At a Glance
In Oscar Wilde, the “love that dare not speak its name” found a somewhat involuntary spokesman. Wilde’s homosexuality and the indecency trial it spurred in 1895 have gained so much critical and literary attention as to threaten to eclipse Wilde’s notable body of work. At a time when late melodrama and early realism characterized much of English theater, Wilde distinguished himself as an author of unparalleled wit. His most famous work, The Importance of Being Earnest, remains the standard for social satire. In Earnest, as in his play An Ideal Husband, Wilde made upper-class Victorian life hilariously ridiculous. Ironically, its premiere would be his last great success. His romantic relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas drew Wilde into a legal battle with the young man’s father. Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor and died a few years after his release.
Facts and Trivia
- Wilde is often associated with the aesthetic movement called “Art for Art’s Sake,” which posits that art is self-sufficient and does not need to have a moral, social, or political purpose.
- Along with his sparkling prose, Wilde is also known for his flamboyant fashion sense. He often, for example, wore green carnations in his jacket lapel.
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, a classic of English literature, was Wilde’s only full-length novel.
- Among Wilde’s many controversial views were his socialist politics. His views are detailed in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”
- After he was released from prison, Wilde went to Paris, where he died penniless and divorced in 1900.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, to parents who were among the most colorful members of the Irish gentry. His father, Sir William Wilde, one of the foremost Victorian oculists and surgeons, numbered crowned heads of Europe among his patients. He was equally famed for his archaeological research and his amorous adventures. Oscar Wilde’s mother was no less remarkable. Born Jane Francesca Elgee, she gained public notice for the patriotic pieces she published under the pseudonym Speranza. When one of Speranza’s essays brought Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, leader of the Young Ireland party, to trial for high treason and sedition, the tall and dramatic authoress rose in court, proclaimed “I alone am the culprit,” and on the spot became one of the heroines of Ireland.
This colorful background and his mother’s doting attention must have fostered young Wilde’s imagination. His mind received more discipline and direction when, through good fortune, he was brought into contact with a series of fine teachers. At Trinity College in Dublin, Wilde’s Greek tutor, the Reverend John Pentland Mahaffy, inspired him with a love of Hellenic culture and, by his own witty example, honed and polished the younger man’s conversational talents. Next, having won a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1874, Wilde encountered Ruskin (then Slade Professor of Art), whose social conscience, love of medieval architecture, and belief in the necessary connection between art and life were to become part of Wilde’s own creed. Even more important to Wilde’s development was Pater, the skeptical latter-day Epicurean famed for his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). In the light of Pater’s intellectual advice to the youth of the day, most memorably distilled in his observation that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ectasy, is success in life,” the Oxonian Wilde’s famous ambition, “Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!” seems a less frivolous objective.
In 1879, Wilde went to London, where, sharing rooms with the artist Frank Miles, he became one of the central figures of the aesthetic movement and made the acquaintance of many of the celebrities of the day, particularly the lovely Lily Langtry, whose career as a professional beauty had been launched by Miles’s...
(The entire section is 4,325 words.)