"Every good man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography" ("The Critic as Artist", Intentions (1891))
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde - his name almost as preposterous and over the top as some of his attitudes and sayings - was born and grew up in Dublin. He was the son of a surgeon, Sir William Wilde and the writer Jane Francesca Elgee (known as "Speranza"). From his school days and certainly at Oxford University, it seems, the beginnings of his fanatical aestheticism could be found in his extravagant dress sense and consummate style. Wilde despised sport and violence. In his play A Woman of No Importance (1893), he sums up his feelings towards both activities while demonstrating his astonishing and famous command of wit: "The English country gentleman galloping after a fox - the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable".
Until his first expression of homosexual feelings in 1886, Oscar Wilde's works (mostly poetry) were fairly second-rate, shallow or derivative. However, his sexual revelation seemed to be a turning point: his productivity increased, and the quality improved. The guilt he felt about his homosexuality and his treatment of his wife, Constance (who he had married in 1884), and their two children, could be seen to have honed his ability to write on the themes of evil, crime and suffering. Up to the writing of The Importance of Being Earnest (his last play) in 1886, his career can be divided into three basic units.
The first was that in which he wrote predominantly fairy tales, in which the good and the pure always triumph (the best known examples being "The Selfish Giant" and "Lord Arthur Saville's Crime"). However, Wilde's tales differ from the norm in that they deal with the evil within human beings rather than as an external force. Written for "children from eight to eighty" they can be seen as an urge within himself to fight his own 'evil' and remain in a world of childlike 'innocence'. At this time, he also wrote critical essays like "The Decay of Lying" and "The Critic as Artist" in a playful, witty style that masked their seriousness.
By 1890, Wilde seemed to have come to the conclusion that the 'evil' in himself could not be controlled, and so explored the theme not within the safe confines of a fairytale, but in a dark, sinister novel with a tragic ending. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), as its title implies, has a central character whose nature is grey: his childlike innocence is gradually corrupted. He becomes increasingly evil as the novel progresses, finding beauty in evil, though he sometimes yearns for his lost innocence. Finally, he becomes so evil that he cannot bear it. On discovering that he cannot recover that which is lost, he grows desperate and accidentally kills himself. Despite Dorian's immoral behaviour, the novel has a moral end, as it shows what happens to someone who cannot control evil impulses. However, the press still attacked the novel for its perceived immorality. So, Wilde set forward what was essentially the same message in a social comedy, the play Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), which highlighted the ambiguity of class, nature and evil. This was much more successful with the public.
Late in 1891, Wilde wrote his chilling one-act symbolist play Salome, in which human nature is presented as entirely black. But Wilde was not unhappy about this; declaring that human nature is totally and irrecoverably evil, and that we should express this rather than hiding it. Banned from the English stage by the Lord Chamberlain, Wilde again responded by repeating the basic message in a light comedy, A Woman of No Importance (1892). Underneath this play's conventional melodramatic surface and sparkling wit is the idea that human nature is totally evil. In both these plays, Wilde is a Satanist, preaching the acceptance and expression of inner depravity and denying that there is any goodness in human nature.
However, Wilde felt that he had gone too far, and so The Importance of Being Earnest can be seen the product of a reaction against lost innocence. The tone perfectly recaptures this, and the characters who inhabit the play are really babies who are playing at life. When Jack is consulting Dr Chasuble about being christened, the Canon offers to christen him at five o'clock along with some newly-born twins. In his response - "Oh! I don't see much fun in being christened along with other babies. It would be childish" - Jack refers to himself as a child. He and the other characters, though physically adult, mentally and psychologically remain in childhood, innocently imitating the behaviour of real adults - thus their attempts to marry are attempts to ape the behaviour of grown-ups. Their actions are quite babyish until the game is interrupted by real life. Thus, without actually returning to the fairy-tale genre, Wilde can recapture the safe, closeted world of childlike innocence.
Wilde was imprisoned for homosexual acts in 1895 and went bankrupt before he left the prison. Other than De Profundis (1905, posthumous), written partly in jail, his only other contribution to literary history would be The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a grim and sombre reflection on the execution of an inmate and (again) the deep-seated evil in man. Wilde died in 1900 but his name is still synonymous with the bohemian lifestyle, wit and comic theatre.
|Showgate.com The World-Wide Wilde Web Site is providing the best Oscar Wilde links and resources|
|Oscariana Resource site of the life and times of Oscar Wilde|
|Landow's Homepage Resource site on this famous author. Features literary studies of Oscar Wilde's works, including characterization, imagery, genre, and themes, etc.|
|Oscarwilde.com The Story of Oscar Wilde a complete superb Wilde-Site|
|Robotwisdom Oscar Wilde's 1895 Martyrdom|
|Newslettre A newsletter about Oscar Wilde: "The Spectacle of Criticism"|
|The Picture Gallery Photographs of Oscar Wilde and his circle at the Clark Library|
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