I registered for this course never having read Oscar Wilde’s works, and my main association with Wilde was his queerness. My first introduction to Wilde was in the context of a critical piece on “the closet” and how “the love that dare not speak its name” is coded in literature. For the first few weeks, I could not help but look for clues to Wilde’s queer identity in all of the works we read, despite the fact that our modern understanding of homosexuality is anachronistic to Wilde’s time. However, it was only during Abby’s discussion on The Happy Prince short stories that I really recognized the complexities in looking for meaning, both personal and artistic, in Wilde’s writing. I’ve been reading Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney recently, and the same day we discussed Wilde’s short stories, I came across a passage that fit perfectly with some of the complexities of his authorship that we touched on in class. One of the four main characters of the book is an author who discusses the issues that arise with her growing notoriety. She asks:
What is the relationship of the famous author to their famous books anyway? … what do the books gain by being attached to me, my face, my mannerisms, in all their demoralizing specificity? Nothing. It makes me miserable, keeps me away from the one thing in my life that has any meaning, contributes nothing to the public interest, satisfies only the basest and most prurient curiosities on the part of the readers, and serves to arrange literary discourse entirely around the domineering figure of ‘the author’ (Rooney 60).
While I do think there is value to studying an author alongside their work, this passage made me question how to read Wilde’s works without trying to find pieces of his personal life in them. Particularly in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H,” Wilde meditates on the relationship between two friends as the ultimate form of love describing, “the Platonic conception of love as nothing if not spiritual, and of beauty as a form that finds its immortality within the lover’s soul” (325). My first instinct was to read this passage as a hint of Wilde’s queer relationships, but when separating Wilde’s identity from this passage, it can instead be read as a reflection on sociology and how this platonic ideal of friendship was lost in Wilde’s time.
One thought on “Searching for the Artist in the Art”
This question you bring up of how much to consider the personal life of Wilde when interpreting his work is one that I have really been struggling with, though I haven’t taken a literary theory class of any kind so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. I agree that criticism that includes studying an author alongside their work is valuable, but I think it can be separated from criticism that focuses solely on textual evidence. As you mention, these different methods have the potential to give us drastically different interpretations. I think studying Wilde in a historical context and understanding the impact his work had broadly on society and especially on queer representation and experience, can be understood separately from studying his work in terms of pure literary value and writing skill. The author doesn’t necessarily intend to write themselves and their relationships into their work – they might be making more general statements like you mentioned about sociology or lost platonic ideals. The waters of author intention are quite murky in my opinion, since the only hard evidence we really have in many cases is the work itself. Studying Wilde’s literature on its own still has value, even though inserting Wilde’s personality into the work might add dimension, because regardless of the specific events of Wilde’s life or his intentions, his work is demonstrative of a drastically changing time period and shows us the impact of these changing times on art.