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Stories For Children, Histories of Childhood. Volume II

Rosie Findlay
Sébastien Salbayre

The language of decadent childhood in Oscar Wilde’s tales

Sebastien Salbayre


The language of decadent childhood in Oscar Wilde’s tales
I should like to take a close look at the way the realm of childhood as a referential context of situation is depicted and the way the identity of Wildean children is constructed and disclosed in tales in which children are involved and play a major role—“The Happy Prince”, “The Selfish Giant”, “The Young King” and “The Star-Child”. In order to analyse the language of these tales, and what Zipes refers to as their “subtlety and art”, I shall concentrate upon the articulation of expression and representation in the formulation of what can be considered an archetypal stage in any folk or literary tale—the child’s transformation, or metamorphosis.

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1“Fairy tales [...] are in general an improper medium of instmction because it would be absurd in such tales to introduce Christian principles as motives of action. [...] On this account such tales should be sparingly used, it being extremely difficult, if not impossible, [...] to render them really useful,” wrote Mrs Sherwood, a champion of the anti-fairy-tale school, in 1820, in her book The Governess, or the Little Female Academy (quoted by Zipes, Victorian Fairy Tales xvi-xvii). And yet, when Mrs Sherwood gave utterance to this very conservative criticism, in the tradition of the great eighteenth-century guardians of morality in children’s literature, like Mrs Trimmer and Mrs Mortimer, the fairy tale as a genre was on the verge of winning acclaim. Indeed, the unexpected renewed interest in myths and legends that had been run down during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was soon to be followed by a renewed craze for tales of enchantment that approached the world, accounted for human relationships and explored the human psyche and the collective unconscious from a radically non-rational perspective. In English children’s literature, fantasy was truly liberated from two long centuries of opprobrium in 1823 when Edgar Taylor published German Popular Stories, his own translation of the Grimms’ fairy tales. “Fairy tales became, almost overnight, a respectable study for antiquarians, an inspiration for poets, and a permissible source of wonder for the young,” lona and Peter Opie remark in The Classic Fairy Tales (32). But, as Jack Zipes remarks, one should keep in mind that Romantic poets like Southey, Lamb, Hood, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Hartley Coleridge “all wrote interesting fairy tales [...] while Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and Shelley helped to pave the way for the establishment of the genre and created a more receptive atmosphere for all forms of romance. In time, the return of the magic realm of the fairies and elves was viewed by the Romantics and many early Victorians as a necessary move to oppose the growing alienation in the public sphere due to industrialization and regimentation in the private sphere” (Victorian Fairy Tales xv). Until the 1850s, the English reader had access to collections of folk material transcribed from continental oral culture or translated from very popular continental fairy-tale writers—the Grimm brothers, whom I have already mentioned, Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, Madame Leprince de Beaumont and, of course, Hans Christian Andersen. In the latter half of the Victorian period, John Ruskin, George MacDonald and Oscar Wilde started revisiting the genre and intended to “recapture and retain childhood as a paradisiacal realm of innocence” (Zipes, introduction to Victorian Fairy Tales xx). In this way, they revolutionized the form and content of the fairy tale. In “Inverting and subverting the world with hope”, the fifth chapter of Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, Jack Zipes comments upon this re-appropriation of the genre and the reformulation of its possible moral consequences:

[...] the true ‘classical’ fairy-tale writers, who made a mark not only on their own times but have continued to speak to us today, were George MacDonald, Oscar Wilde and L. Frank Baum, the American offspring of the British movement. They were the ones who used the fairy tale as a radical mirror to reflect what was wrong with the general discourse on manners, mores, and norms in society, and they commented on this by altering the specific discourse on civilization in the fairy-tale genre. No longer was the fairy tale to be like the mirror, mirror on the wall reflecting the cosmetic bourgeois standards of beauty and virtue which appeared to be unadulterated and pure. The fairy tale and the mirror cracked into sharp-edged, radical parts by the end of the nineteenth century. This was true for all the tales, those written for children as well as for adults. There was more social dynamite in the contents of the tales, also more subtlety and art. (99)

2Oscar Wilde’s nine fin de siècle enchantment tales, which are to be taken into consideration within the scope of their immediate cultural, artistic and literary context, viz. Aestheticism, Decadence, Orientalism and Exoticism, were published in two different volumes, The Happy prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891). They can be said to abide by, and at the same time contravene, the traditional patterns of the fairy tale in so far as Wilde, like MacDonald and Baum, “refuse[s] to comply with the standard notions of sexuality and sex roles and question[s] the restrictions placed on the imagination of children” (Zipes, The Fairy Tale and the Art of Subversion 101). Wilde’s departure from the traditional mode of story-telling that had characterized the fairy tale as a genre includes the use of a new language, or discourse, which locates radical representational possibilities.

I should like to take a close look at the way the realm of childhood as a referential context of situation is depicted and the way the identity of Wildean children is constructed and disclosed in tales in which children are involved and play a major role—“The Happy Prince”, “The Selfish Giant”, “The Young King” and “The Star-Child”. In order to analyse the language of these tales, and what Zipes refers to as their “subtlety and art”, I shall concentrate upon the articulation of expression and representation in the formulation of what can be considered an archetypal stage in any folk or literary tale—the child’s transformation, or metamorphosis.


3In “The Happy Prince”, “The Selfish Giant”, “The Young King” and “The Star-Child” the style of the narrative is always extremely complex since it includes the use of archaic and biblical turns of phrase, allegory, personifications, unexpected similes and metaphors, and typically Wildean ornate descriptions. All these stylistic features, that are also to be found in his Symbolist tragedy Salomé, cannot but indicate a highly sophisticated, artistic use of language which connotes refinement and aesthetic excellence.

4In Wilde’s exceedingly sophisticated prose, this tendency, which Norbert Kohl considers to be “escapist”, “is apparent in the description of decorative settings, where the lure of the colourful, rare and costly material is depicted [with concentrated sensuality]. Assembled here is everything that has—in an industrialised, standardised and utilitarian world—become ever rarer and ever more expensive.” (57). More often than not in Oscar Wilde’s tales of enchantment, the description of the referential universe “sounds almost like the catalogue of a museum of arts and crafts listing the contents of some extraordinary interior” (57):

After some time he rose from his seat, and leaning against the carved penthouse of the chimney, looked round at the dimly-lit room. The walls were hung with rich tapestries representing the Triumph of Beauty. A large press, inlaid with agate and lapis-lazuli, filled one corner, and facing the window stood a curiously wrought cabinet with lacquer panels of powdered and mosaiced gold, on which were placed some delicate goblets of Venetian glass, and a cup of dark-veined onyx. Pale poppies were broidered on the silk coverlet of the bed, as though they had fallen from the tired hands of sleep, and tall reeds of fluted ivory bare up the velvet canopy, from which great tufts of ostrich plumes sprang, like white foam, to the pallid silver of the fretted ceiling. A laughing Narcissus in green bronze held a polished mirror above its head. On the table stood a flat bowl of amethyst. (“The Young King”, Complete Shorter Fiction 174, my emphases)

5The aesthetic, decorative style of “The Young King” points up the purely ornamental function of the language of the fairy tale. This strategy of expression is also at work in “The Star-Child”, especially in passages characterized mostly by the sonorous quality and rhythm of the sentences. In the following couple of sentences, this is highlighted by obsessive alliteration:

But the Star-Child heeded not their words, but would frown and flout, and go back to his companions, and lead them. And his companions followed him, for he was fair, and fleet of foot, and could dance, and pipe, and make music. (Complete Shorter Fiction 241)

6In “The Young King”, not only does the purely ornamental function of orgiastic accumulation of nouns and adjectives that refer to precious metals, precious stones and rare things of beauty ornament the narrative and produce aesthetic emotion, the words becoming the jewels of the text and echoing the actual objets d’art of the story, it also enables the narrator to construct the identity of the young male character:

All rare and costly materials had certainly a great fascination for him, and in his eagerness to procure them he had sent away many merchants, some to traffic for amber with the rough fisher-folk of the north seas, some to Egypt to look for that curious green turquoise which is found only in the tombs of kings, and is said to possess magical properties, some to Persia for silken carpets and painted pottery, and others to India to buy gauze and stained ivory, moonstones and bracelets of jade, sandalwood and blue enamel and shawls of fine wool. (Complete Shorter Fiction 173)

7The young hero, who had been sent off to be raised by a goatherd after his parents died mysteriously, was suddenly summoned back to court to become king himself when his grandfather, the old king, was dying—the tale actually begins “the night before the day fixed for his coronation” (171). As soon as he is initiated into the world of the palace, the Young King is also initiated into the universe of irresistible beauty, just like Dorian Gray, who is condemned never to grow old, at least physically. Now, in the tale, the Young King’s worship of beautiful, rare things is expressed in exactly the same terms as Dorian Gray’s:

He would often spend a whole day settling and resettling in their cases the various stones that be had collected, such as the olive-green chrysoberyl that turns red by lamplight, the cymophane with its wirelike line of silver, the pistachio-coloured peridot, rose-pink and wine-yellow topazes, carbuncles of fiery scarlet with tremulous, fourrayed stars, flame-red cinnamon-stones, orange and violet spinels, and amethysts with their alternate layers of ruby and sapphire. He loved the red gold of the sunstone, and the moonstone’s pearly whiteness, and the broken rainbow of the milky opal.
He procured from Amsterdam three emeralds of extraordinary size and richness of colour, and had a turquoise de la vieille roche that was the envy of all the connoisseurs. (The Picture of Dorian Gray 166-167)

8The comparison may lead one to believe that prose decoration, florid descriptions and the decorative technique are stylistic features and strategies that make it possible for the reader to draw a necessary parallel between the young hero of the tale and the protagonist of Wilde’s anti-Bildungsroman—Dorian Gray, Wilde’s decadent aesthete par excellence, is also both a human being whose development is arrested forever and a living work of art, a characteristic which he shares with another Wildean young hero, the Happy Prince: in the incipit of the tale, the narrator reveals that

High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt. (Complete Shorter Fiction 95)

9From a linguistic point of view, the use of the personal pronoun he instead of it in the above passage cannot but draw the reader’s attention to the identity of the young hero: neither the statue as such nor the Happy Prince himself but the statue of the Happy Prince is referred to as an entity that combines essential elements belonging to both the sphere of art and that of life. The child as a living work of art is Wilde’s archetypal hero.

10In Oscar Wilde’s tales, the realm of childhood is a universe of exoticism and strangeness. It is also a world of artistic refinement in which decadence and aestheticism dare speak their names, but Wilde’s originality as a story-teller does not only lie in the creation of a decadent atmosphere. It also rests upon his own linguistic use of the Authorized Version of the Bible the words, style, rhythm and cadence of which are resorted to in order to set the children’s adventures in “an idealised Christian frame of reference” (Kohl 57), a frame of reference in which the incantatory power of language is given much prominence:

And a man came out of the crowd and spake bitterly to him, and said, 'Sir, knowest thou not that out of the luxury of the rich cometh the life of the poor? By your pomp we are nurtured, and your vices give us bread. To toil for a hard master is bitter, but to have no master to toil for is more bitter still. Thinkest thou that the ravens will feed us? And what cure hast thou for these things? Wilt thou say to the buyer, "Thou shalt buy for so much," and to the seller, "Thou shalt sell at this price?" I trow not. Therefore go back to thy Palace and put on thy purple and fine linen. What hast thou to do with us, and what we suffer?' (Complete Shorter Fiction 181)

11In this passage taken from “The Young King”, Wilde’s use of archaic pronouns and formulae and parallel sentences that compellingly remind the reader of the style of the Authorized Version is highly subversive since it is meant to formulate and justify the exploitation of the lower classes and the dominant discourse on class differences—this is all the more ironic as this point of view is thus defended by a member of the lower classes. In this particular case, the language of the Bible does not express spiritual goodness. On the contrary, it is connected with a conservatism against Wilde was keen on fighting.

12In another passage taken from “The Star-Child”, the way in which the eponymous hero “addresses his mother after the long search shows no spontaneous joy of reunion, but sounds like the repentant sinner’s plea for absolution” (Kohl 56):

‘Mother, I denied thee in the hour of my pride. Accept me in the hour of my humility. Mother, I gave thee hatred. Do thou give me love. Mother, I rejected thee. Receive thy child now.’ (Complete Shorter Fiction 251)

13In these six short sentences characterized by archaisms and syntactic parallelism, the Star-Child resorts to biblical language to be absolved from his major sin, that is the love of his own extraordinary beauty and suggested acts of autoeroticism, another feature which he shares with Dorian Gray:

Indeed, he was as one enamoured of beauty, and would mock at the weakly and ill-favoured, and make jest of them; and himself he loved, and in summer, when the winds were still, he would lie by the well in the priest’s orchard and look down at the marvel of his own face, and laugh for the pleasure he had in his fairness. (“The Star-Child”, Complete Shorter Fiction 241)

Once, in boyish mockery of Narcissus, he had kissed, or feigned to kiss, those painted lips that now smiled so cruelly at him. Morning after morning he had sat before the portrait wondering at its beauty, almost enamoured of it, as it seemed to him at times. (The Picture of Dorian Gray 135)


14Oscar Wilde’s tales contain sentimental portraits of children:

‘He looks just like an angel,’said the Charity Children (“The Happy Prince”, Complete Shorter Fiction 95)

The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and tears were running down his golden cheeks. His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little Swallow was filled with pity. (Complete Shorter Fiction 97)

15This romanticized picture of childhood soon turns into a series of eroticized descriptions of the young male heroes. In Wilde’s tales of enchantment, the youths are first introduced as characters of breathtaking personal beauty:

‘He is as beautiful as a weathercock,’ remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes (“The Happy Prince”, Complete Shorter Fiction 95)

‘I have many beautiful flowers,’ he said; ‘but the children are the most beautiful flowers of all.’ (“The Selfish Giant”, Complete Shorter Fiction 113)

16They are then portrayed in highly sexualized terms. The emphasis that is put on male beauty in the tales actually conceals a homoerotic subtext. The two tales that relate the story of a prince without a princess and that of a king without a queen also produce a subtext of ambiguous same-sex friendship:

After they had gone [the swallow] felt lonely, and began to tire of his lady-love. [...] Then he saw the statue on the tall column. ‘I will put up there,’ he cried; ‘it is a fine position with plenty of fresh air.’ So he alighted just between the feet of the Happy Prince. (“The Happy Prince” Complete Shorter Fiction 96)

Under the archway of a bridge two little boys were lying in one another’s arms to try and keep themselves warm. (“The Happy Prince”, Complete Shorter Fiction 102)

And [the Young King] bade them all leave him, save one page whom he kept as his companion, a lad a year younger than himself. Him he kept for his service, and when he had bathed himself in clear water, he opened a great painted chest, and from it he took the leathern tunic and rough sheepskin cloak that he had worn when he had watched on the hillside the shaggy goats of the goatherd. These he put on, and in his hand he took his rude shepherd's staff. (“The Young King”, Complete Shorter Fiction 181)

17“The Young King” is teeming with coded references to homoeroticism and emblems of male beauty:

Many curious stories were related about [the Young King] at this period. It was said that a stout Burgomaster, who had come to deliver a florid oratorical address on behalf of the citizens of the town, had caught sight of him kneeling in real adoration before a great picture that had just been brought from Venice, and that seemed to herald the worship of some new gods. On another occasion he had been missed for several hours, and after a lengthened search had been discovered in a little chamber in one of the northern turrets of the palace gazing, as one in a trance, at a Greek gem carved with the figure of Adonis. He had been seen, so the tale ran, pressing his warm lips to the marble brow of an antique statue that had been discovered in the bed of the river on the occasion of the building of the stone bridge, and was inscribed with the name of the Bithynian slave of Hadrian. He had passed a whole night in noting the effect of the moonlight on a silver image of Endymion. (“The Young King”, Complete Shorter Fiction 173, my emphases)

  • 1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an h (...)
  • 2 2 And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an (...)
  • 3 28 And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, (...)

18Throughout his tales, Wilde combines the language of decadence and that of the traditional fairy tale, and conveys his own notion of Christianity: his young heroes are Christ-like figures and the metamorphosis that they experience is expressed and described in terms of transfiguration. Indeed, the transformation of the Wildean children echo the Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17: 1-13,1 Mark 9: 2-13,2 Luke 9: 28-363):

And they fell on his neck and kissed him, and brought him into the palace, and clothed him in fair raiment, and set the crown upon his head, and the sceptre in his hand, and over the city that stood by the river he ruled, and was its lord. Much justice and mercy did he show to all [...]. Nor would he suffer any to be cruel to bird or beast, but taught love and loving-kindness and charity, and to the poor he gave bread, and to the naked he gave raiment, and there was peace and plenty in the land. (“The Star-Child”, Complete Shorter Fiction 251-252, my emphasis)

19In “The Selfish Giant” the little boy is a representation of Jesus Christ, and the eponymous hero’s love for this fascinating beautiful child is described as a form of liberation: after meeting him, the Giant, who himself has been transfigured, can die peacefully and rest forever in the boy’s own garden, “which is Paradise” (Complete Shorter Fiction 114). Now, in the writer’s aesthetics and personal mythology, Jesus Christ, whom he calls the first individualist in history, is a literary figure and the archetype of the artist:

I see a far more intimate and immediate connection between the true life of Christ and the true life of the artist [...] (De Profundis 922)

[...] I see in Christ not merely the essentials of the supreme romantic type, but all the accidents, the wilfulnesses even, of the romantic temperament also. He was the first person who ever said to people that they should live 'flower-like lives.' He fixed the phrase. He took children as the type of what people should try to become. He held them up as examples to their elders, which I myself have always thought the chief use of children, if what is perfect should have a use. (De Profundis 931, my emphasis)

20Wilde’s stories create a new child, an overtly sexualized being whose sensual experience is always paradoxically associated with moral and religious enlightenment. This new child can be considered the embodiment of a new version of the figure of Christ, that is, the figure of Christ as a poet. Thus, his tales might be read as Portraits of the Artist as a Decadent Child.



OPIE lona and Peter, The Classic Fairy Tales, 1974, New York, Oxford University Press, 1980.

WILDE Oscar, Complete Shorter Fiction, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980.

———, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891, London, Penguin, 1985.

———, De Profundis in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, with an introduction by Vyvyan Holland, 1948, London: Collins, 1989.

ZIPES Jack, Fairy tales and the Art of Subversion, 1983, New York, Routledge, 1991.

———, Victorian Fairy Tales: the Revolt of the Fairies and Elves, London, New York, Methuen, 1987.


1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,
2 And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light

2 2 And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves: and he was transfigured before them.
3 And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.

3 28 And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.
29 And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering.


Université François Rabelais de Tours
Teaches English literature at the University of Tours. He is the coauthor, with Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud, of L’Analyse stylistique: Textes littéraires d’anglais (Toulouse: Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2006). He has also published several articles on the works of Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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