Oscar Wilde Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories Oscar Wilde

(Born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde) Anglo-Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, short-story writer, poet, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism on Wilde's short fiction collection Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1891) from 1891 through 2003. See also Oscar Wilde Drama Criticism.

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories is a collection of four of Wilde's short stories: “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime,” “The Sphinx without a Secret,” “The Canterville Ghost,” and “A Model Millionaire.” Originally published in various London magazines in 1887, the pieces were eventually collected and published in book form in 1891. In these stories, generally described as social satires, Wilde parodied what he considered American naïveté as well as the cultural and social snobbery associated with the British aristocracy. Critics praise Wilde's literary achievement with these stories—particularly “The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime”—but note the relative neglect of his short fiction in light of the notoriety of his dramas and his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

Plot and Major Characters

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories includes four of Wilde's well-regarded short stories, all of which had been published independently in London periodicals in 1887. In the best-known story of the volume, “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime,” which was originally published in The Court and Society Review, Wilde explores the concepts of fate, duty, and love. Engaged to the lovely and privileged Sybil Merton, Lord Arthur Savile is disturbed when a palm reader informs him that he will commit murder before his marriage. At first rejecting the idea, he eventually becomes convinced that he will have to kill someone before he can marry his beloved. After a few abortive attempts, he encounters the palm reader on an evening walk and throws him into the Thames, thereby fulfilling the fateful prophecy. Years later, Sybil learns that the palm reader was an imposter, but doesn't inform her blissful husband for fear of upsetting him. “The Sphinx without a Secret,” first published under the title “Lady Alroy” in The Court and Society Review in 1887, relates the story of Lord Gerald Murchison and his tragic love affair with the mysterious Lady Alroy. Considered one of Wilde's most successful tales, “The Canterville Ghost” was also published in The Court and Society Review in 1887. When a wealthy, pragmatic American family moves into a haunted English castle, they refuse to believe in the increasingly indignant ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville even as evidence mounts and sightings become more frequent and dramatic. Humiliated, the ghost becomes frustrated by his inability to frighten the Otis family. Eventually, fifteen-year-old Virginia Otis becomes sympathetic to the ghost and resolves to help him attain peace. Her generosity leads to her spiritual enlightenment and financial reward. Initially published in The World, the final story in the collection, “A Model Millionaire,” concerns the generosity of a good-hearted, poor man named Hughie Erskine. When Hughie encounters a disheveled artist's model, he offers him money—only to discover that the man is a millionaire. The next day, he receives an envelope with ten thousand dollars from the millionaire, which allows Hughie to marry his fiancée.

Major Themes

Critics view the stories of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories as social satires that skewer the humorous differences between different cultures and social strata—particularly aspects of both American and English culture. Duty is a key thematic concern in the stories, illustrated by the character of the ghost in “The Canterville Ghost” and Lord Arthur Savile in “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime.” A few critics have linked Wilde's homosexuality with the theme of societal obligation and self-awareness found in “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime” and the motif of masks and divided selves in “The Canterville Ghost.” In that vein, the role of Outsider in the four stories has been another area of critical discussion. As with Wilde's other work, reviewers note his emphasis on sensuous detail and the sense of beauty's restorative power in the stories of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories. It has been asserted that Wilde utilized the stories to explore his evolving theory of performance: specifically, the audience's role in the various phases of the artist's performance.

Critical Reception

Upon the publication of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, critical response to the volume was mixed. Reviewers cited the stories as amusing, but also simplistic and melodramatic in nature. Since the appearance of the collection, critics have favored two stories—“The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime”—and have focused their attention on these pieces, which are thought to evince Wilde's fascination with the supernatural and the dark side of human nature. Commentators assert that the stories incorporate some of Wilde's defining themes and anticipate the ideas he would later explore in his critical essays. Contemporary critics consider Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories to be a volume of humorous, appealing stories and a noteworthy stage in Wilde's literary development.