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What is Walter Pater's influence on Oscar Wilde's Fairytales?

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crashid | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted April 9, 2012 at 11:38 AM via web

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What is Walter Pater's influence on Oscar Wilde's Fairytales?

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Michelle Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted April 9, 2012 at 10:49 PM (Answer #1)

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During the first of three trials for which Oscar Wilde was prosecuted for Gross Indecency on April 3rd, 1895, Wilde refers to Pater as

"The only critic of the century whose opinion I set high"

At this point, he was referring to Pater's suggestions to Wilde in terms of editing Wilde's only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.At the time of the publication of this novel, Wilde was both smitten and nearly obsessed with Pater's basic gospel of "L'Art pour 'Art": Art for Art's sake.

This tenet basically states that, rather than looking at Art as a vehicle for morality and social learning, we should learn to appreciate its choice of topics, words, and ideas for the sake of their beauty alone. Why should we want a painting, or a poem, to chastise or support a social or moral situation, when it can simply be used to inspire us, transport us, and fascinate us?

Although this sounds obvious to the modern reader, "Art for Art's sake" was a controversial idea particularly during the 1880's. This is what prompts Pater to write so extensively in defense of Aesthetics, while giving strength to the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthete movements, to which Wilde (as well as his wife, Constance) belonged.

All this being said, Wilde's earlier attempts at fiction come from his fairy tales and poems. In his fairy tales, we can see the presence of the very aesthetic values that Pater preached about.

For example, in "The Selfish Giant", "The Nightingale and the Rose", and "The Happy Prince" are not stories for which you can ask the question: "What is the moral of the story?" Rather, one is inclined to think less of the outcome of the story and focus on everything in between. Whether the ending is pleasing or not, the point of it is not to teach, nor educate, but to show the reader about the beauty of the topic.

In the case of "The Nightingale and the Rose", we learn that a Nightingale sacrifices itself for the sake of using its blood to color a white rose, red. This would allow for a young bachelor to woo the girl who is the object of his affection. However, the bachelor and the girl are not really in love, and the Nightingale's sacrifice seems to have been in vain. But, is it?  Most importantly, is this teaching us to do, or not to do, something?

No. Instead, our first reaction as readers is to think of the Nightingale and how much it must have believed in true love. We think of the lengths to which some people go to demonstrate how much they believe in something. We identify ourselves with the Nightingale and every broken heart that we have ever experienced; we feel the beauty of the theme, without taking a moral out of it.

This stylistic feature is Pater's influence. It is showing a beautiful story in which there is no grudge, no anger, no justice...it simply exists in its own, unique way. That is the principle of Aesthetics and the essence of Pater's views on Art.

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