious to the experienced adult reader, but we must question whether this notion of capital inequality would be apparent to a child. Norbert Kohl, in his discussion of selfishness and selflessness in his book titled Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, points out that in due course, reading the fairy tales alongside to Marxist theory might be a bit far-fetched, seeing as

the socialism inherent in his gentle fairy-tale seems far more geared to aesthetic effect than to political propaganda. If these tales are indeed ‘wry pieces of social and moral commentary’, as one critic suggests, then it must be said that the commentary contains little insight into or analysis of the social causes and effects of poverty. (54)

When it comes down to it, we must admit that even when writing in one of the most didactic and pragmatic genres within the literary realm, Wilde could still find a way to ensure that his textual creations would aspire to be not only instructive, but above all, artistic. The four fairy tales that we read for today’s class, for instance, use a high style of language that exceeds the very basic vocabulary that usually predominates in children’s texts. Notice, for instance, how the giant in Wilde’s tale, The Selfish Giant, expresses sorrow and regret when he realizes that Spring has not arrived due to his self-centeredness: “How selfish I have been!” he said; “now I know why the Spring would not come here. I will put that poor little boy on the top of the tree, and then I will knock down the wall, and my garden shall be the children’s playground for ever and ever.” An adult reader would clearly see that the giant felt regret for his actions, as is implied by his desire to help the young boy up the tree as a retribution for the wrongs he committed.

However, true to the fashion of the fairy tale genre, Wilde peppers his prose with overt and obvious statements that reinforce the lesson inherent within the text. The giant’s proclamation, for instance, is followed by a declaration stating that “He was really very sorry for what he had done.” But the complexity of language in Wilde’s fairy tales does not stop there. Kohl, for instance, remarks that Wilde’s fairy tales are adorned with everything from archaic and biblical phrases, personifications, and elaborate descriptions, all which enhance the artistic value within the tales (56). Elizabeth Goodenough, in her discussion titled “Oscar Wilde, Victorian Fairy Tales, and the Meanings of Atonement,” posits that this use of various stylistic registers within his fairy tales are actually employed to destabilize the “Victorian pathos of broken hearts and the cult of dying children,” focusing on miserable and illustrative “portrayals of expiation and renunciation, failure and death” (340). And while I personally agree that the medley of voices, registers, and allusions serve to cement the validity of the values present within the tales, let us not forget that Wilde was overly sensitive to issues of audience and the reception of his work, as evidenced by the lengthy responses he would write when receiving critical backlash. When it comes down to it, fairy tales are usually written with a child audience in mind, but it is usually an adult who ultimately serves as the decoder of the written word. Fairy tales are notorious for being dubbed as bed-time stories, and the fairy tale itself comes from an extremely oral tradition. Although the stories are written for children, Wilde definitely wanted to entertain and perhaps allude to the aesthetic sensibilities of the adult who reads the text out loud to the child. I would undoubtedly argue that Wilde was a vivid precursor to what I will dub, thanks in part to a conversation I had with Ana Jimenez, the Shrek effect—alluding to the 2001 Dreamworks film that is in essence a children’s movie that subtly but constantly portrays content that only a person with an adult mindset would and could appreciate. This is turn allows adults to take part with, and fully enjoy, a discourse primarily targeted towards a younger audience.

Indeed, this notion of using a children’s text to allude to the sensibilities of an adult may be approached as another way in which multiple or unheard voices are amplified, but let us not forget the subversive nature of this sense of duality. During the time Wilde was writing fairy tales, this genre was undergoing radical transformations in terms of its aims and purpose. As Jack Zipes points out in his book Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion:

No longer was the fairy tale to be like the mirror, mirror on the wall reflecting the cosmetic bourgeois standards of beauty and virtue that appeared to be unadulterated and pure. The fairy tale and the mirror cracked into sharp-edged, radical parts by the end of the nineteenth century. (107)

We can arguably say that with his fairy tales, Wilde not only cracked the mirror, but he ultimately shattered it. Wilde refused to fully embrace the concept of “happily ever after” with his tales, and he clearly twisted and contorted the tale in order to not only challenge his readers, but in order to highlight ideas and discourses that are marginalized and ignored. The Happy Prince portrays the death of a swallow that gave its life for a greater good. Although we may view the swallow as a scapegoat that sacrificed itself to subdue the tensions that permeated its environment, and although the swallow and the prince’s heart were chosen as the most precious things in the city, notice that the social problem was not entirely fixed: the statue of the prince will simply be replaced by another icon. In The Star-Child, the protagonist finds atonement and redemption and becomes a ruler that governs his land with the values of kindness and charity in mind, but his hardships lead him to die within three years, and he is replaced by an evil ruler. As a matter of fact, The Star-Child is even more subversive than we may initially deem, because as Zipes brilliantly pointed out, this tale is a deliberate subversion of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, where the theme of beauty is inversed in order to challenge its value in contemporary society. As Zipes points out:

Whereas Andersen sees beauty as connected to the duckling’s outward grace as a swan and subservience to the aristocracy of the swans, Wilde’s ideological position implicitly mocked Andersen while presenting a more complex notion of beauty. (125)

But rather than being subversive for the sake of simply being subversive, Wilde’s twists and turns not only highlight the hypocrisies of his society, but they also aim to shed light on figures, people, and ideas that are shadowed by powers such as capitalism, greed, and corruption—and both the powered and the powerless have a say in Wilde’s tales. The beautiful and the ugly have a voice. The poor and the rich have a voice. Even the big and the small can be heard.

Throughout my reading on Wilde’s tales, I encountered an argument posited by the aforementioned Elizabeth Goodenough that not only sparked emotion and insight, but it ultimately influenced the title and focus of this presentation:

The poignant and satiric tonalities of the tales […] sound a dual audience. They invert the logic of [the] premature little adults and the Victorian morbidity of gazing on childish pain by registering a childlike responsiveness to the feelings of others, a compelling lyric to which adults are tone deaf. (349)

A childlike responsiveness to feeling that adults ultimately cannot hear… it’s clearly there. I guess the question is: when are we going to start listening? When it comes down to it, Oscar Wilde’s tales, and ostensibly children’s literature in general, are no different to the melody of the reed. Indeed, they emit lyricism, a language, and arguably, a discourse, but it is quite easy for all of these to go by unperceived by the metaphorical, and at times literal adult ear. Ultimately, Wilde’s tales are in essence pleas towards hearing the subtle whispers of culture and society… of giving voice to the mute and the unspeakable. Wilde’s tales even served the purpose of giving a voice to the side of his personality that people were unwilling to perceive at the time, as argued by Kohl: “In the tales, Wilde was unburdened by the role the public expected him to play, and also by his own need to represent himself as a wit and a clever but moral outsider, and so he was quite free to tell his stories and to reveal another side of his character, that is, his conventional morality” (61). Through amplification as facilitated through subversion, through language, through art, and yes, believe it or not, through pragmatics, Wilde’s fairy tales transform the faint whispers of the burdened, the poor, the animal, the child, the homosexual, the ugly, the marginalized, the dreamer, and the artist into a piercing scream. He transcends children’s literature into everyone’s literature. And like most of the children’s texts that I’ve encountered, Wilde’s screams are ones that are simply unforgettable.

Now that’s what I call art.

– – –

The following post was a paper presentation that I prepared for a doctoral course that I am taking this semester titled “Wilde and Synge: Art as Subversion.” I am planning to continue developing this paper into a publishable article, so any and all feedback is definitely welcome!

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