Oscar Wilde has been hailed as an all-time comic genius by critics through the ages. Indeed, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, ‘The Ideal Husband’, ‘The Canterville Ghost’ are some of his most widely read plays and Jack (Earnest) Worthing and Sir Simon de Canterville some of his most loved characters (in case of the latter – ghosts). But he has more to his credit than his immensely popular comedies – a number of equally powerful (though slightly less popular) short stories. Incorporated with his signature wit and seemingly innocent humour, his short stories provide an interesting critique of Victorian England. Though in the first glance the stories appear to be largely meant for children, the more observant reader will find reflections of Wilde’s views on the utilitarian education system, individualism, bourgeois ethics and other concepts pre-dominant in the late nineteenth century in Europe.
As a child when I read ‘The Devoted Friend’ it was a ‘nice story with a sad ending’. However as a mature reader, ‘The Devoted Friend’ is a beautiful depiction of a society governed entirely by material benefits. Narrated in a tone of characteristic Wilde sarcasm – it tells the story of two ‘friends’, where one of them is a cunning miller and the other is a village bumpkin. The following extract from the story establishes their relationship quite adequately. It is a conversation between the cunning miller and his son about his simpleton friend. “Why, if little Hans came up here, and saw our warm fire, and our good supper, and our great cask of red wine, he might get envious and envy is a most terrible thing, and would spoil anybody’s nature. I certainly will not allow Hans’s nature to be spoiled. I am his best friend and will always watch over him to see that he is not led into any temptations. Besides if Hans came here, he might ask me to let him have some flour on credit, and that I could not do. Flour is one thing, and friendship is another, and they should not be confused. Why, they are spelt differently and mean quite different things.” In ‘Nightingale and the Rose’ (this story too, made me cry) the little nightingale embraces a painful death to produce a ‘Red Rose’ (the red colour of the rose has come from the nightingale’s blood). In the end the rose is thrown away into the gutter since it has been replaced by more valuable jewels. In the last paragraph of the story, the student for whom the nightingale literally ‘creates’ the red rose is shown returning to his utilitarian education of Logic and Mathematics. He dismisses love as a “silly thing” that does not prove anything and is also quite unpractical. ‘The Model Millionaire’ opens with what the author himself calls the ‘great truths of modern life’–“Unless one is wealthy there is no use in being a charming fellow. Romance is the privilege of the rich, not the profession of the poor.”
In all the above-mentioned instances, there is a definite rejection of genuine emotions and values, which are substituted by articles of monetary value. In short, Wilde presents to the reader, the society in which he lived and wrote in its truest form. In this respect Wilde can be said to be quite similar to Dickens. In fact they were both influenced by the same political thinkers of the time (Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin etc) and to an extent had similar political ideals. Yet it’s hard to believe that Dickens’ morbid, dreary world could be the same as Wilde’s colourful, witty and humorous one. Where Wilde differs from Dickens is in his style of – presentation. Here, instead of evoking hatred (as a typical Dickens villain would) the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy become objects of ridicule. In a Wilde story (or play), the end is rarely important. The protagonist might or might not achieve his desired end. It is his journey from the beginning to the end of the story that makes the reader laugh and cry along with him.