Oscar Wilde in the Face of Uncertainty
The Victorian Era experienced a “great crisis of faith,” which was exemplified by Cardinal Newman’s conversion to Catholicism in the face of great anti-Catholic fervor on part of the Evangelical movement, (Damrosch, 574), and also the civil unrest caused by treacherous employment circumstances for the population at large (575), led to an apparent retreat to morality during the Victorian Era. Though the Victorians were scientifically and commercially liberal, they were much more conservative socially.
Oscar Wilde’s response to the conservatism of the time was more direct than some of his contemporaries. A flamboyant bisexual, Wilde was criticized by Thomas Wentworth Higginson for his “immoral” lifestyle, and “Unmanly Manhood,” (Carroll, 210). Higginson was, ironically, best known as an abolitionist and social reformer who worked to protect the rights of the disenfranchised (Turkel, 68).
In an era when outside appearances mattered greatly, Wilde flaunted the social norms and used his persona to gain attention for his works. He embodied a very modern view that developed in the 1970’s, that the personal is political, a sentiment that Mary Wollstonecraft did not seem to share (Wheelbright). To wit, he is quoted as saying, “I have put only my talent into my works. I have put my genius into my life,” (Damrosch, 956). Fittingly, what is arguably his most popular work, The Importance of Being Earnest, openly makes a mockery of the earnestness prized by Victorians (Damrosch, 569). In an exchange from the play, the character Algernon speaks to Jack, the protagonist, about his fictional friend named Bunbury,
“Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.” (7)
Algernon is encouraging Jack to maintain his double life, and implying that all people should, or do, lead a double life for the sake of keeping up appearances. Likewise, Wilde maintained a double life. He had numerous homosexual relationships throughout his life, and relied on the reticence of others to accuse him of a crime that is difficult to prove (Ardut, 213). It was a tactic that worked, until it didn’t.
In his trial, Wilde denied any homosexual behavior, which is understandable but to a modern mind somewhat cowardly. His denial belies his craving for both ease and social survival, as well as probably not wanting to implicate his lovers. Consider a passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray, which expresses the protagonist’s amoral worldview,
“To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self,” he replied, touching the thin stem of his glass with his pale, fine-pointed fingers. “Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One’s own life—that is the important thing.” (66)
The character believes that it is not in the best interest of the individual to amend their behavior to the will of others, at least on the surface. The passage also illustrates a vein of social Darwinism that was emerging at the time, (Pearce, 232). As with animals, the most important aspect of the survival of the species is the selfish drive to be the most successful individual, and to thrive by whatever means necessary. This mindset put Wilde, and the character, in direct opposition to the social reform of the period.
The opening lines in “The Preface to Dorian Gray,” echo Wilde’s longing for perpetuation, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. /To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” In effect, the artist acts out of self-interest, and leaves a legacy but no trace of themselves. In this sense, Wilde seeks permanence in a landscape and a lifestyle that does not allow for it.
I think Wilde indulged in the uncertainty of the era, making the most of what caused others anxiety. Like the protagonist of The Importance of Being Earnest, which he also based on himself, he would be hypocritical not to deny the inconsistencies between reality and social expectations. Some of his other works , such as the “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray,” addressed his disregard for the time’s prudery directly, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” In a time of widespread moralization, the sentiment he expressed through both his writing and his lifestyle was incendiary enough to need defending, and interesting enough to be noticed.
Ardut, Ari. “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde.” The University of Chicago vol. 111 num. 1 (July 2005): 213
Carroll, Bret T, ed. American Masculinities: A historical Encyclopedia. Sage, 2003.
Damrosch, David, and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, eds. Masters in British
Literature. Peason, Longman, 2008
Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. Ignatius. 2004.
Turkel, Stanley. Heroes of American Reconstruction. McFarland, 2005.
Wheelbright, Julie. “Wednesday Book: Feminist icons who made the personal political.” The London Independent. June 20, 2001 .
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of being Earnest. Dover, 1990.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Hayes Barton. 1905.