Oscar Wilde and The Fallacy of Martyrdom

I really enjoyed the unique blend of fiction and literary criticism in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”. The reflections about the art of acting were really interesting, and I enjoyed learning a little bit about the history of British theater. The line that stood out most to me was when the narrator explains that, “Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true” (1201). This statement is situated at the end of the story when the narrator criticizes Erskine’s and Cyril’s deception by “the pathetic fallacy of martyrdom,” which refers to the fact that they believed that they were dying in the name of truth (1201). I thought that this critique of sacrificing life for belief could be ironic considering Wilde’s own history. This short story was written in 1889, which is about six years before Wilde would be unjustly imprisoned because of his sexual identity. I am no expert in this matter; however, from what we have discussed in class, Wilde had the opportunity to flee and avoid the stress of hard labor that most assuredly contributed to his death a few years after being released from prison. However, Wilde refused to escape and pleaded not guilty – even though his sexual relationship with men was widely known. In this way, one could view Wilde’s decision to stay in England and to be put on trial as an act of martyrdom for his family’s honor. There is no real way to know if Wilde wished to be heteronormative, but the phrase “what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true” is interesting in this context. Could this statement be a subtle reflection of Oscar Wilde’s struggle to accept his non-normative sexual identity? Wilde lived in a society that was obviously very anti-LGBTQ, so it would be easy to see how Wilde could be pressured to become ashamed of his identity and conceal it at all costs.  

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