BORN: Dublin, Ireland, 1854
DIED: Paris, France, 1900
NATIONALITY: Irish, British
GENRE: Drama, fiction, poetry, essays
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)
An Ideal Husband (1895)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888)
There is a temptation to treat British author Oscar Wilde's work lightly in large part due to his flamboyant and notorious lifestyle, which is often better known than his writings. He posed as an aesthete and a decadent—a follower of literary movements of the late Victorian age that argued for “art for art's sake.” Nevertheless, Wilde advocated reform through social critique in his plays,
short stories, novels, essays, and poems, and he challenged Victorian morality with his work and his lifestyle.
Influenced by Creative, Flamboyant Mother Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1854. At the time, Ireland was part of the United Kingdom, and controlled by the British. Outside of the six counties of the north that were predominantly British and Protestant—commonly known as Ulster—absentee British landlords controlled much of the land in the remaining twenty-six counties that were predominantly Catholic, rural, and poor. There was long-standing tensions between the British and Irish, as the Irish agitated for more control and home rule. Wilde's family was Anglo-Irish, and he was raised a Protestant.
His father, Sir William Wilde, was a well-known surgeon. Wilde likely learned sympathy for the poor from his father, who would collect folklore instead of fees from the peasants he treated. Wilde's mother, Jane, wrote popular poetry and prose under the pseudonym Speranza. She was a writer and poet with a flair for the dramatic not only in her writing but also in her appearance. She dressed up in increasingly outlandish costumes, complete with headdresses and bizarre jewelry. Wilde shared both her literary taste and fashion flamboyance.
Jane Wilde created a salon society in Dublin, and her large Saturday-afternoon receptions included writers, government officials, professors, actors, and musicians. After her husband died in 1876, she moved her salon to London. Her poetry was inflammatory and pro-nationalist, and in 1849 during the sedition trial of a magazine editor, she stood up in court and claimed authorship of the offending articles (a mother taking responsibility for someone else's failings to save their reputation is a theme in Wilde's play, Lady Windemere's Fan, 1892). She became famous for this incident and, many years later, encouraged Wilde to stand trial rather than run away, no doubt imagining another famous court victory for the Wilde family.
In general, Wilde's childhood appears to have been a happy if unconventional one. He had an older brother, Willie, and a younger sister, Isola, who died at the age of eight in 1867. The family was devastated by Isola's death. Wilde, who regularly visited her grave, wrote the poem “Requiescat” (1881) in her memory. His father's three illegitimate children, fathered before he married Jane, were also included in the family, and all of the children spent their holidays together.
Early Literary Attention For three years, Wilde was educated in the classics at Trinity College, Dublin, where he began to attract public attention through the eccentricity of his writing and lifestyle. At the age of twenty-three, Wilde entered Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1878, he was awarded the Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna” (1878). He attracted a group of followers who became a personal cult, self-consciously effete and affected. His iconoclasm contradicted the Victorian era's easy pieties (the Victorian era was marked by romantic, evangelical, and humanitarian impulses, but with moral, insular overtones), but this was one of his aims. Another was the glorification of youth.
Wilde published his well-received Poems in 1881. He lectured in the United States and in England, and he applied unsuccessfully for a position as a school inspector. In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd, and their children were born in 1885 and in 1886. He encouraged his wife's political activity, including her involvement in the women's liberation and suffrage movements.
Challenging Societal Norms Wilde was also a reformer in support of women's liberation. He took over the editorship of the Lady's World: A Magazine of Fashion and Society in 1887 and reconstituted it. Discussion of fashion was relegated to the end of each issue, and serial fiction and articles on serious topics, such as the education of women, were moved to the front. Wilde also insisted the magazine be renamed the Woman's World, because he regarded “lady” as a pejorative term. Wilde remained editor for two years, but his involvement lessened as his other writing activities increased. His first popular successes in prose were fairy tales: The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888) and The House of Pomegranates (1892).
Wilde became a practicing homosexual in 1886. He believed that this subversion of the Victorian moral code was the impulse for his writing. Wilde considered himself a criminal who challenged society by creating scandal, and his works often explore the criminal mentality. “Lord Arthur Savile's Crime,” from Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories (1891), is a comic treatment of murder and its successful concealment. The original version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in Lippincott's Magazine, emphasized the murder of the painter Basil Hallward by Dorian as the turning point in Dorian's disintegration.
Dramatic Success Between 1892 and 1895 Wilde was an active dramatist, writing what he identified as “trivial comedies for serious people.” His plays were popular because their dialogue was clever and often epigrammatic, relying on puns and elaborate word games for their effects. Lady Windermere's Fan was produced in 1892, A Woman of No Importance in 1893, and An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895.
The years 1889 to 1895 were prolific ones for Wilde, but during these years he led an increasingly double life that ended in his imprisonment in 1895. This secret life was also featured increasingly in his work, especially in the novella The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). This novella's themes were also an example of the aesthetic movement, of which Wilde was a part. This late nineteenth century European arts movement centered on the doctrine that art existed for the sake of its beauty alone. The movement began as a reaction to prevailing utilitarian social philosophies and to what was perceived as the ugliness and philistinism of the industrial age.
On March 2, 1895, Wilde initiated a suit for criminal libel against the Marquis of Queensberry, who had objected to Wilde's relationship with his handsome young son, Lord Alfred Douglas. When his suit failed, countercharges followed, and after a sensationalistic public trial, Wilde was convicted of homosexual misconduct and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor. (Until 1861, the punishment for men convicted of having sexual intercourse with men was death, while a lesser offense of attempted “buggery” was punishable by at least two years in jail. The 1885 Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act prohibited gross indecency between men. Gross indecency was interpreted to be any type of male homosexual behavior. Wilde was convicted under this amendment and received the harshest possible punishment under the law.)
Imprisonment Prison transformed Wilde's experience as radically as had his 1886 introduction to homosexuality. In a sense, he had prepared himself for prison and its transformation of his art. “De Profundis” is a moving letter to his former lover that Wilde wrote in prison and that was first published as a whole in 1905. His theme was that he was not unlike other men and was a scapegoat. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898) was written after his release.
After his release from prison in May 1897, Wilde went to France. He attempted to write a play in his earlier witty style, but the effort failed. He died in Paris on November 30, 1900.
Wilde's early education generated an admiration for John Keats, Percy Shelley, Benjamin Disraeli, and Honoré de Balzac. In college, he was influenced by the writings of Walter Pater, who in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) urged indulgence of the senses, a search for sustained intensity of experience, and stylistic perfectionism in art. Wilde adopted this as a way of life, cultivating an extravagant persona that was burlesqued in the popular press and music-hall entertainments, copied by other youthful rebels, and indulged by the literary and artistic circles of London where Wilde was renowned for his intelligence, wit, and charm.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Wilde's famous contemporaries include:
Bram Stoker (1847–1912): This Irishman was a theater manager and agent for twenty-seven years, but his part-time career as a fiction writer brought him immortality as the author of Dracula (1897).
Paul Gauguin (1848–1903): This French postimpressionist painter spent most of his life in Tahiti and the South Pacific, creating highly original and influential paintings of scenes and people there. His paintings include Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950): This British writer and playwright wrote more than seventy plays during his career, including Pygmalion (1916, later adapted as the musical My Fair Lady).
Emilia Pardo Bazàn (1852–1921): This Spanish novelist described the degeneration of aristocratic families in novels like Los Pazos de Ulloa (1886).
Reaction to Victorian Values The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde's last and most brilliant play, is a hysterical comedy but also a serious critique of Victorian society. Wilde anticipated modern writers such as Samuel Beckett in his use of farce to comment upon serious issues. The Victorian upper classes are presented as enclosed characters more intent on social surface in a world where form replaces emotion. Victorian stuffiness and hypocrisy in marriage, education, and religion are all critiqued, but always through the sparkle of Wilde's biting satirical wit.
Readers familiar only with Wilde's plays and conversation may be surprised by his poetry, which demonstrates an expertise in classical literature and the mainstream Victorian influences of Matthew Arnold, Dante Rossetti, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. In Poems (1881), Wilde experimented with form and touched on many of the themes he would develop in his later works as a social and cultural reformer. He commented on what he regarded as the decline of civilization from the ancient Greeks to modern-day Europe. Decline became a recurrent theme in Wilde's later poetry, which he used to attack Victorian ruling-class values. He refused to see the Victorian age as one of glory, writing instead about the seedy, usually unmentioned side of Victorian life.
Aestheticism Wilde saw art as a vehicle for moral and social reform; what was not beautiful was not good, including poverty. The idea of poverty as dehumanizing ran counter to accepted middle-class views, both secular and religious, for by implication the ruling classes were responsible for this oppression. The value of domesticity, pride in industrialization, and the ennobling quality of poverty were popular Victorian literary themes. In his lectures and essays, Wilde preached a new program of social reform through art and beautification projects. Wilde criticized the false glamour of Victorian upper-class society, but Wilde was also attracted to that world. He viewed Victorian ideals of art, reflected in the ornate and orderly decor of upper- and middle-class homes, as a sham. During his aesthetic phase, he set about to reform rigid notions of art and decorated his home and his person as exhibits of this new modern art.
Wilde's critical essays and dialogues in Intentions (1891) defined his artistic philosophy. For example, “The Critic as Artist” developed his deeply held belief that originality of form is the only enduring quality in a work of art, a quality transcending its age. “The Decay of Lying” insisted on the superiority of art to nature and put forth the paradox that “nature imitates art,” using this thesis to work out an ingenious line of argument revealing insights into the relationship between the natural and aesthetic worlds. “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” examined the relationship between art and morality, concluding that in fact there is none.
Influence Wilde has remained one of the most admired, read, and performed writers of all time. His poetry, essays, and children's books are reprinted regularly. The Importance of Being Earnest remains his best-known stage play, and is regularly performed all over the globe. Wilde's influence can be seen in a number of authors's writings, including E. M. Forester (who explores homosexuality in his novel Maurice) and, more recently, Stephen Frye, an actor/novelist/amateur Wilde scholar.
Wilde's lasting literary fame resides primarily in his plays, one of which—The Importance of Being Earnest—is a classic of comic theater. His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), while artistically flawed, gained him much of his notoriety during his life time. This book gives a particularly 1890s perspective on the timeless theme of sin and punishment.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Wilde was a famous conversationalist. His sharp, witty observations seemed to come out of his mouth perfectly formed, precisely balanced, and always apt. Legend has it that Wilde's dying words were “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” The following works celebrate the art of witty conversation.
The Life of Johnson (1750), a biography by James Boswell. Samuel Johnson was a leading author and critic in the eighteenth century, and much of his considerable literary authority came from the forcefulness and genius of his conversation. Boswell recorded a great deal of it, real or reconstructed, in what became the first great biographical study.
Annie Hall (1977), a film written and directed by Woody Allen. This film established the comic pattern that Allen would follow in many of his later comedies: an effete, clumsy intellectual encounters beautiful women and his own insecurities, and the result is a long string of witty exchanges and sharp, self-deprecating one-liners.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a novel by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe is a conservative dandy, usually decked out in a white suit, florid tie, and spats, playing the role of bemused and devastatingly witty social critic. This bestselling novel is set in New York and takes an ironic look at American culture of the 1980s.
A True Relation of My Birth, Breeding, and Life (1656), a memoir by Margaret Cavendish. In an era when intellectual pursuits were reserved only for men, Cavendish was a poet, philosopher, playwright, and author of one of the earliest science fiction novels. In her autobiography, she describes herself as extremely shy, but in public she made a space for a new kind of brave female writer through her eccentricity and extravagant dress.
Upon his release from prison, however, Wilde was generally either derided or ignored by literary and social circles. At the time of his death in 1900, the scandal associated with Wilde led most commentators to discuss him disrespectfully, if at all. While critical response no longer focuses so persistently on questions of morality, Wilde's life and personality still attract fascination. Biographical studies and biographically oriented criticism continue to dominate Wilde scholarship. After his death came a renewed critical interest in him, but it is only within the last thirty years that his work has received serious scholarly attention.
Both Wilde's sincerity and his integrity have long been issues in criticism of his works. His conception of artistic beauty was often considered a superficial taste for ornament, though some critics have acknowledged that this conception of beauty additionally demands, as Wilde's character Gilbert states, “thought and passion and spirituality.” Commentators on Wilde have also come to stress the intellectual and humanist basis of his work. Traditionally, critical evaluation of Wilde has been complicated, primarily because his works have to compete for attention with his sensational life. Wilde himself regarded this complication as unnecessary, advising that “a critic should be taught to criticize a work of art without making reference to the personality of the author. This, in fact, is the beginning of criticism.”
Poetry The general critical reaction to Wilde's poems at the time of their publication was condemning and dismissive. Most reviewers were eager to denounce Wilde on the grounds of imitation of various writers and on his ornate language. The audacity of Wilde, an unknown in the literary world, perhaps triggered the critical attack when he published a collection of poetry. But in spite of the generally hostile reaction, within a year, five editions of Wilde's Poems had been sold.
An Ideal Husband While audiences thoroughly enjoyed the play An Ideal Husband when it was first produced, critics were more ambivalent. Many did not know how to respond to Wilde's treatment of his subject matter. That number included Henry James, who disliked the play so much that he wrote in a letter to his brother William about his own play Guy Donville, which was opening in London at the same time, “How can my piece do anything with a public with whom that is a success?” Even critics who had praised Wilde's previous work began to question his use of the epigram and criticized him for relying too heavily on his trademark device without providing substance to support his witticisms. However, the play did have its supporters, including George Bernard Shaw, who was so moved after seeing it that he described Wilde as “our only thorough playwright.” In a review of the New York production of An Ideal Husband, William Dean Howells called the play “an excellent piece of art.”
Recent critics of An Ideal Husband have generally accepted the conventional elements in the play at face value. Such elements include the melodramatic characters, the sentimental plot, the improbable twists, the witticisms, and the tidy resolutions, all of which make it a “well-made play.” Instead, such critics focus on the core issues such as Wilde's social commentary on morality, the nature of political ambition, the disconnect between external appearances and the hidden lives of men and women, and the redeeming power of love. Thus, what has emerged is a view of the play as one in which Wilde developed markedly as a comedic playwright, providing, in addition to his biting social commentary, characters and themes that transcend the conventions of his theater. As Alan Bird stated in 1977, An Ideal Husband “marks yet another stage in [Wilde's] evolution as a dramatist while retaining its intrinsic value as a comedy which entertains, delights, intrigues, and amuses audiences of today as much as it did the first-night audience in 1895.”
- Identify and summarize melodramatic scenes from The Picture of Dorian Gray. What is their thematic purpose, if any? Put your answer in the form of a presentation.
- What are “aphorisms” and “epigrams”? Locate some of Wilde's most famous examples. Can Wilde's conversation rightly be seen as part of his lasting artistic achievement? Do the characters in his plays speak in much the same way? Write an essay with your conclusions.
- Read “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and/or “De Profundis,” and research the events in Wilde's life that led up to it for a paper. Are you convinced by Wilde's account of his motives and actions?
- In a small group, look over the broad scope of Wilde's life and work. Discuss such questions as: Could you say that one phrase that sums up most of it could be “the importance of being earnest”? Why or why not?
Bird, Alan. “An Ideal Husband.” In The Plays of Oscar Wilde. London: Vision Press, 1977.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Horan, Patrick M. The Importance of Being Paradoxical: Maternal Presence in the Works of Oscar Wilde. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.
Howells, William Dean. “William Dean Howells on An Ideal Husband.” In Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. Edited by Karl Beckson. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.
James, Henry. “Henry James' Letter to William James on the ‘Triumphant Oscar.”’ In Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. Edited by Karl Beckson. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970.
Miller, Robert Keith. Oscar Wilde. New York: Ungar, 1982.
Morley, Sheridan. Oscar Wilde. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
O'Connor, Sean. Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan. Washington, D.C.: Cassell, 1997.
Raby, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Shewan, Rodney. Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1977.
Worth, Katharine. Oscar Wilde. New York: Grove, 1984.
The Official Web Site of Oscar Wilde. Retrieved April 28, 2008, from http://www.cmgworldwide.com/historic/wilde.
Nationality: Irish. Born: Fingal O'Flahertie Wills in Dublin, 16 October 1854. Education: Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, 1864-71; Trinity College, Dublin, 1871-74; Magdalen College, Oxford (classical demyship; Newdigate prize, for poetry), 1874-78, B.A. (honors) in classical moderations 1878. Family: Married Constance Lloyd in 1884 (separated 1893; died 1898); two sons. Career: Moved to London, 1878; art reviewer, 1881; engaged by Richard D'Oyly Carte to lecture in the U.S. and Canada on the aesthetic movement, 1882; lived in Paris, 1883; gave lecture tour of Britain, 1883-84; regular reviewer, Pall Mall Gazette, mid-1880s; editor, Woman's World, London, 1887-89; sued the Marquess of Queensberry for slander, 1895, but revelations at the trial about his relations with Queensberry's son Lord Alfred Douglas (whom Wilde met in 1891) caused him to be prosecuted for offenses to minors; tried twice: first trial ended with hung jury, second trial with guilty verdict; sentenced to two years hard labor in Wandsworth prison, London, then Reading Gaol, 1895-97; after release lived in Berneval, near Dieppe, and then in Paris; joined Roman Catholic church, 1900. Died: 30 November 1900.
The Portable Wilde, edited by Richard Aldington. 1946; as Selected Works, 1946; revised edition, edited by Stanley Weintraub, 1981.
Complete Works, edited by G. F. Maine. 1948.
Selected Essays and Poems. 1954; as De Profundis and Other Writings, 1973.
Poems, edited by Denys Thompson. 1972.
Complete Shorter Fiction, edited by Isobel Murray. 1979.
The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings, edited by RichardEllmann. 1982.
The Annotated Wilde, edited by H. Montgomery Hyde. 1982.
(Selections), edited by Isobel Murray. 1989.
Wilde Anthology. 1997.
The Best of Oscar Wilde, edited by Robert Pearce. 1997.
The Happy Prince and Other Tales. 1888.
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories. 1891. A House of Pomegranates. 1891.
The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1891; edited by Isobel Murray, 1974; edited by Donald L. Lawler, 1988.
The Portrait of Mr. W.H. 1901; edited by Vyvyan Holland, 1958.
Vera; or, The Nihilists (produced 1883). 1880.
The Duchess of Padua: A Tragedy of the XVI Century (as Guido Ferranti, produced 1891). 1883.
Lady Windermere's Fan: A Play about a Good Woman (produced1892). 1893; edited by Ian Small, 1980.
A Woman of No Importance (produced 1893). 1894; edited by IanSmall, in Two Society Comedies, 1983.
Salomé (in French; produced 1896). 1893; as Salome, translated by Alfred Douglas, 1894.
An Ideal Husband (produced 1895). 1899; edited by RussellJackson, in Two Society Comedies, 1983.
The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (produced 1895). 1899; edited by Russell Jackson, 1980; 4-act version edited by Ruth Berggren, 1987.
A Florentine Tragedy, one scene by T. Sturge Moore (produced1906). In Works (Ross Edition), vol. 6, 1908.
For Love of the King: A Burmese Masque. 1922.
The Sphinx. 1894.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol. 1898.
Oscariana: Epigrams. 1895; revised edition, 1910. The Soul of Man. 1895; as The Soul of Man under Socialism, 1912.
Sebastian Melmoth (miscellany). 1904.
De Profundis. Expurgated version, edited by Robert Ross, 1905; revised edition, 1909; Suppressed Portion, 1913; The Complete Text, edited by Vyvyan Holland, 1949; complete version, in Letters, 1962.
Decorative Art in America, Together with Letters, Reviews, and Interviews, edited by R. B. Glaenzer. 1906.
Impressions of America, edited by Stuart Mason. 1906.
A Critic in Pall Mall, Being Extracts from Reviews and Miscellanies. 1919.
To M.B.J., edited by Stuart Mason. 1920.
Essays, edited by Hesketh Pearson. 1950.
Letters, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. 1962; Selected Letters, 1979;More Letters, 1985.
Literary Criticism, edited by Stanley Weintraub. 1968.
The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings, edited by Richard Ellmann. 1969.
Sayings, edited by Henry Russell. 1989.
Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making, edited by Philip E. Smith II and Michael S. Helfand. 1989.
The Fireworks of Wilde, edited by Owen Dudley Edwards. 1989.
The Soul of Man and Prison Writings, edited by Isobel Murray. 1990.
Nothing, Except My Genius. 1997.
Oscar Wilde's Wit and Wisdom. 1998.*
A Bibliography of Wilde by Stuart Mason, 1908, edited by Timothy d'Arch Smith, 1967; Wilde: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism by E. H. Mikhail, 1978.
Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, 2 vols., 1916, new preface, with Alfred Douglas, 1925, edited by Frank MacShane, 1974; A Study of Wilde by Arthur Symons, 1930; The Life of Wilde by Hesketh Pearson, 1946, as Wilde: His Life and Wit, 1946; Wilde by Edouard Roditi, 1947, revised edition, 1986; The Paradox of Wilde by George Woodcock, 1949, as Wilde: The Double Image, 1989; Wilde: A Present Time Appraisal by St. John Ervine, 1951; Son of Wilde, 1954, and Wilde: A Pictorial Biography, 1960, as Wilde and His World, 1960, both by Vyvyan Holland; The Fate of Wilde by Vivien Mercier, 1955; The Three Trials of Wilde edited by H. Montgomery Hyde, 1956, Wilde: The Aftermath, 1963, and Wilde: A Biography, 1975, both by Hyde; The Art of Wilde by Epifanio San Juan, Jr., 1967; Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays edited by Richard Ellmann, 1969, and Wilde (biography) by Ellmann, 1987; Wilde: The Critical Heritage edited by Karl Beckson, 1970; Wilde by G. A. Cevasco, 1972; The Unrecorded Life of Wilde by Rupert Croft-Cooke, 1972; Wilde by Martin Fido, 1973; Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Wilde by Christopher S. Nassaar, 1974; Wilde by Sheridan Morley, 1976; Wilde by Louis Kronenberger, 1976; Wilde by Donald Ericksen, 1977; The Plays of Wilde by Alan Bird, 1977; Wilde: Art and Egotism by Rodney Shewan, 1977; The Moral Vision of Wilde by Philip K. Cohen, 1978; Wilde: Interviews and Recollections edited by E. H. Mikhail, 2 vols., 1979; The Importance of Being Oscar: The Wit and Wisdom of Wilde Set Against His Life and Times by Mark Nicholls, 1980; Wilde's Life as Reflected in His Correspondence and His Autobiography by Anita Roitinger, 1980; Wilde by Robert Keith Miller, 1982; Mrs. Oscar Wilde: A Woman of Some Importance by Anne Clark Amor, 1983; Wilde by Richard Pine, 1983; Wilde by Katharine Worth, 1983; Hues of Mutability: The Waning Vision in Wilde's Narrative by Jean M. Ellis D'Allessandro, 1983; Idylls of the Marketplace: Wilde and the Victorian Public by Regenia Gagnier, 1986; Wilde by Peter Raby, 1987; The Wilde File by Jonathan Goodman, 1988; Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel by Norbert Kohl, 1989; Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890's by Kerry Powell, 1990; File on Wilde edited by Margery Morgan, 1990; Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde's Philosophy of Art by Julia Prewitt Brown, 1997; Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moisés Kaufman, 1997; The Exquisite Life of Oscar Wilde by Stephen Calloway, 1997; Oscar Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and the Most Outrageous Trial of the Century by Philip Hoare, 1998; The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia by Karl E. Beckson, 1998.* * *
Oscar Wilde attempted most of the available literary forms of his day, beginning with poetry. But his Poems were widely scorned, and his next and more successful genre was the short story. Where he was accused of minimal originality in his early poems, each of his stories is stamped with its author's personality, grace, and wit.
A few were contemporary. Particularly memorable is "The Canterville Ghost," where the author/narrator contrives to satirize a number of targets simultaneously. The rich Americans who come to stay at Canterville Chase have patent cures and nostrums for everything, from 300-year-old bloodstains, nightly renewed, to rusty fetters; they robustly refuse to be afraid of the ghost; and they worship "according to the simple rites of the Free American Reformed Episcopal Church." The presentation of the ghost in his dramatic roles and his atrocious history mock and outdo the most fearful products of a century that reveled in ghost stories and melodrama.
But Wilde's most perfect modern short story is "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," the story of a young man who has his palm read by a fashionable "cheiromancer" and learns it prophesies murder. The success of the story is entirely dependent on tone and on the kind of inspired through-the-looking-glass logic Wilde was not to sustain so thoroughly again until The Importance of Being Earnest. Lord Arthur belongs in the convention-ridden Victorian world of moral decision (the subtitle is "A Study of Duty"), but his first and lasting response is the key: he "was fully conscious of the fact that he had no right to marry until he had committed the murder." He makes two attempts to do away with harmless relatives he likes (this is no time to indulge prejudices), but one dies naturally, having left him her small fortune, while the exploding clock secretly obtained from Russian nihilist conspirators for the other seems as dangerous as a child's cap pistol. The wedding is called off, and Lord Arthur is in despair. One night he happens to meet the cheiromantist, who he pushes into the Thames, and he is happy ever after, with a great respect for cheiromancy. If Tennyson's King Arthur was doubly fated to defeat, Wilde's Lord Arthur, with his devotion to duty, is wholly justified.
In his two volumes of fairy tales Wilde purports to use the traditional styles of Andersen and the Grimms, but this impression does not last. In not one of the nine stories is there a central conventional love affair (the swallow-loves-statue and nightingale-loves-love are a little unusual); in not one of the stories is there an unqualified conventionally happy ending. The stories in A House of Pomegranates are longer and more elaborate than those in The Happy Prince, but Wilde said both collections were "an attempt to mirror modern life in a form remote from reality—to deal with modern problems in a mode that is ideal and not imitative." The problems are generally concerned with poverty and privilege, egotism and self-absorption, beauty and cruelty. They have several levels of appeal. They have always been favorites with children, but children will inevitably miss a great deal; Wilde said: "Now in building this House of Pomegranates I had about as much intention of pleasing the British child as I had of pleasing the British public."
In "The Happy Prince" the eponymous hero is dead after a life of careless happiness; but his statue develops the pity he forgot to feel for his people, and he determines to strip himself of wealthy ornament to help individuals in need. In turn he is loved by a swallow that refuses to leave him, facing certain death in the hard winter. The story is framed by comments from self-seeking town councillors, which reduces sentimentalism, and the swallow is an entertaining mini-egotist, one who has read Gautier and beguiles the prince with all the glories of Egypt. Even the prince has reservations: "The living always think that gold can make them happy." God's last-minute intervention to save the leaden heart of the statue and the body of the dead bird cannot tip the tale back into conventional Victorian sentimentality.
In many ways the most subtle and entertaining story is "The Devoted Friend," where Wilde tackles a theme very important to him. Are love and self-sacrifice the same? Should they be? In the story the humble little Hans is proud of his friendship with Hugh the Miller; the miller endlessly dilates on the theory of friendship, while poor Hans is confined to the practice, undertaking ever greater self-sacrifices to please his rich friend. A first reading may cause the reader to admire and wonder at the devotion of the brave and selfless little fellow; a second or third begins to suggest that though the miller's selfishness is abominable, Hans's self-abnegation is excessive. Wilde's other work suggests that self-realization or self-development is preferable to self-sacrifice, and I think that is the tenor of this story too. The miller neglects Hans in winter when he might need help ("Flour is one thing and friendship is another"), while his young son offers to share his food with Hans, and the miller's wife admires her husband's eloquence ("I feel quite drowsy. It is just like being in church"). The whole story is more carefully framed than "The Happy Prince," with a debate about friendship going on among pond creatures and a selfish water-rat who is apoplectic with rage when he finds he has been told a story with a moral. Significantly the main story has been told by a Green Linnet. The ironies of Wilde's fairy tales make them uniquely provocative.
WILDE, OSCAReducation and career
WILDE, OSCAR (1854–1900), Irish playwright.
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was, as he said of himself, a "man who stood in symbolic relation to his times" (De Profundis). He was born on 16 October 1854, at 21 Westland Row in Dublin. His father, Sir William Wilde, a leading ear and eye surgeon, devoted himself to caring for the city's poor. His charitable dispensary later developed into the Dublin Eye and Ear Hospital. He also was the author of several noteworthy books on archaeology and Irish folklore.
Wilde's mother, Jane, was also a writer, as well as an activist for Irish nationalism, an early suffragist, and a socialist. Under the pen name Francesca Esperanza Wilde, she drew note in Dublin's political circles by publishing a series of defenses of Irish nationalism. After the family moved to more fashionable quarters on Merrion Square in June of 1855, Lady Wilde convened a regular Saturday afternoon salon with guests such as the writer Sheridan le Fanu, Samuel Lever, the lawyer and nationalist leader Isaac Butt, and the antiquarian and poet Samuel Ferguson.
This circle was Wilde's milieu until the age of nine, when he was enrolled at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Fermanaugh. He graduated in 1871, gained entrance to Trinity College, Dublin, and studied classics there from 1871 to 1874. He won the Berkeley Medal, the highest honor in classics granted at Trinity, which helped him gain a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. At the age of twenty Wilde moved from Ireland to England and continued to excel in his studies. He graduated from Oxford in 1878 with a double first, and won the 1878 Oxford Newdigate prize for his poems Ravenna.
Wilde returned to Dublin after Oxford and fell in love with Florence Balcome. She, however, spurned Wilde and became engaged to Bram Stoker. Wilde announced his intention to leave Ireland permanently because of the romantic misfortune. He took up quarters in London in 1878, and spent the next six years living off a lucrative lecturing career that took him to France and on a Continental tour of the United States.
Wilde's celebrity as a lecturer derived from his involvement at Oxford in the aesthetics movement, a new cult of decorative arts and aesthetic theory originated by William Morris (1834–1896) and his circle. Wilde captivated the media, who made him spokesperson for the movement. By 1881 the cult of the "Aesthetes" was important enough that Gilbert and Sullivan lampooned it in the popular operetta, Patience, which popularized Wilde as an effete poet who "strolled down Picadilly with a medieval lily in his hand." The show was a hit, and Wilde was a celebrity, though none of his major writings had yet appeared.
The success of the operetta's premiere in New York prompted its producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte (1844–1901), to arrange Wilde's 1882 American lecture tour. Newspapers in the larger cities attacked Wilde, describing at length his pasty white skin, and his odd, lyrical intonation. The mining towns of the West, ironically, applauded Wilde; one of the most favorable press notices about him appeared in the Leadville, Colorado, Gazette in 1881.
Wilde returned to Dublin only twice during this period of lecturing. On one of those visits in 1884 he met Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a wealthy London family, and proposed almost instantaneously. They wed on 29 May 1884. Lloyd's allowance of 250 pounds yearly was a considerable asset, and the couple cultivated a life of luxury at 16 Tite Street in London. In the next two years they had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886).
Wilde commenced a series of journalistic appointments. He reviewed for the Pall Mall Gazette from 1887 to 1889, and then became editor of Woman's World, which he fashioned into a laboratory for exploring the decorative arts and a mouthpiece for socialist reformation. The period immediately after taking the editorship was one of extreme creative productivity for Wilde. In 1891 his most important prose writings appeared in the collection Intentions, which included "The Decay of Lying" and "The Critic as Artist," and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was serialized in Lipincott's Magazine. Mainstream reviewers praised Wilde's prose but condemned his morality. Max Nordau, whose influential book Degeneration (1895) attacked aestheticism, used the novel as an
example of how degenerate artists hasten the "moral laxity and decay" of a nation.
In 1891 Wilde also wrote Lady Windermere's Fan, the first of four stage hits that elevated Wilde into a West End legend. It opened as an immediate hit at St. James' Theatre in London in February 1882, and earned Wilde an astonishing seven thousand pounds. He followed it with A Woman of No Importance at the Haymarket Theatre in London on 19 April 1893, which was hailed as the best "comedy of manners" since Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816). In his third West End hit, An Ideal Husband, Wilde crafted his epigrams and wit around a political melodrama, prompting the socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) to call him "our only serious playwright." Wilde's next—and last—play, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened at the Haymarket only a month after An Ideal Husband, putting Wilde in the enviable position of having two simultaneous West End hits.
The notes for works left by Wilde suggest he intended to have a long career as a playwright. However, 1891 also saw the beginning of Wilde's intimacies with Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas (1870–1945), the son of John Sholto Douglas, 8th Marquess of Queensberry. Douglas, a devotee of the cult of aestheticism, became Wilde's constant companion in the London social world.
Douglas had not yet come of age and had no allowance, and Wilde's flagrant displays of spending and support, as well as the attention paid by the public to the men's extravagance, snubbed the father's position as financial authority. To retaliate, the marquess made a plan to interrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest with an insulting delivery of vegetables made to the playwright while his play was in progress. Warned of the plot, Wilde had the marquess barred from the theater. The next day, 18 February 1895, the marquess left a calling card for Wilde at the Albemarle club. On the back he had written, "For Oscar Wilde posing as a Somdomite [sic]."
Goaded by Douglas, Wilde pressed charges of criminal libel against the marquess. The ensuing events ended any hopes Wilde had of sustaining his career and left him financially and emotionally destitute. In April the crown took over prosecution, and the solicitor Edward Clarke based his case against the marquess almost entirely on Wilde's own assertions that the accusation of being a sodomite had no basis. To challenge that claim, Edward Henry Carson, barrister for the defense, located several lower-class boys who claimed to have had intimacies with Wilde. The revelation laid waste to the prosecution, humiliated Wilde, and prompted the dismissal of the case.
Carson's witnesses, however, provided the ground for the crown to arrest Wilde on 6 April 1895, on charges of "committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons: under section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act." Wilde, along with Alfred Taylor, who had allegedly solicited the services of young men for Wilde, faced twenty-five counts. The jury deadlocked on all charges except one, of which they acquitted Wilde.
Despite entreaties from luminaries such as Bernard Shaw and even from the marquess's own attorney, Edward Carson, the crown stood adamant in its desire to secure a conviction, and pursued a second trial under the prosecution of the solicitor-general himself, Frank Lockwood. The crown's motives are a matter for speculation. Ambiguous letters between Queensberry and Prime Minister Rosebery (Archibald Philip Primrose), who was widely suspected of having had a homosexual affair earlier in his career with another of Queensberry's sons, suggest that Rosebery might have been blackmailed into pursuing prosecution. More generally, the British government had become uncomfortably associated with prurience by several well-publicized scandals that called into question the moral ethics of certain government officials. The prosecution of Wilde might have seemed a way to redeem the government against its own transgressions.
Wilde himself, however, was the leading contributing factor. In 1892 the lord chamberlain refused to license the performance of Wilde's newest play, Salome, because it contained biblical characters. Wilde reacted publicly and his anger resounded across London society. In 1893 he published the play in a French edition, as if to snub the parochial taboos of the English system, and in 1894 he published an English fine art edition with pornographic illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898). Such actions showed little respect for authority. Also, Wilde's Irish origins and his flaunting of new, commercially derived money caused further contempt. In many ways, this was a prosecution about nationality and class as much as it was about sexual behavior.
The third trial resulted in the verdict of guilty on all charges save one, and Wilde served two years at hard labor in prison, the last eighteen months of it at Reading Gaol. He was released on 19 May 1897. Penniless and abandoned by his wife and sons (as well as by Douglas), he adopted the name Sebastian Melmoth, after the title character of Melmoth the Wanderer, and lived in self-imposed exile from society and the aesthetic movement. Only two pieces of any significance issued from Wilde after release. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a poem seeking to elicit compassion for prisoners, and De Profundis (1905), a long letter written to Douglas from prison that provides Wilde's most personal statement of his philosophies of art, life, and himself.
Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on 30 November 1900, only three years after his release. He was buried in the Cimitière de Bagneux on the outskirts of Paris, but was later relocated by generous friends to the more prestigious Père Lachaise Cemetery, where his grave is marked by a commissioned monument from sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880–1959).
Cohen, Ed. Talk on the Wilde Side: Toward a Genealogy of Discourse on Male Sexualities. New York, 1993.
Cohen, Philip K. The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde. Rutherford, N.J., 1978.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Viking, 1987.
Ellmann, Richard, ed. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1969.
Foldy, Michael S. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society. New Haven, Conn., 1997.
Gagnier, Regenia A. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford, Calif., 1986.
Hyde, H. Montgomery. Oscar Wilde: A Biography. London, 1975.
Nassaar, Christopher S. Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde. New Haven, Conn., 1974.
Nunokawa, Jeff. Oscar Wilde. New York, 1995.
Shewan, Rodney. Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism. London, 1977.
Sinfield, Alan. The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde, and the Queer Movement. London, 1994.
Summers, Claude J. Gay Fictions: Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. New York, 1990.
Woodcock, George. The Paradox of Oscar Wilde. New York, 1950.
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was one of the most prominent and influential figures of the fin de siècle. Playwright, author, journalist, dandy-aesthete, wit, and homosexual social critic, his life and work fore-shadowed many of the features of twentieth-century popular and creative subcultures, not least their obsession with the cult of celebrity and the act of self-fashioning. Wilde's constant concern with surface appearance and its power also ensured that his distinctive and constantly changing personal image became a style-template for those who wish to dress in extravagant and innovative ways, from actors and artists to pop stars and clubbers.
Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde was the second son of a leading surgeon, Dr. William Wilde, and Jane Francesca Speranza Elgee, an Irish nationalist poet and translator. Following the traditional route for a boy of his social background and aptitude, Wilde studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin before winning a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1874. In photographs of this period Wilde appeared quite the student "masher" in loudly checked suits and bowler hats. There was little to indicate his later espousal of artistic fashions, though his hair was a little longer than the norm for the 1870s. During his time at Oxford Wilde immersed himself in the ideas of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, honing an acute appreciation of ancient and renaissance art on study visits to Greece and Italy. He graduated with a first class degree in 1878. Having established a reputation as a promising poet with the award of the Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna" in the same year, Wilde launched himself on the London social and literary circuit, where he skillfully adapted the learned theories of Ruskin and Pater for a less erudite audience. His talent for self-publicizing soon earned him notoriety as the "Professor of Aesthetics" in such satirical publications as Punch, where his flowing hair, loosely tied collars, floral accessories, and velvet suits formed an obvious target for the caricaturists.
By 1881, Wilde's reputation was such that he found his opinions and appearance lampooned in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, whose libretto ridiculed the current metropolitan taste for "aesthetic" clothing, interior design, and amateur philosophizing. Wilde turned this critique to his advantage by spearheading a promotional
lecture tour for the operetta in the United States and Canada during the following year. Dressed in extreme aesthetic garb—which now included breeches, stockings and pumps, fur-trimmed overcoats, cloaks, and wide-brimmed hats—he delivered talks to American audiences on such subjects as "The House Beautiful." Wilde had his image from this period immortalized in a series of striking portraits by the society photographer Napoleon Sarony that idealized him as a romantic bohemian.
Back in London, Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884, setting up an elegant home with her in Chelsea where they raised two sons, Cyril (born 1885) and Vyvyan (born 1886). For the remainder of the 1880s, Wilde had a successful career as a reviewer and editor of the progressive magazine Woman's World, while honing his talents as an essayist and writer of exquisite short stories. During this time, he exchanged the long locks and soft velvets of the Patience era for dramatic "Neronian" curls—a subversive reference to the pagan moral code of imperial Rome—and urbane Savile Row tailoring, the better to represent himself as the epitome of cosmopolitan stylishness.
By the late 1880s Wilde was beginning to explore the then dangerous territory of male to male desire, both in his personal life and as a subject for artistic expression. He experienced his first homosexual relationship with a Cambridge undergraduate named Robert Ross in 1886, which partly inspired him to write an essay on Shake-speare's sonnets, "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.," exploring the thesis that Shakespeare's creativity was derived from his love for a boy actor. Wilde published the first version of his most explicit investigation of the demimonde in which he was now operating in 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray was not only heavily informed by French decadent literature in terms of style and subject matter, but also contained expressions of the amoral out-look that would bring Wilde into contact in 1891 with his most infamous lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. In tandem with this search for hedonistic sensation, which was the ultimate outcome of the "art for art's sake" philosophy of aestheticism, Wilde was also a supporter of the socialism espoused by William Morris. He wrote his influential essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism" during the same period. In fashion terms, the ideals of socialism found a corollary in the rational Liberty style of "anti-fashion" dressing adopted by Constance Wilde and promoted by Oscar in his journalistic output.
Wilde's popularity as an author of astringent drawing-room comedies for the London stage peaked during the first half of the 1890s. Following the success of Lady Windermere's Fan in 1892, he went on to produce A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Besides opening the mores and hypocrisies of contemporary fashionable life to devastating scrutiny, these plays also afforded an opportunity for sophisticated costume designs that influenced the modes of the day. While the drawing-room plays enjoyed the critical acclaim of polite society, Wilde was also developing further his interest in decadent and erotic themes. These were represented most forcefully in Wilde's association with the avant-garde journal The Yellow Book and in his play Salome, which was refused a license for production in London on the grounds of obscenity.
The tension between Wilde's public and private interests snapped in 1895, when he rashly brought charges of criminal libel against the Marquess of Queensbury, who was enraged by Wilde's liaison with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. The marquess had been accusing Wilde of "unnatural acts" to all who would listen. On the collapse of the libel trial Wilde was himself arrested for "acts of gross indecency with other male persons," for which he was eventually found guilty and sentenced to two years' imprisonment with hard labor. In 1897, during his incarceration, Wilde authored De Profundis, a confessional account of his fall. He published "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," a poem that captured the suffering of prison life, after his release and exile to Paris in 1898. Though the image of Wilde in convict's clothing provided a fitting costume for the final act of a drama that he himself might have written, he never fully recovered from the shame and physical discomfort caused by his punishment, and died a broken man in Paris in 1900. His remains were transferred to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in 1909, where they were marked by Jacob Epstein's powerful sculptured angel.
Following decades when his name, works and image were associated in the puritanical Anglo-Saxon world with "unmentionable vices," Wilde's reputation as a gifted writer was gradually restored from the 1950s onwards. Sympathetic film treatments of his life and plays helped bring his sparkling legacy to a new generation, and the counterculture of the 1960s interpreted Wilde as a sexual and aesthetic revolutionary. By the 1980s and 1990s Wilde's complex personality and self-contradictory proclamations made him once again the focus of intense study and speculation. For the fashion theorist and historian, Wilde's life and work undoubtedly offer a rich seam of material for further research.
Cohen, Ed. Talk on the Wilde Side: Toward A Genealogy of a Dis-course on Male Sexualities. London: Routledge, 1993. An examination of the relevance of Wilde's trial to modern understandings of homosexual identities.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987. The most authoritative and comprehensive biography of Wilde published to date.
Holland, Merlin. The Wilde Album. London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1997. An excellent visual resource for images of Wilde and his milieu.
Kaplan, Joel, and Sheila Stowell. Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. An innovative study of the relationship between the theater and sartorial culture in the 1890s.
Sinfield, Alan. The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Movement. London: Cassell, 1994. A sophisticated account of the political and theoretical afterlife of Wilde in the twentieth century.
Sloan, John. Oscar Wilde. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2003. A useful summary of the social and literary contexts of Wilde's life and work.
The English author Oscar Wilde was part of the "art for art's sake" movement in English literature at the end of the nineteenth century. He is best known for his brilliant, witty comedies including the play The Importance of Being Earnest and his classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a well-known surgeon; his mother, Jane Francisca Elgee Wilde, wrote popular poetry and other work under the pseudonym (pen name) Speranza. Because of his mother's literary successes, young Oscar enjoyed a cultured and privileged childhood.
After attending Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland, Wilde moved on to study the classics at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874. There, he began attracting public attention through the uniqueness of his writing and his lifestyle. Before leaving Trinity College, Wilde was awarded many honors, including the Berkely Gold Medal for Greek.
Begins writing career
At the age of twenty-three Wilde entered Magdalen College, Oxford, England. In 1878 he was awarded the Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna." He attracted a group of followers whose members were purposefully unproductive and artificial. "The first duty in life," Wilde wrote in Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young (1894), "is to be as artificial as possible." After leaving Oxford he expanded his cult (a following). His iconoclasm (attacking of established religious institutions) clashed with the holiness that came with the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century, but this contradiction was one that he aimed for. Another of his aims was the glorification of youth.
Wilde published his well-received Poems in 1881. The next six years were active ones. He spent an entire year lecturing in the United States and then returned to lecture in England. He applied unsuccessfully for a position as a school inspector. In 1884 he married, and his wife bore him children in 1885 and in 1886. He began to publish extensively in the following year. His writing activity became as intense and as inconsistent as his life had been for the previous six years. From 1887 to 1889 Wilde edited the magazine Woman's World. His first popular success as a fiction writer was The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888). The House of Pomegranates (1892) was another collection of his fairy tales.
Sexuality of Oscar Wilde
In 1886 Wilde became a practicing homosexual, or one who is sexually attracted to a member of their own sex. He believed that his attacks on the Victorian moral code was the inspiration for his writing. He considered himself a criminal who challenged society by creating scandal. Before his conviction (found guilty) for homosexuality in 1895, the scandal was essentially private. Wilde believed in the criminal mentality. "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," from Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1891), treated murder and its successful cover-up comically. The original version of The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott's Magazine emphasized the murder of the painter Basil Hallward by Dorian as the turning point in Dorian's downfall. Wilde stressed that criminal tendency became criminal act.
Dorian Gray was published in book form in 1891. The novel was a celebration of youth. Dorian, in a gesture typical of Wilde, is parentless. He does not age, and he is a criminal. Like all of Wilde's work, the novel was a popular success. His only book of formal criticism, Intentions (1891), restated many of the views that Dorian Gray had emphasized, and it points toward his later plays and stories. Intentions emphasized the importance of criticism in an age that Wilde believed was uncritical. For him, criticism was an independent branch of literature, and its function was important.
Between 1892 and 1895 Wilde was an active dramatist (writer of plays), writing what he identified as "trivial [unimportant] comedies for serious people." His plays were popular because their dialogue was baffling, clever, and often short and clear, relying on puns and elaborate word games for their effect. Lady Windermere's Fan was produced in 1892, A Woman of No Importance in 1893, and An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895.
On March 2, 1895, Wilde initiated a suit for criminal libel (a statement that damages someone's reputation) against the Marquess of Queensberry, who had objected to Wilde's friendship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. When his suit failed in April, countercharges followed. After a spectacular court action, Wilde was convicted of homosexual misconduct and sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor.
Prison transformed Wilde's experience as extremely as had his 1886 introduction to homosexuality. In a sense he had prepared himself for prison and its transformation of his art. De Profundis is a moving letter to a friend and apologia (a formal defense) that Wilde wrote in prison; it was first published as a whole in 1905. His theme was that he was not unlike other men and was a scapegoat, or one who bears blame for others. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) was written after his release. In this poem a man murdered his mistress and was about to be executed, but Wilde considered him only as criminal as the rest of humanity. He wrote: "For each man kills the thing he loves, / Yet each man does not die."
After Wilde was released from prison he lived in Paris, France. He attempted to write a play in his style before his imprisonment, but this effort failed. He died in Paris on November 30, 1900.
For More Information
Bloom, Harold, ed. Oscar Wilde. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Kaufman, Moises. Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.
Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. London: HarperCollins, 2000.
Woodcock, George. Oscar Wilde: The Double Image. New York: Black Rose Books, 1989.
Oscar Wilde was a nineteenth-century Irish poet, novelist, and playwright who mocked social conventions and outraged English society with his unconventional ideas and behavior. Wilde's relevance to the law is based on his 1895 criminal trial, in which he was convicted of committing homosexual acts and was sentenced to two years in prison. Historians of law and sexuality regard the trial as a pivotal event, as it demonstrated that the legal system could be used to punish gays and lesbians.
"All authority is quite degrading."
Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, probably on October 16, 1854, although some sources say October 15 or 1856. He was a talented writer who achieved prominence—despite mixed literary criticism—with his first effort, Poems, in
1881. Many of his subsequent works are considered classics, including the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and the plays Lady Windermere's Fan (first produced, 1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (first produced, 1895).
As one of England's most flamboyant and sought-after socialites, Wilde nevertheless led an ordinary life in many respects. He married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and fathered two sons. In 1895, however, rumors of Wilde's homosexuality began to circulate, culminating in a scandalous libel trial.
The Marquess of Queensberry, whose name is associated with the accepted standards of boxing regulations, started the controversy by publicizing Wilde's sexual preferences. The marquess had discovered that his son, Alfred Douglas, had a relationship with Wilde, and he was determined to sever the ties. In February 1895, the marquess publicly accused Wilde of being a homosexual. english law made homosexual relations a criminal offense.
Wilde professed innocence and took the marquess to court for criminal libel. At trial, the marquess's lawyer produced letters written by Wilde to Alfred Douglas, and their affectionate terminology was damaging to Wilde's case. As witnesses revealed Wilde's affiliations with male prostitutes and other men, Wilde considered retracting his accusation. The jury found the marquess not guilty, thus lending some credibility to his accusation against Wilde.
Soon after the conclusion of the trial, Wilde was arrested with a young man, accused of homosexual activities, and put on trial. At the trial, more information about his sexual activities emerged. The prosecution also introduced a poem by Alfred Douglas and questioned Wilde about several loving references to him.
Wilde's lawyers denounced the witnesses as characters of ill repute and pointed out conflicting facts in their testimonies. The trial ended in a hung jury, but Wilde was retried in May 1895. That time, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison. He was released from Reading Gaol (pronounced "JAIL") in May 1897 and moved to Europe, where he assumed the name Sebastian Melmoth. During his exile, he wrote "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," a long poem decrying the cruelty of British prison conditions, especially affecting child inmates. He also wrote letters to English newspapers to sway public opinion during consideration of new legislation. Most notably, on a personal and literary level, Wilde composed a letter to Douglas that
was filled with recriminations against the younger man, which was published posthumously in edited form as De Profundis in 1905. Wilde died on November 30, 1900, in Paris.
In 2001, the transcript of Wilde's 1895 libel trial—which was thought not to exist—was donated anonymously to the British Library. Two-and-a-half years later, the library hosted a live reading with prominent British actors. The original documents, in stenographic shorthand, contain the entirety of the trial's proceedings, a marked improvement over the abbreviated, personal, and unofficial accounts.
Foldy, Michael S. 1997. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society. New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press.
Great Britain. Public Record Office. 1998. Oscar Wilde: Trial and Punishment, 1895–1897. Kew, Richmond, Surrey, England: Public Record Office.
"Great Trials: Oscar Wilde." 1996. Quill and Quire 62 (April).
Holland, Merlin. 2003. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde. New York: Fourth Estate.
Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), essayist, poet, novelist, and dramatist, was born on 16 October 1854 at 15 Westland Row, Dublin. He was the second son of Sir William Wilde, a noted eye surgeon and folklorist, and Jane Francesca Wilde, who as "Speranza" had penned inflammatory nationalist verse in her youth. Educated at Portora Royal School, Trinity College, Dublin, and Magdalen College, Oxford, Wilde first made his name as a self-appointed "Professor of Aesthetics," touring the United States in the early 1880s and lecturing on such subjects as the "House Beautiful" and, in San Francisco, on his Irish nationalist sympathies. His first literary success was with the Gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), which was swiftly followed by a series of society comedies that simultaneously flattered and satirized Wilde's fashionable West End audiences: Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). A noted wit and dandy, Wilde gave an outsider's informed, fascinated, yet skeptical view of the workings of the Victorian aristocracy—with its casual cruelties and sexual double standard—and of the pragmatism undermining the high-sounding sentiments of imperialist politics. Wilde, as an Irishman and a married homosexual, was doubly estranged from the conventional English society that he both commented upon and courted. As his celebrity grew, his double life became ever more precarious, and he began to conduct a semipublic affair with Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), the dangerously unstable son of the Marquess of Queensberry. At the apex of his fame—with An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest both playing to packed audiences in the West End—Wilde took out a libel action against Queensberry (who had accused him of "posing as a Somdomite [sic]"), provoking his own subsequent trial and conviction for gross indecency. His friend Frank Harris believed that Wilde was put on trial not just for his sexuality but for his nationality as well, claiming that in front of an English judge and jury Wilde had as much chance of being found innocent as one of the Invincibles, the group responsible for the Phoenix Park murders in 1882. Wilde died virtually penniless in Paris after serving two years of hard labor, and was written out of literary and cultural history until his recuperation in the 1980s as a contemporary gay icon and his reevaluation as one of the most important figures of the Irish literary renaissance.
This recuperation has involved a rediscovery of Wilde's importance as an art theorist as well as a writer. The aesthetic theories that he outlined in his essays, collected as Intentions (1891), anticipate to a surprising degree some of the central tenets and assumptions of both modernism and contemporary cultural theory, such as the ideas of the dispersed and decentered nature of human identity and of language being "the parent and not the child of thought" (Complete Works, p. 1,023). At the same time, Wilde's studied nonchalance is now seen as a mask for the seriousness of his artistic ambitions: Much critical work has concentrated on him as a professional writer in a recognizably modern context, collaborating with other theatrical practitioners, polishing and revising his work through composition and rehearsal into performance.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. 1987.
Holland, Merlin, ed. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. 2000.
Sammells, Neil. Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde. 2000.
Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. New edition, 1966.