Oscar Wilde: Class and Morality

While thinking about my final paper topic, I found myself thinking a lot about morality and social classes in terms of Oscar Wilde and his works. We came across morality with The Picture of Dorian Gray through the corruption of Dorian Gray as well as the characters of Basil Hallward and Lord Henry. Also with these characters, we were able to see Wilde’s perspective on the differences of social class, with Hallward representing a certain innocence and artistry of the lower class whereas Lord Henry of the higher class indulged in hedonism and actively corrupted Gray. The Importance of Being Earnest once more offered Wilde’s commentary on class through the portrayal of Jack and Lady Bracknell. Along with the snobbish arrogance they carried as members of the higher class, Wilde imbued a pretentiousness and the injustice of class as a whole. The characters of Gwendolen and Cecily are also mocked by Wilde as he ridicules them and their characters as superficial and ignorant. He derides the upper class by exaggerating their fixation and enjoyment of superficialities such as style or food. Through De Profundis, we once more see this entitlement and hedonism through Wilde’s portrayal of Lord Alfred Douglas. He also mentions Douglas’s mother extensively in convincingly creating this image of Douglas. As shown through his two works, as well as De Profundis, there is a certain obsession Oscar Wilde carries with hedonism and arrogance, especially concerning the wealthy upper class that he is always eager to shun. It seems that his works utilize the portrayals of certain characteristics he sees in the upper class heavily to show larger themes of morality and ethics; as a whole, these works do actively illustrate Wilde’s own mentality on the subject.

One thought on “Oscar Wilde: Class and Morality”

  1. This is an interesting post, and it reminds me of our discussions of the biographies of Wilde in the introduction to our edition of the book. In the introduction written by Merlin Holland, he talks about how Wilde manufactured he’s “dandy” identity and tried to perform ambivalence and frivolity about his studies and work. Wilde “was at pains to cultivate this image of creative idleness… he like to pose as a dilettante trifling with his books” (2). It’s interesting to think about how his perspective on class changed throughout his life, specifically his own class status. I agree with you that in De Profundis Wilde criticizes Bosie’s superficiality and overindulgence and associates it with his obsession with class status. However, this was the very identity Wilde himself tried to present just a few decades before. We could see a bit of self-recognition and growth as Wilde writes during his time in prison, but at the same time, he desperately tries to distinguish himself from the other prisoners, and even from the young men involved in his trial. While Wilde is ultimately critical of the members of high class society, specifically Bosie and his family, he is still deeply classist himself, and he falls in this strange space of disidentification with either side of the social class binary.

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