Wilde, Oscar


Oscar Wilde 1854-1900

(Born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, also wrote under pseudonyms C. 3. 3. and Sebastian Melmoth) Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and short story writer.

Wilde is recognized as one of the foremost figures of late nineteenth-century literature Aesthetic or “art for art's sake” movement, which defied convention, subordinating ethical instruction to aesthetic value. This credo of aestheticism, however, indicates only one facet of a man notorious for resisting any public institution—artistic, social, political, or moral—that attempted to subjugate individual will and imagination. Wilde is best known for his critical essays and popular plays, which are humorous comedies of manners that focus on upper-class English society.

Biographical Information

Wilde was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. He began his advanced education at Dublin's Trinity College and concluded it with an outstanding academic career at Oxford. In college Wilde was influenced by the writings of Walter Pater, who in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) urged indulgence of the senses, a search for sustained intensity of experience, and stylistic perfectionism in art. Wilde adopted such aestheticism as a way of life, cultivating an extravagant persona that was burlesqued in the popular press and music-hall entertainments, copied by other youthful iconoclasts, and indulged by the avant-garde literary and artistic circles of London wherein Wilde was renowned for intelligence, wit, and charm. Wilde published his first volume of poetry in 1881. A few years later he married, and embarked on successful lecture tours of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. In the 1880s, Wilde and his family settled in London, where he continued to crusade for aestheticism as a book reviewer and as the editor of the periodical Lady's World, whose name he immediately changed to Woman's World.

During this period of creativity, Wilde met and became infatuated with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury. His relationship with Douglas, the Marquess's violent disapproval of this relationship, and his own ill-advised legal action against the Marquess scandalized London. The Importance of Being Earnest was in production at the time of Wilde's 1895 trial on charges of “gross indecency between male persons.” His conviction and subsequent imprisonment led to ignominy for Wilde and obscurity for his works. He continued to write during his two years in prison. Upon his release, however, Wilde was generally either derided or ignored by literary and social circles. At the time of his death in 1900, the scandal associated with Wilde led most commentators to discuss him diffidently, if at all. While critical response no longer focuses so persistently on questions of morality, Wilde's life and personality still incite fascination. Biographical studies and biographically oriented criticism continue to dominate Wilde scholarship.

Major Works

Wilde arrived at his greatest success through the production of four plays in the 1890s. The first three—Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893) and An Ideal Husband (1895)—are well-made comedies of manners revolving around social codes of the English upper classes. They are distinctively Wildean for the epigrams and witticisms delivered at frequent intervals (a show of rhetoric which often brings the action of the drama to a standstill). A fourth play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), marked the height of Wilde's popularity and is considered his best and most characteristic drama. Bypassing the more realistic characters and situations of its predecessors, The Importance of Being Earnest forms the apogee of Victorian drawing-room farce. Its stylish characters, stylized dialogue, and elegant artificiality are for many readers and critics the ultimate revelation of Wilde's identity as both man and author.

Critical Reception

Wilde's plays have been popular with both audiences and critics, who praise his humorous and biting satire of English manners at the turn of the twentieth century. Analysis of sexuality in his work have been a rich area for critical discussion, as commentators investigate the role of androgyny and homosexuality in his comedies. Possible influences on and sources for his work has been another subject for critical study. Commentators on Wilde have also come to stress the intellectual and humanist basis of his plays. Traditionally, critical evaluation of Wilde's work has been complicated, primarily because his works have to compete for attention with his sensational life. Wilde himself regarded this complication as unnecessary, advising that “a critic should be taught to criticise a work of art without making reference to the personality of the author. This, in fact, is the beginning of criticism.”

Principal Works

Verna, or the Nihilists 1883

Guido Ferranti: A Tragedu of the XVI Century 1891

Lady Windermere's Fan 1892

A Woman of No Importance 1893

An Ideal Husband 1895

The Importance of Being Earnest 1895

Salomé 1896

A Florentine Tragedy [opening scene by T. Sturge Moore] 1906

The Picture of Dorian Gray 1913

Poems (poetry) 1881

The Soul of Man under Socialism (nonfiction) 1890

The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (short stories) 1891

A House of Pomegranates (short stories) 1891

Intentions (essays) 1891

Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories (short stories) 1891

The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) 1891

The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and Other Poems (poetry) 1898

*De Profundis (letter) 1905

Collected Works. 14 vols. (poetry, essays, short stories, novel, plays, and criticism) 1908

The Letters of Oscar Wilde (letters) 1962

*This work was not published in its entirety until 1949.

Criticism: General Commentary

Joseph Bristow (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Bristow, Joseph. “Dowdies and Dandies: Oscar Wilde's Refashioning of Society Comedy.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 53-70.

[In the following essay, Bristow discusses the defining characteristics of Wilde's plays.]


“London Society,” according to Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband (1895), is “entirely made up of dowdies and dandies.”1 Reported by Mrs Marchmont to Lord Goring, Mrs Cheveley's words have a far greater function than simply making her the centre of attention among this group of gossipy aristocrats and their various hangers-on. Her acute observations of London Society disclose that this...

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Alan Sinfield (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Sinfield, Alan. “‘Effeminacy’ and ‘Femininity’: Sexual Politics in Wilde's Comedies.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 34-52.

[In the following essay, Sinfield explores Wilde's utilization of effeminacy and femininity in his plays.]

Lytton Strachey saw A Woman of No Importance revived by Beerbohm Tree in 1907:

Mr Tree is a wicked Lord, staying in a country house, who has made up his mind to bugger one of the other guests—a handsome young man of twenty. The handsome young man is delighted; when his mother enters, sees his Lordship and recognises him as having copulated with her twenty years before,...

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John Stokes (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Stokes, John. “Wilde Interpretation.” Modern Drama 37, no. 1 (spring 1994): 156-74.

[In the following essay, Stokes surveys the critical reaction to three productions of Wilde's plays in the 1990s, finding insight into the theatrical scene of the 1890s.]

We live in an age of interpretation, a fact that is constantly mentioned in the theatrical journals. Some think that it has always been this way, that there never has been representation without mediation; others, like the director Jonathan Miller, that the power of interpretation is a recent phenomenon with complex origins. “[H]istorical change has accelerated so much in the last fifty years that the...

(The entire section is 7042 words.)