Oscar Wilde wrote at the end of the Victorian period, named for Queen Victoria. This period marked the rise of a growing middle class in Great Britain. This middle class had gained wealth through the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, as well as a result of Britain's expanding empire. The values of this class stood in marked contrast to the values of an older aristocracy. Members of the aristocracy had traditionally depended on land for income and were used to inheriting wealth rather than earning it. The middle class idealized the importance of the family, thrift, and hard work. However, many working-class Victorians lived in poverty and squalor. Government commissions microscopically examined the living conditions of the poor in an attempt to improve everything from sewage systems to education. Mid-Victorian novelists used their art to bring attention to the social problems of the day.
Oscar Wilde was a follower of the Aesthetic— also known as the Decadent Movement—which had developed in France and had been introduced into England in the late 1800s. The Decadents believed that beauty should be valued above all else. Believing in ‘‘art for art's sake,’’ the Decadents shunned the social problem novels that flourished earlier in the Victorian period. As Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray,"No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist...
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