Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Wilde, Oscar

(1854-1900) Anglo-Irish writer, most famous for the plays he wrote 1891-1895; almost all his fantasies were written in the preceding phase of his career. Much of his early poetry – collected in Poems (coll 1881) – is redolent of fantasy; his most significant fantasy poem, The Sphinx (1894 chap), came later. The Canterville Ghost (1887; 1906 chap) – several times filmed (see The Canterville Ghost) – is a melancholy comedy lamenting the Americanization of English culture while acknowledging the irresistible force of US pragmatism; the tradition-bound Ghost cannot prevail against the positive thinking of his mansion's new tenants. The tale was reprinted in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (coll 1891), whose title story (1887; 1890 chap) employs OW's sparkling wit as a sarcastic gloss on the attempts to cheat destiny made by its hapless protagonist.

The Children's Fantasies in The Happy Prince and Other Stories (coll 1888) are embellished with a subversively cynical irony. In The Nightingale and the Rose (1911 chap US) the Bird who sacrifices her life in order that a student may have the red rose demanded of him by the girl he loves turns out to have shed her life-blood for nothing. The four stories in A House of Pomegranates (coll 1891) extrapolate this trend to its extreme. The Young King (1888; circa 1895 chap US) refuses the regalia of his office after discovering the hardships which his people endure in paying for his coronation, but no one respects his decision. In The Birthday of the Infanta (1889; circa 1895 chap US) a similarly ostentatious display of callous wealth is the background to a harrowing tale of disillusion. The Fisherman and His Soul (1895 chap US) deftly combines the motifs of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" and "The Shadow": the fisherman's rejected Soul returns periodically to tempt him with visions of a world full of exotic promise, but when he gives in he finds the soul irredeemably spoiled. The Star-Child (circa 1895 chap US) tracks the tribulations of an infant betrayed by delusions of grandeur. These short fictions have been assembled in many subsequent collections for children; they were heavily influenced by the French tradition of sophisticated and morally subversive contes, which OW adopted as enthusiastically as he embraced the theories and mannerisms of French Decadence, ironically displayed in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Dorian's adoption of a Joris-Karl Huysmans-inspired Lifestyle Fantasy while his portrait suffers the displaced legacy of his self-indulgence ultimately comes to nothing because he cannot control his reaction when he is irresistibly drawn to meet his tainted Double face-to-face. Looked at from another viewpoint, the novel owes a great deal to Robert Louis Stevenson's Technofantasy Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), in that it portrays an attempt to dissociate the good from the Evil within a single individual, although OW focused on superficial Good and Evil (the picture, after all, being itself morally neutral). The most noteworthy cinematic version of the tale has been The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945).

OW made his own contribution to French Decadence in the play Salomé, drame en un acte (1893 chap France; trans Lord Alfred Douglas as Salome: A Tragedy in One Act 1894 chap), which Marcel Schwob and Pierre Louÿs helped him polish; it was first produced in Paris in 1896, after being refused a licence for English production in 1892. OW also produced a cycle of six Poems in Prose (1893-1894; coll 1905 chap France), of which the last and longest is a curiously plaintive Christian Fantasy. The last items are omitted from the version of The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde (coll 1908) ed Robert Ross, but are included in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (coll 1931).

Following his imprisonment after the collapse of his libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry (who accused him of "posing as a Somdomite" [sic]) and subsequent prosecution for gross indecency, OW wrote nothing except The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). The abortion of his brilliant career was a tragedy without parallel in English letters. The best of his fantasies are heartfelt parables which seek to explain how human folly, vanity, greed and infidelity serve as the roots of all evil and misery – which is, of course, the highest and truest purpose of fantasy. [BS]

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.