(Written by a Stanford student–MP.)
One of the most prominent themes in Oscar Wilde’s “The Remarkable Rocket” concerns the nature of reality. Wilde suggests that reality as it is experienced, outside of some absolute truth, can be determined by both social and personal elements, as seen in social pressures and norms and in personal perceptions.
The story begins by describing the arrival of a Russian Princess to marry the Prince of an unnamed place. There is much rejoicing, as the marriage has been long awaited and the Princess is quite charming. A young page makes two witty, flattering comments in relation to the marriage, and is awarded each time by having his salary doubled. It is noted, however, that the page received no salary in the first place, and so this change “was not of much use to him.” Nonetheless, the favor is considered a “great honour” and is “duly published in the Court Gazette.” This is the first clear example of social pressures defining reality. Because the page has no salary, there is nothing really to be doubled. Nonetheless, as the result of the choice to acknowledge this favor as something important and something real, it becomes a legitimate element of the court’s practical reality. Later in the story, the Frog who the Rocket meets says that “’everybody in good society holds exactly the same opinions.’” If this is indeed true in the Frog’s society, then this is a clear example of social norms defining reality. Whether individuals truly hold the same opinions or not, they feel compelled to express the same ones and so continue a pattern that establishes a certain set of values as the determiners of day-to-day reality. If it is not true, it is nonetheless the case that the Frog’s perceptions of social pressures define at least the Frog’s reality.
There are other, more concrete instances where personal perceptions define reality. This is most obviously the case with the Rocket, who is constantly convinced that others are treating him and perceiving him as he perceives himself, reaffirming the Rocket’s self-descriptions and self-identifications. This can be seen when someone calls him a “’bad rocket’” and he tells himself that the person must have said “’grand rocket,’” and in a similar instance when a child calls him an “’old stick’” and the Rocket chooses to hear “’gold stick.’” In moments such as these, the Rocket’s perceptions reflect how he orients himself in the world, thus dictating his personal reality.
What these two determiners of reality come down to is the idea that, ultimately, it seems that there is no single, absolute reality of which we, as participants in our own stories, can be aware. While a few elements of “The Remarkable Rocket” are represented as objectively true, such as the King playing the flute poorly, these are not recognized as the truth in the practical reality of characters’ lives. In the case of the King’s flute playing, everyone praises his performances, not daring to tell him that he plays poorly. As a result, the practical reality is that the King plays flute well, since this is what he thinks and how other people feel compelled to act. This is a combination of both personal perceptions and, because of the King’s authority, social pressures defining reality. However, there are no narrators in our lives to confirm that our hidden perceptions are the truths of which everyone else is aware but does not acknowledge. Thus, even if there are cases of objectively true matters, none of us would know and so they would not comprise the reality of our existence. In this way, there is no one truth or one ultimate reality. Rather, everything is, as in the story, a set of personal and social constructions.
This interpretation of reality can be described as hylo-idealism, the idea that reality is determined by our belief in it. This concept is demonstrated in another of Wilde’s short stories, “The Canterville Ghost,” subtitled “A Hypo-Idealistic Romance.” In “The Canterville Ghost,” this idea is more exaggerated, as the story contains the supernatural element of a ghost. The notion in “The Canterville Ghost” is that the ghost’s powers of causing fright are only as great as the degree to which the person being frightened believes in these powers. Thus, the same fundamental idea, that our perceptions, individual or group, dictate our reality, is represented in both texts. This compelling idea leaves readers questioning how often we ourselves engage in instances of buffoonery such as the Rocket’s constant self-importance, shaping our realities in much the same twisted ways as the characters in these stories.