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Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet, fiction writer and playwright who had a very special life story that made him become considered by many as a sort of martyr of freedom and literature. He had become England’s most popular and controversial playwright in the 1880s before he got involved in a court trial in which he was proved guilty of homosexuality, which was a serious crime in Victorian England. After spending two years in prison, an experience that made his psychological and physical health deteriorate, he left the country to seek exile in France and soon died there. Today he is mainly remembered for his fictional masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and also for his dramatic masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).


Oscar Wilde was born to well-off and intellectual parents in the city of Dublin and received a decent education in which he had always been a distinguished student. His mother Jane Wilde was herself renowned in Ireland as a refined poet. As for Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, he was a humanitarian medical doctor and a surgeon who left important works of medicine and archeology. Today, he is remembered as one of Ireland’s greatest men of science. From an early age, Oscar Wilde became fluent in French and German and then mastered classical schools of philosophy. After an experience at Magdalen College in Oxford, he adopted the philosophical school of aestheticism to become one of its most famous proponents.

After graduation, Wilde’s writing activities multiplied. While preaching among literary circles his very famous slogan “Art for art’s sake,” which objects to all sorts of  politicization or moralization of art and literature, he wrote and published collections of poems and short stories. In 1878, Wilde’s poem “Ravenna” had made him win the Newdigate Prize. Oscar’s first collection of poems was published in 1881 under the title Poems and received considerable attention from critics.

He married Constance Llyod in 1884 to have two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Constance came from an even wealthier family than his and used to support him, to fund his publications and even to send him money for his personal subsistence at the moments of hardship that characterized his twilight years. Starting from 1882, Wilde lectured in different countries including Ireland, England, Canada and the United States. When he was visiting the latter, his trip was prolonged more than once thanks to the success of his lectures and his published works.

In 1888, Wilde published The Happy Prince and Other Stories to be followed by Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories in 1891. Wilde’s short stories were mainly fairy tales for children (originally for his own children), but they can also be enjoyable and instructive for adults. Apart from that, Wilde also started publishing essays and magazine articles for The Pall Mall Gazette and The Woman’s World to serve as the editor of the latter for a number of years.

It was in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine that his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in 1890 to face strong resistance by critics who raised controversies over its homoerotic insinuations. Generally, the story adopts fantastic effects and deals with the theme of the Faustian pact. Dorian is a young man who, after seeing a painting of himself done by a renowned painter, falls in love with it and wishes his youthful beauty depicted in the painting lasts forever. A magical bargain is achieved through which Dorian will physically remain the same while the painting itself will age. Thus, he engages in a life of pleasure and libertinage not caring about age. He is, however, depressed by the mere look at his own aging reflection in the picture as it becomes uglier and uglier. By the end of the novel, he takes a knife and stabs the canvas to kill only himself. Despite the diatribe that some critics launched against the novel’s explicit “immorality” and “homosexual allusions,” The Picture of Dorian Gray has become considered as a refined masterpiece, mainly posthumously in the twentieth century.

The reaction of critics made Wilde even write more essays to explain his artistic vision of aestheticism and to further explain his position according to which art should be considered as only a manifestation of beauty that does not tolerate any moral or political evaluation of the artistic act. In fact, all sorts of moral judgment of art are irrelevant according to Wilde. For him, art is an individualistic act of constant improvisation that should always remain free of all moral and social shackles. The question of whether literature and art in general should take up a moral, social or political role is still debated by today’s literary and philosophical circles. During this period, Wilde also wrote other essays on the philosophy of art and politics as well as biographies.

After the publication of the novel, Wilde’s plays followed to make him more popular than ever before. His first play was first written in French under the title Salomé (1891). It was followed by Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892, A Woman of No Importance in 1893, An Ideal Husband in 1895 and The Importance of Being Earnest in the same year. Most of these plays were social comedies or comedies of manners that painted the Victorian society, parodied and satirized its manners, etiquette and social hypocrisy. Wilde’s plays, which remained on stages for long and enabled the author to make considerable fortunes, served as a mirror that made the Victorian audience laugh at the contradictions and paradoxes in which they found themselves. The dialogues were stuffed with witty remarks, humorous misunderstandings and sharp quips that could only inspire appreciation among the people that they criticized. Wilde had still to face the dissatisfaction of Victorian diehard conservatives, though.

By that time, Wilde was constantly moving between Paris and London where he attended his premières and frequented literary salons. Unfortunately, the 1890s did not only bring fame and financial prosperity to Oscar Wilde, but also much trouble that would ultimately ruin him. All started when he made acquaintance with young Alfred Douglas in 1891. They engaged in an adventurous homosexual relationship, a relationship that was suspected by Alfred’s atheist yet conservative father, the Marquis of Queensberry.

Wilde’s relationship with Douglas was romantic and biographers note that the prosperous rising star used to pamper his partner, realizing all his dreams. Though much younger than the celebrated playwright, it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to the world of male debauchery and prostitution. Meanwhile, Douglas’s father was haunting the couple, trying to find out about their secret. When he finally became sure of the affair, he explicitly threatened Wilde. 

The Marquis of Queensberry had never thought of suing Wilde, however, was it not for the fact that Wilde himself started by prosecuting him. The story began when Queensberry defamed Wilde among his circles by describing him as a homosexual and a sodomite. Wilde’s mistake was to prosecute Queensberry for libel while he knew that it was very easy to find proofs of his homosexual behavior and that this was criminalized by British law. During trial, Queensberry’s lawyers were trying to prove that their client’s claims were founded in order to absolve him from the accusation of libel. They finally succeeded in their mission. Right after the end of the trial, a warrant was issued for Wilde’s arrest, his crime being “gross indecency”.

Having lost a lot of money on the trial and lawyers, Wilde had also to pay all Queensberry’s expenses before he was sentenced to a two-year imprisonment with hard labor. The experience of prison gravely affected him both psychologically and physically. Despite the time and idleness that prison usually offers, his literary activity decreased greatly. In fact, he only succeeded in finishing one work while in prison. This work was intended to be a letter to Douglas that Wilde entitled De Profundis (Latin for “from the  depths”). The long letter, which was later published in book form to become among Wilde’s most read works, spoke about the author’s experience during the trials. The letter also displayed a feeling of remorse. Wilde claimed that his mistake was that he had wished to experience all sorts of earthly pleasure when pleasure had wrongly been the sole purpose of his life.

Wilde even developed religious sentiments in prison and wished to have a retreat at the Catholic Church after being released, yet this was not accepted. When he left the prison in 1897, he immediately decided to leave the country for France where he lived almost alone after having lost his money and the luster of fame. He was only frequented by a small number of intimate friends and received money for subsistence from his wife, though they were officially separated. In Paris, Wilde wrote his last work before he passed away. This was a long poem entitled The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The verse recounts the horrors of prison.

On November 30th, 1900, Oscar Wilde died of cerebral meningitis in the French capital. He rests today at the Père Lachaise Cemetery where he is visited by thousands of his readers and fans every year. Today, as misconceptions about Wilde’s life and personal choices have changed, his works as well as his career have helped raise him to the status of legends.