- Dark Avunculate:Shame, Animality, and Queer Development in Oscar Wilde’s “The Star-Child”
[A]t the birth of a child or a star there is pain.—Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Then he had been a young girlCaught in the woods by a drunken old manKnowing at the end the taste of his own whiteness,The horror of his own smoothness,And he felt drunken and old.—T. S. Eliot, “The Death of Saint Narcissus”
Critics dealing with Oscar Wilde’s collection of fairy tales, A House of Pomegranates, have tended to focus on “how and why a single fairy tale might simultaneously appeal to adults and to children” (Marsh 73). In order to emphasize the different impact of the stories, Michelle Ruggaber points out that the title of the collection itself harbors sinister allusions, as it refers to the ancient myth of Proserpine, in which pomegranates are explicitly connected with the underworld (143). In “The Star-Child,” the fourth and final story, a pomegranate tree indeed marks the entrance to the wicked Magician’s underground dungeon (Wilde 280), which becomes the scene of shame and torment. In contrast to Proserpine, who must spend at least part of every year in Pluto’s company, the Star-Child eventually is able to leave the dank, dark confines of his prison by performing a number of good deeds, which allow him to redeem himself and escape his ugly fate at the hands of his tormentor. However, this respite is only temporary; even though he manages to ascend to his rightful place in life, his trials and tribulations have been so taxing that he dies “after the space of three years” (284).
This article will outline the inequalities of the relationship between the Star-Child and his temporary master, known only as the Magician, in order to argue that Wilde’s fairy tale should be read as the formalization of a queer interval that traumatizes the Victorian norm of maturation. This is not to suggest that “Wilde’s Victorian readers [would] seem to have found [any]thing untoward about the fairy tales” (Duffy 328); nothing, at least, that hinted at the “homoromantic dimensions” which [End Page 20] were to become so devastatingly central to his libel trial of 1895 (338). John-Charles Duffy has nevertheless shown that a complex interweaving of myth and sexuality is at work in Wilde’s fairy tale. Wilde’s story differs in important ways from other variants of the Proserpine myth, most notably concerning the gender of the protagonist. The gender inversion of the Proserpine figure, as embodied by the Star-Child, is one important way by which we can activate a queer reading of the text. Moreover, Wilde exploits this mythical archetype in order to explore the sexual affect of shame and the way in which it disrupts or delays the narrative of childhood development.
Shame has become a regular bedfellow of queer theory in recent years. The sheer proliferation of studies exploring and elaborating on this connection means that we should be especially careful not to assume the universality of its application. Furthermore, what is meant in relation to Wilde’s “queerness” bears explanation. In his article, “Gay-Related Themes in the Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde,” Duffy addresses the danger of submitting Wilde and other writers to an essentially anachronistic “gay reading,” drawing on a terminology that can be historically located in the discourse growing out of Kraft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, post- 1892 (327). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick also comments that while “Wilde’s work was certainly marked by a grappling with the implications of the new homo/hetero terms,” especially in The Picture of Dorian Gray, his “own eros was most closely tuned to the note of the pederastic love in process of being superseded—and, we may as well therefore say, radically misrepresented—by the homo/hetero imposition [of the late nineteenth century]” (Tendencies 56). Duffy argues, however, that this does not mean it is not possible to identify in Wilde’s writings certain “‘gay-related’ themes,” as long as we recognize that these were likely to have been cast in “the conceptual vocabulary of Hellenism” (328...