A Brief Biography of Oscar Wilde

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A Brief Biography of
Oscar Wilde

Jennifer Kelly


Oscar Wilde
(1854
-
1900)
was a reform writer through the trenchant moral and social
criticism in his works. Famous for his public speaking and wit, Wilde has often been accused of
merely reproducing witty rep
artee in his plays, and the temptation to treat his work lightly is in
large part due to his flamboyant and notorious lifestyle, which is often better known than his
writings. He posed as an Aesthete and a Decadent, which were movements of the late
-
Victori
an
age whose followers believed in "art for art's sake." Wilde himself stated in
The Picture of Dorian
Gray

(1891) that "All art is at once surface and symbol." Nevertheless, Wilde advocated reform
through social critique in his plays, short stories, novel
, essays, and poems, and he challenged
Victorian morality with his work and his lifestyle. There is much more to Wilde than "surface and
symbol."

Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on 16 October 1854 into a family
of middle
-
class pro
fessionals. His paternal great
-
great
-
grandfather had been a Dublin merchant,
his great
-
grandfather a farmer, and his grandfather a doctor. His father, Sir William Wilde,
followed his father's profession and became a renowned ear and eye specialist. His suc
cess led to
his appointment as Surgeon Oculist to the Queen in Ireland in 1863, and he received a knighthood
the following year, thus completing the familys rise from mercantile middle classes to gentry
status. Sir William, as a man with a prominent positi
on, was bound to distance himself from the
republican Fenianism of the late 1860s, yet he was a nationalist with kind feelings for the peasant
population of Ireland. Oscar may well have learned sympathy for the poor from his father, who
would collect folkl
ore instead of fees from the peasants he treated. In 1852 Sir William published
Irish Popular Superstitions
, which he dedicated to Speranza, the pen name used by Oscar's mother,
Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde.

She also came from a professional middle
-
class ba
ckground, and, like Sir William, she was a
staunch Irish nationalist. Her grandfather was a rector and archdeacon in the Protestant Church of
Ireland; her father was a lawyer; and she was the great
-
niece of Charles Robert Maturin, the author
of several ext
ravagant Gothic novels. During his years of exile at the end of his life Oscar Wilde
took the name of Sebastian Melmoth, perhaps identifying with the isolated and satanic hero of
Maturin's best
-
known novel,
Melmoth the Wanderer

(1820). Jane Wilde was a wri
ter and poet with
a flair for the dramatic not only in her writing but also in her appearance. She dressed up in
increasingly outlandish costumes, with headdresses and bizarre jewelry. Oscar shared her
flamboyance in dress and her literary tastes. Writers
whom they both admired include John Keats,
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Benjamin Disraeli, and Honori de Balzac. Jane Wilde created a salon
society in Dublin, and her large Saturday
-
afternoon receptions included writers, government
officials, professors, actors,
and musicians. After the death of her husband in 1876 she moved her
salon to London. Her poetry was inflammatory and pro
-
nationalist, and in 1849 during the trial for
sedition of Gavan Duffy, editor of
The Nation
, she stood up in court and claimed authorsh
ip of the
offending articles. She became famous for this incident and many years later encouraged Wilde to
stand trial rather than run away, no doubt imagining another famous court victory for the Wilde
family.

Having famous and eccentric parents, Wilde r
ealized from a young age the importance of
cutting a figure in order to be noticed in his family. A fragment of a letter written by Wilde when
he was thirteen demonstrates his desire to impress his mother with his dress sense and humor:
"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.... And have you written to Aunt Warren on the green
note paper?" Wilde obviously shared his mother's humor, since the aunt in ques
tion was a staunch
unionist who did not approve of her younger sister's nationalist politics. Richard Ellmann, in his
definitive biography of Wilde, suggests that Aunt Warren may have provided some of the material
for the character of Lady Augusta Bracknel
l in
The Importance of Being Earnest

(1899).

Wilde's childhood appears to have been happy, if unconventional. He had an older brother,
Willie, whom he considered a rival for his mother's attention, but it was not a bitter rivalry in
childhood. He also had

a younger sister, Isola, who died at the age of eight in 1867. The family
was devastated by Isola's death, and Wilde, who regularly visited her grave, wrote the poem
"Requiescat" in her memory. Sir William Wilde's three illegitimate children, fathered bef
ore he
married Jane, were also included in the family, and all of the children spent their holidays together.
Mysterious births and problems of legitimacy are recurrent themes in Wilde's work: Guido
Ferranti in
The Duchess of Padua

(1883) has his illustrio
us parentage kept secret and is raised by a
peasant; Jack Worthing in
The Importance of Being Earnest

is a foundling; Lady Windermere in
Lady Windermere's Fan

(1893) was abandoned by her unconventional mother; Arbuthnot's mother
in
A Woman of No Importance

(1894) is unmarried; and Dorian Gray falls in love with an
illegitimate young woman.

Wilde soon supplanted his brother Willie as his mother's favorite by distinguishing himself at
the Portora Royal School. In 1870 he won the Carpenter Prize for the Greek

Testament, and in
1871 he was one of three pupils awarded a Royal School scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin.
His excellence as a classical scholar was evident at Trinity, where he received one of ten
foundation scholarships awarded in 1873. The pinnac
le of his success as a classicist came when he
won the Berkeley gold medal for Greek. At Trinity he was also renowned for his pose as an
Aesthete; the college offered a course in aesthetics, and its Philosophical Society discussed Dante
Gabriel Rossetti an
d A. C. Swinburne. Wilde also flirted with the more aesthetic side of
Catholicism while at Trinity; for this reason his father agreed he should go to Oxford, in the hope
that England would keep him a Protestant. Wilde was himself keen to go to Oxford, for
he had
become interested in the English movement of the Pre
-
Raphaelites. In 1874 he was awarded one
of two scholarships in classics at Magdalen College, but despite the financial aid he was always
short of money. His pose as an Aesthete involved him in exp
enses that he could not really afford.
He dressed flamboyantly and furnished his rooms extravagantly because cutting a figure was of
the utmost importance to an Aesthete. He also achieved renown as a scholar. In 1878 Wilde won
the Newdigate Prize for his p
oem
Ravenna
, and he finished his university career with an Oxford
double first.

Already a celebrity, Wilde published his first collection of poetry in 1881. He left Oxford for
London and quickly made a name for himself as a wit, critic, and public speaker
. Wilde's pose as
an Aesthete caused him to be featured prominently in the satirical cartoons of
Punch

magazine.
There was more to this pose than frivolity, however. In order to set themselves apart from the
dominant ideology of the professional middle cla
sses, self
-
professed Aesthetes and Decadents
transgressed against middle
-
class Victorian morality in their works and lifestyles, even though
they were of the upper and middle classes themselves. Aesthetes and Decadents were
countercultures operating from w
ithin the ruling classes. Art and literature were supposed by
Aesthetes and Decadents to be morally neutral, while form and effect were all
-
important. The one
movement led into the other. Walter Pater's and John Ruskin 's works were crucial to these
moveme
nts, and Wilde had met them both while at Oxford.

Wilde's classical expertise is much in evidence in
Poems

(1881), along with the influences of
Swinburne, Matthew Arnold, Rossetti, Alfred Tennyson, Pater, and Ruskin. The general critical
reaction at the t
ime of publication was condemning and dismissive. Most reviewers were eager to
denounce Wilde on the grounds of imitation of various writers and on his ornate language.
Cambridge don Oscar Browning was almost a lone voice in his appreciation of the volume,

but
even he had reservations. Browning treats
Poems

as a first collection by a new poet, which in fact
it is. But Browning feels Wilde should be encouraged because he has the makings of a great poet.
The audacity of Wilde, an unknown in the literary world
, perhaps triggered the critical attack when
he published a collection of poetry. He published
Poems

at his own expense, and in spite of the
generally hostile reaction, within a year five editions had been sold.

In
Poems

Wilde experiments with form and to
uches on many of the themes he would develop
in his later works as a social and cultural reformer. Cumulatively these poems represent a
conscious experiment of spiritual and imaginative odyssey and social critique. Wilde displays his
cultural, literary, an
d philosophical heritage and links them using the idea of physical journey
based on his actual travels in Italy and Greece. He comments on what he regards as the decline of
civilization from the ancient Greeks to modern
-
day Europe. Decline is a recurrent t
heme in
Wilde's later work and a theme he uses to attack Victorian ruling
-
class values. "Theoretikos" is
typical of his attitude to the Victorian world. In this poem he refers to Britain as an empire with
"feet of clay," a "vile traffic
-
house, where day by

day / Wisdom and reverence are sold at mart." It
is this refusal to see the Victorian age as one of glory, along with his portrayal of the seedy, usually
unmentioned side of Victorian life and sympathy for the poor, that makes Wilde a reform writer. In
th
is early work Wilde also sees the artist standing aloof from society, which becomes yet another
recurrent theme.

By 1882 Wilde's fame as a personality and poet had spread to the United States and Canada.
His lecture tour there attracted a great deal of at
tention in the popular press on both sides of the
Atlantic. Wilde gave two principal lectures, "The English Renaissance of Art" and "Decorative Art
in America," which were a continuation of ideas he explored in
Poems
. Walter Hamilton included
a lengthy cha
pter on Wilde in
The Aesthetic Movement in England

(1882) that effectively ranked
Wilde with such figures as Rossetti, Ruskin, and William Morris. Wilde's tour was a huge success,
if controversial, and he spent the better part of a year in the United State
s and Canada. He spent
the most time in New York negotiating terms for
The Duchess of Padua

and trying to promote his
play,
Vera; or, The Nihilists

(1880). On his return to Europe he went first to London and then to
Paris, where he was able to live off the

proceeds of his lecture tour for three months.

The following year, in August 1883,
Vera

was performed in New York. The play is a vehicle
to express what Ellman terms Wilde's "aristocratic socialism." Wilde insists that socialism is
beautiful and enjoyabl
e, and he denounces tyranny and injustice.
Vera

is based loosely on Russian
history, with the notorious cruelty of the czars serving as a backdrop to Wilde's message of
liberation and reform. In July 1883 Wilde wrote to Marie Prescott, who took the title r
ole in
Vera
:
"I have tried in it to express within the limits of art that Titan cry of the peoples for liberty, which
in the Europe of our day is threatening thrones, and making governments unstable from Spain to
Russia.... But it is a play not of politics

but of passion." He was later to say to Constance Lloyd,
his future wife, that he wrote
Vera

to show how an abstract idea, such as liberty, could be as
powerful a passion as love. Wilde's hopes of success for the play were dashed by the almost
universally

damning reviews.
Vera

closed within a week, and its failure meant that Wilde was
forced to go on lecturing.

Jane Wilde had suggested to her sons that they marry heiresses as a way out of financial
difficulty after the death of their father in 1876. Wilde

seems to have resolved upon marriage as
early as 1880 but was rejected by Violet Hunt and Charlotte Montefiore. After these setbacks he
met Lloyd in June 1881, and they were married on 29 May 1884. Constance was not exactly an
heiress; she had #250 a year

that would increase to #900 when her grandfather died. This amount
was not enough for Wilde's extravagance, and financial problems plagued him throughout his life.
When he was in funds, however, Wilde was generous to his friends and to the poor. Two sons
born
in rapid succession, Cyril on 5 June 1885 and Vyvyan on 5 November 1886, placed further strain
on the Wilde's relationship. Wilde is reputed to have been disgusted by Constance's changed body
during her pregnancies. Nevertheless, they remained good fr
iends, and Wilde was devoted to his
children. He encouraged Constance's involvement in women's liberation movements and political
activity. She edited the
Gazette

of the Rational Dress Society in 1888
-
1889 and gave a speech on 6
November 1888 advocating li
ghter clothing and divided skirts instead of petticoats. Wilde
accompanied her to a demonstration in Hyde Park in support of the dock strike on 1 September
1889.

Wilde was also a reformer in support of women's liberation. He took over the editorship of
Th
e Lady's World: A Magazine of Fashion and Society

in 1887 and reconstituted it. Discussion of
fashion was relegated to the end of each issue, and articles on serious topics, including the
education of women, as well as serial fiction were substituted. Wild
e also insisted the magazine be
renamed
The Woman's World
, since he regarded "lady" as a pejorative term. In November 1887 the
first issue under his leadership appeared. Wilde remained editor for two years, but his involvement
quickly flagged, in part beca
use of his other interests.

Wilde saw art as moral and social reform; what was not beautiful was not good, including
poverty. But Wilde's views on the immorality of poverty were opposed to those of Victorian
middle
-
class morality. The idea of poverty as d
ehumanizing ran counter to accepted middle
-
class
views, both secular and religious, for by implication the ruling classes were responsible for this
oppression. The value of domesticity and the ennobling quality of poverty were popular Victorian
literary th
emes. Religion preached patience and tolerance of one's lot in this life: reward for the
virtuous poor would come in heaven. In his lectures and essays Wilde preached a new
Aestheticism and social reform through art. Like Ruskin, Wilde criticized the false

glamour of
Victorian upper
-
class society, but Wilde was also attracted to this world. He viewed Victorian
ideals of art, reflected in the ornate and orderly decor of upper
-

and middle
-
class homes, as a sham.
He disapproved of the idea that every picture s
hould tell a story?a notion that dominated the
mainstream Victorian art world. During his Aesthetic phase he set about to reform rigid notions of
art and decorated his home and his person as exhibits of this new modern art.

In May 1888 Wilde published
The

Happy Prince and Other Tales
, comprised of the title story,
"The Nightingale and the Rose," "The Selfish Giant," "The Devoted Friends," and "The
Remarkable Rocket." Implicit in the social criticism of these tales is the notion of reform from
within the ru
ling classes. Wilde was influenced by a great many sources, traditions, and authors in
these tales, most obviously Hans Christian Andersen, in both technique and theme. The stories
explore the price paid in human suffering for beauty, art, power, and wealt
h, with the hope of
salvation offered by sacrificial love. The critical reaction to the volume was positive; Wilde also
received a letter of praise from Walter Pater.

Wilde first told the title story of "The Happy Prince" to entertain his friends during a

visit to
Cambridge in November 1885. The story opens with a description of the Happy Prince?a
splendid and imposing statue covered in gold leaf, with sapphires for eyes and a large ruby in his
sword pommel. Placed on a large column, he looks down over the

city. Almost immediately the
Victorian middle
-
class dilemma over the usefulness of art is raised by one of the town councillors.
In opposition to the councillor's view is that of a child who sees the "use" of the statue in inspiring
dreams. The story also

presents unrequited love between a swallow and a reed. The swallow, who
has remained behind after all the other birds have migrated, finally decides to leave for warmer
climes. Its courtship of the reed has proved unsuccessful when she refuses to travel w
ith him. She
is not prepared to make a sacrifice for the swallow because she does not love it. The swallow
seeks a place to rest in the city before continuing its journey to Egypt. He alights on the Prince's
column delighted at having found such a splendid

resting place.

Although the Prince had spent his entire life on earth in the palace of Sans
-
Souci, he was
sympathetic to the poor, and his spirit lives on in his memorial statue. From his pedestal high
above the city he sees the wretchedness and misery o
f the poor and laments their condition. The
Prince enlists the swallow's aid in relieving the worst cases of poverty. The swallow agrees and
delays its plan to migrate south, gradually picking away the valuable decorations of the statue to
give to various
members of the deserving poor. Winter progresses, and the swallow realizes that it
is going to die from the cold. It informs the Prince, kisses him goodbye, and falls dead at his feet.
At that moment the Prince's lead heart breaks in two. Soon after, the l
ocal dignitaries gather in the
town square and decide that as the statue is "no longer beautiful" it "is no longer useful." The
statue is melted down, but the lead heart will not melt, so it is thrown on a rubbish pile alongside
the body of the swallow. Go
d then enters the story: "'Bring me the two most precious things in the
city,' said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead
bird." By elevating the broken heart of a statue and the body of a bird over the wealth of

an
industrial city, Wilde criticizes industrial society and its ruling elites, arguing for reform through
Christian ethics.

The second tale, "The Nightingale and the Rose," shows the pointlessness of self
-
sacrifice in
an industrial age. The spirit of com
merce is shown to be all
-
powerful, while man's spiritual nature
has been lost. In "The Selfish Giant," which Pater describes in his 12 June 1888 letter to Wilde as
"perfect in its kind," Wilde comments on the erosion of public spaces and the effects of lan
d
enclosure. Using the by
-
now
-
familiar device of a giant to represent the ruling classes and children
to represent the poor, Wilde calls for social reform from within the ruling classes. During the
giant's absence children play in his garden. The garden fl
ourishes; the birds sing; and the children
are happy. When the giant returns, he banishes the children and builds a high wall to exclude them.
The giant is punished for his selfishness because spring and summer never come to his garden
after he has sent th
e children away; the garden is trapped in eternal winter. But the children
discover a hole in the wall and creep back into the garden. The giant is awakened to the sound of
birds, and he looks out to see the children sitting in the branches of the now
-
blos
soming trees.
Then the giant notices a little child crying because he is too small to reach the branches, and "the
Giant's heart melted." He goes out and places the little boy in the tree. From then on he allows the
children to play in his garden. But he d
oes not see the little boy again until the day of his death.
The child is transformed into the figure of Christ and says to the giant, "You let me play once in
your garden, to
-
day you shall come with me to my garden, which is Paradise."

"The Devoted Frien
d" is akin to "The Nightingale and the Rose" as a tale of unappreciated
self
-
sacrifice. Little Hans is the victim of the rich miller's false friendship, betrayed and destroyed
by greed. An animal framework gives the tale a comic effect which is heightened
by matching the
miller with an equally egotistical and smug water rat. Nevertheless, underlying the comedy is
serious social criticism. For while "The Devoted Friend" borrows its animal framework from
Andersen, the title is reminiscent of the kind of moral

tale printed by the Cheap Repository Tract
Society, which produced middle
-
class propaganda for the poor, and it is clearly a satire on those
tales. Rather than depicting the ennobling quality of poverty, "The Devoted Friend" comments on
the exploitation o
f the poor by the wealthy.

"The Remarkable Rocket" deals with the subject of vanity. Although Wilde was himself often
accused of vanity, he did not approve of it. In this story Wilde again uses satire for social critique,
but the depiction of the remarkab
le rocket is also a personal attack on the painter James McNeill
Whistler. Wilde had been a great admirer of Whistler's for many years, during which time Wilde
overlooked Whistler's vanity. But here Wilde turns the tables on Whistler by putting some of
Whi
stler's own witticisms into the mouth of the Rocket in such a way as to make the Rocket
ridiculous.

Wilde continued to experiment with literary form, and in July 1889 "The Portrait of Mr. W.
H." was published in Blackwood's Magazine. Here Wilde creates fi
ction within a fiction that is
part story, part critical essay, and part confessional. He was advised not to publish it because it
includes allusions to homosexual practices. Wilde puts forward an old theory that William
Shakespeare was attracted to a youn
g boy; but he does so in a story that is original. The story is,
however, dangerously autobiographical. Wilde imagines Shakespeare, a married man with two
children like himself, attracted to a young boy, just as Wilde had been captivated by Robert Ross
som
etime in 1886.

In November 1891 Wilde published A House of Pomegranates, a collection of stories in
fairy
-
tale form. But these stories are more deliberately aimed at an adult readership than The
Happy Prince was. The first story, "The Young King," is a de
velopment of "The Happy Prince"
from the earlier collection. Like "The Happy Prince," it is a social critique with a clear Christian
and socialist message. The second story, "The Birthday of the Infanta," differs from the other
stories and centers around t
he antithesis of Art and Nature. The surface beauty and the cruelty of
the Infanta, a product of the civilized and cultured ruling classes, is opposed to the inner spiritual
beauty of the ugly but kindhearted dwarf, who dies of a broken heart. Wilde again
uses the figure
of size to represent class. The dwarf is lower
-
class and lacking in culture but is also therefore
closer to nature. The third story, "The Fisherman and His Soul," deals with the opposition of the
body and soul, but Wilde makes an interestin
g distinction between heart and soul. And the last,
"The Star Child", again explores the theme of outward beauty and cruelty in opposition to inner
beauty. The Star Child must learn pity, but after suffering and transformation he only rules for
three years
: "And he who came after him ruled evilly." Again the story ends on a negative note.

The years 1889 to 1895 were prolific ones for Wilde, but during these years he led an
increasingly double life, which ended in his imprisonment in 1895. This secret life
was also
featured increasingly in his work.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
, published as a novel in 1891, first
appeared as a story in
Lippincott's Magazine

in July 1890. Joris
-
Karl Huysmans's
A rebours

(1884), known as the guidebook of Decadence, was a great
influence on
The Picture of Dorian
Gray
. Wilde had read Huysmans's novel on his honeymoon. The earlier version of
The Picture of
Dorian Gray

included stronger suggestions of a homosexual relationship between Basil Hallward
and Dorian Gray. Because of the a
dverse critical reaction and his own then
-
illegal homosexual
relations, Wilde revised and expanded his novel and added the preface in response to the critics.
But there is little doubt that he named the hero of his work
"Gray"

as a compliment to his friend

John Gray, and that Wilde and Gray became lovers. During this period Wilde's popularity soared,
and the number of young men who attached themselves to him, including Aubrey Beardsley and
Max Beerbohm, increased with his success.

In the novel Wilde stress
es the importance of the artistic relationship between Basil and
Dorian. In the preface Wilde questions whether art can corrupt and defends his work on artistic
grounds. Yet he also goes against what he states in the preface, for there is a moral in the bo
ok.
The Picture of Dorian Gray

is not only a psychological exploration but also a critique of the
emphasis placed on surface in Victorian middle
-
class life and an attack on the ruling classes that
produce the kind of young man who seeks sensation for the s
ake of it. It is also a return to the
theme of human decline under industrialization and the loss of the spiritual in the face of a
material age. Dorian shuts the portrait away, thereby divorcing himself from his soul. He
epitomizes the fragmentation of th
e individual when body is divorced from soul, and as a result he
becomes incapable of good and the contemplation of beauty.

The impact of
The Picture of Dorian Gray

was considerable. Wilde's circle of followers was
delighted with it, but in general it cau
sed contradictory sentiments in its readers. The success also
led to Wilde's first meeting with Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was smitten with Douglas's beauty,
and the young man's praise of the novel prompted Wilde to give him a deluxe copy. Wilde also
offer
ed to coach Douglas when he heard Douglas was studying classics at Oxford.

Wilde published another collection of short stories,
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime & Other
Stories
, and a collection of essays,
Intentions
, in 1891.
Intentions

includes the essay "The

Critic as
Artist," in which Wilde presents a defense of Aestheticism as an antidote to the negative portrayal
of it in
The Picture of Dorian Gray
. Also in 1891 Wilde's article The Soul of Man under Socialism,
aimed at radical social reform, appeared in th
e
Fortnightly Review
; it was published in book form
in 1895. It is a continuation and broadening of the argument he sets out in "The Critic as Artist"
but looks to the future rather than dwelling on the past and present. In "The Soul of Man under
Socialism
" Wilde deals with Aestheticism in political and social terms. He argues that socialism is
the only way to individual freedom by freeing mankind from the necessity of living for others. He
believes charity institutionalizes poverty and degrades the poor, w
ho are right to steal rather than
receive alms. To insist that the poor be thrifty is insulting, and to praise the dignity of manual labor
is ridiculous when all know it is degrading. Wilde opposes any authoritarian socialism but
acknowledges that his is a

utopian ideal.

Already a sensation in London, Wilde again turned his attention to Paris. He felt the French
were of a more artistic temperament than the English and more generous to artists. His friends
there included Marcel Schwob, Pierre Lou

s, and And
ri Gide. It was during the closing months of
1891 in Paris that Wilde started work on his play
Salomie

(1893). Huysmans's description of
Gustave Moreau's painting of Salomie in
A rebours

was the inspiration for Wilde's play. He wrote
it in French and later

gave this explanation to Ross in an interview for the
Pall Mall Budget

: "I
have one instrument I know I can command, and that is the English language. There was another
instrument to which I had listened all my life, and I wanted once to touch this new i
nstrument to
see whether I could make any beautiful thing out of it."
Salomi

dramatizes the power struggle
between the opposing forces of patriarchy, which represents control and authority, and women,
who represent nature or the flesh. There is a fear of t
he natural, but Wilde demonstrates the
blurring of gender in the struggle for power. Salomi describes Jokanaan in exactly the same terms
as she herself has been described. This point is reflected in the illustrations by Beardsley, which
make Jokanaan a mir
ror image of Salomi. They represent desire and repression. Herod is
enfeebled by his desire for Salomi and can only reassert his patriarchal authority when she is dead.

Wilde's most popular plays are comedies, but they are also social satires aimed at ref
orm. The
condition of woman in Victorian society was a major concern for Wilde, and, like his mother, he
took a feminist line. In
Lady Windermere's Fan,

A Woman of No Importance,

and
An Ideal
Husband

(1899) Wilde comments on the moral double standard impos
ed on women by patriarchal
society. He shows how the Victorian "lady," a vestige of eighteenth
-
century courtly society,
reinforces this double standard. Women are forced to conform or seek underhanded means to
achieve their ends. There is no question that
seventeenth
-
century Restoration comedy was an
influence on these comedies, but Wilde owes just as much to his contemporaries Henrik Ibsen and
Anton Chekhov. Like Ibsen and Chekhov, Wilde gives detailed stage directions and attaches
symbolic significance to

the detail in setting. Costume, gesture, language, and vocal nuance are
all
-
important to Wilde. His plays hold a mirror to contemporary society and reflect the polished
social surface he then undercuts. In spite of making light of his work to some, Wilde
took his plays
seriously. He involved himself during rehearsals and was always ready with suggestions and
revisions.

Lady Windermere's Fan

was first performed at St. James's Theatre on 20 February 1892.
Wilde had begun work on the play in the autumn of 18
91 at the instigation of actor
-
manager
George Alexander. The play opened to a full house with a glittering array of celebrities in
attendance. Arthur Walter and Henry James disliked the play, and most other critics were against it,
but Frank Harris and Ber
nard Shaw admired it, as did most of the audience. It launched Wilde's
success as a playwright; crowds came to see it, and the Prince of Wales gave it his approval. The
play is more complex than it seems; it is not just the case of a "fallen woman," Mrs. E
rlynne,
rescuing her daughter, Lady Windermere, from a similar situation. Lady Windermere is prompted
by her puritan and moral ideals to behave in a way alien to her nature and in opposition to morality.
In order to be a "good woman" she must learn to be l
ess severe in moral judgment and recognize
that not everything is black and white. Mrs. Erlynne, although censured by society for her past
transgression, is a good woman. She is prepared to sacrifice herself in order to spare her daughter.
Wilde exposes th
e hypocrisy and ridiculous standards of the fashionable world of the elite. The
social structure encourages seduction while appearing to condemn it, and women are judged by a
moral double standard: when a woman commits a sexual transgression, she is damned

forever in
the eyes of society, but the man is blameless. Mrs. Erlynne is compelled by the moral hypocrisy of
society to employ corrupt methods. In addition to the social criticism Wilde was radical in his
ending of the play: instead of the conventional d
inouement, at the end of this comedy three secrets
are left undisclosed.

By now the relationship between Douglas and Wilde had intensified, with Wilde spending
more and more time away from his family. Wilde allowed Douglas to translate
Salomi
, which had
b
een banned from performance by the Lord Chamberlain but was published in French in Paris and
London in 1893. The translation appeared a year later. The success of
Lady Windermere's Fan

served as a consolation for Wilde's frustration over
Salomi
, and he was

already at work on his next
play.
A Woman of No Importance

opened at the Haymarket Theatre on 19 April 1893, and Wilde
had another hit.
An Ideal Husband

was first performed on 3 January 1895 and was also a huge
success.

The Importance of Being Earnest
, W
ilde's last and most brilliant play, went into rehearsal
soon after the opening of
An Ideal Husband

. In spite of the sub
-
title,
A Trivial Comedy for Serious
People
, Wilde's play is a serious critique of Victorian society. Wilde anticipates modern writers
such as Samuel Beckett in his use of farce to comment upon serious issues. But Wilde is
subversive in his criticism of Victorian institutions. The Victorian upper classes are presented as
enclosed characters more intent on social surface in a world where f
orm replaces emotion. The
language of the play is simple and straightforward, but the characters speak epigrammatically,
thereby preventing real exchange of ideas. Marriage, education, and religion are all critiqued in
Wilde's satirical handling. He commen
ts on the subservient role of women by comically inverting
gender roles?the women in the play are dominating and controlling. The hypocrisy and
heartlessness of the characters reflect Wilde's own view of Victorian society.

Wilde's dazzling success came sw
iftly to an end with his ill
-
judged libel action against
Douglass father, the marquess of Queensberry. The case resulted in success for the marquess and
the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Wilde on charges of offenses to minors. The society Wilde
had sa
tirized in his works as hypocritical and shallow turned its back on him, and his plays were
taken off the stage. Wilde's last works,
The Ballad of Reading Gaol

(1898) and
De Profundis

(1905), were written in Reading Gaol. Wilde entrusted the manuscript of
De Profundis

to Ross,
one of his few loyal friends, who published it after Wilde's death.

Wilde's achievement as a reform writer in his own day was overshadowed by his disgrace and
imprisonment. Wilde saw himself as "a man who stood in symbolic relations
to the art and culture
of [his] age," but he paid a terrible price. He suffered two years hard labor and bankruptcy.
Victorian England was unforgiving, and upon his release from prison on 19 May 1897 he went
into exile, staying first in Dieppe and later in

Paris. Although
The Ballad of Reading Gaol

sold
well beyond expectations, it did not make enough money for Wilde to live on. During his last
years he relied on friends, including Douglas, for financial support. Reginald Turner and Ross
were with Wilde at
the end; he died on 30 November 1900 in Paris. After his death came a
renewed critical interest in him, but it is only within the last thirty years that his work has received
serious scholarly attention.


(
Source:


Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume
190: British Reform Writers, 1832
-
1914
.
Edited by Gary Kelly

and Edd Applegate. The Gale Group, 1998.
)