To what extent can Oscar Wilde's plays and stories be read as serious social criticism?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that analysis of the themes of these plays might be a very good start in terms of assessing their socially critical value.  Even before this, it might be helpful to assert that Wilde, himself, must have been compelled to offer some level of insight on the society around him.  Wilde was subject to censorship and publication blackouts because of who he was and the supposed threat that he, as a homosexual, posed to the prevailing social order ofr the time.  This might be an indication that there is some level of social criticism in his work.  If Wilde did not feature this level of critique, then there would be little reason to subject him to censorship and seek to eliminate him from public literary records.  I think that Wilde's greatest social criticism exists in how he critiques individuals who comprise prevailing social perceptions and beliefs.  For example in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde offers criticism of the hedonistic and self- serving philosophies that guided individuals of the time period.  These attitudes found their way in social orders and the society of the time and in this light, the critique of society rests in the critique of its individuals.  Victorian social morals and practices were the targets of Wilde's work, The Importance of Being Earnest, suggesting again that the critique of individual actions can be seen in a larger social context.