Nowhere to Go: Caught Between Nature and Culture in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales

  • Susan M. BernardoEmail author


In his 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde wrote: “Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment.” If pleasure is “nature’s test,” then both human and animal/natural figures in Wilde’s fairy tales routinely fail that test. Wilde’s three tales consistently explore alienation and destruction, subverting the genre not only in offering troubling endings that either restore vicious social orders or solidify the separation between nature and culture, but also in presenting worlds in which characters find only suffering, despair, and death. Environments neither make comfortable nor reward the characters that capture the reader’s sympathies. Place, in the forms of both nature and built environments, becomes key to destroying Wilde’s protagonists. In addition to all three tales acting as a critique of the uselessness of trying to do and be good, we see each generous person reduced to despair and broken hearts. Both the impossibility of connecting with the people or societies around them, and nature’s inability or unwillingness to offer aid, create the nightmarish destruction Wilde’s protagonists suffer. Unlike Romantic nature that could offer solace, redemption, or revelation, nature rejects Wilde’s characters. Culture, in the forms of beauty, wealth, and social class, also works against them. His characters inhabit a disturbing liminal space that acts like a weird limbo, from which it is impossible to act to change their situations, rather than as a refuge.

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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Wagner CollegeGlen GardnerUSA

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