Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 of Anglo-Irish parents of noble descent and part of, what can be said, an intellectual family milieu in which he developed his literary and overall artistic interests. Educated at home during his childhood he learned to speak fluently French and German he, then attended, at first, Trinity College and later went to Oxford where he achieved a double first B.A. degree in Classical Moderations and Humanist Literature.
He began his literary career while still at Trinity College publishing poems in several Dublin magazines, but it is especially while at Oxford that he came in contact with the Aesthetic and Decadent movements applying their theories on art in his personal life in particular – he tried to transpose the beauty he saw in art into daily life. A practical and a philosophical project –, to the point that he soon became the epitome of the dandy, unlike the bohemian who associated himself with the lower classes, especially those belonging to the proletariat, the dandy is at one time an unconventional rebel and yet fully part of the upper refined class to which he undoubtedly belongs. As a matter of fact, Wilde was a sparkle in London socialite circles, often outshining all others with his original and bright conversation for which he was sought after as the star of the gatherings. It must be said, however, that
A flamboyant and eccentric personality he soon began touring the United States taking part in conferences and delivering lectures all contributing to increase his popularity in Europe and, upon returning from abroad, stopped in Paris where he achieved great success as well.
WILDE AND THE AESTHETIC MOVEMENT’S INFLUENCE
Wilde’s literary works are all shaped around the “art for art’s sake” aphorism that had been promoted in France by Théophile Gautier who sustained that there was no real connection between art and morality; even better, the aesthetic values focused mainly on beauty in the arts that were meant to be free of any deeper meaning attaining to social-political themes or more profound issues, a theory that was accepted and spread in Oxford by professor Walter Pater, although Wilde was also greatly inspired by John Ruskin’s writings regarding art and its great influence on beauty and refinement not only in the sense of material beauty, as supported by Pater, but also in that that concerns the more intimate moral one.
BETWEEN WALTER PATER AND JOHN RUSKIN
According to W. Pater as he writes in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, the individual appreciation of beauty must be especially refined and that each moment is worthy of being experienced to its fullest extent, to this sort of self-validating idea of art, John Ruskin, opposes his own theory according to which, the relevance of art should instead be perceived as the opportunity through which improve society, thus man should not just admire beauty but apply it to moral wellness.
So, if on the one hand, Pater in fact argues that art’s only role is to fulfil man’s need for beauty regardless of any other type of advantage coming from it and therefore the artist must strive to create art without any other aim in mind, on the other hand, Ruskin advocates a sort of socialist art through which the entire community or society can benefit from.
Indeed, Wilde’s efforts go in the direction of combining into one these two different and, in some cases, divergent perspectives as we can see in his literary production through which, without pursuing any didactic aim, he nevertheless poses to his readers and audience several questions regarding the Victorian society coming to an end during his lifetime.
Oscar Wilde soon became a renowned journalist writing for newspapers and magazines of the time, some of his early production includes: in 1881 a collection of poems in a volume called Poems published at his own expenses; while it is in the late 1880s that his literary talent is fully established through a series of short stories such as: The Canterville Ghost, Lord Savile’s Crime, The Happy Prince and Other Tales.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
His first and only novel , The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1891. It is set in the London of the late eighteen hundreds and it is the story of an extraordinarily beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, “who has a face like ivory and rose leaves” and whose exceptional beauty fascinates a painter who paints his portrait. The sight of the painting troubles Dorian so much that he inadevertently sells his soul to the devil, thus adapting in modern times the myth of Faust, so that all his earthly desires are fully satisfied while the signs of his corrupt soul are shown only on the portrait which will carry the signs of his hideous deeds and consequent moral decrepitude as he goes through life exploiting and manipulating people doing all that he wants. The exterior beauty of the protagonist is fully preserved at the expense of his rotting soul. But Dorian’s conscience eventually has the upper hand and getting tired of his dissolute life he takes out his inner rage on the portrait by stabbing it at the heart at which point:
Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was…
The spell is broken and the portrait recovers its original mastery and beauty while Dorian pays with death all his wrong doing in life.
If on the one hand The Picture of Dorian Gray mirrors the failure of man to be truly whole preserving body and soul from corruption as the Greek philosopher Epicurus claimed. It also represents Wilde’s earnest criticism of Victorian society in that Dorian and his portrait are the duplicity embodied by the so called “Victorian Compromise” through which the fierce exploitation of the colonies’ raw materials and local labour force is justified by bringing the white man’s superior civilization to the natives. Thus washing off its conscience, so the ever youthful and beautiful exterior image of Dorian personifies the Victorian endeavour to save appearances while the decaying picture locked behind closed doors symbolises its deep true decadent and downright evil nature.
When the novel came out conservative reviewers labelled it as inappropriate, many claimed that in there were several hints to homosexual depravation, that the accusations against the Victorian Age of having reached a point in which there was no hope for redemption, as the novel clearly suggests, were an exaggeration and utterly unfounded so the book was, virtually, censored.
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
This of course did not discourage Wilde’s perseverance in writing and he then turned to plays, perhaps more in accordance with his natural flippancy, it is as a playwright that Wilde significantly contributed in giving new shine to the Comedy of Manners thanks to his humorous and refined dialogues as he continued to criticise Victorians light heartedly. This time he was quite successful as shown by the many times they were staged in London and elsewhere.
The Importance of Being Earnest is probably the best example since it is his most famous play. Staged the first time in 1895, it is the story of two aristocratic young men. Ernest Worthing, better known as Jack, a foundling adopted by Mr Thomas Cardew who, upon his death, appoints Jack as guardian to his grand-daughter, a young and extraordinarily wealthy heiress, Cecily Cardew, living still in the country as very young and not of age to be introduced in society. In order for Jack to enjoy London’s season he invents a brother who lives in the city and whom he visits often. The theme of the double is used again by Wilde and twice over, in fact Jack upon arriving in London promptly becomes his brother Ernest and carelessly enjoys the amusements provided by London’s society. The other gentleman is Algernon Moncrieff who has, in turn, a fictitious invalid friend, Bunbury, whom he too visits often in the country.
The plot develops around both gentlemen’s attempts to marry. Jack is courting Gwendolen Fairfax while Algernon has taken a liking to Cecily Cardew. The former needs to overcome Lady Bracknell’s refusal to let her daughter marry someone who was found in an ordinary hand-bag at a train station – to marry into a cloack-room and from an alliance with a parcel – and the latter his own lies.
Moreover the play revolves over the two marriages sought after by the two male protagonists and the marriage institution itself is Wilde’s focus as he uses it to outline Victorian’s many contradictions and idiosyncrasies, indeed this play, in particular, thanks to the numerous misunderstandings produced by the two gentlemen’s double identities which, in turn, give way to a variety of comic situations and the very amusing dialogues that ensue because of them is undoubtedly enjoyable even though it is a faithful reflection of Victorian society with its aristocratic snobs dissipating money and wasting time in useless and frivolous occupations going from one dinner party to another, from horse races to evening gatherings while gossiping and showing off among peers. Their only main concerns being money and arranging good marriages which were but profitable business transactions for both parties involved and in which love was not even contemplated.
The scene in which Lady Bracknell interviews Jack as a potential son-in-law and rejects him as an unsuitable party for her daughter exemplifies very clearly their underlying hypocrisy and often ridiculous stand points, albeit it is all played along the notes of irony and sarcasm, or perhaps, the social satire proves to be even more effective precisely because of the exaggerations and puns contained. The play ends happily and the mystery concerning Jack’s unknown origins that are causing so much chagrin to Lady Bracknell is eventually unveiled and the reader learns that he is in fact the lost son of her poor sister, Mrs Moncrieff and therefore Algernon’s eldest brother, who was indeed left behind by error in hand-bag at Victoria station by his governess.
OSCAR WILDE’S DOWNFALL AND DEATH
Oscar Wilde’s last work is The Ballad of the Reading Gaol which was published in 1898, a long narrative poem of 109 stanzas divided in six sections, is about a prison mate’s hanging that he witnessed. He died poor and forsaken by all in Paris, in 1900, after the great scandal that enveloped his life due to the accusation of homosexuality for which he was trialled, found guilty and sentenced to two years of hard labour.
The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonoured grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross,
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.
© L. R. Capuana
Images taken from Google Search
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