Oscar Wilde

The British author Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) was part of the "art for art's sake" movement in English literature at the end of the 19th century. He is best known for his brilliant, witty comedies.

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Oct. 16, 1854. His father, Sir William Wilde, was a well-known surgeon; his mother, Jane Francisca Elgee Wilde, wrote popular poetry and prose under the pseudonym Speranza. For three years Wilde was educated in the classics at Trinity College, Dublin, where he began to attract public attention through the eccentricity of his writing and his style of life.

At the age of 23 Wilde entered Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1878 he was awarded the Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna." He attracted a group of followers, and they initiated a personal cult, self-consciously effete and artificial. "The first duty in life," Wilde wrote in Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young (1894), "is to be as artificial as possible." After leaving Oxford he expanded his cult. His iconoclasm contradicted the Victorian era's easy pieties, but the contradiction was one of his purposes. Another of his aims was the glorification of youth.

Wilde published his well-received Poems in 1881. The next six years were active ones. He spent an entire year lecturing in the United States and then returned to lecture in England. He applied unsuccessfully for a position as a school inspector. In 1884 he married, and his wife bore him children in 1885 and in 1886. He began to publish extensively in the following year. His writing activity became as intense and as erratic as his life had been for the previous six years. From 1887 to 1889 Wilde edited the magazine Woman's World. His first popular success as a prose writer was The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888). The House of Pomegranates (1892) was another collection of his fairy tales.

Wilde became a practicing homosexual in 1886. He believed that his subversion of the Victorian moral code was the impulse for his writing. He considered himself a criminal who challenged society by creating scandal. Before his conviction for homosexuality in 1895, the scandal was essentially private. Wilde believed in the criminal mentality. "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," from Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1891), treated murder and its successful concealment comically. The original version of The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott's Magazine emphasized the murder of the painter Basil Hallward by Dorlan as the turning point in Dorian's disintegration; the criminal tendency became the criminal act.

Dorian Gray was published in book form in 1891. The novel celebrated youth: Dorian, in a gesture typical of Wilde, is parentless. He does not age, and he is a criminal. Like all of Wilde's work, the novel was a popular success. His only book of formal criticism, Intentions (1891), restated many of the esthetic views that Dorian Gray had emphasized, and it points toward his later plays and stories. Intentions emphasized the importance of criticism in an age that Wilde believed was uncritical. For him, criticism was an independent branch of literature, and its function was vital.

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His Dramas

Between 1892 and 1895 Wilde was an active dramatist, writing what he identified as "trivial comedies for serious people." His plays were popular because their dialogue was baffling, clever, and often epigrammatic, relying on puns and elaborate word games for its effect. Lady Windermere's Fan was produced in 1892, A Woman of No Importance in 1893, and An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895.

On March 2, 1895, Wilde initiated a suit for criminal libel against the Marquess of Queensberry, who had objected to Wilde's friendship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. When his suit failed in April, countercharges followed. After a spectacular court action, Wilde was convicted of homosexual misconduct and sentenced to 2 years in prison at hard labor.

Prison transformed Wilde's experience as radically as had his 1886 introduction to homosexuality. In a sense he had prepared himself for prison and its transformation of his art. De Profundisis a moving letter to a friend and apologia that Wilde wrote in prison; it was first published as a whole in 1905. His theme was that he was not unlike other men and was a scapegoat. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) was written after his release. In this poem a man has murdered his mistress and is about to be executed, but Wilde considered him only as criminal as the rest of humanity. He wrote: "For each man kills the thing he loves,/ Yet each man does not die."

After his release from prison Wilde lived in France. He attempted to write a play in his pretrial style, but this effort failed. He died in Paris on Nov. 30, 1900.

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Further Reading on Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie Wills Wilde

R. Hart-Davis's edition of Wilde's Letters (1962) contains an excellent portrait of Wilde. Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (2 vols., 1916), is one of the first and most comprehensive biographies. Frances Winwar, Oscar Wilde and the Yellow 'Nineties (1940), emphasizes Wilde's position in that decade. Other standard biographies are Boris L. Brasol, Oscar Wilde: The Man, the Artist, the Martyr (1938), and André Gide, Oscar Wilde (1951). The major critical studies of Wilde's work are George Woodcock, The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (1950), and St. John Ervine, Oscar Wilde (1951). Arthur Ransome, Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (1912), has influenced Wilde criticism. William Butler Yeats discusses Wilde in his Autobiography (1938; many later eds.).