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  • Oscar Wilde, Victorian Fairy Tales, and the Meanings of Atonement
  • Elizabeth Goodenough (bio)

What the age needs is not a genius but a martyr.

(Søren Kierkegaard, 1813–1855)

But it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character.

(Albert Schweitzer, 1875–1965)

In 1889 W. B. Yeats was invited to the Wildes’s house at Chelsea. The young poet, whose Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) was reviewed that year by Wilde, was asked by Oscar to tell his son a fairy tale. Yeats got as far as “Once upon a time there was a giant,” when the little boy ran screaming out of the room. “Wilde looked grave and I was plunged into the shame of clumsiness,” the poet recalled in his autobiography (91). This act of storytelling seduction that backfired dramatizes how the verbal formulas of adults can pale before the authorial divinity of the very young. Even as they conjure ghosts of the punitive father, such sensitive listeners seem to determine the fate of adult words at their moment of utterance. As William Blake’s Songs suggest, the literal-minded innocent can be a creative visionary as well. “Children are never earnest in the way that adults are,” Dusinberre states, which is why they became Wilde’s most explosive weapon in attacking Victorian earnestness (261). The self-authorizing world of children, like the self-referential work of art, embodied Wilde’s esthetic credo that “[i]t is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (17) and that self-realization is the aim of life.

Yeats was mortified as a storyteller, but his fairy-tale incantation worked like a charm in making the hidden bogeys of childhood visible. [End Page 336] Like the inner tyrant of retributive justice, the terrors of a grown-up, a semi-divine monster moving on legs, is well-known to small children and their nightmares. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, an intellectual fascination with the irrational and unconscious mind catalyzed a variety of linguistic rituals, esoteric doctrines, and literary alchemies. As Alex Owen has shown, the suggestive power of magic, like the supersensual, paranormal, and occult phenomena attractive to Wilde’s circle, anticipated psychoanalysis as an avant garde mode of self-realization and the “inward-looking spirituality” of C. G. Jung. In 1892 Yeats, who like Wilde’s wife was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Door, declared in a letter to John O’Leary that “[i]f I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word” (211). For Wilde, another verbal wizard, magic was not the art of covering things up but the act of embodying secrets of the self. Feminist criticism has examined the way women writers of the nineteenth century (Mary Shelley, Charlotte Brontë, Charlotte Perkins Gilman) used Gothic elements to express subversive female feelings (rage, sexual desire, reproductive dread). Less attention has been paid to the way Victorian fairy tales blend sensual imagery, physical abandon, and corporeal suffering to explore the mysteries of atonement.

John Ruskin, William Makepeace Thackeray, A. E. Housman, E. Nesbit, and Kenneth Grahame all wrote magical tales, just as Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, T. S. Eliot, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning invoked, in a variety of genres, the figure of Christ. But oral wonder tales by George MacDonald, Christina Rossetti, and Oscar Wilde recast the gendered and generational stereotypes of religious authority in the Victorian period. Unlike the lengthy German “liberal lives” of Jesus, which proliferated from scholarly presses of the 1860s, these works were brief and spoke directly to the need to find a new human Christ implicit in Mary Arnold Ward’s enormously popular Robert Elsmere (1888). In the widespread speculation of Victorians about the personality and divinity of Jesus may be glimpsed tensions inherent in Christology since the pre-Nicene church regarding the problem of post-baptismal sin. Whether the body of Christ was conceived as the bestower of all divine good or the supreme sacrifice for our sins, opposing views of his efficacy developed early in church history...

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pp. 336-354
Launched on MUSE
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