‘The Selfish Giant’ is a parabolic fable set in a fantasy background penned and published in May 1888 by Oscar Wilde, an Irish poet and writer of great repute. The Christian element in the short story is evident. The story is one of the many literary styles that the writer, poet, and public personality Oscar Wilde experimented with throughout his literary career, especially while in England. ‘The Selfish Giant’ is one of the five short stories published by Wilde in 1888 in his book The Happy Prince and Other Tales. ‘The Selfish Giant’ narrates the story of a giant who was too selfish and had not allowed the love of children and God to touch his life. He lived in a castle with a beautiful garden full of flowers as gorgeous as the stars, twelve peach trees that always bore fruit and abounded in nature. This garden is representative of the giant’s gifts, and sometimes literary theorists feel it was representative of his very soul, which later opened up to God in the form of the Lord Jesus through the power of compassion, mercy, and love for children. When one becomes self-giving of one’s possessions and is no longer hoarding possessions selfishly for himself. God enters one’s life and saves it from eternal Winter. This story also highlights that children are a gift from God and are among the most beautiful flowers in any ‘garden’ on Earth because they represent God best. When we, like the Giant in this story, open our resources to children and others in need, we become truly happy and then die in a state of bliss, knowing the true meaning of happiness, love, and joy. Oscar Wilde wrote this short story before he wrote his magnum opus, namely the classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, but before he published the comic-ghost parody classic story titled The Canterville Ghost. Thus, we see he was a great experimenter of literary forms and never stuck to one style until his death from meningitis at age forty-six. ‘The Selfish Giant’ can be considered one of his unique classic pieces, which is a favorite among children touching on themes such as selfishness versus selflessness, the love for children, the opening of one’s soul to goodness, God, and children, and other Biblical Allusions.
The short story is the beginning stages of Oscar Wilde’s dedication to the Aesthetic Movement of his age. After penning his short story collection, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, Wilde would write very few works indicating a didactic meaning because of the new way he and his contemporaries were Aesthetically treating Art as ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. After focusing on the Aesthetic Movement, he would never write ‘normal’ literature for some ethical reason but highlight the value of that literary work apart from normal ethicality. This movement went against the Victorian Era where Art was created for something of a socio-political nature or something based on ethics. Oscar Wilde was introduced to this form of philosophy by Walter Pater and John Ruskin.
The story ‘The Selfish Giant’ starts with the greatest representatives of God in the world: children! The Giant, at this point, is visiting his friend the Cornish Ogre for a seven-year stay while the children of his hometown visit his garden every afternoon after school to play in it. They are depicted as angelic, well-behaved, and innocent. They play in the garden to the delight of the twelve peach trees that grow there, the flowers as beautiful and numerous as the stars; children playing on the grass, with the birds singing in glory in the company of the children. The twelve peach trees are a slight Biblical Allusion to the twelve tribes of Jacob or the twelve Apostles of Christ. The number twelve is always considered an important and symbolic number in Christianity. Like the ‘blossoming’ of the twelve tribes or disciples of Christ, the peach trees always blossomed in the Giant’s Garden when the children were around, indicating that the universal ‘Church’ of God delights in the innocence, simplicity, and unconditional love of children. The children play there happily in the company of the many beauties of Mother Nature till the Giant returns.
The Giant represents all human beings who have resources and talents to help others, but because of their instinctual selfishness ‘close’ their gardens and their doors to others in need, especially innocent children. The Giant is enraged that the children were using his garden, even though they were not spoiling the garden or destroying it, nor were they being a hindrance to him or his property. The Giant’s anger is misguided selfishness and nothing else. According to Oscar Wilde, he still had to open his heart to the love of the other. He builds a high wall around his heart and garden to keep the children out. He places a notice ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’, meaning ‘those who uninvited walked on his land would be punished’. But God can break down and ‘make a hole’ in any hard-hearted person’s soul. We see later on in the text that the Giant one day finds a hole in the garden wall through which the children had crept in and had started playing in the garden. This ‘hole’ had not been made by nature or the children but apparently by the Lord Jesus Christ himself or God to whom all things are possible. We notice in the text that it is also through the infant Jesus Christ and love for him that the Giant changes his ways and from a ‘Selfish Giant’ becomes a ‘Selfless Giant’.
But first, he builds a high wall thinking he could keep unwanted elements out of his territory. He was wrong, for where good can’t abide, evil shall. We see in the text that Winter takes permanent residence in the garden. Here come the major personifications of the text, namely, ‘Snow’, ‘Frost’, ‘North Wind’ and ‘Hail’ as the mystical but seasonal creatures who reign supreme in a garden or heart or soul of a person that does not welcome love or children into their life. The following are the destructive actions of the Winter elements represented as almost enemies of the soul:
- The Snow covered the grass with her great white cloak or covered and prevented all the ways beautiful flowers could have bloomed in the grass of the Giant. There is a mention that one particular flower went back to sleep in the ground after seeing that the children were not there in the garden and the terrifying notice board. This is how the ‘beauty’ of a person dies when selfishness holds sway.
- Frost painted all the trees silver, indicating that the trees would bear no fruit like the person who hides his talents and resources for himself and then bears ‘no fruit’.
- The North Wind wrapped in furs roared so hard that it blew the chimney-pots down, indicating the negative language we use to describe others and ourselves, thus filling our lives with hate. A chimney pot is placed on top of the chimney to expand the length of the duct inexpensively.
- The Hail rattled the roof of the Giant’s castle for three hours, broke most of the slates, and ran around the garden. This indicates the many sorrows and evil that befall a person when he closes his heart to children and God.
Notice in spite of all this, the Giant is impervious like sometimes human beings are. He still can’t understand why Winter reigns in his garden and Spring or Summer are nowhere in sight. His mind is clouded by ignorance and selfishness that he can’t see the truth though it is right before him. Winter will remain in the garden as long as the children are not there. The very creatures and other brighter elements in his garden, like the peach trees, the flowers, the green grass, and the singing birds, are hurt and sorrowful by the absence of the children. The Giant is selfish as he rarely looked out into his garden for leisure. It was only when he let the children in to play that he started gazing upon the wonders of his garden. Doing good gives one peace and tranquility that hoarding and possessions kept to oneself cannot. The Giant had to learn to become Selfless, and that could only be achieved by the entry of God in a small but dramatic way into his life. The hole in the high wall does this; no wall is too mighty or big for God!
God entered the Giant’s life the day a little crying boy was trying to get up a tree still in the grips of Winter in the Giant’s garden. Because of the hole in the wall, the other children were already playing in the garden thus, creating Spring in every part of the garden. The Giant sees with his very eyes the truth of why Winter had ruled his garden and his life for so long. Through his compassion for children and by the love he showed to the tearful little boy who was infant Jesus, the Giant was a new human being. He had become Selfless and ready to give his garden for the children’s use. He even openly states that the garden belonged to the children now and not to him, hinting at the ultimate sacrifice. This he could only do through the grace given by a Divine Entity. The Giant breaks down the wall, and the garden becomes the children’s forever. Thus, through the entry of first the Lord Jesus and then children into the Giant’s life, he became not only a happy creature but also a redeemed being. He opened his heart to the Lord Jesus and, like an ardent disciple, kept on searching and yearning for him while in his service. Notice this aspect when the Giant continuously asks the other children where the tearful little boy was and how he remembered him all his life till his old age. The Child Jesus returns to the Giant on the last day of the Giant’s life on Earth to reward him for doing good to his fellow brethren.
The last part of the text symbolizes Christ’s love and redemption and reward to those who serve the needs of innocent little children and those who can’t fight for their rights. The symbology of the nail prints on the Divine Infant’s palms and feet are the wounds of Christ because of the way he died on the Cross during the Crucifixion. The child shows the Giant the wounds to reveal to the Giant who he was and what is the ultimate aim of all self-giving and selfless action: eternal love in the company of God. As a reward for the selfless actions and self-giving of the Giant, the Lord Jesus was rewarding him with an entry into the Garden of Heaven or Eden or a Garden where there would never be a Winter Season, but Spring every day and forever. The Giant allowed Jesus in the form of a child to touch his heart and enter his life, because of which he was now entering Paradise or Heaven.
Notice in the text the golden tree with the golden branches with silver fruit under which the infant Jesus stands; other than it being a mystical or magical element in the story it also symbolizes the Tree of Life, which resides in the Garden of Eden and whose fruit everyone wants to eat in order to live forever. Through this story and symbol, Oscar Wilde hints that the only way to eat the fruit of immortality is through love and especially love for children by allowing them to enter into one’s life and change it for the better. The White Blossoms on this tree depict purity like a child’s purity and candid innocence. These blossoms perfumed the sleep of the dead Giant even though the tree would not be there in the garden when the other children came inside to play that afternoon. The Giant’s reward was a vision of the Tree of Life before his death. Notice also that the Giant no longer despised Winter but treated it as a time when Spring was asleep. This is indicative of the fact that he had become a more reasonable and understanding person. This contrasts with his eccentric behavior in spending seven years with the Cornish Ogre in idle gossip and without contributing much to the conversation himself!
The Spring always came to the Giant’s garden when he opened it permanently for children. It was then that the Giant realized that the most beautiful flowers in any garden are not the actual flowers of nature or plants, but the happy faces and activities of children. It is a message from the writer Oscar Wilde never to harm children because they are not just so-called resources or investments for the future; they are the closest representatives of God here on Earth. Being selfish and not considering them in our global activities is like calling on the Snow, the Frost, the North Wind, and the Hail for the rest of our Earthy lives. Oscar Wilde may have had a very complicated and misunderstood life. Still, his stories like ‘The Selfish Giant’ have shaped the minds of literary thinkers to such an extent that they have named him one of the foremost spokespersons for the twentieth century and modern-day value systems which changed the world in the 1900s.
The fable aspect of the short story titled ‘The Selfish Giant’ is relevant. It creates a scene from the Middle Ages when the Cornish Ogres moved about along with Giants and lived among human beings. The Seasons like Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter are treated as actual beings that Divine the behaviors of the higher beings and act accordingly. The tale sounds almost like a Grimm’s Fairy Tale with the tender touch and Christian note of Hans Christian Anderson’s moral stories. It teaches adults and children the value of being selfless and generous with one’s gifts, possessions, and talents. The alternating Winter and Spring images in the Garden are graphic and vivid. The mystical and otherworldly image is the tree with the golden boughs and the silver fruit that breeds immortal beings. The Giant knows of the reality of the Infant Child’s Divinity which is even above the fantasy landscape of his territory, and so bows down and kneels to the child after realizing by the observation of the wounds that the infant was indeed the Lord Jesus Christ. The story ends with generosity being rewarded, and the Giant is redeemed.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by Irish writer and literary figure Oscar Wilde. A Braille copy of this analysis is available here. I hope to read and review more of Oscar Wilde’s works soon. If you are interested in reading an abridged and beautifully illustrated book originally penned by Oscar Wilde, you can check out my abridgment of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost. If you are interested in an award-winning collection of LGBTQIA short stories with an LGBTQIA take on Oscar Wilde’s many quotations, you can check out my collection titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. If this analysis was helpful to you and you want to know more about my life and my writing and teaching life, you can check out my two memoirs titled The Reclusive Writer & Reader of Bandra or Scenes of the Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I hope to read and review more Irish and British writer’s short stories in the coming days.
If you are interested in more book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page of my blog. There is a lot of good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
©2022 Fiza Pathan
Leave a Reply