Oscar Wilde’s two fairy tale collections and The Canterville Ghost were published within a five-year span, between 1887 and 1891. The Canterville Ghost and his first collection of fairy tales feature some humor along with moral messages on themes of love, self-sacrifice and redemption. The second collection of tales carries on with some of the same themes but is much more serious and adult-oriented. They are more like morality tales than fairy tales.
The Canterville Ghost is a delightful short story about the American Minister’s family moving into Canterville Chase, a house that has been haunted for 300 years by a previous Lord Canterville who murdered his wife and has terrorized family and servants ever since. The Otis family — father, mother, older brother, sister Virginia, and twin boys — are undaunted by the story and handle the hauntings with aplomb. Upon finding a deep bloody stain on the carpet where the original murder occurred, they whip out Pinkerton’s Champion Stain remover and Paragon Detergent. They eliminate the stain and continue to remove it every time it reappears. The ghost is affronted by the Americans’ lack of respect for him and tries every trick he knows but fails to get the desired response. If anything, the ghost becomes terrorized by the house guests. There is a sweet ending to this tale involving the ghost and Virginia and a chance at forgiveness and redemption. This would be a fine story to read to kids, and adults will delight in it as well.
The Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde comprises two collections. The first, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, was initially published in 1888 and features 5 short, charming tales that are geared toward both children and their parents: “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Selfish Giant,” “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket.” “The Selfish Giant” is probably the best known of these. I remember reading it in Reader’s Digest when I was a child and loving it. All of the stories in this collection focus on themes like love, sacrifice, redemption and everlasting life. The first four tales each feature a character who gives of him or herself, even to the point of death, and they willingly make sacrifices in the name of love. The first three treat the themes with seriousness and pathos. The final two use humor and skewer those who see themselves as above the rest of the world– financially and/or socially.
The second collection, The House of Pomegranates, published in 1891, is decidedly more adult in its approach, one might even say political in its themes of justice, morality and equality. I can’t imagine reading it to children, and each story is dedicated to a particular person for reasons that I have not been able to determine. “The Young King” is about a boy of humble means who discovers he is about to be king. He is overwhelmed and excited at the thought of the riches he will have — the crown, mantle, scepter, etc. of the rarest and costliest materials. But then he dreams of how this costly finery is produced — by the blood, sweat and sacrifice of poor working people — and seeing the injustice of this, resolves to wear his own humble clothing to the coronation, a plan resisted by everyone at court. In “The Birthday of the Infanta” a child who is a dwarf is brought to the Infanta’s birthday party as an entertainment. The boy is delighted to make her happy and thinks that she has kind feelings for him, but she laughs at him, not with him. When the dwarf sees what he is to her, he dies, and the birthday party continues, the Infanta and guests unmoved. “The Fisherman and His Soul” is a complicated theological sort of tale about a man who falls in love with a mermaid — a soulless creature with whom he can only be united by getting rid of his own soul. The story is full of somewhat tedious detail about the journey his soul takes. I wish I could say that I understood the message Wilde was trying to convey here, but the most I can get out of it is that true love is stronger and greater than anything and redeems everyone. Finally, “The Star Child” is about a baby found in the woods and raised by a humble woodsman’s family. He grows to be beautiful but cruel and rejects his own birth mother in horrid fashion, then regrets it. He then goes on a journey to find her and repent. This might be the only tale in this collection that I could imagine reading to a child, although it has an ending that is somewhat ambiguous — both happy and unhappy.
The Complete Fairy Tales only take up about 85 pages and The Canterville Ghost runs around 55, but the reader is given a lot to think about in those few pages and will experience both joy and sadness. I would love to discuss the fairy tales in a book group.