Tag Archives: short story

Edogawa Rampo: Vision of a Wraith-like Waitress as Salome

13 Mar

Two weeks ago I read a few stories from a short story collection “Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination” by Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), considered the first modern Japanese writer of mystery. His birth name was Taro Hirai, but he seemed to love Edgar Allan Poe’s writings so much early in his career that he even derived his own pen name from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe. The story that struck me the most was “The Red Chamber”, originally published in April 1925, in which the main character and a narrator is a very bored eccentric individual who joins a strange club and starts killing as a way of curing his boredom, although the killings are more just planned accidents. I feel bored quite often, and I was in one of my everything-is-boring phases when I started reading this story so I could connect with the main character in this regard and here is something he tells us about himself: “I believe (he said) that I am in my right mind and that all my friends will vouch for my sanity, but whether I am really mentally fit or not, I will leave to you to judge. Yes, I may be mad! Or perhaps I may just be a mild neurotic case. But, at any rate, I must explain that I have always been weary of life… and to me the normal man’s daily routine is – and always will be – a hateful boredom.

At first I gave myself up to various dissipations to distract my mind, but unfortunately, nothing seemed to relieve my profound boredom. Instead, everything I did only seemed to increase my disappointment the more. Constantly I kept asking myself: Is there no amusement left in the world for me? Am I doomed to die of yawning? Gradually I fell into a state of lethargy from which there seemed to be no escape. Nothing that I did – absolutely nothing – succeeded in pleasing my fancy. Every day I took three meals, and when the evening shadows fell I went to bed. Slowly I began to feel that I was going stark raving mad. Eating and sleeping, eating and sleeping – just like a hog.

Jean Benner, Salome, c. 1899

The feeling of intense boredom and aggravation of the repetitive flow of day to day life is something very relatable, especially this line: “Nothing that I did – absolutely nothing – succeeded in pleasing my fancy.” Oh how I know the feeling!

But there is another fragment of the story which I found interesting, something related to art. In the last few pages the story takes place in a cafe where the main character and his friends from the club are talking, when all of a sudden he noticed a waitress and his reverie begins: “Suddenly, on the surface of the silk curtains near the door, something began to glitter. At first it looked like a large, silver coin, then like a full moon peering out of the red curtains. Gradually I recognized the mysterious object as a large silver tray held in both hands by a waitress, magically come, as if from nowhere, to serve us drinks. For a fleeting moment I visualized a scene from Salome, with the dancing girl carrying the freshly severed head of a prophet on a tray. I even thought that after the tray there would appear from out of the silk curtains a glittering Damascene broad-sword, or at least an old Chinese halberd. Gradually my eyes became more accustomed to the wraith-like figure of the waitress, and I gasped with admiration, for she was indeed a beauty! Without any explanation, she moved gracefully among the seven of us and began to serve drinks.

As I took the glass I noticed that my hand was trembling. What strange magic was this, I pondered. Who was she? And where did she come from? Was she from some imaginary world, or was she one of the hostesses from the restaurants downstairs?

Aubrey Beardsley, Illustration to Salome by Oscar Wilde, 1893

Salome is truly a fascinating femme fatale figure that appeared on many canvases, from Renaissance to fin de siecle, and it is equally thrilling to imagine her dancing seductively, dresses in shiny robe, adorned with jewellery and perfume… and to imagine her being so daring as to ask for the head of St John the Baptist, and hold it on a tray, how cool is that!? This was a very vivid passage of a story, very memorable.

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Birth Anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe – The Oval Portrait

19 Jan

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809. It must have been a cold and dreary winter’s day in Boston when his parents, traveling actors, welcomed him into this sad world. If he had been a girl, he would have been named Cordelia because his mother was a fan of William Shakespeare and often played roles from his plays. But he was a boy and they named him Edgar instead, again a theatre-inspired name from the play “King Lear”, more about it here. Now is as good opportunity as ever to indulge in his poetry or prose, and I decided to remind you all of his perhaps the shortest short story called “The Oval Portrait” (1842) which lingers in the memory long after one reads it; the shortness and the vague ending leave one wanting more, and the complex ideas about the conflict of life vs art, reality versus the world of imagination, and the idea of art feeding on life and ultimately destroying it. These ideas carried within them a seed which, long after Poe’s death in 1849, traveled over the ocean and blossomed into sumptuous flowers; the “l’art pour l’art” philosophy and later Aesthetic movement and Oscar Wilde’s “Dorian Gray”.

This story seems to have been particularly appealing to the French Nouvelle Vague director Jean-Luc Godard because in his film Vivre sa Vie or My Life to Live (1962), there is a scene where a young man is reading a fragment of the story to the main character Nana, played by Anna Karina who was Godard’s wife at the time. Their marriage was already falling apart because he was apparently too absorbed to even notice her or anything besides his films. Everything he wanted to say, he expressed through the art of film. Just like the painter in the story, Godard saw Anna, his beautiful blue-eyed wife only through the camera lens. You can watch the clip here if you’re interested.

“The Oval Portrait” starts as a Gothic tale with an unnamed narrator coming into a strange castle and becoming enamored with a portrait of a beautiful young woman on the wall, but the plot soon jumps from the narrator to the story about the portrait itself and its history, again there’s “the most poetic topic in the world” according to Poe himself; the death of a beautiful woman, a pale wistful bride and her half-mad artist husband. Here is the entire story accompanied by some portraits of pretty women painted around the same time the story was originally published:

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, Bildnis eines Mädchens (Portrait of a Young Girl), 1840

THE CHATEAU into which my valet had ventured to make forcible entrance, rather than permit me, in my desperately wounded condition, to pass a night in the open air, was one of those piles of commingled gloom and grandeur which have so long frowned among the Appennines, not less in fact than in the fancy of Mrs. Radcliffe. To all appearance it had been temporarily and very lately abandoned. We established ourselves in one of the smallest and least sumptuously furnished apartments. It lay in a remote turret of the building. Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. In these paintings, which depended from the walls not only in their main surfaces, but in very many nooks which the bizarre architecture of the chateau rendered necessary- in these paintings my incipient delirium, perhaps, had caused me to take deep interest; so that I bade Pedro to close the heavy shutters of the room- since it was already night- to light the tongues of a tall candelabrum which stood by the head of my bed- and to throw open far and wide the fringed curtains of black velvet which enveloped the bed itself. I wished all this done that I might resign myself, if not to sleep, at least alternately to the contemplation of these pictures, and the perusal of a small volume which had been found upon the pillow, and which purported to criticise and describe them.

Long- long I read- and devoutly, devotedly I gazed. Rapidly and gloriously the hours flew by and the deep midnight came. The position of the candelabrum displeased me, and outreaching my hand with difficulty, rather than disturb my slumbering valet, I placed it so as to throw its rays more fully upon the book.

But the action produced an effect altogether unanticipated. The rays of the numerous candles (for there were many) now fell within a niche of the room which had hitherto been thrown into deep shade by one of the bed-posts. I thus saw in vivid light a picture all unnoticed before. It was the portrait of a young girl just ripening into womanhood. I glanced at the painting hurriedly, and then closed my eyes. Why I did this was not at first apparent even to my own perception. But while my lids remained thus shut, I ran over in my mind my reason for so shutting them. It was an impulsive movement to gain time for thought- to make sure that my vision had not deceived me- to calm and subdue my fancy for a more sober and more certain gaze. In a very few moments I again looked fixedly at the painting.

That I now saw aright I could not and would not doubt; for the first flashing of the candles upon that canvas had seemed to dissipate the dreamy stupor which was stealing over my senses, and to startle me at once into waking life.

The portrait, I have already said, was that of a young girl. It was a mere head and shoulders, done in what is technically termed a vignette manner; much in the style of the favorite heads of Sully. The arms, the bosom, and even the ends of the radiant hair melted imperceptibly into the vague yet deep shadow which formed the back-ground of the whole. The frame was oval, richly gilded and filigreed in Moresque. As a thing of art nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself. But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me. Least of all, could it have been that my fancy, shaken from its half slumber, had mistaken the head for that of a living person. I saw at once that the peculiarities of the design, of the vignetting, and of the frame, must have instantly dispelled such idea- must have prevented even its momentary entertainment. Thinking earnestly upon these points, I remained, for an hour perhaps, half sitting, half reclining, with my vision riveted upon the portrait. At length, satisfied with the true secret of its effect, I fell back within the bed. I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeliness of expression, which, at first startling, finally confounded, subdued, and appalled me. With deep and reverent awe I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow:

Henry Mundy, Martha Kermode, c. 1840

“She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak. And in sooth some who beheld the portrait spoke of its resemblance in low words, as of a mighty marvel, and a proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her whom he depicted so surpassingly well. But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead!

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Mandarin Oranges

26 Jan

Last year when I published a post with the story The Good Faith of Wei Sheng by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927) many of you seemed to like it, so I decided to share another one I loved. The story I am sharing with you today, Mandarin Oranges, is less lyrical and more realistic, but it possesses a strength that culminates in the very end with a sentence that I couldn’t forget even after a year of reading the story: It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.

I accompanied the story with beautiful paintings of Victorian flower girls and poor children, which, in my view, suits the mood of the story. I am not an expert in Japanese art to find the Japanese art to follow the story.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, The Flower Girl, 1872

It was a cloudy winter evening.

I was sitting at the end of the seat in the second class car.  The train was to leave Yokosuka for Tokyo and I was waiting absentmindedly for a whistle to blow.

As is not usual,  there were no passengers except me in the car,  which had already been lit inside.

Looking out at the platform,  I didn’t see any persons who came for a send-off; only a puppy was sometimes barking sadly in the cage.

Strangely enough, such bleak scenery fit my feeling of that time.

Inexplicable fatigue and weariness were casting their shadow in my mind like the cloudy sky threatening to snow.

I kept both my hands in my overcoat pocket;  I didn’t have much strength even to take an evening newspaper out of it to read.

Meanwhile, a whistle blew to signal the departure.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington, The Pinch of Poverty, 1892

Having a slight peace of mind, with my head against the window frame, I was expecting half-heartedly that the station before my eyes would start moving backward trailingly.

But prior to it, I had hardly heard a loud noise of wooden clogs from the gate accompanied by the conductor’s abuse, when I saw a girl in her early teens open the door and come in hurriedly.  At the very moment the train swayed heavily once and moved off slowly.

Each pillar on the platform, a water-wagon for a locomotive looking as if left behind, and a porter thanking his customer for the tip —-they lingered but soon fell behind the smoke blown against the windows.

Feeling relieved at last , I opened my heavy eyelids and gave my first serious glance at the girl seated in front of me while I was lighting a cigarette.

She was a typical bumpkin with ichogaeshi-styled dry hair and chapped cheeks so flushed as to look strange.

She hang loosely a spring-green colored woolen muffler over her knees, and on them lay a package covered with furoshiki.

She held it in her frostbitten hands, in one of which she also clasped tightly a ticket for the third class car.

I disliked her vulgar looks.

I was disgusted by her dirty clothes.

And I was displeased by her senselessness of not being able to tell the second class car from the third class car.

So after I lit a cigarette, I took the newspaper out of my pocket and spread it on my knees, for one thing, to forget about her.

Vilko Šeferov, 1928

Then suddenly the light lit on the newspaper changed; it had come from outside, but now it came from the ceiling, making the types of the newspaper appear clearly before my eyes.

Needless to say, the train was entering the first of the several tunnels on the Yokosuka Line.

When I looked over the newspaper under the electric light, I found nothing but routine incidents occurring in the world, which were there to console my gloom.

Treaty of Versailles, weddings, bribery, obituary — I ran my eyes over these dreary articles almost mechanically,  under the illusion that the moment the train entered the tunnel in the opposite direction

However, I could not but be aware of the girl sitting in front of me, personifying the vulgar reality.

This train passing through the tunnel, this bumpkin girl, this evening newspaper filled with routine articles— weren’t they all symbols?   Didn’t they all symbolize obscurity, lowness and boredom of life?

Coming to feel everything was worthless, I threw away the half-read newspaper and closed my eyes as if dead.  I began to doze with my head against the window frame.

Several minutes had passed.

Augustus Edwin Mulready, Little Flower Sellers, 1887

Suddenly I felt as if I had been threatened by something and I looked around in spite of myself and found the girl, who had changed her seat from my opposite to my side, trying to open the window eagerly.

But it seemed that the heavy window would not open up against her wishes.

The chapped cheeks became all the more flushed and some sniffles accompanied with a low breathless noise reached my ears constantly.

It certainly aroused some sympathy of mine.

But it was obvious that the train was right on the point of another tunnel by seeing the mountains on both sides, where dry grass were reflected by twilight,  approaching the train window.

Nevertheless, the girl was trying to drop open the window which was closed on purpose.

I couldn’t understand what forced her to do so.

No, I could not but think she was doing out of caprice.

So, with hostility deep inside toward her, coldheartedly I was watching her struggling to open the window with those frostbitten hands, hoping that her attempt would never succeed forever.

Then the train rushed into the tunnel with an appalling noise, at which moment the  window was dropped open at last.

And the air , as dark as melted soot, came in through the square opening and , turning into suffocating thick smoke, began to fill the car.

Claude Monet, The Gare Saint-Lazare: Arrival of a Train, 1877

Having a naturally weak throat, I tried but failed to put a handkerchief over my face in time not to be bathed with the smoke.  Consequently, I was made to cough so violently that I could hardly breathe.

But the girl seemed not to care about me and looked hard in the direction the train went,  making a long neck out of the window with her hair blown in the wind in the dark.

When I saw her in the smoke and the electric light,  it was getting brighter and brighter outside the window, from which the cold smell of soil, dry grass and water flew in; otherwise I would have scolded the strange girl without waiting for her excuse and ordered her to close the window though I had been relieved of coughs at last by that time.

Aleksander Gierymski, Jewess with Oranges, 1880-81

But having gone through the tunnel smoothly, the train was coming near the crossing on the outskirts of a poor town lying among the mountains covered with dry grass.

Near the crossing were shabby cramped houses with thatched and tiled roofs.

And in the dusk was fluttering languidly a white flag, which would be waved by a gateman.

It was when I thought the train had passed through the tunnel at last that I saw three red cheeked boys standing closely together in a line behind the fence of the crossing.

They were all as short as if they were held down by the cloudy sky.

And all of them were wearing kimono of the same color as the gloomy scenery of the outskirts town.

They had no sooner raised their hands at the same time, while looking up at the train passing, than they bent their little neck backward and gave an incomprehensible cry with all their might.

Then it happened.

William J. McCloskey (1859–1941), Wrapped Oranges, 1889

The girl,  who had leant half her body out of a window, stretched her frostbitten hand and shook it vigorously.  Then some five or six mikan, so beautifully sunny-orange colored as to make one happy, showered down on the boys who had seen the train off.

The unexpected scene took my breath away.

And I understood everything at once.

The girl, who was likely to be on the way to her new employer, threw some mikan out of her kimono pocket to reward her brothers who came all the way to the crossing to see her off.

The crossing of the outskirts town in the dusk, the three children cheering like little birds, and the bright color of mikan falling around them – all of them had gone by in a blink.

Henry Walton, The Market Girl, 1776-77

But the scene had been printed on my mind so clearly in a heartrending way.

And I realize a strange feeling of something cheerful also sprang up from there.

I raised my head confidently and gazed at the girl as if she were another person.

Before I noticed, she had sat on the seat before me again , with her chapped cheeks buried in her spring-green colored woolen muffler.

In her hand, which held a big furoshiki, she clasped tightly the ticket for the third class car.

It was not until then that I could forget for a while the inexplicable fatigue and weariness, and the obscurity, lowness and boredom of life.”

________________________________________________________________________________

*mikan, the fruit the girl is giving away, is of Asian origin, also translated as satsuma mandarin, satsuma orange, tangerine and cold hardy mandarin, hence the title.

Ryunosuke Akutagawa – The Good Faith of Wei Sheng

6 Feb

Today I’ll share with you a beautiful, lyrical short story called The Good Faith of Wei Sheng, written by ‘The Father of the Japanese short story’ – Ryunosuke Akutagawa, who, just like Osamu Dazai of whom I’ve written earlier, also committed suicide, at the age of thirty-five. I’ve accompanied the story with some equally beautiful paintings of water lilies and a Japanese bridge by Claude Monet. I can’t stop thinking whether Monet felt the same transcendental beauty in his beautiful gardens at Giverny?

1912-water-lilies-by-claude-monet-iClaude Monet, Water Lilies, 1912

Wei Sheng lingered under the bridge. He had been waiting awhile for the woman to come.

Looking up, he saw that vines had creeped halfway along the high stone bridge railing. The hems of the white garb of occasional passers-by would flash brightly into view through the railing, flapping gently in the breeze. But the woman still did not come.

Whistling softly, Wei Sheng light-heartedly looked across the sandbar beneath the bridge. The yellow mud of the sandbar extended only about four yards; beyond that was water. Between the reeds at the water’s edge were a number of round holes that must have been dwellings for crabs. A faint gurgling sound could be heard whenever a wave washed over them. But the woman stilll did not come.

Wei Sheng moved to the water’s edge, as though he was beginning to notice the passage of time, and gazed out at the quiet course of the river, where no boats were passing.

The course of the river was thickly lined with green reeds. In addition to those reeds, here and there round river willows grew luxuriently. For that reason, the surface of the river that could be seen snaking along between them did not look as wide as it actually was. The belt of clear water, however, meandered silently through the reeds, gilded with the mica-like reflection of clouds. But the woman still did not come.

1897-99-water-lilies-and-the-japanese-bridge-claude-monetClaude Monet, Water Lilies and the Japanese Bridge, 1897-99

Wei Sheng walked around at the edge of the water, going here and there on the sandbar, which was no longer as wide. Twilight advanced slowly, and he listened to the stillness around him.

There had been no sign of travelers up on the bridge for a little while. He hadn’t heard any sound of boots, or any sound of hooves, or any sound of wheels from up there. He did hear the sound of the breeze, the sound of the reeds, the sound of water, and from somewhere there came the piercing cry of a heron. So thinking, he stopped where he was, and realized that the tide was coming in. The water that washed the yellow mud sparkled nearer than it had a little earlier. But the woman still didn’t come.

Arching his eybrows sharply, Wei Sheng hurriedly started walking back up the dimly lit sandbar under the bridge. Inch by inch, foot by foot, the water of the river rose up the sandbar. At the same time the smells of duckweed and water rising from the river flowed cold across his skin. When he looked up, the gaudy rays of the setting sun had disappeared from the bridge. The stone bridge railing showed black against the barely blue evening sky. But the woman still didn’t come.

1919-le-bassin-aux-nympheas-water-lily-pond-is-one-of-the-series-of-water-lilies-paintings-by-claude-monetClaude Monet, Water Lily Pond, 1919

Finally Wei Sheng stood fixed in his place.

Soaking his boots, the water of the river spread below the bridge and shown colder than steel. His knees, his belly, and before long his chest surely would be hidden by the brutal tide soon. In fact, the water continued to rise and his shins were submerged already. But the woman still didn’t come.

As he stood in the water, Wei Sheng repeatedly turned his eyes to the sky over the bridge as his sole remaining hope.

Surrounded by mists of shadowy darkness rising from the water that immersed his knees, he heard a lonely rustle of reeds and willows through the mists. Wei Sheng’s nose was grazed by a fish, perhaps a sea bass, that flashed its white belly at him. Stars, if only a few, could be seen in the sky through which the fish leapt, and the shape of the bridge railing and its vines blended with the darkness of the night. But the woman still didn’t come . . .

1912. Water Lilies by Claude Monet IIClaude Monet, Water Lilies, 1912

Late at night when the light of the moon bathed the reeds and willows and the water of the river exchanged quiet murmers with a slight breeze, Wei Sheng’s dead body was carried softly to sea from beneath the bridge. Wei Sheng’s spirit, perhaps yearning for the light of the moon high in the lonely sky, slipped out of the body and tranquilly ascended toward the faintly glowing sky, just as the smell of water and duckweed rises silently from the river. . .

With the passage of several thousands of years from that time, this spirit had experienced countless transmigrations and had to give life to a human form again. This is the spirit that dwells in me. Therefore, even though I was born in the present time, I am unable to do any meaningful work. I spend my life in desultory dreaming, day and night, waiting for an indescribable something that is bound to come. Just as Wei Sheng stood under the bridge at the end of the day, waiting forever for a lover who would never come.

Materialism vs Idealism in Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and The Rose

29 May

Oscar Wilde, author of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, was ‘a flamboyant and sparklingly witty Anglo-Irish playwright, poet and critic’ (1) whose ideas and behaviour were often in stark contrast with the stale and conventional society he lived in. A dandy and an aesthete, Wilde was naturally drawn towards noble themes of beauty, sincerity and love, and his stories can be viewed as reflections of the decadent and pessimistic social landscape of fin de siècle. In ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, Wilde combined his typical eloquence with fairytale elements, interesting plot and lavishing symbolism.

One could argue that the fairytale, first published in May 1888 as a part of collection of children’s stories ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’, is a true product of its time. In this fairytale, Wilde confronted two ideas or, rather, mindsets that sparked discussions amongst intellectuals in fashionable salons, and are present throughout entire art history – materialism and idealism; the Student represents the former, while the Nightingale represents the latter.

1879. A Girl and Roses by Auguste Toulmouche

Auguste Toulmouche, A Girl and Roses, 1879

*MATERIALISM

The Student, the main character of ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, is a thinker who pursues knowledge and places logic and reason above all. In the very beginning he proclaims: ‘I have read all that the wise men have written, and all the secrets of philosophy are mine…’ This excessively confident and rather naive remark indicates the Student’s true character, and instantly connects him to realist art movement whose key features are the emphasis on modern world and belief in the power of science. He is briefly distracted from his studies by a beautiful daughter of his Professor who promised to dance with him if he brought her red roses.

From the beginning he is presented as a materialist; fixated on the rose and not questioning the worthiness of his love pursuit. His thoughts upon listening to the Nightingale’s song reveal his incapability of experiencing true emotions: ‘…she has some beautiful notes in her voice. What a pity it is that they do not mean anything, or do any practical good.’(2) In a true manner of literary realism, Wilde chose a student for his character, continuing the long line of student characters such as Balzac’s Rastignac or Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov.

1889. The Rose Of All Roses, Wilhelm Menzler

Wilhelm Menzler, The Rose Of All Roses, 1889

Professor’s Daughter, a haughty, vain, rude and ungrateful girl, is another character that represents materialism. Dr Jarlath Killeen claims: ‘As daughter of the Professor, the girl in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ is a powerful representation of the desire for knowledge allied with a profound commitment to materialism.” (3) However, the Student kept courting her, without realising her shallowness and class snobbery. When he found the rose, coloured beautifully by the Nightingale’s crimson red blood, he noticed its beauty, but only as a means of dancing with his beloved. He is incapable of appreciating beauty without expecting something material in return. When the Professor’s daughter received the rose, she stated: ‘I am afraid it will not go with my dress, (…) and, besides, the Chamberlain’s nephew has sent me some real jewels, and everybody knows that jewels cost far more than flowers.’ She makes it clear that she’s uninterested in love that doesn’t include wealth and social position, adding further ‘… who are you? Only a Student. Why, I don’t believe you have even got silver buckles to your shoes as the Chamberlain’s nephew has’.

Although she rejected him cruelly, he is not to be pitied because he got what he deserved. His preoccupation with reason, logic and knowledge, alongside his materialistic worldviews made him a bad judge of character. His feelings are artificial as is his character, and since his love wasn’t deep and sincere he quickly returned to his studies, proclaiming: ‘What a silly thing Love is, (…) It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not true. (…) In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to Philosophy and study Metaphysics.‘ (4) The Student is doomed never to be happy because he seeks refuge in reason and is incapable of experiencing true emotions. Blinded by his pursuit of knowledge, the Student fails to notice and admire beauties around him; sweet scent of the flowers, song of the birds, fresh air and sunlight.

1880s Jeune Femme, Adolphe Etienne Piot 1

Adolphe Etienne Piot, Jeune Femme, 1880s

* IDEALISM

The Nightingale stands as a contrast to the Student. She is a true idealist and a dreamer, who ‘night after night’ sung of a true lover and ‘told his story to the stars.’ The Nightingale is a gentle and kind creature, led by intuition and feelings. Consequently she decided to sacrifice her life for love because she places love above all; above material things and social conventions. Ideas of love and beauty typical for fin de siècle, have developed as a response to materialism, rationalism and positivism of the previous era which saw the height of the bourgeois class and realism being developed as a literary genre.

In her eyes, love is something that transcends even death. Wilde described her as singing of the ‘Love that is perfected by Death, of the Love that dies not in the tomb.’ (5) Although such sacrifice would seem pathetic in the age of realism, it struck a chord with decadent and disillusioned pessimists and aesthetes of fin de siècle. In this sense, Wilde spiritually takes us back to Romanticism – yet another age of idealism, when poets such as Lord Byron, John Keats and Shelley sang of love, beauty and death.

1878. Girl With a Rose by Gustave Leonard de Jonghe

Gustave Leonard de Jonghe, Girl With a Rose, 1878

Wilde’s choice of the bird nightingale as his character emphasises this symbolism even further; in his sonnets, Shakespeare compared love to the nightingale’s song, Keats compared this bird to a poet itself in ‘Ode to the Nightingale’, and Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his essay that: “A poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.” (6)

Dr Jarlath Killeen argues that Wilde presented the Nightingale as a secular Christ-like figure: ‘This Christian transformation of the Philomena myth would explain the clear references to the crucifixion in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, and Wilde’s association of the Nightingale with Christ who was willing to sacrifice himself for a beautiful idea the world was clearly not ready for.’ (7) Wilde presented the Nightingale as a doomed and sensitive creature rejected by the cruel world, someone who appears to be a loser, but is in truth a deeply noble individual whose sacrifice nobody understands.

In a sense, Wilde portrayed the Nightingale as an artist, and thus continued the long line of noble but lonely misunderstood individuals, ranging from Thomas Chatterton and John Keats all the way to Vincent van Gogh, and modern rock stars such as Jim Morrison and Amy Winehouse. Just like those artists, the Nightingale sacrificed her life for her ‘art’ – the creation of a red rose. She gave her life for the idea. Even the Student places the Nightingale in the circle of artists, praising her song but decreeing her selfish: ‘In fact, she is like most artists; she is all style, without any sincerity. She would not sacrifice herself for others. She thinks merely of music, and everybody knows that the arts are selfish.’ (8)

Wilde continues with a distinctly artistic imagery in description of the Nightingale’s opinion of love, which is rather different from the Student’s: ‘Surely Love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in market-place. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold’. Judging by the way the story ends, Wilde is subtly implying that the gentle ones are always crucified for their sensibility.

1880s The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire - Marie Spartali Stillman, Watercolour

Marie Spartali Stillman, The Long Walk At Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire, Watercolour, 1880s

* CONCLUSION AND MY VIEW

To summarise, Oscar Wilde’s story ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ can be perceived not only as Wilde’s personal clash between “English materialism and Celtic idealism”, (9) but as a universal historical, artistic and social struggle between materialism and idealism, reason and intuition, classical and romantic, Logos and Eros, Apollonian and Dionysian etc. As every art movement is a reaction to the previous one, so these opposites took turns and shaped the world’s history from the age of Homer to now. Romanticism came as an answer to the overly rational Age of Enlightenment, then the excessive sentimentality of Romanticism had to be neutralised by realism which praised science and logic, and in fin de siècle people, already bored with it all, rebelled against materialism and rationalism, and embraced idealism and emotionalism. ‘Sad Prince’ of the aesthetes, Oscar Wilde, lived in these changing times and expressed these conflicts in his works.

In my opinion, the story perfectly captures the spirit of the times it was written, because its main themes are love, beauty and death – a trio that graced the artistic landscape at the turn of the century, and sparked conversations in opium and absinthe-laced clubs and salons of London, among intellectuals, artists and dandies. The Nightingale’s sacrifice appeals to me immensely because it’s something glamorous and rebellious. In the act of sacrifice I see a clear detachment of the artist from the ‘common people’. Thomas Chatterton committed suicide, Vincent van Gogh cut off his ear, Lord Byron fought in Greece, the Nightingale gave her life for love – everything is better than a life of blessed mediocrity. I think Oscar Wilde took the Nightingale’s side because Aestheticism and dandyism are a stark contrast to materialism and logic, and her sacrifice is very artistic. At the same time, Wilde questions the value of the artist’s life. His quote confirms this: ‘The artistic life is a long lovely suicide’.

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(1) ”Oscar Wilde”, British Library

(2) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, n.d. Web

(3) Dr Jarlath Killeen, The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

(4) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, n.d. Web

(5) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, May 6, 1997, Web

(6) Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Literature Network, n.d. Web

(7) Killeen, Jarlath; The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013

(8) The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Happy Prince, by Oscar Wilde, Illustrated by Walter Crane, May 6, 1997, Web

(9) Killeen, Jarlath; The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2013