I am interested in Wilde’s idea in The Decay of Lying that Art imitates Life, rather than Life imitating Art. In his essay, he claims that “Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil” (Wilde 983), and provides several fictitious examples of this. The example I found most humorous was his reference to Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, which was written by “great sentimentalist” William Makepeace Thackeray and originally published in 1848 (Wilde 984). Wilde’s character Vivian describes that well after Vanity Fair was published, the governess who was a loose inspiration for Becky’s character “ran away with the nephew of the lady with whom she was living, and for a short time made a great splash in society, quite in Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s style, and entirely by Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s methods” (Wilde 984), following the exact trajectory of Becky after her disastrous marriage to Rawdon Crawley. I find Wilde’s reference to Becky interesting because she was the ultimate liar. A vicious social climber, she is cunning and seductive, and uses her intelligence to take advantage of wealthy men. If art is lying, Thackeray’s biting satire is evidence of this. It presents heavily exaggerated characters and weaves together their stories in a ridiculous manner.
It is interesting to consider, then, how writers of Wilde’s time were turning away from Victorian literature. Certainly, Vanity Fair is not an example of art for art’s sake, but Becky’s interest in all things beautiful and her desire to live a pleasure-filled life seems to align with the code of the Decadents. Becky put on a show in society, masking her true background and creating a glamorous façade. She reminds me of some of the characters in Wilde’s short stories, particularly Lord Arthur Savile and the Canterville ghost. Lord Arthur creatively plots several murder attempts to maintain his position and relationship to his fiancée, creating a life based on deception and crime. The Canterville ghost initially is interested in putting on masks to terrorize the Otis family and maintain his fear-based position of power in the household. Their scheming and cunning for the sake of comfort cause them to act similarly to Thackeray’s Becky.
As we discussed The Happy Prince and Other Tales on Wednesday, I found myself drawn to the question “what makes a fairytale?” It’s a question I had not thought of before, mostly because I think that we learn fairytale stories when we are young and accept that the stories that we learned are fairytales. But as I thought about it further, I found that that explanation is unhelpful. For example, if asked whether Disney princess movies are fairytales, I would say no but many people would say yes. I would insist that they are adaptations of fairytales, not fairytales themselves, but if pushed I could only say that when I was a kid my parents read to me books of fairytales that told many of the traditional stories Disney used as inspiration for their films, so I consider those stories to be “true” fairytales, while someone who only watched Disney movies and did not read fairytales might say that the Disney films themselves are fairytales. “This is what I learned when I was a kid” is not a good enough justification for how to define a fairytale.
As I pondered this question, I came up with a variety of potential definitions. A fairytale has to have a Happily Ever After? Anyone who has read the Brothers Grimm know that’s not the case. A fairytale has a princess in it? Jack and the Beanstalk, the Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood are only a few examples that show that’s not true. Perhaps a fairytale is simply a fantastical short story intended for young audiences. That is the most satisfactory definition I could find after trying to classify books I read as a kid into different categories and looking in various dictionaries to see what they had to say.
With that definition in mind, in order determine whether “The Happy Prince” is a fairytale, we must reflect on whether Wilde intended for children to read the collection. I think it is fair to say that they are short, fantastical stories. Birds and statues speak to one another; rockets are personified; giants exist. It is more difficult to determine whether the stories are directed towards children. We talked in class about how critics are divided on this question. Vyvyan Holland said that the stories are more poetry than they are fairytales, but other people have argued that Wilde wrote these stories for his own children. Ultimately, I think that stories can work on multiple levels. These stories are entertaining for children to read, and they can also appeal to adults, regardless of which group was meant to appreciate the tales. With that in mind, I think that it is fair to categorize The Happy Prince and Other Tales as a collection of fairytales.