Wednesday, 13 May 2009

39. Oscar Wilde - 'The Selfish Giant' (1888)

'He's bought a building! He's bought a building! Great!
(Cassetteboy, 'I Am the Guv'Nor, You Deal with Me', Carry on Breathing, 2008)

'it was so long since he had heard a bird sing in his garden that it seemed to him to be the most beautiful music in the world.'
(Oscar Wilde, The Complete Oscar Wilde, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, p.292)

Not so much deployment of the paradox; little of the sophisticated wit of the kind one might expect of this writer. Instead, socialist - or even Communist - allegory with implicit, verging upon explicit, denunciation of the idea of private property.

The Selfish Giant erects in his garden a notice-board with the words : 'TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED' - shown centred on the page in a box. An ancient and modern mantra of those who would lay claim to land. Today, property ownership may be a smugly infantilised game - Channel 4's programmes such as Property Snakes and Ladders - and assumed 'right'. Meaning we are just as in need of Bertram Ingledew's astonished indignation and Cassetteboy's ingenious, hilarious and righteous Morrisian cut-ups.

The British obsession with owner occupation - leading often to a metaphorical lowering of the drawbridge against the world and other people - is a key part of why are a less civilised nation than, say, Germany. Also partly why we are so Conservative at the ballot box.

The sublimely sneaky, subversive 'A Sphinx without a Secret' is more redolent of the Wilde one expects from the plays and the life, with its piercing view of romantic rituals and bourgeois city life. This is more simple, on-the-surface rather than concerned with surfaces; there is an almost anti-Wildean simplicity at work, for example, 'He was a very selfish Giant' is indented as a paragraph on its own.

Grasping acquisitiveness gives way to generosity and nature; a vision somewhat in line with that of Hans Christian Andersen. The Wildean mark is clear in how he characterises the Giant at the beginning; he returns home after seven years staying with his friend the Cornish ogre: 'After the seven years were over he had said all that he had to say, for his conversation was limited, and he determined to return to his own castle.' (p.291) That he lacks conversational skills does not sit well with the convivial Wilde, whose table talk was legendary and often facilitated his creativity; it marks the Giant out as bad and limited, in comparison to the communal harmony of the children who he finds playing in his garden.

Typically for both allegory and the Wildean fairy tale, the elements and seasons are personified; Autumn, for example, acts to punish the giant by withholding her fruit from his garden: ' " He is too selfish," she said. So it was always Winter there, and the North Wind and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees.' (p.292) This anti-realism reflects how rooted in tradition Wilde was; sometimes he subverts it, but always he draws upon it - for example, the deployment of tropes from Victorian Melodrama in his early plays.

Nature, as in Andersen, works to negate the evil in individuals, and provides for communality to re-assert itself at the end. Indeed, white blossom serves as a symbol of the Giant's moral ascension, described as covering his dead body at the close.

To get a true sense of Wilde, one must go beyond the plays; an understanding of them is to be enriched by perusal of his essays and short-stories - which reveal an ardent socialist and anti-Wienerite, brethren of William Morris and in line with other such currents in post-1850 literature and culture. While I prefer 'Sphinx' to this, it has to be stressed that they each inform the other; irreverent social satire and absurdity given the ballast of Christian Socialism, and vice versa.


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