Aestheticism in Oscar Wilde‟s Fairy Tales
thAs a leading representative of the Aesthetic Movement in 19 century, Oscar
Wilde spared no efforts to advocate for “art for art‟s sake”, laying stress on a
philosophy that the intrinsic value of art is divorced from any didactic, moral, or utilitarian function, namely, art is complete and independent in itself as well as thoughts. Hailed as an imperfect master in aestheticism, hardly has any literature figures received more praise and abuse than Oscar Wilde, who applied the core of the philosophy in both his life and his literary works. Nevertheless, his fairy tales have won general admiration worldwide.
In China, Oscar Wilde became renowned as more of a playwright than a storyteller for children with the publication of the translated version of Salome, The
Importance of Being Earnest, An Ideal Husband, etc. Compared with other types of
literature by Oscar Wilde, the significance of his tales, to my mind, has been all along underestimated. The tales written by Wilde are no less than a sort of practice for the aesthetic principle he always advocated: a reveal of true self, and above all, a series of stories not intended for children, but adults with whom he share views in common. In that sense, ingenious as Wilde is, fairy tales may as well count as a most favorable way that gives full play to his genius.
While searching for the studies into Oscar Wilde‟s tales, my research covers, by
and large, quite a few papers centering on aestheticism and the application of symbolism and religious implication in his fairy tales. Taking a comprehensive view of the current research into Wilde‟s Fairy Tale, most of the studies are engaged in
exploring the theme of beauty and love in the stories, which is consequential to my study, while on the other hand somewhat limited in research area in general and deserve further exploration. The present research concerning Oscar Wilde‟s fairy tales
that I‟ve gone through so far can be mainly concluded in the 3 aspects:
1. The distinctiveness of Oscar Wilde‟s fairy tale from traditional fairy tales in
terms of content.
It is a naked truth that Oscar Wilde should by no means be counted as a prolific writer in children‟s literature, compared with the Brothers Grimm in Germany and
Hans Christian Anderson in Denmark, who have all along been held as key figures in the history of children‟s literature. Yet Oscar Wilde‟s two volumes of fairy tales, with
merely nine short pieces in total, do not detract from his reputation as a master in children‟s literature. With his wild imagination from a unique perspective, Oscar Wilde devoted his marvelous command of words into depicting an artistic idea for fairy tales in poetic language. In addition, the fairy tales of Oscar Wilde lead to a subversion to the harmony in traditional fairy tales by Anderson, either by means of stressing on distinct themes or through various images of his protagonists(Yang Ni;
2007), which reveals an indifferent world without love or feelings, thus posing an irony to traditional fairy tale writers to some extent.
Scholars like Sun Yingliang(2003) and Peng Li(1999) holds that Wilde‟s fairy
tales, to some extent, are regarded so expressive in presenting adults‟ vision in an
adult manner as not stories for children, which bid farewell to children‟s literature and step into a world of adult.
According to Sun Yingliang, the distinctive feature of Oscar Wilde‟s Tales firstly
lies in its opposite theme to the traditional ones, or rather, a total break from previous literary works for children, in which the true, the good and the beauty prevails. In the other way around, Wilde disobeyed the general rule of “Virtue is its own reward”. As
an epitome of aestheticism, who stands for the pure art free from morality, Oscar Wilde‟s invariable inclination for exposing villainy in this listless world has never failed to end his tales in tragedies.
Another equally vital feature in Oscar Wilde‟s story, Peng Li referred, rests in
that the characters of his protagonists are not limited to certain ones but changeable, which is a far cry from those of heroes in conventional fairy tales. In Cinderella and
The Snow White, all the characters are ruled by single personality, with Cinderella defined as positive character whereas her step-mother and two sisters as negative character, likewise, the hero in The Snow White is generally referred as the good while
the queen the evil. The distinction between the good and the evil is, nevertheless, ambivalent in Oscar Wilde‟s fairy tales. The Happy Prince never knew the feeling of misery under a sumptuous life when alive until he was shocked by the ugliness of the city through the statue‟s eye after his death and therefore became sympathetic despite the lead heart. (Wilde, 2010c)The equivocal alternative in protagonists‟ characters
makes it closer to the average people in real life.
In short, the most striking irony involved in Oscar Wilde‟s fairy tales posed by
him to the traditional fairy tales consists in his probe into society through an adult‟s
insight, in which bitter reality overshadows children‟s pure ideal for love and beauty,
henceforth a decided break against children‟s fantastic world of dreams as well as a
thorough oppose against the spiritual affinity between minds indicating a despair out of the apathy and ruthlessness in adults‟ world.
2. The unique features of Oscar Wilde‟s fairy tale in terms of writing techniques
With no more than a dozen pieces in total, the value of Oscar Wilde‟s fairy tales
is widely appreciated by quality rather than quantity, along with his wild imagination as well as the various writing techniques which he applied in the organization of his works with exquisite language.
Attempts to explore the characteristics in Oscar Wilde‟s writing have been made
by scholars like Zhou Zuoren(1987), Richard Elleman(1987), Huang Yi(2007) and Jiang Meng(2008). One of the most unconventional skills he employed in creating his tales which distinguish his tales among other conventional on is determined by a frequent application of symbolism through adopting the opposite meaning of conventional images in tales (Jiang Meng). As is known to all, the image of a rose in traditional western literary works generally purports of the embodiment of love, to which an author tends to sing his praise. However, in one of Wilde‟s tales, The
Nightingale and The Rose, the image of the rose was endowed with an opposite
implication against previous ones, which eventually turned out to be no less than a killer shattering the youth‟s faith of love. The sarcastic ending ruthlessly reveals that the blood-painted rose at the cost of the nightingale‟s life didn't get rewarded in terms
of love, with the refusal of it from the daughter of the professor, which put an end to both the nightingale‟s love for the student and the student‟s faith in love for the
professor‟s daughter(Wilde, 2010d). Likewise, the image of heart in tradition context indicating of but love is as well adopted by Wilde in his work The Happy Prince as a
tragic element, with its final doom as a broken heart. The statue of the Happy Prince is initially designed with a lead heart, which seems poles apart from his magnificent appearance of gold covering. The black heart made from lead is doomed to break in to pieces once filled with soft feelings. Thorough the adoption of the traditional images in their opposite meanings, Wilde actually aimed at revealing to readers a world of depravation and mercilessness(Huang Yi).
Richard Elleman(1987), the most authoritative scholar studying on theories and works of Oscar Wilde, once attributing Wilde‟s motivation for making fairy tales to
the huge impact of language on folks as powerful as that of actions. As a renowned master in playing with words, Wilde spared no efforts in contributing his gift to writing when making his tales, characterized by the use of non-fairy tale language(Zhou Zuoren, 1987). The application of non-fairy tale language comes along quite often in the majority of his tales either in terms of vocabulary or sentence structure. The uncommon words such as “hieroglyph”, “catafalque”, “hippogriff”,
“Amenalk” are not so frequently used as in daily life, of which all appear to be both compounds and obscure words to children. What‟s more, some old-English words are
also applied by Wilde into his tales as “I will not let thee go save thou makest me a
promise that whenever I call thee, thou wilt come and sing to me.”(Wilde, 2010b) in
The Fisherman and His Soul. Furthermore, he even employed some Spanish words in
The Birthday of the Infanta, such as “Mireina” and “Escurial”(Wilde, 2010a), which
even the adults could not go without referring to a dictionary. And above all, Wilde had a tendency to employ long and complex sentences in his tales, far from the simple and direct sentences in traditional sentences. In the beginning of The Young King,
there comes a description as “Upon these journeys of discovery, as he would call them
and, indeed, they were to him real voyages through a marvelous land, he would sometimes be accompanied by the slim, fair-haired Court pages, with their floating mantles, and gay fluttering ribands; but more often he would be alone, feeling through a certain quick instinct, which was almost a divination, that the secrets of art are best learned in secret, and that Beauty, like Wisdom, loves the lonely worshipper.”( Wilde,
2010f). So long as the sentence is as well as so complicated some of the modifiers are that is all but beyond the children‟s reach.
As is stated above, Oscar Wilde‟s proclamation for aestheticism is self-evident in
his creation of fairy tales, with his good command of rhetoric and eloquence, as far as writing techniques are concerned, in spite of a lack in an easy access to the implication of the tales for children.
3. The relationship between Oscar Wilde‟s fairy tales and religion
A received opinion in western world consists in the enormous influence exerted by religion in individuals‟ living style as well as their way of thinking. Such profound impact is crystal clear in westerners‟ expression of art, with no exception for literature.
Therefore, working on an approach to literary works from the perspective of religion, for instance, exploring the religious prototype in the plots of the story, is invariably perceived as a general method when researching into a masterpiece in academic point
of view, notwithstanding studies in this respect of Wilde‟s tales covering a rather
Studies concerning Wilde‟s fairy tales with regard to religion have been carried out by Zhang Ting(2006) and Dong Lili(2009). The broken leaden heart in The Happy
Prince serves as a religious implication involving the sublimation of soul, a manifestation of the supreme value of spirit which leads all beings to the protection by
relion under the God‟s grace(Dong Lili). As a devout disciple of religion, the high frequency of application of the literary illusions from the Bible and the images
masqueraded in religious veil in Wilde‟s tales is closely associated with his keen
fervor towards Roman Catholic, along with its mysterious observance. According to Wilde, judging from a religious angle, beauty reaches a culmination in the interpretation of itself, as far as the holy and divine significance of God is concerned in western culture. By combining religion with art, Wilde consequently brought about a surreal world of aestheticism, in which all living creatures were blessed with an access to their own salvation and purification that would never be available without sufferings.
In The Selfish Giant, the implication of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is implicit in the following description “ For on the palms of the child‟s hands were the prints of
two nails, and the prints of two nails were on the little feet.” and “ „Nay!‟ Answered
the child, „but these are the wounds of love.’ ”(Wilde, 2010e). In that way, the
author‟s pursuit of beauty is realized as a result, through the attempt to love based on disposition for humanitarism and philanthropy required by religion. Meanwhile, the humanitarism and philanthropy for society derived from religious feelings entitle Wilde‟s tales to a superiority and solemnity above other fairy tales in traditional sense(Zhang Ting). As a spokesman of aestheticism who devoted his life into fighting against religious dogmas and secular morals of various forms, his tales with their profound significance in religious sense or in terms of morality, providing readers with another unique insight into his aesthetic ideas.
My purpose of writing this paper is to appeal more students and Wilde admirers to attach more attention to his fairy tales, apart from his dramas and novels, so that they can enjoy the charm of Wilde‟s refinement and elegance in his eminent
command of language. But most important thing is that I can share my acquisition of Wilde‟s aesthetic ideas with readers after reading all Wilde‟s tales. Personally, my
perspectives of analysis differentiate itself from others in its intense concentration on
astheticism from various angles in Oscar‟s inventiveness of his fairy tales.
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