A common thread in Wilde’s work, especially his plays, is a distaste for marriage. Wilde’s “clever” characters often criticize the triviality or unhappiness of marriage while praising the art of romance. These characters describe marriage as the end of emotional attachment and the beginning of a tedious and constricting relationship.
For example, when Jack tells Algernon of his plans to marry Gwendolen, Algernon laments that this will ruin the romance between them, saying “there is nothing romantic in proposing” and characterizing marriage as “business.” He champions the uncertainty of romance as its chief appeal and notes that marriage destroys uncertainty. In An Ideal Husband, marriage is talked about as something that can succeed or fail in being fashionable. Married minor characters complain about the dullness of their spouses and comment on the optics of other marriages, while unmarried couples are praised for their artistic romance. Even in Dorian Gray, marriage is depicted as a social expectation rather than an emotional commitment. Harry and his wife divorce after years of happily ignoring one another. Marriage creates a false exterior of emotional commitment that poorly hides the detached relationship between spouses.
Given Wilde’s mocking depictions of marriage, I wonder what Wilde truly thought of marriage as an institution, and if that view was influenced by his attraction to men. Though married himself, Wilde’s work may suggest that he saw marriage as a failed institution. This is not to say that his own marriage was unhappy; rather, he found the rules of marriage tedious and suffocating. Considering his extramarital affairs, he may have seen marriage as failing to encompass all passions and romances and purposefully removed passion from marriage in his work. The most passionate relationships that Wilde writes about seem to be outside of marriage (for example, Basil’s commitment to Dorian or Tommy’s repeated proposals to Mabel). Wilde’s attitude towards marriage could be frustration with society’s rigid social structures that made no room for same-sex passions or even heterosexual extramarital affairs.