There is no doubt that Oscar Wilde's fame is justified. One might quibble about the type of fame he has generally enjoyed. Wilde is said (by André Gide, among others) to have boasted that he put his genius into his life and only his talent into his works. It may be that the tremendous figure of Wilde has overshadowed his actual writing, but this is even now being rectified by the monumental scholarly edition of his works which Oxford University Press has been bringing out volume by volume for the last twenty years.
On the specific subject of Wilde's use of irony, his characteristic technique is that of inversion—turning the cliché or popular wisdom on its head to produce a fresh perspective. The most perfect and consistent example of this technique is The Importance of Being Earnest. The very first words of the play are an ironic commentary on genteel manners:
Algernon: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
Lane: I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.
The stereotype of servants listening at doors is banished by a manservant so polished that he considers it bad form to listen even to music. At every possible opportunity, traditional values are turned on their head. The dominant role taken by the female characters and the submissive nature of the men have lead critics such as Sos Eltis to view Earnest, along with Wilde's other late work, as radically feminist. This is scarcely surprising when Gwendolyn, for example, is able to utter such a scathing parody of Victorian sexism as the following:
Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?
There are many such instances throughout the play, all of them subversive of traditional class and gender roles. This was the main use to which Wilde put his use of irony throughout his literary career.