Before this semester, I had never read anything written by Oscar Wilde. I knew he was famous, and I knew a little bit about The Picture of Dorian Gray, but that was pretty much the extent of my experience with Wilde. Nearing the end of the semester, I am grateful to have not only read a variety of complex works written by a revered author, but also to have learned more about Wilde’s history and how his character and actions influenced his own art, the art of others to follow, and our society as a whole. I was particularly interested by his plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. Thinking about the various layers coexisting within the works and the degrees to which Wilde may or may not have been pushing back against traditional Victorian society and being able to connect his work to past and future authors was interesting. We talked about his Platonic and Shakespearean influences, but I also couldn’t help but relate his work to early modern playwrights like Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn in how they explored gender roles and questioned the role of art and genre in their work, and I really enjoyed seeing how Wilde’s own work has had an impact on how we understand art today. Looking forward, I hope to see some of Wilde’s work performed on stage for a more complete view of their meanings, since the visual performance adds yet another layer to an already interesting work. I do still wonder, how much of Wilde’s current success is a result of the quality of his work that readers still recognize today, or a result of the overarching influence of his personal life. Either way, I am leaving this class with a greater appreciation of art, of the history of turning points, and of the role Wilde played in both of those areas.
For this final blog, I wanted to reflect on this class as a whole. I already knew Oscar Wilde was a genius writer before taking a deeper look into his works, but what I wasn’t expecting was how much I learned about myself in class. I kept coming back to the variety of masks we don within our lives. Living in a simultaneously accepting and ostracizing society means we are all forced to cater to those around us. Reading the various works of Oscar Wilde, I could see how he wielded his mask in English society, and how he lost a little bit of himself trying so hard to fit in. In my research paper, part of what I am examining is how Wilde conceptualized himself and his identity throughout his lifetime. I think the space where he was able to examine and think about things was in his spirituality.
Unlike our Roman Catholicism today, Wilde grew up with the Irish folk-Catholicism of his ancestors, which had quite the hybrid make-up. This meant that different aspects of religion and pagan rituals were included in their spirituality. Being the place for the misfits and the outcasts, Wilde found the place where he could be accepted by God for simply who he was. Love was the guiding principle in his spiritual and outward life. But in a world where his attractions were thought of as gross and indecent, he did not have much of a chance to let his true self shine through. The only place where the mask slipped was in his art because as we learned from Basil Hallward, real art reveals more about the artist than it does the audience. Pieces of Wilde’s soul found their way into all his art no matter how veiled he tried to make it. Wilde was not ready to confront the truth of his identity until the mask was forcibly ripped from his face. In De Profundis, We finally get to see a Wilde who took the time to reflect on his life and its mistakes. Even though it was hard to live in a world that hated you for existing, Wilde recognized the error of his ways, and how a material life may not actually be the best way to live. After experiencing true suffering and sorrow, the decadent artist found the importance of the mental and emotional life. There is more beauty to be experienced outside the realm of the material and the pleasurable. That beauty comes to Wilde when he is finally ready to accept himself fully, and shatter the mask that he held onto for so long. It opened up the world for him and made way for religion and spirituality to become the central support of his life, rather than the invisible backbone.
End of the Semester Post
Coming into this class, I only really knew about Wilde’s reputation with his trial and imprisonment. Actually reading his work has illuminated so much about him, and made me think about the circumstances around his fate. That is what I focused my final paper about, specifically thinking about the concept of predestination.
I thought the concept of predestination was interesting because it is the idea of an inescapable fate. Wilde talks about this in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, with Lord Arthur thinking he was unable to escape his fate of having to murder someone. But the chiromantist is proven to be a fraud, and this, along with the use of comedy, shows that Wilde is critiquing predestination. But, I then thought about the ending through the lens of what type of fate one gets based on their status and class.
Lord Arthur, even though his fate was false and he committed the crime, had a happy ending. I think this was because he was a member of the conventional aristocracy, a group of people who always had a prosperous ending in Wilde’s stories. Wilde, on the other hand, did not share the same social acceptability because his identity as a queer man. So, thinking about his fate, you could say that he was predestined to have a tragic ending. This is related to the concept we discussed in class of queer people not getting happy endings in many cases of life, and art. Wilde partly predicted his fate through his art, namely through The Picture of Dorian Gray, looking at the parallels between the relationship between Dorian Gray and Lord Henry in comparison with the relationship between WIlde and Bosie. I thought another interesting point from his work was in The Importance of Being Earnest, where Jack and Algy’s bunburying (which could be seen as a representation of a queer double life) started to derail their lives, but they both got happy endings when they submitted to the conventional Victorian marriage and lifestyle.
I really enjoyed getting to read deeper into Wilde’s works and in turn learn more about his own life this semester!
Reflection on Semester
As I go back to the earlier parts of the semester, I remembered that my ambition for this class was to study the works of a renowned writer in hopes to gain some insight into the process of writing and the “art” of writing. However, I found myself unable to study his actual methods of writing, mainly because of the depth his works carried. As the semester progressed and we learned more about the character of Wilde as well as his experiences, I found myself looking for these pieces and fragments within his works. There was a bit of a wake up call; as I have only studied a few of Wilde’s works before this course, I only saw him as a masterful writer and artist. As we delved deeper into his character and his history, I found myself disillusioned with Wilde, as much of his arrogance and reckless nature was shown, especially in the later texts we studied.
I did find myself fascinated by Wilde’s utilization of social class as a theme. I think I noticed this theme heavily with The Picture of Dorian Gray and first started to get interested through the novel. Soon after reading The Importance of Being Earnest, I had already decided that this theme would be the topic of my final paper. I thought it was beautiful how Wilde satirized the reality of this caste system of the Victorian era; he also seemed to offer his own opinions on the respective classes and the tendencies each carried. I wanted to really get into the deeper roots of his commentary and found myself looking for similarities in his other works that we looked at closer to the end of the semester. Although my paper focuses on the aforementioned texts, I am still eager to research and delve into other texts to find more outlets of comparison.
That’s a Wrap, Folks
On the very first day of class this semester, we read the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first few lines were, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim” (27). My main takeaway from this class is how wrong that statement is. Over the course of this semester, through analyzing Wilde’s work, Wilde as a person was revealed to us. Because of the society Wilde lived in, he had to conceal his queer identity, but Wilde’s queerness shines through in his work.
My research paper focuses on how Wilde was able to identify with Plato’s Symposium—a work that focuses on how the relationship where an older man mentors a younger man is the highest form of love—in a time when there wasn’t any other form of queer representation. Identifying with the Symposium allowed Wilde to see his queer identity being represented as beautiful in a time when homosexual acts were reviled. Therefore, Wilde enacted the relationship dynamics of the Symposium in his relationship with Bosie and other young men, where the younger men would inspire him and he would mentor and praise them. However, even if we didn’t learn anything about Wilde’s biography this semester, we’d learn a lot about Wilde and his connection to the Symposium just by examining his work.
Although The Picture of Dorian Gray was meant to “conceal the artist,” Wilde very much reveals himself and his ideas in this work. The Symposium isn’t referenced in Dorian Gray, but the inspiration is apparent. The relationship between Basil and Dorian is one where an artist is inspired by the beauty of a younger man. Basil says, “Dorian, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated soul, brain, and power by you” (89). This relationship seems to mirror Wilde’s relationship with Bosie, but Dorian Gray was written before this relationship. Dorian Gray is actually a representation of the relationship dynamic put forth in the Symposium as the highest form of love. Basil and Dorian seem to prefigure Wilde and Bosie. Through analyzing Wilde’s work, we can see how Wilde places himself in the tradition of Plato by connecting the Symposium to Dorian Gray and then to himself. However, even though Wilde and his characters were acting out the “highest form of love,” Wilde still lived in a time that didn’t accept queerness, and both his characters’ and his own life ended in tragedy.
Wilde is a fascinating and tragic figure, and I really appreciated being able to learn about him over the course of the semester. Despite Wilde’s efforts to conceal himself in his art, being able to analyze his works this semester really enabled me to understand Wilde as a person. In turn, since I know more about Wilde as a person, I can appreciate his works even more.
“Avenge Oscar Wilde”
This might be a weird end of the semester post. Still, I think the cultural phenomenon of stickers is a fascinating way to understand the popular perception of celebrities, such as bands, writers, or characters. Stickers are a way to identify your interests, from slapping them onto your water bottle to your laptop for everyone’s viewing consumption. Professor Kinyon’s approach to modernity can be framed in the sense of stickers because they are a very modern or “Gen Z” type thing—simply walk into a classroom and spot everyone’s laptops littered with the stickers, showing off their interests to the world. One day, I looked up Oscar Wilde stickers on popular websites out of curiosity, such as Etsy and Redbubble, and an interesting phrase popped up: “Avenge Oscar Wilde” (https://www.redbubble.com/i/sticker/avenge-oscar-wilde-by-dangerdancing2/43456543.EJUG5).
The way we talk about writers from the past now highlights the cultural shifts, from Victorian to the aesthetes to the contemporary environment we are currently living. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, avenge means: “to take vengeance, inflict retributive punishment, exact satisfaction, or retaliate, on behalf of (an injured person, violated right, etc.).” Avenge is an intriguing word in the context of Wilde’s charge for gross indecency. It implies that the charge was a wrongdoing and that Wilde was a person who was violated by the legal system and their punishment for his queer identity (and arguably his subversive views on art being put on trial). I think the frame of avenging Oscar Wilde carries on his history of prison reform, the primary topic of my paper. But at the same time, I believe this vague phrase of avenging Oscar Wilde is more in the context of his identity as a queer man, which we have talked about a lot over the past semester, and how we label him a “homosexual” when those labels did not exist at the time. The prison wronged Wilde for his queer identity. Looking into the modern future, where being queer is still subject to hate crimes, microaggressions, stereotypes, and other similar things, Wilde still would not be prosecuted for his crimes today. The sticker assumes that by continuing to fight against a largely homophobic and heteronormative society, one will “avenge Oscar Wilde.”
It’s hard to believe that this will be my final blog post for this class, the semester flew by, and just like that, I have one more year left of college. I went into this class not being 100% sure what to expect, only knowing that Wilde was one of the authors who I found fascinating, yet did not get to read about as much as I would have liked throughout the course of my English major. I’m Irish myself, by ancestry anyhow, and of course Wilde is held in high regard alongside names like Joyce and Yeats as one of the great Irish writers of all time. Furthermore, I always knew Wilde as a legendary figure within the LGBT community, one of the great martyrs who was essentially worked to death for expressing his sexuality. The more one reads of Wilde, the easier it is to lionize him, as he spoke and acted with perhaps unparalleled wit and humor, as Bosie said, his words were spoken with the confidence and intelligence of a pre-written speech.
I went into this course knowing Wilde as many things, a genius, a martyr, an icon, but I’m leaving it with a new understanding of Wilde as a man. Largely from reading the transcripts from his trials, and De Profundis, I realized the pedestal we place Wilde on, while understandably high, distorts who he was as a person and, though he likely wouldn’t like me connecting the two, as an artist. Through the non-fiction works in this course, I saw the many flaws Wilde carried with him, his arrogance, self-centeredness, and, at times, downright irresponsibility in the face of dire circumstances. I made no attempts to hide my frustration with him, for it seemed to me Wilde was a hypocrite, arguing he has a higher duty to art than anything else, then allowing his own artistic flame to be snuffed out for reasons I still do not fully comprehend. So many great artists have been taken from the world prematurely, that it angered me somewhat that Wilde essentially committed suicide by judge, refusing to leave the country when he had the opportunity, and not taking the court case for which his life depended all that seriously (though, to his credit, it likely would not have mattered much).
However, in my judgment of Wilde, I failed to see him as he was, holding him to a higher standard (one he set himself, but still) than is fair to him, I forgot that, at the end of the day, Oscar Wilde is just a man, and every man has a breaking point. The exhaustion that must come with keeping a secret like homosexuality must have been excruciating to Wilde, and it seems to me that it got to the point where he simply wanted it all to be over, one way or the other. In this way, Wilde, by acting how we would expect a character from one of his plays to act at his own trial, he is showing his true self. In the end, Wilde may have argued he was staying true to his art, and that may be true, but ultimately, he was being true to himself, and in that way, I believe it is possible to extract a glimmer of triumph from Wilde’s complete and utter defeat; all he had to do to survive was to put on a mask, and be a different person for a few hours, but he refused, allowing himself to be destroyed, but not defeated.
End of Semester Reflection
Upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion that my greatest lesson from this course is that a literary work is so much more enriching if the reader looks below its surface. Wilde’s writings have an incredibly entertaining and often humorous surface; however – after learning about his life and about how to more closely read his work – I have found that an intensely tragic subtext exists beneath this cheery exterior. Most of this deeper meaning seems to be influenced by Wilde’s continual struggle with his identity as his sexuality, Irishness, upper middle-class background, and interest in aestheticism made him an outsider in aristocratic, English society. Furthermore, I really enjoyed exploring elements of this subtext such as the themes of bunburying, fatal attraction, wearing a mask, etc. Reading these works without discussing these metaphorical themes would still be worthwhile (as Wilde’s whit and surface-level social commentary are so masterful that they warrant study), but I would argue that one would never be able to fully grasp these writings’ true significance because so much of their greater meaning is connected to these hidden themes. As a result, I now feel that examining a work through an autobiographical lens is a much more fruitful endeavor than I originally thought.
This semester’s coursework really helped me engage with this subtext in a more structured way. The blogs gave me the flexibility to more deeply engage with the aspects of the works that I was most interested in. They also allowed me to experiment with different interpretations of these hidden meanings, which provided me with a more holistic view of each work. Additionally, the final presentation/paper gave me the opportunity to more substantially examine one of these themes (fatal attraction) and engage with the scholarly/critical discussion surrounding this element of subtext. While my paper primarily focuses on Salomé, I enjoyed connecting my ideas to other works (ex: Gross Indecency) because this practice helped me to synthesize the class’ greater themes into a valuable final discussion.
Violence in Salomé￼
Salomé is unique to Wilde’s other pieces in its non-English setting and characters but also in the prevalence of violence. The two significant instances of such violence are the beheading of Jokanaan and the crushing to death of Salomé, and from an anticolonial reading of the text, both hold greater significance than just their deviation from Wilde’s typical style. Wilde’s lectures in the US drew heavily on his mother’s depictions of the dangers of English authority in Ireland In “Anticolonial Wilde,” Deglán Ó Donaghaile describes Wilde’s views on English violence saying, “English conquest of Ireland could be discerned through the ‘trail of blood’ left in its historical wake. Speranza described the colonization of Ireland as a psychological exercise as well as a military one” (40). The fact that Herod slips in blood in the play is a foreshadowing of the violence to come but also a recognition of the violence that already took place throughout history.
First considering the beheading of Jokanaan, it is important to note that this element comes from the original biblical story, “John the Baptist Beheaded.” While this was not one of the many additions Wilde made to the original story, it is indicative of Wilde’s anticolonial messages in the play and his choice to reimagine this specific biblical tale. John the Baptist was originally beheaded by King Herod at his daughter’s request, who was instructed to do so by her mother and King Herod’s wife, Herodias. Herod and his family rule Judea, and he is depicted as a monstrous figure in the Bible, attempting to have the infant Jesus killed earlier in the New Testament. However, the inclusion of Salomé holding the head of Jokanaan is one of Wilde’s many additions to the tale, and it functions to highlight the fascination and horror of the colonized other represented that Salomé represents as she revels in the violent beheading. In his book, Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History, Joseph Lennon discusses the phenomenon of “Irish Orientalism,” a method by which the Irish people reclaim discursive agency in discussions of English imperialism through the representation of other colonized peoples, specifically from Asia and the Middle East. Through his over-exaggeration of the violence in the biblical story, Wilde works within the European construction of the violent and passionate Orient to critique cultural expectations and justify Salomé’s horrific request because she is first objectified and condemned for her desires.
The death of Salomé holds multiple meanings as well. Herod condemns her monstrous desires, saying, “Kill that woman!” (Wilde 605). The soldiers then crush Salomé to death beneath their shields. By calling her “that woman” Herod re-inforces Salomé’s position as “the other” throughout the entire play. From a post-colonial perspective, especially considering the oriental tropes that surround Salomé’s character, her death by shield is symbolic of the violence against the “Celtic Other” by English imperial powers. Wilde portrays her as childish, unreasonable, and out of control, and the Irish people were portrayed by the English using similar descriptions which he refutes in his lectures in the United States. Rather than explicitly condemn the violence of English imperialism in the play, Wilde again works within stereotypes against colonized peoples to demonstrate that the dangerous and reductive construction of the “Celtic Other” is actually a greater reflection of the English than the Irish.
Working with Wilde
Sitting down to write this final post, I was thinking about how the idea of a dedicated course to Oscar Wilde almost necessarily belies his own adage that the art is separate from the artist. The project of studying one author, for a whole semester and over the course of their work and its changes and nuances over time, begs questions of context, continuity, and change in the life of the artist himself — what developments in their life changed and influenced their work? For Wilde in particular it feels extremely hard to separate the two, thinking, as we have in class, about the way the course of his life feels prefigured in almost every work we read. I of course have been most interested in Wilde’s complicated identity as an Irishman in Victorian England. For me Dorian Gray, “The Happy Prince,” and “The Nightingale and the Rose” index his complicated understanding of himself as an Irishman, from a particularly Anglo-Irish vantage point and informed by the consolidations of Irish culture being performed by the Ascendancy class at the time. But there are so many facets of his identity to read into these works and each allows us to stake some different claim on how they influenced, changed, or structured his work.
My favorite part of class then was totally separate from any of the work I did on my own; I loved learning how everyone thought of Wilde differently and read his texts differently. And, of course, that is true for most of literature, that each person has a unique and personally subjective reading, but it feels especially poignant in a class on Wilde — his person and works were calculated to defy definition and be contradictory, despite the fact that everyone wants to put Wilde in particular boxes. To then have a class dedicated to sharing, discussing, and perhaps disagreeing on what versions and readings of Wilde they see, feels like the best way to tease out the fullest vision of Wilde you could, to try on all the various Wildes for a text. Returning to the preface to Dorian Gray, because Wilde always seems to be contextualized by his own text, Wilde writes that “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde, 17). To take Wilde at his word for once, our engagement with and diversity of opinions about the works we read for class seems indicative of the lasting influence, interest, and vitality of Wilde’s works. That they continue to ask interesting questions of us and the author. That, to Professor Kinyon’s framing of the class towards Modernism, they seem to help usher in an era of text that grounds itself in subjectivity and that exact difficulty of definition. They are as complex and interesting as the author himself.
So by way of an inconclusive conclusion, I think the best way to read Wilde is to allow for contradiction, to let that be an organizing thought, rather than trying to pin him to one thing. Then, instead of frustration, you can marvel at the multiplicity, allow yourself to be confused, allow his works to be classist and attune to prison reform (and be critical of that), see how they critique Bosie and not himself, and allow his work to be both funny and biting, charming and tragic, without losing either. Holding all those together is the balancing act of reading Wilde to his fullest, and from this class and with everyone in it, I think we’ve been able to accomplish something pretty close. It’s been a wonderful, stimulating semester.