Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Major Works: The Picture of Dorian Gray (fiction, 1890), Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), The Ideal Husband (1895), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Salome (1896), The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).
Biographical Notes: Born in Dublin, son of an eminent surgeon, Sir William Wilde, who was reputedly also a "lecher," and Jane Elgee Wilde, a "quixotic revolutionary" and writer well known under the pen-name "Speranza," Oscar Wilde showed brilliance as a student at Oxford, and he attracted attention as an outspoken proponent of "the aesthetic movement," whose credo was "art for art's sake" (see below). Wilde relished the role of the outrageous and outspoken artist in the 1880s and the "gay nineties"--he lived flamboyantly and enjoyed the "shock-value" of witty epigrams such as "All art is useless," and "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all." After riding the tide of being "fashionably scandalous and decadent" for more than two decades, Wilde's notoriety turned more serious when he was imprisoned in 1895 for "homosexual offenses." Harried by debt and public disgrace, Wilde died in exile in France, where he had been living under an assumed name, Sebastian Melmoth. Today Wilde is known mostly for his historical importance, his racy lifestyle and his dramatic works, but he also enjoyed success with his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a number of children's fairy tales, some poetry, and several significant works of social and literary criticism.
"Art for Art's Sake"; or, the Aesthetic Movement
Following the French notion in the mid-19th century, "L'art pour l'art," the Aesthetic Movement Wilde championed held that art should not point out or correct social problems, as was the norm for most Victorian literature, but instead should be pointedly apolitical and amoral. Whereas the early Utilitarians held that art was frivolous, Wilde and other "Aesthetes" (his mentor Walter Pater, most notably) held that art was an important end in itself--reminiscent of Keats, who loved "poesy" above all else. The Aesthetic Movement was a conscious reaction against later Utilitarian and mainstream Victorian criticism which held that art should have obvious moral emphasis and serve useful social ends. Wilde and the aesthetes held that art should not be "useful" at all, and further, they claimed that art was superior to reality and "the artist's depiction of an action is greatly superior to the action itself." Literature of the Aesthetic Movement typically privileges elaborate and artificial high style, and abstraction over concrete realism--another reaction against literary trends of the later Victorian novelists, in particular.
As the end of the century neared, Wilde and others saw parallels between their age and the waning years of Greek and Roman civilization, which possessed "refinements and subtle beauties of culture and art which have passed their vigorous prime and fallen into the sweet savor of decay" (Abrams). Reacting against Victorian morality and earnestness, "decadents" in the 1880s and 90s claimed that "beauty was all," and in pursuit of beauty they sought a maximum of exquisite physical sensation through "systematic derangement of the senses," which included experimentation with drugs and depravity, or sexual deviation. On his lecturing tour in the U.S. in 1882 Wilde preached Walter Pater's doctrine of hedonistic paganism: Wilde recommended a life of intensity, of living "for the moment." A similar type of "decadence" was the rage more recently in the 1960s.
Wilde was married in 1884 to Constance Lloyd, who has been described as "loving, steadfast, and angelic," but in the 1890s he became infatuated with Lord Alfred Douglas, who translated Wilde's play Salome from the French into English (The play was considered too scandalous for publication in England initially.). Apparently, Wilde's infatuation was not discreet, and Lord Alfred's father, the Marquis of Queensberry, insulted Wilde publicly. Wilde sued for libel and lost, then he was tried and convicted in criminal court for "homosexual offenses," for which he served a two-year prison term (1895-1897). Wilde's enjoyed great popularity and notoriety as a flashy and shocking public figure in the 1880s and 90s, but after the scandal over Lord Alfred, his fall from public grace was swift and complete.
Many critics and literary historians have concluded that Wilde is important now only as a "period piece," a dramatic historical representation of late-Victorian aestheticism and decadence. He has often been seen as a "literary opportunist," whose works are full of "depravity" and "unwholesome undertones." One early 20th-century historian predicted wrongly that Wilde's work would achieve oblivion because of their lack of seriousness and "fundamental insincerity." Wilde's comedies still enjoy some popularity, though, with The Importance of Being Earnest a recognized masterpiece. Wilde's perception of the function of art in society has been validated by developments in the twentieth century, as art became increasingly abstract and esoteric, concerned not with social "utility" as much as for its "own sake."
Wilde's typical métier is the social comedy, where he satirizes Victorian morality, hypocrisy and sentimentality with a flashing wit that shocks and stabs as it amuses through farce and wordplay. Wilde is considered a master of the epigram--short, pithy statements that usually end with a surprising or witty turn of thought--much of Wilde's humor involves paradox.