OSCAR WILDE (1854 - 1900)
(Full name Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde; has also written under the pseudonyms Sebastian Melmoth and C. 3. 3.) Anglo-Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and short story writer.
Wilde is one of the foremost figures of late nineteenth-century literary Decadence, a movement whose members espoused the doctrine of "art for art's sake" by seeking to subordinate moral, political, and social concerns in art to matters of 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. In contrast to the cult of nature purported by the Romantic poets, Wilde posed a cult of art in his critical essays and reviews; to socialism's cult of the masses, he proposed a cult of the individual; and in opposition to what he saw as the middle-class façade of false respectability, he encouraged a struggle to realize one's true nature. Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), is typically considered one of the defining literary works of the Decadent movement. Exhibiting the author's fascination with human perversity, the novel also features numerous Gothic themes and techniques as it details in elaborate, ornamental prose the moral degeneration of its morbidly narcissistic protagonist. Other writings by Wilde noted for their use of Gothic elements include two satirical short stories, "The Canterville Ghost" (1887) and "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," and the biblically-inspired drama Salomé (1893).
Wilde was born in Dublin, where he received his early education. As a student at Dublin's Trinity College and later at Oxford University in London, he 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, Poems, in 1881. In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a wealthy Dublin family, and thereafter promoted himself and his ideas with successful lecture tours of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. In the late 1880s Wilde and his family settled in London, and he continued to crusade for aestheticism as a book reviewer and as the editor of the periodical Woman's World. "The Canterville Ghost," the first of Wilde's short stories to appear in print, was published in Court and Society in February 1887. In addition to this work, three subsequent short stories written by Wilde appeared in various London magazines that same year and were later collected as Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories (1891). His novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published during a period of great creativity and productivity for Wilde that extended from 1888 to 1895. Most of his highly regarded critical essays, collected in Intentions (1891), also appeared during this time. Shortly after the publication of this collection, Wilde attained the greatest critical and popular success of his lifetime with the plays Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Meanwhile, during the 1890s, 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, producing the poems in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and Other Poems (1898) and the essay De Profundis (1905). 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.
A writer far from exclusively concerned with the supernatural, Wilde nevertheless made several experiments with Gothic subjects during his relatively brief professional literary career. Wilde's first collection of prose, The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888), displays his early penchant for ornamentation and stylistic grace in his writings and largely predates his Gothic concerns. Often described as fantastic due to their exotic characters and setting, these stories feature characters who take responsibility for their own actions, are conscious of the suffering of those around them, and are capable of generosity and forgiveness as well as selfishness and cruelty. Containing both social and literary satire, the works collected in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories parody what he considered American naïveté, the cultural and social snobbery associated with the British aristocracy, as well as many of the contrivances of Gothic fiction. Among these pieces, "The Canterville Ghost" is a story about an American family who rents a haunted castle in England but steadfastly refuses to believe in the increasingly indignant ghost who inhabits it. Often dismissed as simplistic and melodramatic, this story nonetheless evinces Wilde's fascination with the supernatural and the dark side of human nature. Wilde further explored these themes in "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime." In this story, Lord Arthur, who is soon to be married, meets a palm reader who predicts that he will commit murder. Because Arthur believes in predestination, he feels obliged to fulfill the prophecy before allowing himself to marry. Like the family in "The Canterville Ghost," Arthur is unable to acknowledge or accept the existence of evil in himself and others. At the end of the story, after killing the palm reader by throwing him in the Thames, he heaves a "deep sigh of relief" before happily marrying his fiancée. The title figure of Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in evident fulfillment of his impulsive wish to remain young while a painted portrait of himself grows old in his place, retains his youthful attractiveness while signs of age and debauchery appear in the painting. Detailing a period of eighteen years in Dorian's life after the completion of his portrait by the painter Basil Hallward, The Picture of Dorian Gray chronicles the young aristocrat's involvement in the unspecified "ruin" of a number of individuals, his revels in rare, beautiful, and costly objects, his experimentation with drugs and alcohol, and finally his descent to murder. During this time his portrait, hidden from view in Dorian's attic, mysteriously ages and becomes repulsive, reflecting the effects of Dorian's excesses, while Dorian himself remains young and attractive. His ultimate attempt to destroy the painting results in his own death; the portrait then resumes its original appearance, and the hideous corpse found lying before it is only with difficulty identified as that of Dorian Gray. A thematic departure for Wilde, the one-act drama Salomé joins a biblical subject with Decadent themes. Retelling the story of the prophet John the Baptist's death due to the passion of a Judean princess, Salomé has been categorized as an eroticized Gothic tragedy that explores themes of unrequited love and forbidden desire. Wilde's stylized and urbane social dramas of the 1890s, including An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) are finely crafted comedies of manners sparkling with wit and abounding with quotable epigrams. Generally devoid of Gothic concerns, these dramas are usually considered Wilde's crowning literary achievements.
Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray created a sensation on its first appearance, when it was widely interpreted as advocating the immoral behavior of its protagonist. The subject of extensive analysis in ensuing years, the novel has been assessed as a moral fable, a Gothic horror tale, a catalog of Decadent concerns owing much to Joris-Karl Huysmann's A rebours (1884; Against the Grain), a study of Victorian art movements, and a fictional dramatization of Paterian ideas about art and morality. While a number of critics have read the novel purely as a morality tale on the hazards of indulgence and self-absorption, others accept Wilde's viewpoint that the suffering and belated wisdom of the protagonist are incidental to the work's artistic form. Conceding a departure from his own literary principles, Wilde freely admitted that the book does indeed contain a moral, which he summarized as: "All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment." Critics interested in the Gothic elements of the novel have frequently studied these in conjunction with the work's aesthetic and ethical concerns. Lewis J. Poteet has explored the affinities between The Picture of Dorian Gray and its Gothic precursor, Charles R. Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, a work he argues constructs both the structural and thematic patterns of Wilde's novel. According to Poteet, both works share such features as the depiction of a "radical bifurcation of nature and art" illustrated in the seductive and corruptive effects of social knowledge, a distinctive doubling of characters, and a shared use of supernatural horror to convey a theme of moral retribution. Kenneth Womack has interpreted the novel as a late-Victorian study in Gothic subversion. Highlighting the essential moral hollowness of Dorian Gray, who in his debauched, hedonistic, and narcissistic behavior sacrifices his spiritual being to empty aesthetic pleasures, Womack suggests that the novel principally employs its supernatural device of Dorian's aging portrait for the purposes of social critique centered on the figure of the aesthete. Donald Lawler has also examined the juxtaposition of Gothic and aesthetic elements in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Lawler's estimation, Wilde's writings frequently appropriate a Gothic sensibility as a means of exploring the outer limits of human behavior, and that Wilde, in effect, endeavored to "gothicize" art and aesthetics in his novel and other works. Lawler has additionally explored Wilde's drama Salomé as "a gothically inverted worship of death" concentrated on the figure of the enraptured princess and symbolized in the sexualized imagery associated with her call for the head of John the Baptist. Overall, despite such modern assessments, Wilde is not usually considered a Gothic writer, but rather one whose unique blend of Decadent aesthetic concerns, literary supernaturalism, and interest in human perversity lends itself well to Gothic interpretation. While the critical reception of Wilde's writings remains complicated, in part because his works have had to compete for attention with his sensational life, the Gothic vein remains a viable and robust critical approach to one of the more fascinating and diverse literary figures of the late nineteenth-century period.