The Happy and Other Tales, a collection of five short fairy tales, was written by Oscar Wilde and first published 1888. Wilde was notorious for promoting “art for art’s sake,” and in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” he presented a Socratic dialogue between Romanticism and Realism. It is therefore surprising that an author so vocal about not elevating art into ideals, would turn to the morally didactic genre of fairy tales.
Although Wilde has never been known for his consistency, many critics have tried to explain his interest in writing fairy tales, citing anything from self-absorption to sexual deviancy. In fact, Wilde declared the tales as “not written for children, but for childlike people from eighteen to eighty!” Excluding children from his implied audience may have been a way for Wilde to shield himself from some of his critics, as none of the tales end with the traditional “and they lived happily ever after.” He was right to provide the disclaimer, but it did not stop some of his critics, who deemed the stories morally corrupt and going as far as blaming his homosexual tendencies.
The tales seem to have been modeled after Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and even make an explicit tribute to “The Little Match Girl” in the first tale “The Happy Prince.” Andersen’s tales are violent and the characters must suffer a great deal to earn their virtue. Wilde may write whimsically in comparison, but the suffering of his characters is often for nothing. The Nightingale sacrifices herself in vain, the Rocket explodes with no audience, and the statue of the charitable Happy Prince is discarded. Wilde’s fairy tales are beautifully written but undeniably melancholic.