How Aestheticism Is Demonstrated in Oscar Wilde’s Children’s and Other Tales

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“Art’s for Art’s sake.”

Originated from the French philosopher Victor Cousin, this was a famous slogan for the Aestheticism movement since the late 18th century Europe. Aestheticism was at that time a groundbreaking philosophy that focused on the aesthetic value of art itself rather than expanding art’s ability to make didactic, moral or socio-political influences. With intense influence from Realism, people in the conservative Victorian era were accustomed to judge art by its didactic functions—that art has to either teach a lesson or reflect reality—all of which serves a practical purpose.

In response to the criticisms of Aestheticism, Wilde stated, Art is this intense form of individualism that makes the public try to exercise over it an authority that is as immoral as it is ridiculous, and as corrupting as it is contemptible. […] The public […] continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic.

Throughout his life, Wilde had both lived and written literary works in defence of his tenets. For instance, his values of Aestheticism reflected in his major works like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome were under intense scrutiny and widely considered as controversial. Nevertheless, under the veil of the fairy tale genre, The Happy Prince and Other Tales is hardly a controversial literary work in the academic field although it is an effectual defense to Aestheticism. While he claimed that the tales are “partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy”, according to the blurb of “Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde”, the phenomenon of criticism against only Wilde’s adult literary works but not children fairy tales illustrates that only when men regard art in a more natural and instinctive way as how children are capable of doing, could they really get to genuinely appreciate the work of art instead of judge it with hypocrisy.

The Happy Prince and Other Tales consists five short stories, each of which employed different contexts and settings to celebrate the positive influence of art and illustrate the diminished and potentially damaging effects of art when humans manipulate it for some external purpose. In the first story, “The Happy Prince”, Wilde introduced to audience about the fundamentals of Aestheticism by defining the value and function of art as its unique ability to generate aesthetic pleasure. The tale along with the succeeding one, “The Nightingale and the Rose”, illustrate the spontaneous and sumptuous nature of art with subtleties in their plot developments, as well as imageries and dictions of pompousness. Following this, Wilde elucidates the justifications of Art’s existence. The narratives in “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket” in particular, take up a more ironical and negative stance to illustrate that Art as a tool to satiate human desires is flawed, corrupt, and dangerous, since the initial purpose and happening of Art is simply a passionate quest of an artist to pursue beauty.

The Value of Art

The Formation of Aesthetic Pleasure

Wilde argues that the unique ability to generate aesthetic pleasure is the very function and value that defines art’s existence in humanity. This has to be safeguarded as art risks losing its value when it is aimed for moral or didactic functions. In the story of “The Happy Prince”, the Prince (statue) utilizes his beauty for philanthropic purposes. He gives away his beautiful and precious body parts (gems and gold) to the needy. In turn, this misplacement made the statue lose its glamour and significance. Hence, the townspeople no longer admire it simply because it is beautiful no more. This shows that human beings are instinctively attracted to art by its beauty, not by its other secondary functions. Hence, it is only men’s hypocrisy that formulated criticism against the natural and instinctive principles of Aestheticism.

Wilde illustrates that the preciousness of art lies solely in its artistic functions, not in anything else. In “The Happy Prince”, the Prince enlists help from a Swallow who was on its winter migration to withdraw the beautiful jewels studded on his body and deliver them to the needy. However, the townspeople heeded neither the sacrifice of the Swallow to delay his journey nor the Prince’s sacrifice of his own beauty. Not even were they able to recognise the art and beauty in plain sight from the Prince’s mercy as they once did when the gems were studded on the statue. Earlier in the story, a beggar girl called the precious Ruby—the eye of the Prince—merely as “a lovely bit of glass” (18) and ran home heedless of whosoever made the donation. This vividly illustrates that the preciousness and glamour of an art piece diminishes with its misplacement. In the meantime, when the Swallow finished its gem delivery and exclaimed that “I am going to Egypt” (17), the narrative deliberately emphasizes, “nobody minded, and when the moon rose, he flew back to the Happy Prince” (17).

This illustrates that art is valuable and highly regarded only because of its unique capability to manifest beauty. When this essence is lost, art would lose its purpose to exist since men are always practical in nature and do not bother with things that cannot in some way benefit themselves. Hence, when the Prince looks shabby after sacrificing his beauty to help the poor, the townspeople did not keep it there to simply commemorate his virtuous acts. They demolished it immediately since the statue was no longer a pleasure to look upon. The Art Professor at the University in particular commented, “As he (the Prince’s statue) is no longer beautiful, he is no longer useful” (21). Thus, “they pulled down the statue of the Happy Prince” (21). This ending also echoes the beginning of the story where the Prince’s beauty and grandeur was admired and praised by everyone in town.

In order to illustrate the supremacy and elevation of art, Wilde allows readers to not only visualise the statue of the Prince through the third person narrative, but also through the subjective lenses of the townspeople. For instance, the Town Councillor remarked, “He [the statue] is as beautiful as a weathercock” (9) in order to gain “a reputation for having artistic tastes” (9); the Mother who coaxed her boy to stay as happy and contented as the Happy Prince; the disappointed man who found hope and healing through his contemplation upon the Happy Prince; and the Charity Children who saw the statue as angelic. The townspeople’s reactions to the statue illustrate how human are always unconsciously associating art with qualities elevated and alien to daily lives, such as genuine joy, beauty, and virtues. The Councillor, for instance, wished to be regarded as a man of taste by pretending to appreciate the nobility of art; the mother regarded the Prince as a fit role model for her kids; the disappointed man sought hope that lied beyond the reality of life; and the children perceived the statue as the manifestation of angelic purity which is an abstract concept absent in the terrestrial and material world. Through this, Wilde illustrates that human’s attachment to art is developed from the sensation of awe gained from the intangible and elevating qualities art carries. Hence, a work of art does not possess a singular or definite meaning intended by the artist. Art’s secondary purposes and functions are rather as something open to public interpretation as long as they bear aesthetic qualities that elevate them above all mediocrities of life.

The Nature of Art

Passion and Spontaneity

After defining the nature of Art, Wilde highlights the importance of genuine passion over the rigidness of rationality and reason in the creation of art. In the story of “The Nightingale and the Rose”, art is alluded to in the context of a young student’s romance. The action of the Nightingale sacrificing her lifeblood to nurture a red rose is a symbolization of an artist in the process of an art creation. The Young Student of reason and rationality meanwhile acts as a foil that heightens the paradox between passion and reason and the role of an artist in the disguise of the Nightingale character. The tale sets off with a Student antagonized by not being able to dance with the girl he loves since he does not have the red rose she wants. However, given he was initially a student who is more concerned with books and knowledge, his mind is still inclined to reason and rationality. He believes that the nightingale is a superficial creature whose only concern is to enjoy itself by singing beautiful songs. Ironically, the truth is that the Nightingale was expressing concerns for the Student and singing to death in exchange for the red rose he needed to court the girl he loves. The Student in a monologue earlier on said,

She (the nightingale) has form, […] that cannot be denied to her, but has she got feeling? I am afraid not. In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good. (28)

The student’s indifferent and wrongful accusation of the Nightingale’s sacrifice resonates with many other instances in Wilde’s fairy tales. For example, in “The Happy Prince”, the due homage was never paid toward the Prince and Swallow’s sacrifice, neither toward the poor hardworking seamstress (a side character in the story) who is accused by the queen’s maid as lazy; later on in “The Devoted Friend”, the generous and good-natured protagonist, Hans, was also being perpetually criticised and deprived till death by the Miller who is the ungrateful and selfish antagonist of the story. This juxtaposition of love and sacrifice with the ungratefulness and unfeelingness of the vast majority is central to the value for Aestheticism— art risks losing its value and significance when it tries to reach out for pragmatic functions. This also shows that art is not simply a purposeful and well-planned product of the mind, but rather an expression out of spontaneity. The Nightingale, for instance, would be better off singing for her own enjoyment rather than singing for the material exchange of a red rose, not mentioning that it was at the expense of her own life. The former would be a true work of art while the latter was rather an avoidable sacrifice.

From the Student’s approach to pursue his love, we see in great evidence that he is rather a rational being than a man of passion. He did not try to impress and court his love through passionate and spontaneous actions, for instance, writing romantic poems, love letters, or singing for his girl. When the girl tells the young Student that she would dance with him if he can give her a red rose, her implication was to ask the boy to impress her. Nevertheless, the Student took the girl’s word so literally that he only practically made a fuss of the red rose and gave up his courtship without allowing himself to trespass into the irrational realm of love after his failed attempt to impress the girl to dance with him.

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Art is associated with love and passion while worldly knowledge and wisdom are associated with practicality and rationality. While there seems to be an over-emphasis on the latter for the boy, his failure to court the girl through his practical attempts suggests that spontaneity and passion are essential for the creation of a true work of art.

Sumptuous and Impractical

While it is illustrated that art risks losing its essential purpose of beauty while trying to reach out for other functions, Wilde suggests that the very reason that art has to be separated from practical aims is because the creation of art could be very sumptuous and impractical in nature.

For instance, in “The Happy Prince”, not only the Prince’s statue is illustrated as a sumptuous display of splendour with precious materials like gold, jewels and gems, but also the Egyptian King’s tomb which is extravagantly decorated, and the dress of a Queen’s maid who is only a side character of the story. Wilde’s contemporary, Fernando Pessoa for instance wrote, “Thought can be lofty without being elegant, but to the extent it lacks elegance it will have less effect on others” (BOD). In other words, the reason that a piece of art can impact people in the first place is because of its stunning aesthetic beauty, not its practicality. It is only when one is attracted to the outer beauty of an object that its potential functionalities are considered. Hence, practical actions are to be done through other “technical” areas of life instead of through art, which is something inherently “unpractical” since there lies a difference between arts and artisanship in which the former prioritises aesthetic beauty while the latter manifests practicality.

The Justifications of Art’s Existence

Beauty and the Corruption of Men

Given the impracticality and sumptuousness of art, why then could art be justified to exist? Through the ironical and negative stance Wilde takes up upon the dark sides of humanity, like selfishness, vanity and hypocrisy, he illustrates that although Art is originally a noble form of self-expression in the quest to pursue beauty for artist, it is more often being utilized as human beings’ tool to satiate their desires.

While art contains qualities elevated from daily life, men’s corruption made it also as a ground to manifest their own hypocrisy, vanity and self-ego. In “The Happy Prince”, the Town Councillor intended to gain a reputation of having exquisite taste through associating himself with art. Later on in the story, the narration also emphasized human’s superficial relationship with art. The Swallow was shocked to find out, “What! is he[the Prince’s statue] not solid gold?’—the townspeople did not bother to investigate the same amount of artistic genuineness in the statue’s concealed interior. They merely used lead to construct his heart. The seeming grandeur only proves the insincerity of this creation of “art”. Later on, the narration of the Swallow illustrates how art is being used as a tool for the ancient Pharaoh to conceal his bodily decay and retain his fame and dignity. While the narration emphasizes the elaborate decorations of the King’s tomb, like the painted coffin, yellow linen shroud embalmed with spices and decorated with chain of pale green jade, etc, it also adds the final remark, “his hands are like withered leaves”. This subtle juxtaposition of art with the corruptions it conceals illustrates that art is often being taken advantage of due to its initially supreme and noble qualities. The real spirit of art is bent to accommodate men’s corrupt desires.

In order to illustrate how corrupt, flawed, and dangerous it is for men to distort the value and function of art, Wilde devoted the stories of “The Devoted Friend” and “The Remarkable Rocket” to ironize the corrupt and hypercritical nature of human beings.

First, Wilde deliberately invites readers to see the parallel between the fantasized story and reality. The story of “The Devoted Friend” is set in a fantasized world where animals talk about a human story, while “The Remarkable Rocket” starts off in a human world and proceeds to the fantasised world of animals and inanimate objects. The narrative shifts between the fantasized and human world enable readers to interrelate and reflect on the dual contexts. In “The Devoted Friend”, for instance, the water rat’s storytelling is often interrupted or cut off by occasional opinions and remarks made by other animal audiences. These pauses that temporarily withdraw readers from the story of the human world lead readers to consider and inspect the human characters in a more objective manner provided a different perspective from the animal realm.

Upon drawing the linkage between the reality and the fantasized world within the story, Wilde depicts hypocrisy and selfishness as dangerous and corrupt. In the story told by the Linnet in “The Devoted Friend”, the rich Big Hugh the Miller is a typical example of hypocrisy. He often preaches to the poor Little Hans of how to be a “devoted friend”, and yet, never lived up as one himself. The two protagonists are foils to each other, marked from their polarised titles to their physical actions, which heightened the story’s ironical stance towards the Miller’s hypocrisy. Irrespective of “little” Hans and “Big” Hugh the Miller’s unequal devotion to friendship, the Miller still claims, “Real friends should have everything in common”. Yet, as the story progresses, the narration illustrates in a sarcastic tone of how very contradictory are the Miller’s actions and his words: “…so devoted was the rich Miller to little Hans, that he would never go by his garden without leaning over the wall and plucking a large nosegay, or a handful of sweet herbs, or filling his pockets with plums and cherries…” Apart from this, the Miller often finds joy in preaching not only Hans, but also towards his own family members. Through the character of the Miller, Wilde illustrates that human beings would even regard language as an art medium to manifest their corrupted nature of hypocrisy and egoism. The ending where Hans is left in the snow to freeze and die after tripping into a river in the middle of the night to help the Miller searching for a Doctor to cure his sick son shockingly illustrates how corrupt human nature could be.

In addition, Wilde illustrates how superficial and vain human beings could be in the story of “The Remarkable Rocket” and how art is taken advantage of to please the corruption of human. In this manner, Wilde makes his point on why the way judging art by its external functions should be disapproved as art was originally, in its very primitive nature, meant to please human’s natural desires, such includes also the corrupt and hypocritical sides of human nature. The tale takes place upon a young Prince and Princess’ extravagant marriage after they actually get to know one another for merely three days. Great emphasis was made to illustrate the ostentation of the wedding and the Princess’ voyage. Meanwhile, both the Kingdom and the Prince’s name were excluded from being stated. The narration’s emphasis on the sumptuous formalities of the wedding instead of the core of the marriage—the very couples themselves and their affection—introduced the theme of men’s superficial quality which art satisfies.

Throughout the tale, not one single detail is dedicated to illustrate how much the couples loved each other in substantial actions. Yet, everyone believes that they are true lovers just by the superstitious sign that the crystal glass did not turn dull and cloudy when the couples drank through it together. Nobody knew to what extent their love was genuine, it was merely a young Page boasting it to the public. Every time the Page convinced the public more of the fresh couple’s “genuine love”, the King doubles the Page’s salary in spite that he has initially no salary at all. Hence doubling his “salary” gives no physical effect except as a form of honour that merely pleased his vanity. In addition, the King who played the flute badly at the wedding was nevertheless complimented by everybody just because he is the King who hence “deserves” admiration and respect whatsoever is the case. These examples, all of which showed that people are more concerned with superficial fame and formalities, instead of having interest in the actual things they represent, like true love, talents and wealth, just as if in the story of “The Happy Prince” how the townspeople only coated the outer layer of the Prince’s statue with gold and not its internal components.

However, as an endnote, Wilde still illustrates how essential Art is in daily lives. The following extract shows an instance of how the “remarkable” Rocket lectured to his companions:

[…] you should be thinking about me. I am always thinking about myself, and I expect everyone to do the same. […] Suppose, for instance, anything happened to me to-night, what a misfortune that would be for every one! The Prince and Princess would never be happy again, their whole married life would be spoiled; […] Really when I begin to reflect on the importance of my position, I am almost moved to tears.

However narcissistic and egotistical the rocket is in regarding its significance, it bears truth in the sense that a wedding without the aesthetical beauty of the pyrotechnic performance would be less enjoyable. In other words, if art happened to be made unavailable, humans would lose their enjoyment derived from the sheer beauty and magnificence of art. Hence, and again, this illustrates the significance of art for humanity simply because of its beauty.

Evaluation and Conclusion

Although creating art aiming solely for aesthetic beauty is central to Aestheticism, do artworks never serve any didactic purposes at all? Despite of the fact that The Happy Prince and Other Tales is one of Wilde’s less popular literary works in the academic field, it has proved itself a sound defence of Aestheticism by analysing the nature of art in relation to that of humanity. Without doing so explicitly to an extent where the literary work is no longer beautiful, it illustrates how art is a natural occurrence of humanity, how humans should respond to art naturally, and relationships otherwise are potentially damaging. With a strong sense of irony against the synthetic, hypercritical and corrupt nature of human through the tales, Wilde invites readers to see an irony of a larger scale. It was men’s natural longing for pleasure and sensual stimulation that gave birth to art; however, it is also human that meanwhile condemn and try to revolutionize the type of art that gratifies their desires so as to conceal their superficial and vain qualities.

Moreover, the deliberate act that Wilde chose the target audience to be children and anyone who retains child-like faculties elevates the significance of this literary work. The isolation of “the tales” from severe criticisms as of Wilde’s other major literary works meanwhile silently protests about men’s hypocritical nature of criticising genuine works of art whereas children are appreciative and receptive. It is itself evidence of what primitive and instinctive form of relationship between art and humans should be like. While the central claim of Aestheticism says that Art’s for Art’s sake, surely, if it was not because of the fascination of beauty, these tales would not have had appealed to readers and prompted this very essay in the first place.

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