June 21, 2015
‘The Selfish Giant’ by Oscar Wilde has a history rooted in Christianity. There are ample journals, books, and even some occasional movies that demonstrate Wilde’s work as a Christian allegory. In a Christian analysis, the giant is seen as either St. Christopher or an unknown man whereas the child who cries is the Christ child. A Christian reading often incorporates redemption and symbolism, such as the tree the giant wishes to put the child on is a reflection of the True Cross. Nevertheless, there is a problem with most of the Christian analyses currently developed from the story.
The problem with most Christian analyses of the story is their lack of definition of Christian value. The values are assumed and seem secondary to the analysis. Many Christian scholars have lauded the lessons derived from the story whilst wrestling with the author’s personal life. However, what none of the scholars really consider exploring is the method upon which the giant ceases to be selfish, and thereby becomes worthy of redemption. Moreover, the previous scholarship ignored one crucial key — does the giant ever become selfless? In order to answer this question, I will examine the text through a Christian perspective and, employing the Christian argument, determine if the giant truly acts in a selfless manner and if such a manner is truly Christian.
In the story, a giant created a magnificent garden. The grass was soft and cushioned the children’s feet as they walked; the flowers rose above the grass as colourful stars. The trees that adorned the garden attracted birds whose songs were so enchanting, the children stopped playing just to listen. While the giant was away for seven years (a magical number in the bible), children would play in his garden after school. When the giant came back and saw the children trespassing, he became angry. He chased them all away and put a fence around his garden. The walling off of the garden and hording his wealth is seen in Christianity through the Christ’s answer of a rich man gaining entrance into heaven. By walling off his garden, the giant has diminished his spirit with greed.
When the seasons changed from Winter to Spring, only the giant’s garden was still Winter. Spring was not allowed in, and his garden suffered from it. The giant’s trees never bore fruit as one spirit of nature, stated the giant was too selfish, and she rather not visit such a being. The anamorphic versions of the seasons are often left undebated in the Christian readings. Some may argue that this deifies nature against the monotheism of Christianity.
It is here that the connection between the giant’s land (his estate or life’s work) and the giant himself becomes clear. They become entwined. His estate suffered because of his selfish actions in banishing the children from his garden. He was punished for his actions because he was invested in the physical. For a Christian narrative to work, the concept of the physical has to be transferred to the soul. The giant’s garden was spiritual and, thusly, he felt the changes from bloom to barren intensely.
He found redemption through the wilful acts of innocence. The children, a representation of innocence, eventually break through the wall he put around his garden. They start to play and the seasons start to shift back into the life bringing essence. The giant then realized the children are blessed. This is a parallel to the Christian story of Jesus blessing the children. When his disciples hindered the children from reaching Jesus, he rebuked them and explained that ‘the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ Like the disciples, the giant realized how selfish he had been and decided to not only let the children stay, but to help the one child who seemingly cannot climb the trees with the rest. Although the children ran from him, the one remaining child, who had been crying since he couldn’t reach the trees and didn’t see the giant because of the tears in his eyes. This is where the Christian reading falters.
The child doesn’t run because his vision is obscured. The ones who could truly see ran from the giant. As such, the innocent who can see corruption fled from it while the innocence deceived by his senses and unable to perceive corruption stayed. A more ideal Christian morale would be the power of innocence to heal corruption–not a worry of persecution by the corruption. Jesus taught to have one’s eyes open and to turn the other cheek. However, this story clearly shows those who have their eyes open neglect their Christian duty of giving aid or forgiveness to the giant. Furthermore, the entire plot point of the seasons avoiding the giant shows a concept of punishment from the spiritual force in the universe. The spirits openly punish the giant, ignoring Christ’s high commandment. In this, the Christian readings either ignore completely or fail to truly give analysis beyond a surface reading.
The child whose vision was obscured led the rest back into the garden by an act of innocence. He hugged the giant. At this point, the others, the ones whose eyes were open, lost their fear. They came to play in his garden and all went well. However, the child in question was not seen for a very long time, as the other children knew not of him.
Even when the season of Winter came, the giant welcomed it. He saw it as ‘merely the Spring asleep’ giving the season a duality of inertia (winter) and activity (spring). He no longer resisted the winter as he now saw it as a part of the natural rhythm of life. One winter day, he saw a tree had blossomed. He ran over and discovered the child who committed the act of kindness and gave the giant his spiritual happiness. He saw wounds on the child’s feet and hands. His immediate reaction was a call to arms, but the child preached patience for they were ‘wounds of Love’. It is here that Wilde pulls back the veil and shows, directly, his portrayal of the Christ child.
The child was there to collect the giant to his garden of Paradise. The giant passed from life into death and flowers bloomed over his body. It is here that many of the Christian readings display the turn as a direct transfiguration of redemption. The giant was redeemable only because he was selfish and repented. He found, in the end, what he had searched for most of his life–the child who showed him the way. Moreover, the innocents who committed no wickedness knew him not. This seems to indicate that the Christ child is only interested in the fallen and those needing to be redeemed. However, most Christian scholars also avoid this point.
As a Christian tale, ‘The Selfish Giant’ is curiously anti-Christian in parts. For example, the seasons attack the giant; the children, who are innocent, avoid trying to help the morally fallen giant; and the Christ child is completely unknown to the forces of ‘good’. Furthermore, a Christian reading has always included the redemption of the giant through his ‘selfless acts’. However, are those acts truly selfless? Is the giant not still acting–entirely–out of self-interest when he allows the children back in? His goal was to have his garden bloom again. This was not out of a will for humanity to benefit, but rather for him to profit. He, in order to achieve his goal, realizes he needs the children back.
By allowing the children to stay and embracing them, he is acting out of self-interest. It lines up with a cynical reading of the Christian religion that posits an act of ‘selflessness’ There are, in the story, no selfless acts. Even the seasons, which are symbolically the Trinity, act purely out of self-interest, as does the ‘innocence’ represented by the children. This argument can be pushed further to its natural conclusion that not only is the giant still selfish by the end of the story: it is because he is selfish that Christ is able to redeem him.
Is Christ, Himself, acting out of self-interest in this act? That is a question that can be answered through his ‘wounds of Love’. If love is truly an emotion, , then Christ, too, is acting out of self-interest. He is fulfilling his duty as charged to him by God. In the end, the question ceases to become “is the giant still selfish” (he is) but rather what about selfishness is redeemable? It is here that Wilde illuminates a clear solution. Contrition.
The contrition from the giant was indirect. When the giant showed that he was truly sorry, he did so through the narrator and not through direct discourse. It was the narrator who lets us know that the giant ‘was really very sorry for what he had done.’ In this, the narrator–not the giant–produced the catalyst for the giant’s redemption. Wilde, with the use of his narrator and not the character, allowed redemption to come from an external source when the person in question cannot articulate his own culpability. In the end, Wilde showed that the giant had not given up his selfishness, but that wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, only through being selfish could the giant find redemption by Christ.
 There are also scholars who attribute a socio-economic theme to the story instead of Christianity. A fine example of a socialist reading of the story can be found in an essay by Zvonimir Radeljkovic, ‘Wilde as a Moralist: A Bosnian Reading’.
 An example of this is Sophia Mason’s article for the Saint Austin Review, where she prefaces the Christian themes of her review with describing Wilde as someone who has ‘degraded personal life’ and was ‘cursed by a strong consciousness of beauty combined with an apparent inability for living the virtuous life that beauty requires.’ Mason at least gives her condemnation a poetic sign whereas some, like Rowena AuYeung, who writes for Redeemer Chinese Evangelical Free Church, just flatly calls Wilde a ‘notorious’ person whose life was ‘sordid and leaves much to be desired’ then dismisses the author altogether.
 It is important to note that ‘garden’ here doesn’t necessarily mean what it does in North America, but rather the English usage of the word that indicates a ‘yard.
 This is seen in Mathew 19:24, ‘And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.’
 The full quote is from Luke, 8:16, ‘And they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them, but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.”’
 The greatest commandment for Christ is found in Mark 12:31, ‘The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.’
 This is a direct reference to John 8:18-20, ‘I am He who testifies about Myself, and the Father who sent Me testifies about Me. So they were saying to Him, “Where is Your Father?” Jesus answered, ‘You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.”’
from our November 2013 issue
Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist.
Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant bears a tenuous relation to the Oscar Wilde children’s story that inspired it – so tenuous that the director admits she thought of changing the title entirely. The giant of her story is the exploitative and potentially violent scrap dealer Kitten – who at one point threatens to put teenager Arbor’s arm through a wire stripper – and his garden is the scrapyard, a field of recycled, often stolen, metal.
United Kingdom 2013
Distributor Artificial Eye Film Company
Kitten’s yard embodies the malaise of a dismantled industrial society in which nothing new is made but everything is available to be picked, stolen, scavenged: a selfish economy in which everything is potentially worth a bob or two (the theme gets a sourly comic spin when the father of Arbor’s best friend Swifty sells his sofa from right under his numerous children).
Thankfully, Wilde’s mawkish tale of renewal and redemption doesn’t haunt the film too obviously, although elements echo faintly. The Christ Child who haunts the Giant’s garden, with stigmata on his hands and feet, here becomes the martyred Swifty, whose death prompts Kitten to hand himself over to the police. It’s arguably only the residual trace of the Wilde story that entirely makes sense of Kitten’s surprisingly sudden and open redemption.
But The Selfish Giant isn’t best approached as an experiment in recycling a familiar text (narrative scavenging, as it were). The film is a return to the Bradford setting of Barnard’s debut feature The Arbor (2010), in which actors lip-synched to documentary testimonies about local playwright Andrea Dunbar.
Despite its reworking of an incongruous pre-text, however, The Selfish Giant shares little of The Arbor’s overtly experimental motivation. Instead, this essay in lyrical realism belongs in a very familiar British tradition that connects such films as Kes (1969), Ratcatcher (1999), Sweet Sixteen (2002) and Fish Tank (2009) – depictions of the immediate conditions of social deprivation from the point of view of children and teenagers.
Having chosen to pitch her stall this time directly on the royal road of British art cinema, Barnard nevertheless brings a distinctive poetic spin to her material, making the film as much a study of the porous boundary between town and country as Kes was. There’s a strikingly eerie ruralist magic to the repeated shots of horses standing on horizons at night – Barnard and DP Mike Eley make strong, often stylised use of horizontals, including the frame of the bed that Arbor sometimes hides under (his own arbour, perhaps?). There’s an extraordinary shot late in the film of a landscape that bears the marks of post-industrial disuse, the land and vegetation taking on the look of fatigued, rusted metal, evocative of the inert mineralisation afflicting a world once organic.
The organic forces in the film (in the terms of Wilde’s story, the endurance of irrepressible life to make England’s dead garden bloom) are represented by the two boys and by Kitten’s horse Diesel. The racing with traps, or two-wheeled ‘sulkies’, is a phenomenon that will be familiar to viewers of the underrated Eden Valley (1995), by the Newcastle-based Amber Collective. In Barnard’s film the theme provides an almost autonomous sequence of explosive energy, in which sulkies race down the road followed by a flotilla of trucks carrying cheering spectators.
As for the film’s two young leads, their relationship – a little-and-large duo echoing Of Mice and Men, although the ostracised Swifty is more astute than his persecutors think – is the core of compassion and solidarity in a harsh world. Sentiment only creeps in at the very last moment, in a shot in which the dead Swifty seemingly reappears to clasp hands with Arbor under his bed, but otherwise the rapport between the two boys has a boisterous, prosaic ease.
Like Billy Casper in Kes, Arbor embodies the capacity of the young soul to endure society’s best attempts to crush it – and seeing him shin up a lamp post carries echoes of Billy’s scrawny athleticism in the Loach film. The school here may not be as mechanically soul-destroying as Billy’s, but for all the liberalism it espouses there’s an antiseptic, bureaucratic deadness about its shiny corridors, while cheerful placards in the classroom urging ‘Be Positive’ come across as empty sloganeering. And the school does, after all, entirely give up on the boys.
Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas are terrific fresh finds for Barnard, and the film is a triumph in the direction of young untried actors. Thomas’s less demonstrative role shouldn’t blind us to the depth of emotive power that he finds in the quietly tenacious, ethically stalwart Swifty, while Chapman is one of those force-of-nature young talents (as David Bradley was in Kes, and Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank) who seem to find their personal apotheosis in one perfect role, whether or not they have screen futures ahead of them.
Arbor’s perfect, irrepressible defiance emerges in a superb moment in which this pugnacious shrimp of a lad, possibly destined for a successful entrepreneurial career on one side of the law or another, welcomes police officers to his house with a peremptory bark of “Shoes – off!”