See on this site – Irish poet and dramatist whose reputation rests on his comic masterpieces Lady Wintermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. Among Wilde’s other best-known works are his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which deals very similar theme as Robert Luis Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Wilde’s fairy tales are very popular – the motifs have been compared to those of Hans Christian Andersen.
“When they entered they found, hanging upon the wall, a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.” (from The Picture of Dorian Gray).
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin to unconventional parents. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde (1820-96), was a poet and journalist. Her pen name was Sperenza. According to a story she warded off creditors by reciting Aeschylus. Wilde’s father was Sir William Wilde, an Irish antiquarian, gifted writer, and specialist in diseases of the eye and ear, who founded a hospital in Dublin a year before Oscar was born. His work gained for him the honorary appointment of Surgeon Oculist in Ordinary to the Queen. Lady Wilde, who was active in the women’s rights movement, was reputed to ignore her husbands amorous adventures.
Wilde studied at Portora Royal School, in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh (1864-71), Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74) and Magdalen College, Oxford (1874-78), where he was taught by Walter Patewr and John Ruskin. Already at the age of 13, Wilde’s tastes in clothes were dandy’s. “The flannel shirts you sent in the hamper are both Willie’s mine are one quite scarlet and the other lilac but it is too hot to wear them yet,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. Willie, whom he mentioned, was his elder brother. Lady Wilde’s third and last child was a daughter, named Isola Francesca, who died young. It has been said that Lady Wilde insisted on dressing Oscar in girl’s clothers because she had longed for a girl.
In Oxford Wilde shocked the pious dons with his irreverent attitude towards religion and was jeered at his eccentric clothes. He collected blue china and peacock’s feathers, and later his velvet knee-breeches drew much attention. In 1878 Wilde received his B.A. and on the same year he moved to London. His lifestyle and humorous wit made him soon spokesman for Aestheticism, the late 19th century movement in England that advocated art for art’s sake. He worked as art reviewer (1881), lectured in the United States and Canada (1882), and lived in Paris (1883). Between the years 1883 and 1884 he lectured in Britain. From the mid-1880s he was regular contributor for Pall Mall Gazette and Dramatic View.
In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd (died 1898) and to support his family Wilde edited in 1887-89 Woman’s World magazine. In 1888 he published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, fairy-stories written for his two sons. The Picture of Dorian Gray followed in 1890 and next year he brought out more fairy tales. The marriage ended in 1893. Wilde had met an few years earlier Lord Alfred Douglas (”Bosie”), an athlete and a poet, who became both the love of the author’s life and his downfall. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” Wilde once said. Bosie’s uncle, Lord Jim, caused a scandal when he filled in the 1891 census describing his wife as a “lunatic” and his stepson as a “shoeblack born in darkest Africa.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray was published first by Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890 and in expanded book form in 1891, added with six chapters. The book has some parallels with Wilde’s own life. At Oxford he became a close friend of Frank Miles, a painter, and the homosexual aesthete Lord Ronald Gower, and it seems that they both are represented in Dorian Gray. In the story Dorian, a Victorian gentleman, sells his soul to keep his youth and beauty. The tempter is Lord Henry Wotton, who lives selfishly for amoral pleasure. “If only the picture could change and I could be always what I am now. For that, I would give anything. Yes, there’s nothing in the whole world I wouldn’t give. I’d give my soul for that.” (from the film adaptation of 1945). Dorian starts his wicked acts, ruins lives, causes a young woman’s suicide and murders Basil Hallward, his portrait painter, his conscience. However, although Dorian retains his youth, his painting ages and catalogues every evil deed, showing his monstrous image, a sign of his moral leprosy. The book highlights the tension between the polished surface of high life and the life of secret vice. In the end sin is punished. When Dorian destroys the painting, his face turns into a human replica of the portrait and he dies. “Ugliness is the only reality,’” summarizes Wilde.
Wilde made his reputation in theatre world between the years 1892 and 1895 with a series of highly popular plays. Lady Wintermere’s Fan (1892) dealt with a blackmailing divorcée driven to self-sacrifice by maternal love. In A Woman of No Importance (1893) an illegitimate son is torn between his father and mother. An Ideal Husband (1895) dealt with blackmail, political corruption and public and private honour. The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) was a comedy of manners. John Worthing (who prefers to call himself Jack) and Algernon Moncrieff (Algy) are two fashionable young gentlemen. John tells that he has a brother called Ernest, but in town John himself is known as Ernest and Algernon also pretends to be the profligate brother Ernest. “Relly, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?” (from The Importance of Being Earnest) Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew are two ladies whom the two snobbish characters court. Gwendolen declares that she never travels without her diary because “one should always have something sensational to read in the train”.
Before the theatrical success Wilde produced several essays, many of these anonymously. “Anybody can write a three-volume novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature,” he once stated. His two major literary-theoretical works were the dialogues ‘The Decay of Lying’ (1889) and ‘The Critic as Artist’ (1890). In the latter Wilde lets his character state, that criticism is the superior part of creation, and that the critic must not be fair, rational, and sincere, but possessed of “a temperament exquisitely susceptible to beauty”. In a more traditional essay The Soul of a Man Under Socialism (1891) Wilde takes an optimistic view of the road to socialist future. He rejects the Christian ideal of self-sacrifice in favor of joy. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”
Although married and the father of two children, Wilde’s personal life was open to rumours. His years of triumph ended dramatically, when his intimate association with Alfred Douglas led to his trial on charges of homosexuality (then illegal in Britain). He was sentenced two years hard labour for the crime of sodomy. During his first trial Wilde defended himself, that “the ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an eleder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare… There is nothing unnatural about it.” Mr. Justice Wills, stated when pronouncing the sentence, that “people who can do these things must be dead to all senses of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.” During the trial and while he served his sentence, Bosie stood by Wilde, although the author felt himself betrayed. Later they met in Naples.
Wilde was first in Wandsworth prison, London, and then Reading Gaol. When he was at last allowed pen and paper after more than 19 months of deprivation, Wilde had became inclined to take opposite views on the potential of humankind toward perfection. During this time he wrote DE PROFUNDIS (1905), a dramatic monologue and autobiography, which was addressed to Alfred Douglas. “Everything about my tragedy has been hideous, mean, repellent, lacking in style. Our very dress makes us grotesques. We are the zanies of sorrow. We are the clowns whose hearts are broken.” (De Profundis)
After his release in 1897 Wilde lived under the name Sebastian Melmoth in Berneval, near Dieppe, then in Paris. He wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, revealing his concern for inhumane prison conditions. It is said, that on his death bed Wilde became a Roman Catholic. He died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900, penniless, in a cheap Paris hotel at the age of 46. “Do you want to know the great drama of my life,” asked Wilde before his death of André Gide. “It’s that I have put my genius into my life; all I’ve put into my works is my talent.” (Read more here).