Among the writers of the late nineteenth century in Britain, none perhaps has surpassed the reputation and press accorded to the inimitable Oscar Wilde. With controversies plaguing most aspects of his life—from his writing to his personal life—Wilde has eventually become an icon of his generation, resonating with readers far and wide, many celebrating his unique voice and alternative thinking. The man as a poet, playwright, and fiction writer used his wit and intelligence as well as a sharp way with words to create masterpieces that have ultimately become part of the literary canon.
Two of these, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, are some of the most studied in literary scholarship worldwide, and are practically responsible for catapulting Wilde into iconic status. However, much of the persona of the famed writer included his unconventional sexuality, as well as the infamous period of his incarceration; but, as it normally happens to exceptional talent, the work was able to fight through the dirt and shine on its own merits, earning the admiration of readers throughout the centuries. II. A Wilde History
Oscar Wilde was born in October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland, to wealthy parents, a writer and a surgeon. Aside from spending most of his childhood in the company of the equally rich, including summers in fashionable homes, Wilde eventually began his education in Greek literature classics. During his time as a college student, he found his affinity for Aestheticism, which centered on the concept of using life to create art. This manifested in Wilde’s countenance and choice of clothing and lifestyle, constantly deferring to art-related symbols and feminine representations rather than masculine endeavors like sports.
Wilde also did a substantial amount of writing during this time and completed his course with honors; however, his controversial image appeared to have started as many of his fellow students professed a great dislike for his unconventional attitude and manner of expression. Because masculinity—part and parcel of Victorian patriarchy—excluded any association with flamboyance in feminine terms, many critics openly attacked Wilde’s lifestyle and writing. The writer’s apparent homosexuality was largely focused upon, and some even referred to him as a negative influence on the youth.
Though Oscar Wilde married a woman, Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons, his sexual preference and activities were always called into question. Because of his observed relationships with several men, including Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde became the subject of ridicule and offense; his affair with Douglas, due to the man’s political family, was eventually the reason behind his much-publicized trial and imprisonment. Oscar Wilde passed in 1900, and was buried in Paris where he retreated after being freed from jail.
He chose to never return to his native Ireland or to Britain (Merriman, pars 1-10). III. The Picture of Dorian Gray This 1891 novel, which started as a short story published in a magazine, is the only realized work of its genre by Wilde. Largely considered fashionable for its time owing to its gothic horror theme, The Picture of Dorian Gray embodies much of the qualities associated with Wilde himself—art as the center of life, beauty, and homosexuality—and thus was received during its launch with the kind of controversy identified with Wilde all his life.
The mind-gripping story revolves around a young, extremely handsome man named Dorian Gray, and the painting of his likeness created by an artist named Basil Hallward. Apparently, the artist was greatly enamored by Dorian’s beauty, which urged him to paint the portrait. However, due to Dorian’s acquaintance with the concept of hedonism and the sole pursuit of beauty, he makes a wish for the painting to take on his physical aging while Dorian’s actual body remained young and beautiful. But for each of Dorian’s sins, changes would take place in the painting—which ultimately mirrored his soul—and make it more grotesque at every turn.
His growing fear of seeing his own portrait age led him to affirm his love for beauty even more, and his rejection of everything he deemed unqualified made its mark in every occurrence. In the end, Dorian accuses and kills Basil for bringing this all upon him and attempts to correct all his perceived ills in the hopes of having the portrait return to its normal state. This did not happen, as Dorian was unable to feel guilt or remorse; thus he tried to destroy the painting, which only caused his own aging and death.
The portrait, however, returned to its unblemished condition. The dual themes of aestheticism, or the celebration of art and beauty, and homosexuality are present in the novel, both being embodied by Dorian Gray himself. His narcissistic view of beauty and self rendered him at an unending state of discontent, though, and subjects all those who come near him to his exacting ways. These were all part of Oscar Wilde’s personal ideology—the decision to make life an art, constantly seeking for beauty and perfection—which he carried out consistently.
However, the novel was considered immoral and ‘dirty’ by the critics of the time, due to the themes projected in the text. IV. The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde’s hugely popular work is undoubtedly a satire about Victorian society’s rules and regulations, of expectations and etiquette, of hypocrisy and fakeness. It was originally staged in 1895 in London. The famous three-act play is a comedy that revolved around the deception and resulting confusion regarding the use of the name Ernest, which was appropriated by a young man at varying occasions alternating with his real name.
Consequently, he meets people who know him through different names, and even falls for a lady who would only marry someone named Ernest. In the maddening turn of events, wherein accusations regarding truthfulness and honesty are made, it is discovered that his name is indeed Ernest, and thus the play ends with all romantic couples satisfied and in love. Clearly, through the mode of comedy, Wilde intended to poke fun at the straitlaced community that frowned upon any deviation from the kind of convention they themselves set.
What makes it even more humorous and tongue-in-cheek is the fact that this same society, behind closed doors, defies its own rules while maintaining a consistent and steady front, because of the complications arising from the numerous social obligations necessary to be observed. The trivial and petty arguments coming from the simple use of a name is representative of the superficiality of societal obligation, exemplified by the character Gwendolen’s refusal to marry anyone not named Ernest. While received positively by critics, the exploration of homosexuality in the text was unavoidable, considering Wilde’s reputation.
Some claimed that the name ‘Ernest’ subtly referred to being homosexual, and this was somehow confirmed by references to earlier poems by other writers that used this kind of logic, as in John Nicholson’s poem “Of Boy’s Names”. Nevertheless, other critics and even the actors who had worked on the play denied the claim, and explicitly stated how there was no reference or implication of homosexuality in the piece. V. Other Works and Controversies Oscar Wilde was a prolific writer, churning out exceptional works in the form of poetry, short stories, as well as numerous other plays.
He also professed his brand of politics, as evidenced by the impressive collection of articles he published under the titles of “The Decay of Lying”, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”, and “De Profundis”; all three contained concepts that heralded Wilde’s affinity for aestheticism and socialism. Sadly, Wilde’s public persona was better known for the controversial trial that marred his career, and largely implicated him as an example of immorality arising from homosexual behavior and influence.
Gross indecency was the actual crime for which he was being accused, and the event, which was drawn out for a several years, caused Wilde to permanently leave Britain (“FireBlade Coffeehouse: Oscar Wilde”). VI. Conclusion The intelligence and uniqueness of Oscar Wilde are the qualities that made him the great writer he was, and his conscious deviation from tradition and convention assured the public of works that were always fresh and insightful. However, as with lives tainted by controversy, Wilde could only push his efforts to a degree; he could only leave his literary legacies to a future society.
And that he did, with his literature accorded the respect and recognition they deserve—albeit after his death. Wilde was clearly ahead of his time, and his principles on art and beauty would be embraced by many other writers and artists of later generations. Works Cited “FireBlade Coffeehouse: Oscar Wilde”. Negative Space. 28 June 2009 <http://www. hoboes. com/html/FireBlade/Wilde/>. Merriman, C. D. “Oscar Wilde”. 2008. Jalic Inc. 28 June 2009 <http://www. online-literature. com/wilde/>. Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. Courier Dover Publications, 1990. Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Macmillan, 1999.