By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Of all of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales for children, ‘The Selfish Giant’ has the strongest Christian symbolism and is clearly meant to be read and analysed as an allegory for Christian love. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the story and its meaning and imagery. You can read ‘The Selfish Giant’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the tale below.
‘The Selfish Giant’: plot summary
Children enjoy playing in a beautiful garden owned by a Giant. The Giant is away staying with a Cornish ogre, but after seven years away from his garden, he returns one day and frightens the children away, not wanting them to play on his property. He builds a wall around the garden to keep the children out and puts up a sign warning that ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’.
The children have to play in the road instead, but they miss playing in the selfish Giant’s garden. The garden, too, misses the children: when spring arrives, the garden remains under the spell of winter, with snow, frost, wind, and hail all assailing it and preventing the trees and flowers from blooming and flourishing.
The selfish Giant realises that he has been selfish for barring the children from his garden, and is delighted one day to see that the children have crept into the garden, causing he wintry weather to give way to glorious spring. The trees are in blossom. However, the cold weather remains in one portion of the garden, where a single solitary boy is unable to reach up and climb a nearby tree.
The Giant strides out into his garden to welcome the children back, but, fearing that he will shoo them away as he did before, they leave. Only the boy remains, and the Giant picks him up and helps him up into the tree, which embraces the child. The boy, in turn, embraces the Giant for helping him.
The other children, seeing that the Giant is selfish no longer, return to play in the garden, and he tells them that it is their garden now, for them to play in, and he leaves them to do so, having cut down the wall he built.
However, at the end of the day when the children have to return home, the Giant notices that the boy he helped up into the tree has disappeared. None of the other children knew who he was; all they know is he has ‘gone away’.
Years go by and the boy doesn’t return. The Giant is sad. But then one day, he sees the boy in the garden, and goes to greet him. But he notices that the boy is wounded, with the prints of nails in his hands and feet. The boy tells him that they are the wounds of Love, and that the Giant shouldn’t be afraid.
He then tells the Giant that, because the Giant let him play in his garden once, he will now take the Giant to his garden, which is Paradise.
When the other children arrive to play in the Giant’s garden, they find the Giant has fallen down dead.
‘The Selfish Giant’: analysis
‘The Selfish Giant’ is, first and foremost, a Christian fairy tale. The symbolism of the Giant’s garden recalls the Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis, while the Giant’s banishing of the children from his garden echoes God’s banishing of Adam and Eve – his children, in a sense – from the Garden of Eden following their transgression (eating of the forbidden fruit).
The little boy whom the Giant helps up into the tree is clearly symbolic of Jesus Christ: the marks of the nails in his hands and feet are representative of the stigmata of Jesus, marking where the nails were driven into his hands and feet when he was crucified. The boy, of course, goes away and then returns, mirroring Jesus’ death and subsequent Resurrection.
So, ‘The Selfish Giant’ is Christian allegory, and arguably more direct in its Christian allegory even than C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (which, as we have discussed here, its author didn’t even regard as ‘allegory’ at all).
Indeed, the Giant’s garden being plunged into a perpetual winter in response to his treatment of the children prefigures the land of Narnia, in which it is always winter (but never Christmas) in the first published book in the series. (However, both Wilde and Lewis are probably looking back to Hans Christian Andersen’s earlier fairy tale, ‘The Snow Queen’, in their use of this trope.)
However, it is clear that ‘The Selfish Giant’ is not a completely neat allegory for the Fall (of Adam and Eve) and the Resurrection (of Jesus Christ, through which all human sins were forgiven).
For one, the selfish Giant is not simply the Old Testament God, banishing ‘his’ children from their paradise; he is all human beings who are able either to help, or to fail to help, their fellow human beings, depending on how selfish or kind they are.
Although his expulsion of the children from his garden is clearly meant to echo the expulsion of Adam and Eve on one level, Wilde’s symbolism is not limited to a narrow ‘the selfish Giant = Old Testament God’ interpretation, not least because such a reductive analysis would render the conclusion of the story nonsense (whereby the immortal God somehow ‘dies’ and Jesus takes him into heaven with him).
Jesus’ death and resurrection weren’t meant to redeem God, after all, but humanity, so the Giant simultaneously represents aspects of God (in his expulsion of the children from the garden) and all of humankind.
In this connection, it is worth recalling the Christian idea that humans – the ‘children of God’ – are supposed to become immortal when they accept Jesus and become Christians. Their souls will be eternal, and when their mortal life comes to an end they will live forever in heaven or ‘Paradise’ with God and Jesus.
This is reflected in the story through the children’s immortality: note how years go by before the boy returns, but ‘the children’ (are they the same children all those years, or new generations of children discovering the Giant’s garden?) remain children, never growing up.
‘The Selfish Giant’ was published in 1888, in the same collection that also featured ‘The Happy Prince’. If you enjoyed our analysis of this story, you might also find our analysis of ‘The Happy Prince’ of interest.