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Reviewed by:
  • The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde
  • Jeanette Roberts Shumaker (bio)
The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. By Jarlath Killeen. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007.

On the faculty at Trinity College, Dublin, Killeen provides a late nineteenth century Irish Catholic context for Oscar Wilde's fairy tales as a way to better understand them. Killeen observes that Wilde's two volumes of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891), have been marginal to his canon in part because they do not fit into the usual view of Wilde as "a subversive writer" and in part "because children's literature . . . is considered a didactic and conservative form" (1). He starts with an introduction that explores "the critical history of the fairy tales and attempt[s] to explain why they have received relatively little attention" (1). Each of the nine chapters begins with a detailed review of the criticism of the fairy tale that is the chapter's focus, then explains the author's deviation from the standard view of that tale through the inclusion of Irish Catholic history. Unfortunately, Killeen's book lacks a concluding chapter that might present his generalizations about Wilde's fairy tales as a group, or that might address how the first volume of tales differs from the second; however, the final paragraph in the book does summarize his approach to Wilde's tales.

Killeen's learned, well-written study includes notes, a bibliography, and index that will be helpful to scholars of Wilde, Irish studies, Catholic studies, and children's literature. Killeen's introduction situates Wilde's stories within the transformation of folk tales into fairy tales that occurred in the 1800s, when middle-class collectors of folk tales turned them from utopian peasant visions into didactic works aimed at children. Killeen contends that many Wilde critics deny that his stories are fairy tales because they see that genre as conservative and moralistic; instead, such critics prefer to align Wilde with the radicalism of the folk tradition (7-10). Killeen differs from such critics in that he regards Wilde's tales as didactic and intended for both children and adults. Killeen posits that Wilde, like his own father and like Yeats, took a Gnostic view towards his readers, "whereby knowledge is transmitted from the initiated to acolytes through codes and symbols" (10) that "operated in some mysterious and magical fashion on the human mind" (11). Wilde's Freemasonry reveals similar assumptions, as did his wife's membership in spiritualist and Theosophical groups (11). Killeen places Wilde within the great Irish short story tradition that emerged from Ireland's long colonial [End Page 82] history; Joyce, like Wilde, writes short stories that bridge "the sacred and the profane," as seen in Joyce's use of the epiphany in Dubliners (16).

Wilde's parents, who collected and published Irish folk tales, "contributed significantly to the tradition of Irish Protestant investigation of native religious conventions" (6). Wilde may have gone with his father into western Irish peasants' homes to collect folk tales (7). However, Killeen explains Wilde's surprising attraction to the Catholicism of his Irish tenants and of poor Irish immigrants in London through factors beyond his parents' influence: not only homosexuals but Catholics in England and Ireland have a long history of coding secrets as symbols (171) as well as of "figuring spiritual and sexual heresy to the dominant modes of thought in both countries" (172).

The Irish Famine, the unfortunate decline of folk Catholicism among the Irish, nationalistic Marian Catholicism in Ireland, the poverty of Irish immigrants in England, Irish child labor in London, problems in the Catholic Church inside and outside Ireland (such as Irish Puritanism and an international search for power), and the importance of Irish politician Daniel O'Connell are some historical features that Killeen discovers hidden within Wilde's fairy tales; Killeen convincingly turns such traces from Wilde's Irish background into keys to his mysterious stories. For example, Killeen observes that Wilde's "The Devoted Friend" is his fairy tale that has stumped critics the most. Some critics have seen it as endorsing the amoral aestheticism seen in The Picture of Dorian Gray...


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