Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854. He was sent to Oxford where he gained a first-class degree in Classics and distinguished himself for his eccentricity.
He became a disciple of Walter Pater, the theorist of aestheticism in England. Wilde defined himself as ‘a man who stood in symbolic relations to art and culture’. After graduating, he left Oxford and settled in London where he soon became a dandy.
In 1881 Wilde edited ‘Poems’ and he was engaged for a tour in the United States where he held some lectures about the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetes. This tour was a remarkable personal success.
On his return to Europe in 1883, he married Constance Lloyd who bore him two children. At this point of his career, his presence became a social event and his remarks appeared in most of fashionable London magazines.
In the late 1880s Wilde’s literary talent was revealed by a series of short stories: The Canterville Ghost, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).
In the 1890s he produced a series of plays which were successful on the London stage. Both novels and tragedies damaged the writer’s reputation.
In 1891 he met the young and handsome Lord Alfred Douglas with whom Wilde dared to have a homosexual affair. The boy’s father forced a public trial and Wilde was convicted of homosexual practices and sentenced to two-year hard labour. In prison he wrote ‘De Profundis’, a long letter to explain his life and to condemn Douglas for abandoning him.
When Wilde was released from prison, he lived in France under an assumed name as an outcast in poverty. He died of meningitis in Paris in 1900.
2. A professor of Aesthetic
Wilde lived in a double role of rebel and dandy. The dandy must be distinguished from the bohemian: while the bohemian allies himself to the masses, the dandy is a bourgeois artist who remains a member of his class.
The Wildean dandy is an elegant aristocrat who uses his wit to shock and demands absolute freedom. His life is meant for pleasure.
He rejected the didacticism that had characterized the Victorian novel in the first half of the century.
3. Art for Art’s Sake
The concept of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ was a moral imperative, he believed that only art was the cult of beauty. This could prevent the murder of the soul. He wrote only to please himself and his pursuit of beauty and fulfillment was the tragic act of a superior being inevitably turned into an outcast.
4. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
The novel is set in London at the end of the 19th century. The protagonist is Dorian Gray, a young man whose beauty fascinates a painter, Basil Hallward, who decides to portray him. The young man desires eternal youth.
Dorian lives for pleasure and he has a lot of insensitivity. When the painter sees the image corrupted, Dorian kills him.
Later Dorian wants to free himself of the portrait but he mysteriously kills himself. In the moment of death, the picture returns to its original purity.
This story is told by a third-person narrator, the perspective is internal since Dorian’s apparition in the second chapter.
The settings are described with words appealing to the senses, the characters reveal themselves through what they say or what other people say of them.
The technique is typical of drama.
The story is allegorical: it’s a 19th century version of the myth of Faust, the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil. His variation on this theme is in use of the magical portrait.
The moral of this novel is that every excess must be punished and reality cannot be escaped, the horrible picture could be seen as a symbol of the immorality and bad conscience of the Victorian middle class. When the picture is restored to its original beauty: art survives people, art is eternal.
5. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
The title plays on a double meaning: the word ‘earnest’ (it means ‘serious’). This word is also a name, Earnest.
The protagonists of the play are Jack and his friend Algy. They have a double life. Jack lives in the country, but when he goes to London he is known as Earnest, to protect his reputation. He has a girl under his responsibility, Cecily, who thinks that Earnest is Jack’s brother.
In London, Jack as Earnest, falls in love with Gwendolen, but her mother doesn’t want the marriage because Jack’s origins are unknown. Algy has invented an imaginary friend, Bunbury. In London he falls in love with Cecily, Jack’s ward.
But he thinks that Algy is Jack’s brother Ernest. At the end we discover that Jack and Algy are brothers, and Jack’s name is Ernest. Finally Gwendolen can marry Ernest.
A new comedy of manners
Wilde’s contribution to theatre was a new sort of the Restoration comedy of Manners. His society drama was a mirror in which he could see reflected the images of their own fashionable world of dinner parties and in which the best kept secrets were the ones that everyone knew.
The institution of marriage
The Importance of Being Earnest presents an aristocratic society are typical Victorian snobs: they are arrogant, formal and with money.
The main concern of all the characters in the play is marriage. The works of Jane Austen and George Eliot alone provide multiple examples of this genre.
Although the play ends happily, it leaves the audience under the impression that marriage and social values are tied together in destructive ways. The aristocracy doesn’t see marriage as the result of love but as a tool for achieving social stature.
Irony and Imagination
Wilde’s social satire comes from the ironic use of a solemn language in situations that are utterly ridiculous and frivolous. Irony is the dominant feature of the play rather than mere decoration. Imagination is important in this play.
In this world the laws of reality can be suspended, parents produced by an act of will and the characters may change their identities as they wish.
6. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898)
Wilde began his literary career when he won a prize at Oxford University in 1878. He completed the same career 20 years later as the anonymous whose first six editions gave the authors as ‘C. 3. 3.’ (it was Wilde’s prison reference number).
This poem is made up of 109 stanzas grouped into 6 sections. It was Wilde’s most famous poetic composition and the only work written after his release from prison.
The poem tells the story of a hanging which took place in Reading Gaol in July 1896 and which Wildewitnessed as an inmate.