Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Reconsidering the Role of Pity in Oscar Wilde’s “The Star-Child”

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2020), 14, (1), 21–36.


The article aims at a critical reconsideration of pity through a close reading of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale “The Star-Child,” exploring how it seems both to replicate stereotypically pejorative assumptions about disability and to contain more progressive aspects. Through the disability-aligned characters of the Star-Child (initially the embodiment of physical perfection, but eventually transformed into a scaly toadfaced freak) and his mother (a queen turned beggar-woman so physically repulsive her son finds her too horrible to look upon), Wilde’s text requires one to consider the extent to which its representation of pity reinforces a hierarchical division between the fortunate and the unfortunate while encouraging a view of disability as an “evil” fate, but also the extent to which it endorses a more empowering version of pity founded upon love, reciprocity, and action. It may remain unclear whether Wilde is teasing readers for allowing themselves to be manipulated into sentimentalized pity for his protagonist or offering them a sincere attempt at theorizing a more properly humanizing and efficacious version of the much maligned emotion, but, regardless, the complexities of parsing such complicated and contradictory possibilities within “The Star-Child” justify the importance of an earnest reconsideration of the relation between pity and disability.

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Author details

Foss, Chris