As I go back to the earlier parts of the semester, I remembered that my ambition for this class was to study the works of a renowned writer in hopes to gain some insight into the process of writing and the “art” of writing. However, I found myself unable to study his actual methods of writing, mainly because of the depth his works carried. As the semester progressed and we learned more about the character of Wilde as well as his experiences, I found myself looking for these pieces and fragments within his works. There was a bit of a wake up call; as I have only studied a few of Wilde’s works before this course, I only saw him as a masterful writer and artist. As we delved deeper into his character and his history, I found myself disillusioned with Wilde, as much of his arrogance and reckless nature was shown, especially in the later texts we studied.
I did find myself fascinated by Wilde’s utilization of social class as a theme. I think I noticed this theme heavily with The Picture of Dorian Gray and first started to get interested through the novel. Soon after reading The Importance of Being Earnest, I had already decided that this theme would be the topic of my final paper. I thought it was beautiful how Wilde satirized the reality of this caste system of the Victorian era; he also seemed to offer his own opinions on the respective classes and the tendencies each carried. I wanted to really get into the deeper roots of his commentary and found myself looking for similarities in his other works that we looked at closer to the end of the semester. Although my paper focuses on the aforementioned texts, I am still eager to research and delve into other texts to find more outlets of comparison.
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.
I found myself wondering what Oscar Wilde would think about our current state of society in regards to LGBTQ rights after reading this play. As the play itself is set in the very late 19th century, when homosexuality was illegal, we see quite directly, an accurate depiction of the trails against homosexuality and the views society carried for individuals that were homosexual. While society has made many strides in regards to justice for the homosexual community, as evidenced by the accounts and details of the play, the story of Oscar Wilde also acts as a reminder that we still involve our own prejudices and judgement towards the lives of individuals in our society quite unfairly. Along with such, I thought the play also acted as a vessel that showed us more about the character of Wilde. As much as Wilde was a resolute individual that supported his own self and the “status” of homosexuality, he also brought great deals of pain and misfortune to others. Lord Alfred Douglas, a former lover of Wilde, would be a prime example of such. The play overall along with the character of Wilde had me wondering just where the boundaries lay in terms of carrying a purpose. As much as Wilde was a victim of a blasphemous law that persecuted homosexuals, he also carried a sense of determination that ended up harming those around him. If anything, the play was a question as a whole, one that had me asking just what the boundaries or stakes were in terms of fighting for justice. It seems unfair for me to criticize the actions of someone struggling through something I could never fathom, but thinking about those that were affected by his fight for freedom forces me to empathize to certain degrees.
It’s interesting reading Oscar Wilde’s Salome as we see once more, a theme of physical attractiveness and beauty. There has been a similar theme with The Picture of Dorian Gray in the sense that Gray carries an obsession with preserving his beautiful physical appearance. However, there lies a difference in the direction of the plot and such themes, as Salome carries a much darker lesson/theme of finding pleasure in viewing or looking at beauty. There is a revolution of this theme, with Syrian and Herod’s somewhat sickening lust for Salome which ultimately results in Syrian’s own suicide as well as Herod’s fall as well as murder of Salome. Salome’s obsession with Jokanaan also depicts a similar obsession with viewing and physical obsession. It seems that Wilde is criticizing the action or tendency to view others; finding pleasure in viewing others is often what brings a character’s downfall in this story. Perhaps such is a reflection of his own experience as a homosexual man living in a publicized life. It seems that Wilde is warning against the action of looking; it makes us wonder whether Wilde was warning against what seems to be a harmless activity anyone, homosexuals and heterosexuals alike, could take part in. Wilde writes, “Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks.” Such once again, accentuates this warning against “viewing.” As a whole, the text of Salome, along with Oscar Wilde and his history, portrays the dangers of looking as the action of looking could very well, in many cases, result in much more for such a harmless act.
With The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde presents a satirical commentary on the arrogance and privilege of the aristocrats. He utilizes several characters throughout the play to portray this arrogance and snobbish entitlement including Jack and Lady Bracknell. Throughout the play, there is a clear sense of pretentiousness amongst the upper class; these characters hold the thought that they are deserving of their current status and the higher position they sit on. The lower class on the other hand, are characterized, much like Hallward of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as humble and honest. In a way, the entire plot that is centered around Jack’s ambitions to marry into the upper class, demonstrates a hypocrisy that shuns and berates the upper class. With the character of Lady Bracknell, Wilde portrays the harsh reality of an immovable class system and mocks the higher class and its arrogance. Bracknell states, “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” Such seems to reflect Wilde’s own commentary on social class and education; the harsh truth is that education, or any real doings in daily life do not affect social class. Bracknell was born into her higher class and Wilde highlights the injustice behind such entry into her social station along with the impossibility of moving towards the higher classes. Gwendolen and Cecily are also subject to such mockery on Wilde’s part, as he repeatedly paints them as superficial and ignorant. He ridicules the upper class by exaggerating their obsession with superficialities such as style or food. Their obsession with such demonstrates the shallowness of the upper class quite clearly on Wilde’s part.
The Picture of Dorian Gray leaves us with a rather tragic ending. In a sense, there is no real sense of an ending other than the relatively expected demise of Dorian Gray. We are left with most of the main characters of the novel either dead or corrupted morally beyond fixation. Both Sybill and Basil Hallward are left dead by the corruption and degradation of Gray; they both end up as victims of his demise. In a sense, the ending of The Picture of Dorian Gray is quite bleak and without much of anything close to a happy ending. But perhaps Wilde was insinuating much more with the ultimate death of Dorian Gray. While his character does end up dying at the end of the novel, we are given an image of the untainted picture. The text reads, “When they entered they found, hanging upon the wall, a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage” (Gray 159). The physical Dorian Gray, who had corrupted beautifully and completely, confronts the realization of his sins and his wrongdoings; he attempts to destroy the painting in a burst of horror and regret over just how far his soul has corrupted. While such ultimately leads to his death, perhaps Wilde was utilizing this demise to show that the only true way Gray could return to his untainted, beautiful state, was through death or even, through death by his own hands. Although there is not many signs that point to anything other than a tragic ending for this work, there is respite among the fact that Gray accounts for his sins and ultimately, through his own passing at his own hands, his soul returns to the pure state it once was.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, highlights/stresses Wilde’s own views on the concept of morality and ethics with a careful characterization of Lord Henry and Basil Hallward. There are distinct characteristics that create the aforementioned figures and it’s obvious that Lord Henry and Basil Hallward carry very different qualities. Lord Henry places much emphasis on the idea of pleasure and happiness, sometimes even skewing this idea/definition of happiness, as he influences the morals and viewpoints of Gray. He also distorts the idea of happiness by subtly connecting it with beauty and youth. In other words, Lord Henry interconnects pleasure and beauty while replacing the idea of happiness and morality with such ideas. He states, “Pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about,” he answered in his slow melodious voice. “But I am afraid I cannot claim my theory as my own. It belongs to Nature, not to me. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.” Lord Henry influences Gray with this hedonistic mindset throughout the novel, one that Hallward is uneasy about. The character of Basil Hallward represents a different look on morality. He is wary of Henry’s cynicism and his influence on Gray and actively voices such concerns. Where Hallward’s sense of morality falters is with his obsession with beauty. He carries a belief in the symbiotism of good and beauty, one that borders on ignorance and such is shown by his continued trust that Dorian Gray’s outwardly beautiful nature represents goodness and ethicality. Hallward states, “mind you, I don’t believe these rumours at all. At least, I can’t believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.” Such ignorance or refusal to believe that one could be corrupted and immoral ultimately leads to his abrupt demise.
Morality and ethics have been a common theme throughout Wilde’s works, as seen in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and even in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Especially with the story of Lord Arthur Saville, there is an atrocious lack of morality and remorse. Such lack of remorse and lack of consequences even after a murder are hid behind the idea of faith and purity. In a sense, because of his knowledge of his own fate, he sees that there is no possible solution but to carry out the action of murder so that he can continue a pure and unhindered life after marriage. Murder is an immoral action without question; however, Wilde offers the curious question of predestination and the effects of such. Convinced of his own fate, Saville commits what can be skewed as a just or at the very least, a merciful action. Wilde also adds in the important element of the “lie.” The action of murder and the determination to fulfill one’s fate was built upon a lie; such brings to question who is truly at fault. It’s interesting that Wilde leaves Saville unpunished for the act of murder and rather, supplies him with a happy ending abundant with family. On the other hand, Mr. Podgers is left as a victim of murder with no real indication of justice. While the one that had commited murder suffered no consequences and was given a happy ending, the one that had influenced the murder was left deceased with no hope for justice. Wilde seems to point at causation as the malevolent. Another interpretation of the story is centered around the theme of social class. It’s safe to assume that Saville does not belong to the lower class. He is entertained at parties and fashions a happy life with a wife and children. Perhaps Wilde was utilizing his character to point towards the uncomfortable truth that those of higher classes were able to commit immoral acts with no real consequences or repercussions.
With a stylistic approach to the interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s works, it’s possible to see the true talent, as well as cynicism, of his character. The poems are very well written, although I wouldn’t rank them as equal in terms of quality with his novels or plays just because if anything, his works are very highly set bars in terms of writing. However, the cynicism and the dark, somewhat depressing tone and image of his poems are apparent. Hélas reads, “Is that time dead? Lo! With a little rod I did but touch the honey of romance – And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?” Fitting with the definition of Hélas (grief), the writing also conveys this dark mood throughout. And much of the darkness is an aid to just how beautifully crafted the language of his poetry is. For example, “We loitered down the moonlit street,” and “Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed A phantom lover to her breast,” all resonate deeply and sonically. The quality of Wilde’s writing stays immaculate, even when he tries his hand at various forms of literature and art.
I was decently surprised by the form Wilde took on with his poetry; while I expected a more free flowing narrative style, I was surprised by how sternly he kept to a specific rhyme and his specific form. More than an artistic approach to poetry that relies on the reader’s perceptiveness/perception of the senses and a capacity to create portrayals of the imagery the author utilizes, Wilde kept close to a structure that seemed, in a way, old fashioned and authentic. In The Harlot’s House, he keeps true to a specific rhyme scheme throughout, and consistently comes back to this form. My expectations were somewhat upended mainly because I believed his approach to poetry would be a lot more free form and image heavy.