Oscar Wilde wrote two books of what are commonly described as fairy tales in his career. The Happy Prince and Other Tales is the best known of the two, being closer to what we think of as the traditional children’s storybook, despite the tragic denouement of many of its tales. I’m going to discuss the second volume, A House of Pomegranates, which is somehow much darker, more adult, bearing much more of the ‘note of doom’, which Wilde would later write, in De Profundis, ran throughout all his fairy tales.
Significantly, the tales were published not long after Wilde met the man who was to spell his eventual downfall, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, in 1891. These fairy tales indicate a marked step away from the child-like tone of Wilde’s earlier volume, and explore in much greater depth the joys and perils of erotic desire, the love of beauty, and indulgences in sensuality. Norbert Kohl observes that A House of Pomegranates is ‘a symbolic expression of [Wilde’s] sexual ambivalence,’ indicating that Wilde had found a certain acceptance of his homosexuality, though the narratives clearly indicate that he was still aware of the dangers it posed. Anne Varty also points out the dual symbolism of the pomegranate, ‘which antiquity saw as the fruit of Hades and dark captivity, but which Christian iconography revisioned as the fruit of resurrection and rebirth.’ Whether Wilde himself was aware of these contradictory interpretations is unclear, although judging from his excellent knowledge of both Classical literature and theology, it is certainly possible. Thus the volume represents the duality of Wilde’s own persona: he is at once the decadent lover of other men, and the Anglican socialist who longs for redemption.
‘The Young King’ clearly represents this clash of interests in Wilde’s philosophies. The story concerns a boy king whose love of luxury and artistic beauty lead him to great extravagancies. However, a dream on the night before he is due to be crowned which shows him the sufferings of the poor who enable him to live in such affluence causes him to renounce his riches, and he is blessed by God in return. Although the most hopeful story within the collection, ‘The Young King’ still displays the agonising conflict between the love of art and the sympathy to the plight of the poor which Wilde himself experienced. The tale is also replete with homoerotic imagery. The Young King’s beauty is emphasised in the tale: he is ‘wild-eyed… like a brown woodland faun,’ prompting Jack Zipes to see him as ‘a homoerotic portrayal of an idealised lover.’ Note also that the art so loved by the King portrays exclusively male beauty – he adores ‘a Greek gem, carved with the figure of Adonis’ as well as a silver representation of Endymion, and is discovered ‘pressing his warm lips to the marble brow of an antique statue… inscribed with the name of the Bithynian slave of Hadrian.’ There is an indulgence of pure sensuality in this passage, an unadulterated joy in the worship of exquisite male beauty. There is a sense that homosexual desire – much more so that heterosexual – is bound up solely with beauty and love, liberated from concerns of procreation. It is a love which exists purely for the joy of loving, much the same as the love of art, which holds no utilitarian function but is rewarding nonetheless. It is also significant that among the King’s art collection is the figure of ‘a laughing Narcissus in green bronze [holding] a polished mirror above its head.’ Narcissus has often been associated with homosexual love – consider the Lacanian theory of the mirror image. Narcissus, like the homosexual, cannot feel anything for the allure of the Other, focussing instead on his own image, represented in another man. The statue therefore both represents the single-mindedness of the Young King, who cannot see beyond his own aesthetic pleasures, and acts as a motif for same-sex desire. While the tale has a happy ending of sorts – the King repents his thoughtlessness and is redeemed – it is telling that Wilde can only atone for the boy’s human follies by taking him outside the human and making him almost a divine being. It demonstrates that for Wilde, there was no easy, human solution to the predicament of his aesthetic and homosexual desires and the desire to care for his children and improve social conditions. His personal agony has no easy solution, and he indulges in the fantasy of divine benediction as a means of vicarious comfort.
The image of mirrors and self-confrontation reappear in two other stories in the volume, ‘The Star Child’ and ‘The Birthday of the Infanta.’ ‘The Star Child’ concerns the story of a beautiful youth who is so enamoured with himself that he becomes cruel, and it is only through losing his beauty and enduring much suffering that he can redeem himself. Here, the reference to Narcissus takes form in the boy’s extreme vanity, and once again Wilde takes the opportunity to dwell on the pleasures of male beauty. The child is represented as a strange amalgamation of nature and artifice, with his white skin, ‘delicate as sawn ivory,’ his hair ‘like the rings of the daffodil,’ his lips like ‘petals’ and eyes like ‘violets by a river of pure water.’ Wilde also declares that ‘his body [was] like the narcissus of a field where the mower comes not’ – another reference to the Greek hero. He is the perfect blend of art and what is most pleasing about nature, and once more the beauty of men is glorified. Significantly, it is when the Star Child cruelly rejects a woman – in this case, his mother – that his beauty is taken from him. His horrified gaze into the mirror reveals ‘the face of a toad’ and a ‘body scaled like an adder.’ This moment of revelation could easily be a reference to Wilde’s realisation of his homosexuality – many critics such as Norbert Kohl have seen the rejection of the mother as Wilde’s rejection of his wife, to whom the volume was dedicated. Notably, the tale ends on a bitter note. Despite regaining his beauty and earning the right to a kingdom, Wilde informs the reader that the Star Child will die after three years because his suffering had been too great, and that the next king would rule badly. This is yet another blow to the ‘Happily Ever After’ of fairy tales, and provides further evidence of Wilde’s ‘note of doom’, which realises that the homosexual lover will never achieve true acceptance or happiness in this world.
‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ has a similarly gloomy outlook. A young dwarf, who is captured to entertain the young Infanta on her birthday and consequently falls in love with her, is brought to recognise his own ugliness and dies of grief. Significantly, the story portrays the Infanta as cruel and thoughtless: upon learning that the dwarf has died of a broken heart, she commands that ‘for the future, let those who come to play with me have no hearts,’ and goes in search of other entertainment. Jerusha McCormack observes that ‘the love of women, as [Wilde’s] fairy tales explicitly show, is shallow and cruel.’ The implication is that true understanding and companionship can only be found with other men. The fateful mirror makes another appearance here, when the dwarf is struck with the horrible realisation that he is ‘misshapen and hunchbacked, foul to look at and grotesque,’ something he had never realised when he lived outside of society. McCormack suggests that this realisation could be ‘a reflection of Wilde’s own confrontation with himself in the mirror of homosexual love.’ It is a sudden awareness of shame, a representation of the disgrace of the invert, and it is a realisation terrible enough to strike death into the unfortunate dwarf’s heart. It is important to note that this shame was only brought about because the dwarf was taken into society and made to confront it by his treatment at the hands of others. This suggests that the invert is not naturally at fault, and that it is only through the condemnation of society that he is punished. However, this defence of the social outcast is embittered by death, indicating that Wilde was aware that for him at least, there would be no escape from the recriminations which society would level at his own lifestyle.
The final tale in Wilde’s volume, ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’, deserves special mention for the ways in which Wilde both imitated and developed two of Hans Andersen’s tales, ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Shadow.’ Obviously, it is a tale of love between a mermaid and a human, and also deals with themes of split identity and self-annihilation which are addressed in ‘The Shadow.’ However, Wilde inverts Andersen’s tales. Jack Zipes observes that ‘instead of the usual sea-nymph seeking a human soul, Wilde has the fisherman give up his soul to join the mermaid and to enjoy the sensual pleasures of her natural love.’ No squeamishness about physical pleasure or sexual initiation here. Instead of representing it as a defect, the tale glorifies in the mermaid’s Otherness, in her hair like ‘fine gold in a cup of glass’, her ivory skin, her tail of ‘silver and pearl’ and her lips like ‘sea-coral.’ She is an object of perfect artifice, of beauty absolute. Norbert Kohl sees the fisherman’s adoration of her as ‘a mixture of aesthetic sensuality and the thrill of the abnormal,’ and believes it represents a ‘renunciation of “normal” sexual behaviour.’ The love between man and mermaid is symbolic of homosexual love, which transcends the laws of nature for the sake of beauty. It is impossible to read of the condemnations levelled at the couple by the priest without thinking of the attitude of society towards the homosexual. Upon discovering the dead lovers, he pronounces them and their kind ‘accursed’, and proclaims that they were ‘slain by God’s judgement,’ having pronounced earlier that ‘the love of the body is vile… and vile and evil are the Pagan things God suffers to wander through His world.’ The reference is blatantly made to the attitude concerning same-sex love which Wilde would eventually suffer from. The reader is drawn to sympathise with the Fisherman, who proclaims that love is better than anything on earth, and therefore cannot be a sin in the eyes of God. The priest’s ultimate change of heart signifies hope for a future without tyranny or judgement, yet once again Wilde’s solution is bittersweet, as it is earned through the sacrifice of the Fisherman and his lover.
Fundamentally, Wilde’s strange fairy tales are narratives of the beauty and pain of homosexual desire. They portray the agonizing conflicts between the desire for a forbidden love and the desire for a family, between the love of beauty and the guilt inspired by the suffering of others, and indicate that the fairy tale has moved beyond simple wish-fulfilment and suppression, and has come to consciously include all the agonies and forbidden desires of illicit sexuality.