By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Remarkable Rocket’ is one of the fairy tales for children written by the Irish author Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). It was published in the 1888 collection The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
‘The Remarkable Rocket’ is about a firework which is set to be let off as part of the spectacular wedding celebrations held in honour of a prince and princess, but because he cries and makes himself damp, he doesn’t go off. Instead, he is set off by two boys and his great explosion is witnessed by no one.
You can read ‘The Remarkable Rocket’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Wilde’s story below.
‘The Remarkable Rocket’: plot summary
The story opens with the preparations for the marriage between a prince and his beautiful princess. As part of the celebrations at the royal court, some fireworks are going to be set off. At the end of the King’s garden, the fireworks all wait for the time to arrive when they will be set off as part of the wedding festivities.
As they wait, the fireworks strike up a conversation. One firework, the remarkable Rocket of the story’s title, is especially vocal. The Rocket thinks highly of himself and loses no opportunity to remind the other fireworks of that fact. The Rocket is described as ‘tall’ and ‘supercilious-looking’, as though it looks down on all the other fireworks as inferior. This is certainly what he thinks: that he is better than all the others.
Indeed, the Rocket’s self-regard knows no bounds. Rather than thinking he is there to honour the wedding celebrations, he believes that the prince and princess’s wedding is some sort of support act for his great moment, when he will be ‘let off’ and will explode into the sky.
He thinks the world revolves around himself. He believes himself ‘a very remarkable Rocket’ and that he will form the main event of the festivities.
The Bengal Light, who has got the measure of the Rocket, describes him as ‘affected’: a poseur, in other words, who has airs and graces and likes to be admired by others.
However, he becomes so moved by his own importance that he starts to cry, making his gunpowder damp. When the time comes for the fireworks to be set off, all of the others explode but he can’t light. He is discarded over the palace wall into a ditch.
There he meets a frog, but is annoyed when the animal insists on dominating the conversation. A dragonfly and a duck turn up in succession, too, and talk to the Rocket, but they eventually all leave him.
Then, finally, two boys find the Rocket (mistaking him for a stick) and he believes they have been sent by the palace to summon him for his great moment in front of the prince. However, the boys throw him onto a fire and promptly fall asleep.
The Rocket does catch light and explode into the sky, but it is broad daylight and the two boys who found him are fast asleep, so nobody witnesses his grand finale. As he lands, he utters his last words, ‘I knew I should create a great sensation’, before going out.
‘The Remarkable Rocket’: analysis
In some ways, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales might be regarded as the Decadent and Aestheticist answer to Hans Christian Andersen’s Romantic fairy tales from several decades earlier.
Where Andersen offers us the tragedy of human relationships, Wilde complements this focus with witty exchanges between his characters and an interest in the ways that works of art function in the world (witness the statue of ‘The Happy Prince’ for one example).
‘The Remarkable Rocket’, which is perhaps Wilde’s funniest and most light-hearted fairy tale, contains both of these characteristic features. The long conversation between the various fireworks adds little to the plot (besides explaining how the Rocket became too damp to ‘go off’), but it allows Wilde to offer plenty of his witty one-liners as the Rocket’s posturing sensitivities are exposed for ridicule.
Indeed, this story contains several of Wilde’s most-quoted witticisms, including ‘I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying’ and ‘hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do’. Both of these utterances are made by the Rocket.
Similarly, the Rocket’s insistence on having an audience – whether for his sparkling conversation or his final explosion – raises the possibility that, in ‘The Remarkable Rocket’, Wilde is making a comment on art and his relationship with its audience.
Many fairy tales have a moral, since they are aimed at children and children’s literature (Lewis Carroll aside) tends to have a moral message. What is the moral of ‘The Remarkable Rocket’? That self-importance and narcissism make for a lonely life, both for the narcissist and for their art.
Nobody wants to listen to a show-off who believes their talent or ‘genius’ (the Rocket’s word) will carry them through without the need for humility or hard work. The Rocket is happy to cry self-indulgent tears, even though he is warned by the other fireworks that he will not be able to function as a firework if his powder gets damp.
More specifically, ‘The Remarkable Rocket’ might be analysed as a satire on the Romantics and their urge to place themselves at the centre of their works: what Keats called Wordsworth’s ‘egotistical sublime’ (though Keats meant it as a compliment) and Byron called Keats’s habit of playing with his own imagination (he didn’t use the idiom ‘playing with’, but a somewhat ruder one) is indistinguishable from the Romantic impulse to celebrate and explore the self.
But the Remarkable Rocket – a Romantic of the worst kind – is too wrapped up in himself and forgets both his debt to his audience and the importance of listening to and learning from other artists. He represents the worst aspects of Romantic excess.
Such a critique only goes so far: when the Rocket finds himself out in the countryside, he is annoyed that he is far from the city and the court where there are people to appreciate his genius, whereas Wordsworth could at least appreciate the beauty of the daffodils.
But by the time Wilde was writing, Romanticism was no longer exemplified by Wordsworth or Keats (a big influence on Wilde’s own poetry) but by their fifth- or sixth-generation imitators.
The Remarkable Rocket represents the self-absorbed artist who enjoys posing as the artistic genius, but without actually possessing the genius that would warrant such arrogance. He is so deluded that even when he flies into the sky for his big performance and it is, to all intents and purposes, a damp squib witnessed by no one, he is still convinced he has made a ‘great sensation’.
But there is one further possible interpretation of Wilde’s tale which strikes even closer to home and reflects his own rather abrasive ‘friendship’ with the American painter James McNeill Whistler. Whistler was known for being vain and arrogant: Wilde once quipped that ‘Mr. Whistler always spelt art, and I believe still spells it, with a capital “I”.’
So he fits the bill and is a plausible candidate for the Remarkable Rocket in Wilde’s story. But there is an even stronger reason for thinking him the target of Wilde’s gentle satire in ‘The Remarkable Rocket’, as Jarlath Killeen observes in his The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde.
In 1875, Whistler had produced a painting depicting a falling rocket, Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket. When Wilde saw Whistler’s painting in 1877, he remarked that it was ‘worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute’. Is Wilde’s Remarkable Rocket harking back to Whistler’s somewhat unremarkable rocket, as Wilde viewed it?