Working with Wilde

Sitting down to write this final post, I was thinking about how the idea of a dedicated course to Oscar Wilde almost necessarily belies his own adage that the art is separate from the artist. The project of studying one author, for a whole semester and over the course of their work and its changes and nuances over time, begs questions of context, continuity, and change in the life of the artist himself — what developments in their life changed and influenced their work?  For Wilde in particular it feels extremely hard to separate the two, thinking, as we have in class, about the way the course of his life feels prefigured in almost every work we read. I of course have been most interested in Wilde’s complicated identity as an Irishman in Victorian England. For me Dorian Gray, “The Happy Prince,” and “The Nightingale and the Rose” index his complicated understanding of himself as an Irishman, from a particularly Anglo-Irish vantage point and informed by the consolidations of Irish culture being performed by the Ascendancy class at the time. But there are so many facets of his identity to read into these works and each allows us to stake some different claim on how they influenced, changed, or structured his work. 

My favorite part of class then was totally separate from any of the work I did on my own; I loved learning how everyone thought of Wilde differently and read his texts differently. And, of course, that is true for most of literature, that each person has a unique and personally subjective reading, but it feels especially poignant in a class on Wilde — his person and works were calculated to defy definition and be contradictory, despite the fact that everyone wants to put Wilde in particular boxes. To then have a class dedicated to sharing, discussing, and perhaps disagreeing on what versions and readings of Wilde they see, feels like the best way to tease out the fullest vision of Wilde you could, to try on all the various Wildes for a text. Returning to the preface to Dorian Gray, because Wilde always seems to be contextualized by his own text, Wilde writes that “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde, 17). To take Wilde at his word for once, our engagement with and diversity of opinions about the works we read for class seems indicative of the lasting influence, interest, and vitality of Wilde’s works. That they continue to ask interesting questions of us and the author. That, to Professor Kinyon’s framing of the class towards Modernism, they seem to help usher in an era of text that grounds itself in subjectivity and that exact difficulty of definition. They are as complex and interesting as the author himself. 

So by way of an inconclusive conclusion, I think the best way to read Wilde is to allow for contradiction, to let that be an organizing thought, rather than trying to pin him to one thing. Then, instead of frustration, you can marvel at the multiplicity, allow yourself to be confused, allow his works to be classist and attune to prison reform (and be critical of that), see how they critique Bosie and not himself, and allow his work to be both funny and biting, charming and tragic, without losing either. Holding all those together is the balancing act of reading Wilde to his fullest, and from this class and with everyone in it, I think we’ve been able to accomplish something pretty close. It’s been a wonderful, stimulating semester.

Profound Blindness in De Profundis

I appreciated hearing everyone else’s opinions of De Profundis this week in class. I tend to get bogged down in the sadness and the tragedy, particularly in this part of Wilde’s story, and ignore the other parts of the piece — those that are confusing or contradictory.  Though tragic and self-reflective, yes, it’s still important to interrogate how much Wilde really owns his faults and takes upon himself the moral revolution he seems to be outlining in this piece, rather than falling into the trap of martyrdom that even he seems to be outlining for himself. What does he recognize as his own faults or wrongs and what does he lay instead at the feet of Bosie or even the aesthetic lifestyle more broadly? It’s kind of amazing that a text can be both so self-reflective and blind at the same time. Revisiting some of the lines about prophecy from my last post, Wilde writes that he doesn’t regret the life he lived for pleasure, but that a change from that lifestyle was necessary: “I don’t regret for a single moment having lived a life for pleasure. … But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting, I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also” (1026).  In this depiction of his aesthetic life, there is no explicit remorse — in fact there is an explicit lack of remorse and rather a desire for novelty, new experience. He is detailing an almost natural passing from one extreme of life to another, as if he is suggesting: what better way to really appreciate aestheticism than to experience its opposite, and then know its highs all the more? This attitude, the desire for a novelty of experience (that still feels strongly informed by aestheticism) instead of a remorse for the destruction created by his aesthetic life, feels particularly poignant when considered within the context of the fall-out of Wilde’s immediate family and the way he maintained his relationship to Bosie even after denouncing him in the text. Did he really learn from these experiences or make any lasting change? Further, in a text that seems to release the mask of Wilde the contradictory, performative author, there still is that note of contradiction that suggests instead a Wilde that didn’t know himself very well. What is revelation, what is denial? He writes at one point that “most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live” (1034).  It’s a classic Wilde one-liner in a sense, and contains what feels like a real, valuable, easily palatable  insight into how we should live life. But in the tone that De Profundis is written and, as it is a criticism leveled at Bosie, this revelation seems to beg an extra line about Wilde, something recognizing how he too lived, almost grossly at times, for love and admiration as much as anyone else — the lack of such a line feels, frankly, ridiculous given the project of this letter. The text is littered with these aphorisms about life, nature, and Christ, but they are without the bite of satire, without the cut of self-awareness. What then do his “one-liners” from De Profundis even say? Or, to return to my usual focus on tragedy, does this all just serve to highlight once more, and sort of finally, another aspect of the tragedy of Wilde’s life. That perhaps he was unmoored from self-hood when faced with the realities of prison, that even in this stripped down moment, he maintained a pervasive, and tragic, lack of self-knowledge. 

The Power of Prophecy

It’s hard not to feel the depth of sadness that pervades “De Profundis.” Like we’ve been talking about in class the whole semester, there is a sense of mythologized, perfect tragedy to Wilde’s life in popular culture. “De Profundis,” however, feels like a particularly personal look into that tragedy — it’s not Wilde’s literature made for public consumption at this point, but a reflective space for Wilde to explore and express how he’s changed, the wrongs of his life, the dehumanization of the prison experience, to his abusive lover. One of the most quoted (and misquoted at that) lines that I know of from this piece is the declaration: “with freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy” (1039). Taken out of context, this line prescribes a moving, charming sort of carefree, simple, earthy, artistic appreciation of life.  But that section of the text begins with “If after I go out” (1039), framing Wilde’s new outlook on life by his imprisonment and removal from freedom, books, flowers, and the moon. It’s an ode to what he now recognizes he misses and cannot have, not a light-hearted prescription for how to live life. Taking the particular contexts of Wilde’s writing this letter into account, this letter is a much more intimate space of Wilde’s writing and gives, what feels like, an even more immediate sense of the author than many of his other texts, witticisms, and one-liners, a much deeper appreciation of the deep nuances of his sadness and self-searching. 

One aspect of this text in particular that lends itself to the pervasive sense of tragedy and personal-destruction is Wilde’s attention to prophecy, predestination, and fate throughout the whole work. Wilde’s sense of predestination and prophecy in “De Profundis” is informed by his relationship to art and to his own works. He writes that “Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy. For every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image. Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy.” (1032) Such personal revelations as these make it feel particularly hard to separate Wilde’s works from the tragedy of his life.  Earlier in the letter Wilde writes that he doesn’t regret the life he lived for pleasure, but that a change from that lifestyle was necessary: “I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also. Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my art. Some of it is in ‘The Happy Prince’: …. a great deal is hidden away in the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray.” (1026) Wilde was aware of the way his writings spoke to the tragedy his life had become.  It is worthwhile to wonder if Wilde is rereading these tragedies into his works, as we do, because of the way his life turned out, or if it was all truly as inevitable as he seems, in jail, to feel it was — that no matter what a change was going to come, the thread of Doom was inescapable.  If every human being is the fulfillment of a prophecy, it begs the question, what prophecy did Wilde have in mind for himself, what was he fulfilling by his ruin and reform in jail? Was it the destruction of who lived only for art, a narrative many of his works seem to suggest? Or something about the realization of a deep set self-hatred from years of forced sexual masking? Regardless, at the end of the section on foreshadowing in his works, Wilde writes that “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol” (1026) and there could be no truer words for Wilde’s life and works — that the art became a symbol because the man, the artist, became, or maybe always was, a symbol first.

Identifying and Orientalism

I did not enjoy Salomé when I first read it. Something about it felt spare and maybe stilted compared to the other Wilde pieces we’ve been looking at this semester that come off as so quintessentially Wilde — it doesn’t tease and taunt the reader in the same way. Upon closer inspection, however, and after talking it over in class, Salomé does seem just as elusive and nuanced as other Wilde works. I especially appreciated the way our conversations about Orientalism and Wilde’s queerness intersected in this play, conflating the two ways of thinking about subversive or non-normative identities. Wilde taps into a particular, sexualized narrative of the biblically unnamed Salome, using tropes of the East to heighten her sexuality for the play, while also giving her a dark sense of agency.  A lot of this hinges on her outward expressions of her desire for Jokanaan. In response to her advances, Jokanaan calls Salomé, “‘the wanton! The harlot! Ah! The daughter of Babylon with her golden eyes and gilded eyelids’” (596). His attention to her gilded eyelids seems particularly significant here, as tied to her sexuality, as they suggest a sort of rich, outlandish otherness, resonant of other Orientalist descriptions of “heavy-lidded foreigners” and the like, a description that fits with the visual tradition and artistic representation that exists for this story, presenting similarly gilded Salomés as we looked at in class.  The Beardsley illustrations go even further to solidify the engagement with these narratives of Otherness. Though made independently of Wilde’s influence, Beardsley’s illustrations also use styles and imagery from Eastern cultures (as an extraordinarily broad and nuanced grouping) to represent hyper-sexualized, gender-ambiguous, and bizarre figures as a response to Wilde’s text and narrative. The use of the exotic and the other allows both men a space to explore and represent the other in different ways, bending gender representations and sexual expectations. 

It is interesting then to try to parse the ethics of such an engagement in Orientalism on Wilde’s part, considering his own multiple marginalized identities, being Irish and queer.  Clearly a focus on the Other, and the pronounced difference and exoticism of Eastern cultures, allows Wilde access what he feels is a useful dichotomy for presenting other sorts of differences, a relationship similar to that which Kiberd articulates in his article, about the reciprocal constructing of Irishness and Englishness, defining the self as what the other is not — the same is happening in this play and is what allows us a queer reading of the narrative. However, just because Wilde can understand being the cultural or sexual other in England, does that give him the license to so egregiously use another Other, another binary, to think around the dynamics of his own marginalized identities?  I do think there is a way to think about Wilde’s particular Orientalism, as informed by his own place amongst “others,” as different from those within an English heteronormativity doing the same, but that doesn’t mean his use of Orientalist tropes is in any way above critique (plus it happens in a lot of his other works, beyond just Salomé). Salomé still feels distinctly different from Wilde’s other plays, but it’s easier to see now how it functions in a particular way to allow him a different sort of identity exploration, one that hinges on constructions of the East.

Reading Into Identity

After our class conversation on Wednesday, I do think I look at The Importance of Being Earnest a little differently. Not that my earlier readings of the play, as a critique of Victorian society and a commentary on Englishness, have any less valence, but that there is an expanded sense of what the play speaks to, sitting more directly within the full nexus of Wilde’s identities. My first instinct, when reading Wilde, isn’t to focus on the queer aspects of his narratives, favoring instead his aestheticism and the Irish/English aspects of his works. But Colm Tobin’s piece helped me to see, even more, how each of those aspects of Wilde inform each other as a part of his whole person — particularly in The Importance of Being Earnest. The hidden identities that both men take on, the secret lives they lead, become particularly poignant in light of Wilde’s struggles with his identity and the way he shrugged them on and off — adding that tinge of darkness amongst the humor and social jibes.  As Tobin aptly puts: “The problem about all of Wilde’s work, but his plays especially, is that they are forced to compete with the drama of his own last years” (Tobin, 71). The heightened, though comic, drama of mistaken identity and misreading in the play then becomes a way of reading Wilde as well, for good or ill, and the play’s final lesson about the certain inevitableness of being earnest, suggests the then inevitable outcome of Wilde’s life, that there is an inescapable truth of self that comes to the fore no matter what you do, or perhaps despite it.   

Tobin sums Wilde up well at the close of his piece: “The personal became political because an Irishman in London pushed his luck. He remains a vivid presence in the world one hundred years after his death. He played out the role of the tragic queer. He was witty, the greatest talker of his generation, skilled in the art-of the one-liner, the quick aside. But he was also untrustworthy and he was doomed” (Tobin, 84). Such a long string of adages seem necessary to fully encompass the life and tragedy of such a dynamic figure and there is no better space to locate that attempt than in Wilde’s work itself, throwing away all pretense that the art doesn’t reflect the artist.  (When I initially wrote this last line, I wrote Wilde’s work himself, as opposed to itself… a mistake, but a rather apt one for showing how easy it is to conflate the art and the artist — in a large sense, Wilde today is in fact his work.)

Wilde’s Wit – Winsome or Tiresome?

Professor Kinyon said the other day that she was getting a little tired of the witticisms while reading so much Wilde back to back and I think with The Importance of Being Earnest I have finally, almost, also gotten to that point. They are unceasing to say the least and I’ve almost reached Wilde burn out!  Despite the seeming tirelessness of Wilde’s wit however, there is something equally tirelessly charming about The Importance of Being Earnest that staves off my burnout, just a little. It feels distinct from An Ideal Husband, though both deal with aspects of marriage and miscommunication.  I’ve read The Importance of Being Earnest once before for another class and one important aspect of this play, especially thinking about Wilde and the way he thinks of identity, is the representation of stage Englishness, as opposed to stage Irishness, which we’ve talked about in class and does a little to connect the two plays. Most of the ridiculousness of the play functions on the naturally ridiculous things about society, English high society in particular, from customs of dress to customs of eating and visiting — and of course the witticisms are important for drawing out exactly what is so ridiculous about those customs, painting the whims and foibles of the English upper echelon.    

Examples of the critique Wilde is leveling at the English are apparent in the interactions between Algernon and Jack, and their tiff towards the play’s end in particular.  Algernon has spoiled Jack’s Earnest ruse and Jack is understandably upset at his friend, but the argument is carried out primarily through muffins over tea-time and Algernon (the non-Earnest Earnest) is the source of much of the wit. Jack tells Algernon “How can you sit there calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble… You seem to me perfectly heartless” (403). Algernon replies sagely: “Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly” (403) to which Jack very maturely responds by taking away the muffins. By placing such a ridiculous back-and-forth between the two men, taking muffins from each other and slinging insults, in a setting setting that is so quintessentially English as tea, makes the deeply socially ingrained role of the tea and all the other interactions that happen therein seem particularly silly too, encouraging the audience to laugh at what Wilde is portraying as quintessentially English in the play, and therefore wittingly and unwittingly laugh at themselves. In hindsight, this exchange reads as particularly petty, sibling-like banter as well and the wit in this play serves then another purpose of subconsciously hinting at the play’s resolution in the interactions of Earnest and Algernon. However tiresome Wilde’s wit may sometimes make his avid readers feel, it nevertheless is a hallmark of his style and a useful tool for his more subversive commentaries. 

As an unrelated, but kind of fun question, I wonder if Cecily will be able to love Algernon as Algy rather than Earnest, or if being Earnest will be important for the future of their relationship too? I feel like that’s never really resolved in the play and I’m curious. 

Dorian’s Final Moment

One of the biggest outstanding questions I still have for The Picture of Dorian Gray is in regard to the end and what it all means. Where does this story leave us? What are we left with?  When Dorian stabs his portrait, Dorian the man dies and the portrait reverts back to what Basil had initially painted. But what does that release signify? What does it mean for how we understand the relationship between Dorian and the portrait and who, of the two, was the real, or more real, entity? I asked this question in class and was really intrigued by the variety of different interpretations we all had — from postulating that Dorian was committing suicide to suggesting that this was his last displacement of responsibility for his actions onto the portrait. It is a compelling space to think about what the separation of body and soul means, and I’m inclined to think that in stabbing the portrait Dorian has released his soul from it, and in death at last body and soul were reunited.

Thinking more about the end, something about the very last paragraph of this story has always bothered me. It feels like less than it should be, somehow unfinished or at least unresolved, maybe a little spare compared to the rest of the text. After Dorian’s mad dash for the painting, the deep and twisting personal reflection that leads to the end, the sort of direct resolution of the text feels out of joint, or as if it hasn’t caught up with exactly what happened. Part of this effect comes from the fact that Dorian’s name is not to be found in the final paragraph. Dorian’s servants don’t find Dorian, they find “a dead man,” under a “portrait of their master.” (159) Even though we know who it is and that those that find the body eventually figure it out, Dorian himself seems sort of absent from these lines: “It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was” (159). That sentence, to me, feels like it’s missing its natural pair: It was Dorian Gray. Perhaps, the irresolution clues us further into the relationship between Dorian and the portrait, that the lack of identity at the very end suggests that neither the portrait or the man was anything at all, without the other.

Power and Art in Dorian Gray

One of the many fascinating aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the immense power Dorian and Lord Henry wield in the narrative, especially compared to Sibyl and Basil.  It’s particularly curious because Basil and, more minorly, Sibyl, are the text’s artists, but are simultaneously the ones most under Dorian’s spell and are relatively powerless to save their art from contact with him. Basil says that Dorian is “all my art to me now” and that “the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life” (23). He places a power and personal weight in Dorian’s beauty, noting the control it has over his art.  When Dorian will no longer sit for Basil, Basil claims that in refusing, Dorian will “spoil [his] life as an artist” (91).  This personal investment in Dorian, as his artistic ideal, eventually becomes his downfall.  In a similar way, Sibyl’s love for Dorian comes between her and her art. After she kisses Dorian, she proudly loses her ability to act — in finding real love for Dorian, all of her stage love seems to her a sham and Dorian is “more to [her] than all art can ever be” (71). As we know, however, Dorian values the Sibyl of the stage more, the ideal she portrays through her art, and so her investment in Dorian also becomes her downfall. Each is robbed of their life and ability to make the art that made them special, one because Dorian was art’s ideal and the other because Dorian became more real than art could ever be.  

It sort of echoes our class conversation on “The Ballad of a Barber,” that perhaps there’s a limit to what the artists can make more beautiful or perhaps that there’s something maddening about true natural beauty, despite the fact that Basil says “there is nothing that Art cannot express” (23).  This raises another question for me however — is Dorian really beautiful? Obviously he is physically beautiful and seems at first to have a sort of naive beauty of spirit too.  But as his soul degrades, does he stay beautiful? At what point does his outer beauty become a sham too, the beauty of his form robbed of the beauty of his soul? Is he fascinating simply because he is beautiful or because of the juxtaposition of the perfect exterior and corrupt, rotting interior and the way it is hard to reconcile those two? 

The Happy Prince and Other Confusing Tales

Despite having spent a lot of time with The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I freely admit that each of the tales still puzzles me. The sort of irresolution we ended our class on them with feels maybe predictive of the irresolution I imagine I’ll feel even at the close of my thesis — almost more questions than answers. And I guess that’s some of their charm, that, like Wilde, they are a little elusive, seemingly random, but undeniably charming (I’m sure that’s a bit of a bold claim to make, but bear with me).  It’s difficult too to identify what exactly gives them that quality, if it’s the abundance of small details such that it’s hard to know what to focus on, or perhaps their less-than-satisfying ends. It’s just hard to make something tangible of them — hard, but not impossible.  

One element of “The Happy Prince” I’m still trying to understand are the religious details that come in at the very end.  God asks his angels to bring him “‘the two most precious things in the city’” (277) and he is brought the Happy Prince’s heart and the dead Swallow.  The Swallow is conferred into Paradise to sing eternally and the Happy Prince is restored to a city of gold.  They are clearly rewarded for their love, as they are brought together to God. The question is why God must bestow this reward, when for the rest of the story all that seemed to matter was the relationship between the Prince and the Swallow and the value they found in each other. This sort of religious quirk at the end of a tale happens again in “the Selfish Giant” when the Giant is brought into Paradise by a child Christ: “You let me play once in your garden, today you shall come with me to my garden which is Paradise” (285). This line in “the Selfish Giant” however, allows a much more direct explanation of why the Giant is going to Heaven compared to that in “The Happy Prince” — the children can now play in his garden because he has learned not to be selfish.  This direct line of reasoning doesn’t seem as critical in “The Happy Prince.” Perhaps it has something to do with the sacrifice of both the Happy Prince and the Swallow. While I don’t read their relationship to be wholly mutualistic, there is a sense in which they both died in the service of others — the Swallow to the Happy Prince and the Prince to his city and perhaps that granted them a place in Paradise. 

What is most curious about these religious elements to me is not that they simply exist, or even puzzling out why they exist. Instead what feels most key about them to me is that, though they are abrupt, they are not out of joint with the rest of the story.  While it is narratively confusing that God and his Angels appear at the end, it somehow doesn’t also feel wrong. It is as if on some level those elements just fit the story. I don’t have an explanation for why they fit, they just seem to, and it’s something I’m going to keep trying to explain as we keep thinking about Wilde this semester.

Skeletons in Virginia’s Closet

I thought “The Canterville Ghost” was hilarious. Or if hilarious is too strong, at least extremely amusing.  The interactions between the twins and the ghost, that it’s this big, brash American family that can’t be flapped by the spirit — there’s something so charming about the subtle reversals of expectation Wilde is working with. That humor however, is distracting from the more sinister aspects of the tale, which is something Wilde seems to have a talent for — trivializing or distracting from the sinister when it suits the story, a misdirection from the actual end of the tale. Focusing on the trivialized darker details, the crime of the ghost itself is quite interesting. When confronting Virginia near the end, the ghost explains his reasons for killing his wife and remarks that “it was purely a family matter, and concerned no one else,” (196) an interesting framing considering he’s most directly haunting another family. His wife couldn’t starch his ruffs properly and couldn’t cook so naturally he took family matters into his own hands. Though the ghost killed his wife, for seemingly very little, Wilde doesn’t seem to wholly condemn him for that action. His little domestic reasons for killing his wife, that make his crime seem particularly petty, distract from the ghost’s preceding point, “Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics” (196). In light of some of the reversals of the text, this then seems to be the most crucial and serious criticism Wilde is leveraging in this piece, a questioning of the rigidity of moral assumptions, and perhaps just assumptions in general. 

 Thinking further about the relationship of the ghost to his crime and the more sinister elements of the tale, I am also particularly intrigued by the end and some of the story’s final questions. The Duke says to Virginia, “you have never told me what happened to you when you were locked up with the ghost” to which Virginia replies that she has never told anyone and that the ghost “made me see what Life is and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both” (204). Nothing about that is singularly intriguing, until the Duke suggests that she’ll at least tell her children one day and Virginia just blushes.  I can’t put my finger on exactly what about that ending is so uncomfortable, maybe that her name is Virginia and something happened with the ghost that she’d blush to tell her children, but in some ways this unknown is the most sinister of all, the irresolution, particularly in regards to Virginia. Because of some of those outstanding questions this story is a good place to interrogate a lot of the questions that plague readers of Wilde’s work — what are we supposed to take seriously, can we take the story at its word, is it a reflection of our moral ethics or Wilde’s design that we sort of sympathize or at least lightly pity this murderous ghost, (amongst other questions)? It’s difficult to know where to stand at the end, what the story was trying to tell you (if anything at all), and some of that discomfiture is from Wilde’s clever uses of reversal, humor, and the cheap severity of your own ethics.