by Oscar Wilde
“Who art thou to bring pain into God’s world?”
Mr. Wilde’s career in short stories was collected in three books published in the late 1800’s as follows:
The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888)
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891)
A House of Pomegranates (1891)
The Happy Prince and Other Tales
“The Happy Prince” is the story of a small bird befriending the statue of a prince staring out over his city and caring deeply for his people. The bird, shunned by his love interest, instead of migrating in winter to a warmer climate with the rest of his kind is taken by his friendship with the statue and runs errands attempting to help the prince nurture his city.
A very short, simple tale, simply told, and simply one of the best stories you’ll ever read. This is an important fable that everyone needs under their belts, and you’ll never forget how this story affects you. It’s linked below, and you’d be well served to give it a go as soon as the opportunity presents itself. If you’ve only got a few minutes to spare for reading today, read the story instead of the review.
“The Nightingale and the Rose” is the tale of a nightingale who overhears a boy lamenting the girl he loves will not dance with anyone who cannot provide her a red rose, which doesn’t exist anywhere in the area. The nightingale is told by one of the other roses that if she visits a particular tree and sings all night with one of the thorns pressed to her breast she will receive a red rose to give the boy so he may woo his love.
Another moving fable, filled with knowledge and cynicism and sadness for the plights of our world.
“The Selfish Giant” is the story of a giant who tires of the incessant children playing in his garden and builds a wall around it to keep them out. When this is accomplished summer can never visit and the garden is shrouded in perpetual winter while the giant saddens. Eventually he finds summer has returned and discovers a breach in his wall and children playing, and on his approach the children run away in fear except one. The giant knocks down the wall and tells the remaining boy the garden is now his, and later the other children return but never the first boy who originally stayed.
Another heart-breaker, and transcending the religion it accesses, the ending here takes your breath away. The story comes with the highest recommendation.
“The Devoted Friend” is a story told by a linnet to a water-rat. The tale is of a poor, good man who will do anything for his friends. The issue here is the poor man’s friend, the miller, is rich, greedy, and has no issues taking advantage of others in far worse, even dangerous, circumstances.
A cautionary tale with a moral, this one is saturated with our limitless abilities to look out only for ourselves while the good people are trampled underneath. You’ll be saddened by what happens here, but it’s real, it happens every day, and we must be vigilant to avoid being like the miller, the most natural tendency in the world.
“The Remarkable Rocket” is the story of a self-important firework, believing all other fireworks beneath him, who becomes wet demonstrating his greatness and is passed over for the fireworks celebration because he wouldn’t light. He is eventually found and dealt with in a humbling way.
Finally, a story that indicates this writer was, in fact, a mortal human. It’s still good, again as a fable with a moral, but doesn’t reach the mastery of the rest of the book.
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories
“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is the tale of a man who has his fortune read and is told he is a murderer, but as he is in love and hasn’t yet killed anyone he wants to get the murder out of the way before the wedding and sets out to fulfill his destiny. He bumbles his way through multiple attempts and eventually marries his love.
This one was a bit different, not quite flowing like the rest of the stories, but ends up a fair read in its own right.
“Canterville Ghost” is much longer than most of his short stories. It’s a gut-bustingly hilarious tale of an American family, headed up by an official minister, relocating in London to a haunted house. The befuddled realtor eventually realizes the fact that the while house is haunted, the Americans regard such things as nonsense and will not be deterred from the purchase. What follows is the story of the ghost attempting to drive the family out and the unflappable Americans, especially the young twin boys, fighting back with aplomb and scared not in the least, much to the ghost’s consternation.
Despite the humor, the story contains such astounding lines as, “From the eyes streamed rays of scarlet light, the mouth was a wide well of fire, and a hideous garment, like to his own, swathed with its silent snows the Titan form.”
And the sobering, sorrowful line, “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”
Brilliant, achingly funny and somber toward the end. You’ll love this story.
“The Sphinx without a Secret” is the story of a man enraptured with a woman, telling the tale to a friend where he fell in love with her but was afraid she was hiding a secret from him. He follows her to find out what she’s doing, afraid she’s engaged in some kind of clandestine affair.
Short and sweet, this is another of his sobering stories.
“The Model Millionaire” is the story of a poor man in love with a poor woman, but her father will not them marry until he has at least 10,000 pounds. He visits his painter friend who is recreating on canvas the picture of a humble beggar posing for the scene and tells his story.
It’s an oft-bizarre world we live in, and this one warms a cold, cynical heart.
“The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” is the final story in this second collection and involves extensive theory-crafting as two men discuss the idea of William Shakespeare’s muse, originated by a man named Cyril who went on to kill himself when he could not bring anyone to his way of thinking after extensive, painstaking research. A painting is discovered of an attractive young male with the initials W. H., with his hand resting on the sonnets, lending credence to Cyril’s idea that the sonnets were not sent to either of the lords previously thought to be the subjects. As the original two men discuss this, one is convinced Cyril actually knew the truth and goes about trying to prove it to the other, who does not believe.
Probably the weakest story of any of the books, it’s complicated, brings up a good deal of the verses contained within the sonnets, and you may find yourself plowing through it instead of engaging. The story’s end is rather touching and saves it as a whole, but this was one of only two Oscar Wilde stories that didn’t hum with energy.
A House of Pomegranates
“The Young King” is the first story in his last collection and returns to the fable root. A young boy, raised in poverty but eventually found to be the King’s own grandson and next in line for the throne, is about to undergo his coronation ceremony having acclimated to his new life. The youth has a beautiful countenance and has learned to love the finest things which seem made just for him based on his comfort with them. On the eve of the ceremony the young king has three successive dreams, illustrating the differences between rich and poor, and is moved to the point of donning rags for the public who do not behave as he expects.
Stuffed with lessons that a great many have forgotten today, this directly relates to the class warfare we’re currently dealing with and has no shortage of comments on the situation.
“The Birthday of the Infanta” – The King of Spain’s daughter, the Infanta, is a young, playful, shining little girl who takes a liking to the performance a dwarf gives on her behalf. She asks specifically for him to dance for her later, and the enamored dwarf accepts her gift of a beautiful flower and is on cloud nine as he’s thinking about his love for the princess while the beautiful creations of the world, the birds and the flowers, make fun of him. He enters the castle and wanders alone through a number of rooms until he encounters a monster, himself reflected in a mirror. Learning the truth of the mirror he’s devastated by his appearance and when the Infanta arrives and demands her performance from the dwarf his eyes have been opened to the world.
Be careful with this one. It’s another example of true fiction.
“The Fisherman and his Soul” – A poor fisherman encounters a mermaid and professes his love to her, but her kind is forbidden to companion those who have Souls so the fisherman finds a priest to help. But the priest declares sacrilege, for nothing is more important than the Soul. So the fisherman finds a witch and convinces her to divulge the secret of ridding himself of his Soul which he does not use. After doing so the fisherman dives into the ocean for his love, and while his Souls pleads to the fisherman to not send him away, and if he’s going to, to please give the Soul a heart, the fisherman will not, stating he needs his heart to love the mermaid. The Soul goes away weeping, to return once every year in hopes of convincing the fisherman to take it back.
Here there be indictments of man but also professions to the power of love. Even the priest, who would not help the lovesick young fisherman, comes to realize the error of obstructing truth in the service of his current understanding of God’s will.
“The Star-Child” – Two poor men are gathering wood during a harsh winter when they come across a baby wrapped in white and gold tissue. One says to leave the child, for they cannot afford to feed another mouth, but the other takes the child home to his wife. She scorns him for his weakness but eventually turns to him tearfully that he’s done the right thing regardless of the hardships to come. They raise the child, who becomes haughty and prideful as descended from a star. A beggar woman appears, claiming to be his mother, but the youth makes relentless fun of her and drives her away. He realizes his mistake and attempts to track her down, but is eventually captured by a magician who demands the boy retrieve him three pieces of gold. The boy, having learned humility, saves the life of a rabbit who helps him retrieve the gold but in returning home the boy gives the gold to a starving leper and takes a beating from the magician for not returning with it. On the expedition for the third and final gold piece, if the boy does not return and hand it to the magician it will mean his life.
This is a great example of why fables are important. 10,000 years from now when we’re all but 100% machine, traveling galaxies and assimilating the universe, we’ll still be telling each other fairy tales. Because you may take relentlessly complicated ideas, the ‘grey’ areas we’re so fond of recognizing, and put them into stories that we can understand and from them, learn something. Yes, in many situations the right thing can be arguable, but when you boil things down to the essence, distilling the murkiness away, some of these ideas aren’t nearly as hard to absorb as we might at first think.
The collection of books is commonly available as part of the 100 Greatest Books Ever Written series from Easton Press, but can also be found free as e-books as the three titles mentioned above.
Finally, if the entire world were to read or have read to them “The Happy Prince” tonight–everyone, with no exceptions–we’d wake up into a better world tomorrow. A bit, anyway. Take advantage while you can.
“No, I am not at all cynical, I have merely got experience, which, however, is very much the same thing.”
A 5 star career in short stories.