I know a song written by Andrew Peterson about his awe of the canyons and mountains during a drive out west. It’s called “Nothing To Say”. I found this same idea – only directed toward art – in Oscar Wilde’s bizarre little novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. As a scary story, it ranks right up there with Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King. In theme and tone, it reminded me of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I would be lying if said I knew exactly what Wilde was getting at in this novel. I’m not sure if any of the main characters express Wilde’s point of view; however, I couldn’t help notice how much talking Lord Henry, Dorian Gray’s friend, did about art or about marriage or about life or death or about anything. He had opinions about everything and most of them came in the form of little epigrams that usually left me scratching my head. Every once in a while, he might have a point. My guess would be that Wilde used Lord Henry as a satirical device – perhaps the opposite of how Wilde thought, himself.
For me, there is an aspect to great art, whether music, painting, novels or short stories, that is not easily defined. Sometimes words just don’t cut it. Maybe Wilde preferred no words to describe art as opposed to pithy and pompous little cliche’s. Maybe Wilde felt art didn’t need to be described or defined, it could just “be”.
He knew that the senses, no less than the soul, have their spiritual mysteries to reveal.
That he would put this idea into what amounts to a horror story is even more fascinating. Sometimes things that are difficult to define come across as scary.
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There’s something offbeat and quirky about Oscar Wilde that I’m beginning to like. He gets better with each story. I admit I wasn’t sure about him when I read “The Fisherman and His Soul”, but now I’ve read “The Remarkable Rocket” and I might become a fan.
The story starts out as a typical fairy tale with a Princess marrying a Prince. The quirkiness begins with the Prince’s father (that would be the King) doubling his servant’s salary of zero – “but it was still an honor”. As the wedding festivities continue, the King explains the firework presentation. The princess had never seen fireworks before.
It’s at this point that the story takes an odd (but likeable) turn to the fireworks, themselves. Making the fireworks anthropomorphic, Wilde gives the reader a glimpse into this little community made up of Squibs, Catherine Wheels, Roman Candles and last, but not least (at least not in his mind), a Remarkable Rocket.
The contrast between the Rocket’s arrogance and the rest of his world’s refusal to accept his arrogance provides for most of the humor in the story. The Rocket’s high and mighty attitude toward himself would be just plain annoying if it wasn’t for the Squibs and Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles who completely ignore his uppity mindset. They bring the Remarkable Rocket to the point of being almost dillusional – well, to everyone but himself. This was one of the funnier pieces of unwanted advice that the Rocket gave his friends:
It is a very dangerous thing to know one’s friends.
I’m curious as to whether this story was ever made into a movie or rather an animated short. While it seems the type of story that screams “make me a cartoon”, I’m not sure that a film would necessarily capture the humor Wilde put into the story. But I would still watch it.
The luck of the draw this week gave me Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story, “The Bottle Imp”, another “sell your soul to the devil” story. It has some similarities to Oscar Wilde’s “The Fisherman and His Soul” which I read a few weeks ago. Stevenson’s story is not as wordy as Wilde’s but it is longer than most of the short stories I’ve read.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this story takes place in Hawaii. Between Jack London, Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, I’ve grown to enjoy stories from the South Seas set in the mid nineteenth century. Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island is on my agenda sometime in the near future.
The imp in the bottle grants wishes to whoever owns him; however, if the owner of the bottle dies while still in possession of the bottle imp, he spends the afterlife in eternal damnation. If the owner sells the bottle imp, he must do so at a loss – selling it for less than he paid for it. If he attempts to gain a profit from the sale, the bottle imp returns to him.
At the beginning of the story, I found these “rules” governing the bottle imp somewhat complicated. Keawe uses the bottle to build an expensive house, be healed of a dreaded disease and to gain the love of his life, Kokua. He passes the bottle around to a few friends, but ultimately it ends up back in his hands. The aspect of the story that I enjoyed the most came as the bottle imp gradually decreased in value – as it would given its rules. Keawe and Kokua didn’t question what might happen when the value of the bottle imp dropped below the lowest denomination of cash.
The story asks the same question most of these “sell your soul to the devil” stories ask. What price is one willing to pay for the granting of their deepest desires? This story, though, ends with a small, but humorous, twist. This is another story I found in Stories and Poems For Highly Intelligent Children of All Ages collected by Harold Bloom.
I swear I shuffled the cards! The luck of the draw (whatever or whomever that may be) decided I needed to read another Oscar Wilde story as last week’s “The Fisherman and His Soul” wasn’t my favorite story. This time I read “The Selfish Giant” and had a vastly different experience. In fact, I’m glad I read this one after last week’s because for some reason these stories seem to be complimentary to each other.
This story also is written in fairy-tale style; however, it’s significantly shorter. The Selfish Giant goes through a redemption process as he allows children to play in his garden. The Giant’s attitude and heart corresponds and contrasts beautifully to the weather and the seasons – also beautifully described by Wilde. I found the Giant’s final meeting with the boy who was “wounded by love” especially moving. The religious motif that Wilde weaves into the story works because it’s neither preachy nor teachy.
I guess I was more in the mood for the redemption of a giant than a fisherman who loses his soul. I highly recommend “The Selfish Giant” and I will be reading more Oscar Wilde in the future.
Oscar Wilde’s short story “The Fisherman and His Soul” marks the first work I’ve ever read by Wilde. I’m sure there are literary critics somewhere whose ears would be burning if I described Wilde as a little – well – wordy, but that’s what has first popped into my head.
The fairy-tale style story gave me a feeling of “been there, done that”. A fisherman falls in love with a Mermaid but must get rid of his soul in order for her to love him (because mermaids don’t have souls). The fisherman makes his way to a Witch whose well-dressed Master (I could here him saying “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name”) forces the fisherman’s soul to leave. For this first part of the story, I continuously conjured up visions of Robert Johnson going down to the Crossroads or a Georgia resident named Johnny taking part in a fiddling contest with otherworldly beings. Now I realize that Oscar Wilde didn’t rip off the pop culture references I’ve mentioned because he came before they did (this story was published in 1891). Apparently, making deals with our souls is a common theme among art.
The unusual aspect of the story and what made it a little more interesting, but more wordy also, came when the fisherman’s soul became it’s own character traveling all over the world and annually calling up the fisherman to try to get him to take him back. The Soul traveled to exotic locales such as India and the Middle East. His/it’s travels sounded apocalyptic in nature as though it were something from the book of Revelation in the New Testament:
‘There are nine gates to this city, and in front of each gate stands a bronze horse that neighs when the Bedouins come down from the mountains. The walls are cased with copper, and the watch- towers on the walls are roofed with brass. In every tower stands an archer with a bow in his hand. At sunrise he strikes with an arrow on a gong, and at sunset he blows through a horn of horn.
As far as short stories go, this one took me the longest to finish. It could have possibly had something to do with my schedule this week ( a little busier) or it could have had something to do with too many words. I read this story online here and I thought the little scroll bar to the right would never get to the bottom of the page. For any Wilde fans out there, don’t despair, I haven’t given up on him, yet. I still have two more of his stories in my Deal Me In project and The Picture of Dorian Gray is on my Classics Club list. He’s still got a few more chances.