September 20, 2020

Foss Presents Paper on Oscar Wilde

Professor of English Chris Foss presented a paper, “‘He is so ugly that he might have made the King smile’: Disability and Materiality in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’” at the annual meeting of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association, held this year in Boston, Massachusetts on Saturday, March 27.

Foss explored how reading Wilde’s fairy tale as a critical rewriting of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop invites readers to (re)experience littleness/disability from within the context of Victorian freak show dynamics. Dickens’s novel is the story of how a very beautiful and impossibly good 13-year-old girl, Little Nell, is hounded to her grave by the ugly, deformed dwarf Daniel Quilp; conversely, Wilde’s story is about an ugly, deformed dwarf whose tragic death is hastened by a very beautiful and surprisingly cruel 12-year-old girl, the Infanta.

Overall, in spite of his own aversion to sentimentality in general, and to Dickensian sentimentality in particular (Wilde once quipped, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing”), Wilde encourages a sincerely sympathetic response to his dwarf, not only drawing him as a kind and gentle soul but actually positioning him in the role of true lover.  While the dwarf’s sad fate may seem to foster a sense of hopelessness about the general cultural detachment from (if not actual delight in) the dehumanization of freaks/human oddities, Wilde’s fairy tale remains a significant text for its powerful representation of the terrible cruelty inherent in the nondisabled abjection of the disabled body as an undesirable and, ultimately, disposable thing.  What is more, Wilde shows himself to be a writer fully aware of his own role as manipulator /showman/exploiter of his characters who asks readers both to recognize his authorial complicity in the consumption of pain but also to acknowledge their own complicity in this as readers/spectators/consumers.