An Ironic Masterpiece on Life’s Canvas or the Life of a Failed Idealist: A Critical Analysis of the Life and Works of Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde haunts me as an enigmatic entity. In becoming acquainted with the subject of this essay, I find equally important to Wilde’s body of work, the facts of his life – namely his upbringing and demise. These two facets are somehow eerily related. After delving through my research, which engaged all of the above stated aspects of Oscar Wilde, I the researcher on my quest for truth, find myself entangled. Whether accidently or intentionally, the web which entangles me has been drawn by the author; and the two threads he uses are truth and imitation. One thing is clear to me now, whether through literary genius, or aesthetic living, Wilde has conquered the world; leaving behind him, as a legacy, an unsolvable mystery.
What remains certain is that Wilde championed aesthetics. Where it gets thorny however – as the age old riddle puts it – what hatched first, the chicken or the egg? Did an unapologetic passion for beauty, and a fearlessly aesthetic approach to art, influence Wilde’s hedonistic lifestyle; or was it Wilde’s natural disdain for the ethical and moral standards of the Victorian society in which he lived, that caused him to develop and sustain a spiritual connection to aestheticism?
Here is what I learned: this very web, in which I have become entangled, in trying to understand the man – a fusion of his lifestyle and his philosophy, as observed in his art, is exactly where our subject critically erred, whether as an artist or a human being. If not simply a motif, Wilde’s philosophy draws a constant shadow over his body of art. In each of his works we look for his signature convictions: art is superior to nature, and consequently art is the rightful influence of living; and hence art is for art’s sake and so is life – that is to say the sake of aesthetic perspective, or beauty. These views were fresh and fun in their day; today they are still the cause of exhilaration in reading Wilde. Even if the philosophic rants in his plays, or The Picture of Dorian Gray, or his essays seem excessive and offend the wisdom of subtlety, they never the less keep us coming back for more. Wilde’s philosophy itself protects his art and lifestyle from the critic, while it cleverly values the latter. But tragically Wilde was confused about where and when to draw the line between the values of art and life. He failed to see that there is a barrier. Alas, his disdain for the moral and ethical convictions of the cookie cutter Victorian norms left him too exposed to his enemies. He envisioned himself as being invisible and impenetrable. He thought that if the artist can and should create beauty without regard for morality, then such should be the behavior of man. It was this fumbling of Truth’s torch, that led this most free of spirits to eventually wind up in a solitary confinement cell – in one of literature’s most ironic moments.
For Oscar, art was religion and religion was art. “To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul” as Lord Henry explains in The Picture of Dorian Gray, is one of the “secrets of life”. (DG 32) What Wilde meant was that aesthetic beauty is the highest standard which man may achieve and hence should strive for. We read in the opening chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray:
People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible. (DG 34)
Beauty, in the material sense of the word, is the “wonder of wonders” because it is the one true cause of happiness; and if social standards dictate ideas of morality which hinder man’s capability or right to feel happy, man should turn his back on that society. This was Wilde’s credo and it filtered through the many facets of his thinking. “People are afraid of themselves, nowadays.” says Lord Henry, the ‘Dandy’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes one’s self.” (DG 29)
Wilde was passionate about art; he had a well-defined taste for its nature, and this became his all-encompassing outlook on life, which he was not shy about professing to his audience. Despite his originality, his ideas were strongly influenced by his teachers. Writes Julia Prewitt Brown in her critical analysis, Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde’s Philosophy of Art:
Wilde studied the classics at Trinity College under J.P. Mahaffy, a Kantian idealist who had an interest in the materialist historian, H.T. Buckle, an interest that prompted him to look for ways to reconcile materialist and idealist theories of civilized history.” (Brown 7)
After Trinity College, Oscar continued his education at Oxford, writes Brown:
It was within the philosophical context of Muller’s thought, with whom he studied during his first year [at Oxford], that Wilde was able to absorb the most decisive personal influences on the development of aestheticism: those of his other Oxford teachers, John Ruskin and Walter Pater. (Brown 8)
Art was the medium in which Wilde could most clearly exhibit his brand of aesthetic idealism. Art, he felt, should be for the sake of the artist, not the sake of the critic, or even the subject of imitation. In the Decay of Living, he evokes Classical philosophy, “Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror.” (DOL 224) This sentiment is witnessed also in The Picture of Dorian Gray, when Dorian is horrified by his own likeness in the portrait which Basil Hallward has painted of him. Dorian’s acceptance and mysterious concealment of the painting, represents the metaphysical veil which Wilde saw as necessary in art. The gradual metamorphosis of the portrait’s form, exemplifies Wilde’s insistence on a departure from Realism. Proclaims Basil Hallward, the artist in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty.” (DG 22)
In consideration of that which I have expressed above, it seems only natural that from Oscar would arise, a distinct aversion to Realism. It was his way of departing from the norms and standards of the Victorian society, in which he lived. In the Decay of Living, he wrote:
As a method Realism is a complete failure, and the two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject-matter. To us, who live in the nineteenth century, any century is a suitable subject for art except our own. The only beautiful things are the things that do not concern us. (DOL 240)
With his decadent, biblically set, theatric masterpiece Salome as an exception, Wilde’s fiction usually employs a Victorian backdrop, but there is always a gateway to the impossible, allowing the plot to cleverly depart from its dry setting. One example of this is the changing form of the stunningly realistic portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Another example is found in The Importance of Being Ernest, in which Wilde plays with the idea of false personas. The protagonist Jack Worthing has a fake identity known as Ernest. Having this false identity allows him to disappear for days at a time, thereby giving him the freedom to leave reality. Another character, Algernon, too lives with a fictional persona. Its name is Bunbury, and Algernon uses the term “Bunburying” for having such a ridiculous scheme. Like Ernest, Bunbury allows Algernon to escape reality. The two gentlemen agree that such a fictional approach to life is perfectly moral:
Algernon: You have invented a very useful younger brother Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s to-night, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week. (IOBE 284)
In The Decay of Living, writes Wilde, “The final revelation is that art is lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” (DOL 240) Such was the author’s disdain for Realism.
In fact Oscar Wilde’s love for the fantastical was so ardent, that he valued Art over nature. In the Decay of Living he writes, “My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition.” (DOL 205)
In trying to understand this man, we must wonder why he felt the need to attack Realism with such an angry vengeance – and vengeance is the most appropriate word to use. He was not merely riding a wave of fearless aestheticism, inspired by the teachings of John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Instead Wilde’s sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious use of the ridiculous, mixed with his fervent aesthetic philosophy (almost always delivered by the ‘Dandyism’ of one stock character. A fashionable, slick and sometimes inflammatory personality, who influences the protagonist with his hedonistic philosophies) came as a result to his reaction to society. Naturally Oscar Wilde was a non-conformist. He therefore found fault in the English society in which he lived and criticized nearly every aspect of it. The first example of this is his stance on marriage – of course a social norm in Victorian England. Apparently Wilde, despite his own wedlock, found it phony. Jokes Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “…the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.” (DG 14) Actually the institution of marriage is addressed and mocked in almost all of Wilde’s fiction. In An Ideal Husband Wilde hi-lights the irreconcilable differences between the two genders. Speaks Mrs. Cheveley, the ‘femme fatale’, “Ah! The strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. Men can be analysed, women…merely adored.” Mrs. Cheveley’s monologue then likens love to a mere superficial social hobby, “Politics are my only hobby. You see nowadays it is not fashionable to flirt till one is forty, or to be romantic till one is forty-five, so we poor women who are under thirty, or say we are, have nothing open to us but politics or philanthropy.” (IH 172)
This flies in the face of the Victorian standards of marriage. Both An Ideal Husbandand A Woman of No Importance, as well as The Importance of Being Ernest, feature dialogues which call to question the psychological incompatibleness of men and women and therefore portray marriage as pointless. In A Woman of No Importance, the character Lady Hunstanton protests, “But do you really think, dear Caroline, that legislation would improve matters in any way? I am told that, nowadays, all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married men.” (WONI 103)
Even Lord Henry speaks on this matter in The Picture of Dorian Gray, when he explains to Dorian, “My dear boy, the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination.” (DG 63)
Aside from marriage, Wilde attacks English society on other fronts. Noticeable in his works is a preoccupation with class struggles. He writes in De Profundis, “The poor are wise, more charitable, more kind, more sensitive than we are.” (DP 434) In the opening scene of The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar pokes fun of the upper class by way of a scenario in which the wealthy Algernon is undermined by his servant:
Algernon: Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.Lane: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand. (IOBE 278)
In fact Wilde even penned a short essay in favor of abolishing private property. Such left wing economic philosophies were gaining momentum in this era and one might predict that a soul as independent as Wilde would be vehemently opposed to the concepts of Socialism and Communism. Instead he strangely saw therein a path to individualism. In The Soul of Man under Socialism, Wilde declares:
The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good… (SOM 338)
Hearing such a wealthy man speak in defense of and admiration for the lower classes was interesting. Ironically, Wilde would eventually become indigent himself; and he did wear this coat humbly, as he expresses in De Profundis, his final work, “I am completely penniless, and absolutely homeless. Yet there are worse things than that.” (DP 436) The reason for his being in this unfortunate situation came as a result of his being accused of having a homosexual affair with a young Oxford student, Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas’ father caught wind of the affair, and eventually Wilde found himself in a criminal court room. On trial, Wilde’s defense of his behavior was steeped in philosophical banter. The Prosecution used the hedonistic convictions expressed in his literature as ammunition to label the man profane, and oddly, the author played right along.
Wilde—…That would be my metaphysical definition of truth; something so personal that the same truth could never be appreciated by two minds.Carson–“Pleasure is the only thing one should live for”?Wilde—I think that the realization of oneself is the prime aim of life, and to realize oneself through pleasure is finer than to do so through pain. I am, on that point, entirely on the side of the ancients—the Greeks. It is a pagan idea. (Carson, Wilde)
Unfortunately the jury was not on the side of the ancient Greeks. While such rhetoric is fine in art, it cannot be used in defense of such an immoral crime in Victorian England. Wilde tried to prove to the justice system that their conception of truth was false; in doing so he was essentially mocking the same society which once deemed him a wonderful artist.
Wilde–“The Love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it. (Loud applause, mingled with some hisses.) (Clarke, Wilde)
Clinging to outrageous impressions of the Bible, standing on pagan pre-Christian ethics and misinterpreting Renaissance artists, did not hold in the courtroom. Art could not save Oscar Wilde’s life. In the end he was sentenced to two years of hard-labor for “gross indecency.”
The secret homosexual affair is what disgusted the jury; that Wilde felt that Lord Henry could jump from the pages and justify his behavior is absurd. Furthermore it is one thing to protest social standards, but it is another to cease to value character. In being guilty of the latter, perhaps Wilde did the world of art an injustice. Douglas Linder paraphrases from a section of De Profundis:
“Because of his what Wilde called his “perverse pleasures” he was—he said regretfully–“forced to send long lawyer’s letters” instead of “making beautiful and colored musical things.” Waste: that as Wilde saw it, was his REAL CRIME. (Linder)In Sex, Lies, and a Sealed Fate: The Fourth Trial of Oscar Wilde, by Douglas Linder, the Summation of the Prosecution reads, “Oscar Wilde killed the thing he loved. He killed himself. Jurors, do your duty and convict Oscar Wilde of being responsible for his own downfall!” (Linder)
While we, as a liberal audience in retrospect, would like to see our literary hero go free, as in a twisted Victorian Romance ending, sadly the prosecution was correct. Wilde was not persecuted for inflammatory art; he was prosecuted on account of indecent behavior. Therefore, we cannot call him the Victorian Socrates, being forced to drink the hemlock. What he was forced to drink were his own words. Alas Wilde’s fatal error was his failure to draw a line between philosophic ideals and real life, or aesthetic art and real life. It seems that he grappled with this realization while in prison Oscar writes in De Profundis:
Religion does not help me. The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look at…Reason does not help me. It tells me that the laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws, and the system under which I have suffered a wrong and unjust system. (DP 438)
However, I wish that I could propose the following question to Oscar: is not one who lacks reason insane? Indeed Oscar was discovering that the ideals expressed by the Dandies in his writing, had proven to be his great folly, when he used them to justify his own lifestyle. Finally in De Profundishe admits, “Desire at the end was a malady, a madness or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character. ” (DP 435) Considering that to this author, life is art and art is life, the fact that I have become entangled in his web of fiction, philosophy and life, proves that he was and always will be rightfully seen as a true master of aesthetics; cleverly shuffling the cards of realism and fantasy, with unprecedented ambiguity. But the idealist could not avoid the element of suffering, which he so loathed and ignored, and therefore his philosophy was not totally fool proof. Perhaps he actually did “kill the thing he loved”, but if indeed life should not be taken too seriously, as Oscar claimed, then his message has been successfully transmitted. I thank you Oscar, for the delightful mystery.
Brown, Julia Prewitt. Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde’s Philosophy of Art. Charlotesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
“Testimony of Oscar Wilde on Cross Examination – Examined by Edward Carson.” Famous World Trials” The Trials of Oscar Wilde 1895. September 17, 2009
“Testimony of Oscar Wilde – Examined by Sir Edward Clarke.” Famous World Trials” The Trials of Oscar Wilde 1895. September 17, 2009>
Linder, Douglas. “Sex, Lies and a Sealed Fate: The Fourth Trial of Oscar Wilde.” Famous World Trials” The Trials of Oscar Wilde 1895. September 17, 2009
Wilde, Oscar. The Works of Oscar Wilde. London: Collins, 1966.
—. A Woman of No Importance.London: Haymarket Theatre. Lessee and Manager: Mr. H. Beerbohm Tree. April 19th, 1893. 81-160.
—. An Ideal Husband. London: Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Sole Lesee: Mr. H. Beerbohm Tree. Managers: Mr. Lewis Waller and Mr. H. H. Morell. January 3rd, 1895. 163-271.
—. De Profundis. 431-480.
—. The Decay of Living: An Observation. 205-240.
—. The Importance of Being Ernest. London: St. James Theatre. Lessee and Manager: Mr. George Alexander. February 14th, 1895. 276-350.
—. The Picture of Dorian Gray.11-253.
—. The Soul of Man Under Socialism. 387-423.
DG- The Picture of Dorian Gray
DOL- The Decay of Living
DP- De Profundis
IH- An Ideal Husband
IOBE- The Importance of Being Ernest
SOM – The Soul of Man under Socialism
WONI- A Woman of no Importance
Written at Bar-Ilan University Department of English Literature and Linguistics, October 1, 2009