When I signed up for this class, I did not know much about Wilde’s life. I knew that he had been arrested and sent to prison for gross indecency. I knew that he was Irish. I was familiar with much of his fiction, but not with his essays. I didn’t know how frequently and deliberately Wilde wrote essays. I didn’t know who Bosie was. I didn’t know that Wilde tried to shed his Irishness once reaching England. After taking this class, I feel as if I have a greater appreciation for Wilde’s writing because I better understand Wilde’s life.
My final paper is focused on Wilde’s trial and the way in which both his life/identity and his art were directly related the trial. I am interested in that topic because two of my main academic interests are art and law. I’ve been involved with theatre throughout my life and am currently the executive producer for a Shakespeare company at Notre Dame. I’ve always been really interested in the process of how art is created and, in particular, how it is understood once it is released into the world. For that reason, the complicated way in which we understand Wilde’s writing really interested me. It is possible to read Wilde in two distinct ways. We can read him as a queer author writing to mask his identity or we can read him as an aesthetic who devoted his life and art to beauty. However, I think that this class has made clear that we should not isolate these sides of Wilde. Rather, they interact with and inform each other. That is why I wanted to focus on the way in which Wilde’s art was used in his trial for my final paper.
Through that research, I found that it was clear which scholars were more interested in Wilde from an artistic angle and which were more interested in him from a queer identity angle. I found that line to be interesting because even though they clearly had a preference, scholars typically acknowledged Wilde’s complexity. One article that I use in my paper–Literature on the Dock: The Trials of Oscar Wilde by Morris Kaplan–reads, “it was his writing as much as his conduct that got him in trouble” (113). Wilde’s writing was considered subversive even if it was read without a queer lens, so it made sense that his writing would prove problematic in a trial setting.
When I started researching for my paper, my assumption was that Wilde’s art and his sexuality were two distinct forces that both existed and both impacted his life and trial, but that they were not closely related. However, the more that I researched, the more I found that they are intricately connected. Because Wilde’s views of art were so consuming, it is impossible to isolate his life and identity from his art. I found this dynamic to be particularly interesting because it complicates the common narratives on Wilde. In general, I think that complication when it comes to questions like this is a good thing because it acknowledges the complexities within each person. It was challenging for me to include the connection between Wilde’s life and art in my argument at the beginning of the writing process, but now that I have a completed draft, I feel as if that is a more fair way to study his life.
I think that we are in a unique situation because we can see the way in which Wilde likely would have wanted to be remembered or interpreted through what he emphasizes in his writing, but we also have a history of Wilde being understood to be a queer icon, which is a status that he would not have been able to imagine. That puts us in an interesting spot because I don’t think that we are required or even should understand a person based on how they want to be understood, but I do think that it is valuable to acknowledge how they understood themselves as a way to broaden perspective.
As I reflect on the semester, I am happy to say that this class has made me not only reflect on Wilde specifically but also on art and history in general. I’ve thought a lot about what responsibility we have to people from the past when we study them and try to understand them. I can’t say that I have a clear answer, but it has informed the way in which I prepare for history papers in other classes because I’m thinking more about the uniqueness of the people involved in each moment.