Monday, March 14, 2011

Irish Short Story Week Day 1: Oscar Wilde

I'm participating in the Irish Short Story Week, hosted by The Reading Life. Go see this great idea at its source!

While I know that the King of Irish short stories is James Joyce, I felt like if I was only going to have time to maybe do one of these posts, I wanted it to be Ireland's Court Jester of short stories, Oscar Wilde.

Wilde is one of my favorite authors, though I've read precious little of his work. What I have read, however, is spectacular, taking barbs at the society of his day, all while living a life that he had to hide. When his private life tumbled out into the public scene, he was ruined, jailed, and ridiculed. Not one of England's finest hours.

I love Wilde's playful side, which is why I of course chose one of his most serious and religious fairy tales as my short story selection. As we'll see, however, The Selfish Giant still shines with the flourishes of a man at home with words.

For those who want to play along, you can read The Selfish Giant online here. It's legal to do so, and won't take you very long. Even those who aren't keen on reading by screen should be able to manage it. I'll wait till you get back, playing with one of the children in the story.

Back? Good. These kids were starting to tire me out!

The first thing that really jumps out at me is the subtle Christianity of the story, which only comes into focus as the story nears its end. I don't tend to associate Wilde with being a Christian, though I have no particular reason to doubt his faith. Here he shows that you can make a religious story without beating people over the head with the idea of faith. Once our titular giant learns to love his brothers and sisters, he is ready for his heavenly reward. It's a touching way to end the story and even if you are not of the faith, the lesson is clear: Good deeds get rewarded.

What makes the story work for me, however, are the little touches. Wilde's personification of everything from the trees to hail are performed in short, funny strokes that are easy to picture in your mind. (My personal favorite is thinking about Hail, all made up of little stones, running around the garden after dancing on the giant's roof.) Sarcastic lines slip in (the giant is of limited conversation--he can only talk for seven straight years) but they do not keep the overall feeling of the work from being darkened by their barbs. Even the descriptions of the winter menaces are gentle, evoking more of a Disney imagery rather than, say, the angular work of Chuck Jones.

It's the overall story, however, that makes this one notable to me. It's clear that Wilde wants us to think about the haves and the have nots in our own world, and the Biblical instructions to help those who have nothing. Wilde was not blind to the rampant inequalities of his age (which are eerily similar to our own today), and he wants his adult readers to think about how they might be as selfish as the giant in their own lives. I'm sure Ireland's position compared to England had a bit to do with the story's moral as well.

In the end, we have a great tale that works as a fairy tale, a Christian story of charity, and a social commentary. As a bonus, the story is gentle enough for kids but with lines that will make an adult smirk and give readers of all ages something to think about. Wilde does this within just a few pages, making it all the more amazing. As with Shakespeare's plays or Jon Stewart, it can take a Jester to bring the truth to light.

Take that, James Joyce!

1 comment:

  1. Rob-I am doing a very extended Irish Short Story Week Year Two Now-I would be honored if you would be able to join us this year.