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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.
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.