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

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, Oscar Wilde


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.

Principal Works

The Happy Prince, and Other Tales 1888

A House of Pomegranates 1891

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories 1891

The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde 1993

Complete Shorter Fiction of Oscar Wilde 1998

Vera; or, The Nihilists: A Drama in Four Acts (drama) 1880

Poems (poetry) 1881

The Duchess of Padua: A Tragedy of the XVI Century (drama) 1883; also published as The Duchess of Padua: A Play by Oscar Wilde, 1908

Intentions (essays) 1891

The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) 1891

Lady Windermere's Fan: A Play About a Good Woman (drama) 1892

Salomé: Drame en un acte [Salome: A Tragedy in One Act] (drama) 1893

A Woman of No Importance (drama) 1893

The Sphinx (drama) 1894

The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (drama) 1895

The Soul of Man under Socialism (essay) 1895

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (poetry) 1898

An Ideal Husband (drama) 1899

The Portrait of W. H. (criticism) 1901

*De Profundis (letter) 1905

The First Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde. 15 vols. (poetry, essays, short stories, novel, dramas, and criticism) 1908-1922

The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (letters) 2000

*This work was not published in its entirety until 1949.


W. B. Yeats (review date 1891)

SOURCE: Yeats, W. B. “Oscar Wilde's Last Book.” In Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats, edited by John P. Frayne, pp. 202-05. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

[In the following review, which was originally published in 1891, Yeats provides a mixed assessment of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories.]

This review of Oscar Wilde's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, London, 1891, appeared in United Ireland, September 26, 1891.

From the beginning of their acquaintance, Yeats regarded Oscar Wilde more highly as a wit and figure of legend than as an author. He met Wilde at the soirées of William Ernest Henley, one of the first magazine editors to print Yeats's poetry. Wilde was kind to him, invited Yeats to his home for Christmas dinner (probably in 1889), and had Yeats tell fairy tales to Wilde's son, whom Yeats thoroughly frightened by mentioning a giant. Burdened by a sense of his provincial awkwardness, Yeats was awed by the splendor of Wilde's personality and ménage, but in retrospect Yeats thought Wilde's address contained too much artifice.

Before their meeting, Wilde had reviewed Yeats's book of fairy tales for Woman's World (February, 1889), and he had helped the reception of Yeats's first volume, The Wanderings of Oisin, with two reviews (Woman's World, March, 1889, and Pall Mall Gazette, July 12, 1889). He was kind to Yeats's poems although he found “strange crudities and irritating conceits” in them.

Neither this review nor Yeats's later review of Wilde's drama A Woman of No Importance was wholly favorable. Although not conspicuously stained by Ibsenism, Wilde's dramas lacked that poetry which Yeats most loved in the theater, and his somewhat negative reaction to “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime” may have been caused by Wilde's satire on palmistry.

Yeats thought that the true basis for Wilde's fame lay in his willingness to stay in England and face judicial vengeance and public disgrace. In A Vision, Yeats placed Wilde in the nineteenth phase of the moon, that of the assertive man, a phase which marked the beginnings of “the artificial, the abstract, the fragmentary, and the dramatic” (A Vision, London, 1937, New York, 1956, p. 148).


We have the irresponsible Irishman in life, and would gladly get rid of him. We have him now in literature and in the things of the mind, and are compelled perforce to see that there is a good deal to be said for him. The men I described to you the other day under the heading, “A Reckless Century,”1 thought they might drink, dice, and shoot each other to their hearts' content, if they did but do it gaily and gallantly, and here now is Mr. Oscar Wilde, who does not care what strange opinions he defends or what time-honoured virtue he makes laughter of, provided he does it cleverly. Many were injured by the escapades of the rakes and duellists, but no man is likely to be the worse for Mr. Wilde's shower of paradox. We are not likely to poison any one because he writes with appreciation of Wainwright2—art critic and poisoner—nor have I heard that there has been any increased mortality among deans because the good young hero of his last book tries to blow up one with an infernal machine; but upon the other hand we are likely enough to gain something of brightness and refinement from the deft and witty pages in which he sets forth these matters.

“Beer, bible, and the seven deadly virtues have made England what she is,” wrote Mr. Wilde once; and a part of the Nemesis that has fallen upon her is a complete inability to understand anything he says. We should not find him so unintelligible—for much about him is Irish of the Irish. I see in his life and works an extravagant Celtic crusade against Anglo-Saxon stupidity. “I labour under a perpetual fear of not being misunderstood,” he wrote, a short time since, and from behind this barrier of misunderstanding he peppers John Bull with his pea-shooter of wit, content to know there are some few who laugh with him. There is scarcely an eminent man in London who has not one of...

(The entire section is 1750 words.)

Richard Butler Glaenzer (essay date 1927)

SOURCE: Glaenzer, Richard Butler. Introduction to The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, The Portrait of Mr. W. H. and Other Stories, pp. ix-xviii. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Company, 1927.

[In the following essay, Glaenzer delineates the defining characteristics of the stories in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories and contends that Wilde's short stories are overshadowed by his dramas.]

Oscar Wilde was a multiplex personality, and nowhere is this driven home so forcibly as in his so-called short stories; for such, in the accepted sense, they are not. While they possess plot, development, motivation of a sort, somehow they...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)

Donald H. Ericksen (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Ericksen, Donald H. “The Stories.” In Oscar Wilde, pp. 53-9. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

[In the following excerpt, Ericksen surveys the major themes of the stories of Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories and asserts that Wilde's stories provide valuable insight into the development of his fiction and drama.]

Oscar Wilde loved to tell stories. Hesketh Pearson, Wilde's biographer, tells of how dozens of tales would occur to him during the course of conversations, over a drink at parties, while watching a painter at work, or at any odd time.1 But the effort to write them down was irksome to Wilde so that his three volumes of...

(The entire section is 2952 words.)

Philip K. Cohen (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Cohen, Philip K. “Marriages and Murders: ‘Lord Arthur Savile's Crime’ and ‘The Canterville Ghost.’” In The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, pp. 53-70. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Cohen maintains that “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime” and “The Canterville Ghost” are stories that anticipate Wilde's fairy tales and “embody, if only in embryonic form, some of the ideas he would develop fully in his most important essays.”]

Wilde temporarily abandoned the drama in favor of the short story. His first productions in this mode were “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime” (1887) and “The Canterville...

(The entire section is 5772 words.)

Isobel Murray (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Murray, Isobel. Introduction to The Complete Shorter Fiction of Oscar Wilde, edited by Isobel Murray, pp. 1-9. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1979.

[In the following excerpt, Murray discusses the appeal of Wilde's stories “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime” and “The Canterville Ghost.”]

Oscar Wilde's fairy-tales and stories have been translated into nearly every language, and have sold in their millions. They have been dramatized, made into films for cinema and television, adapted for radio and long-playing records. They have been transformed into cartoon films, made into children's opera, into ballets, into mime plays. Above all, the reading public...

(The entire section is 2952 words.)

Lydia Reineck Wilburn (essay date winter 1987)

SOURCE: Wilburn, Lydia Reineck. “Oscar Wilde's ‘The Canterville Ghost’: The Power of an Audience.” Papers on Language and Literature 23, no. 1 (winter 1987): 41-55.

[In the following essay, Wilburn contends that Wilde utilized his stories, particularly “The Canterville Ghost,” to “work through problems involving the audience's power over different phases of the artist's performance.”]

Although Wilde's short story collection Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories has enjoyed some critical attention, most of the discussion has focused on the comic and moral content of the stories, especially the relationship between the criminal and the...

(The entire section is 6290 words.)

Mariano Baselga (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Baselga, Mariano. “Oscar Wilde and the Semantic Mechanisms of Humour: The Satire of Social Habits.” In Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, edited by C. George Sandulescu, pp. 13-20. Gerrards Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1994.

[In the following essay, Baselga analyzes the humor in “The Canterville Ghost” and Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest.]

When we talk about humour in literature, the name of Oscar Wilde often comes up. And this is true not only for any reader or spectator of his brilliant comedies but also for scholars and specialists in humour by itself, that is, those who try to explain what provokes laughing or smiling. A peculiar writer...

(The entire section is 2859 words.)

Leonara R. Villegas (essay date autumn 1997)

SOURCE: Villegas, Leonara R. “Approaching an Irony of Difference: The Self as an Outsider in the Short Stories of Oscar Wilde.” Les Cahiers de la Nouvelle/Journal of the Short Story in English, no. 29 (autumn 1997): 59-66.

[In the following essay, Villegas considers the role of the Outsider in Wilde's short fiction.]

In the short stories of Oscar Wilde, compassion underscores the experiences of the characters. The complexity of their emotional awakenings is such that they anticipate a modernist connotation of the word, as illustrated by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As a synthetic emotion, the implications of compassion are...

(The entire section is 3659 words.)

Patrick M. Horan (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Horan, Patrick M. “1888-1891: Wilde's Stories, Fairy Tales, and Novel: The Nature of Love.” In The Importance of Being Paradoxical: Maternal Presence in the Works of Oscar Wilde, pp. 75-92. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Horan finds a connection between the portrayal of love in Wilde's short stories and the author's own romantic experiences.]

I can not think otherwise than in stories.

—Wilde to Andre Gide


Speranza and Sir William were active in the Irish literary revival; naturally, the...

(The entire section is 7391 words.)

Josephine M. Guy (essay date June 1998)

SOURCE: Guy, Josephine M. “An Allusion in Oscar Wilde's ‘The Canterville Ghost’.” Notes and Queries 243 (N.S. 45), no. 2 (June 1998): 224-26.

[In the following essay, Guy investigates Wilde's allusion to the obscure late nineteenth-century materialist philosophy known as Hylo-Idealism in his story “The Canterville Ghost.”]

In Notes and Queries in 1978, Philip E. Smith drew attention to an obscure late nineteenth-century materialist philosophy called Hylo-Idealism. Its main proponents were the slightly less obscure poet, Constance Naden (who coined the term), and her friend and mentor, Dr. Robert Lewins.1 In attempting to argue for the...

(The entire section is 1194 words.)

Linda Dryden (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Dryden, Linda. “Oscar Wilde: Gothic Ironies and Terrible Dualities.” In The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles: Stevenson, Wilde and Wells, pp. 110-14. Hampshire, England: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.

[In the following excerpt, Dryden explores Wilde's synthesis of social satire and the Gothic conventions in “The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime.”]

A horror one dare not express.

—Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan

In The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde wrote a tale that synthesized Gothic conventions like the magic picture, duality and physical...

(The entire section is 1912 words.)

Further Reading


Braybrooke, Patrick. “The Short Story Writer.” In Oscar Wilde: A Study, pp. 69-83. London: Braithwaite & Miller Ltd., 1930.

Considers the appeal of “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime” and “The Model Millionaire.”

Fluck, Edward J. “About the Book.” In Lord Arthur Savile's Crime: A Study in Duty by Oscar Wilde, pp. 93-9. Emmaus, Pa.: Story Classics, 1954.

Discusses Wilde's revision of “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime,” contending that the story “affords an interesting example of the way in which Wilde polished his work.”

McCormack, Jerusha. “Impressions of an Irish...

(The entire section is 419 words.)