Before this semester, I had never read anything written by Oscar Wilde. I knew he was famous, and I knew a little bit about The Picture of Dorian Gray, but that was pretty much the extent of my experience with Wilde. Nearing the end of the semester, I am grateful to have not only read a variety of complex works written by a revered author, but also to have learned more about Wilde’s history and how his character and actions influenced his own art, the art of others to follow, and our society as a whole. I was particularly interested by his plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. Thinking about the various layers coexisting within the works and the degrees to which Wilde may or may not have been pushing back against traditional Victorian society and being able to connect his work to past and future authors was interesting. We talked about his Platonic and Shakespearean influences, but I also couldn’t help but relate his work to early modern playwrights like Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn in how they explored gender roles and questioned the role of art and genre in their work, and I really enjoyed seeing how Wilde’s own work has had an impact on how we understand art today. Looking forward, I hope to see some of Wilde’s work performed on stage for a more complete view of their meanings, since the visual performance adds yet another layer to an already interesting work. I do still wonder, how much of Wilde’s current success is a result of the quality of his work that readers still recognize today, or a result of the overarching influence of his personal life. Either way, I am leaving this class with a greater appreciation of art, of the history of turning points, and of the role Wilde played in both of those areas.
When considering the form of Moises Kaufman’s “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” as a play rather than a typical historical fiction or purely biographical book, there are areas where information is both gained and lost as a result of this choice. A play requires its author to choose words more carefully and concisely to consider timing and audience enjoyment, which potentially leads to less detail than an author compiling all the facts of an individual’s experience into textbook-like or even narrative form. This potential loss of detail seems to be the primary loss due to the choice of form. But there are some benefits that this sparser version of history allows. Though less detailed, a play allows audience members to be engaged in the action. One can imagine what witnessing these trials might have been like at the time they took place and have more of a stake in the action simply because a play is more action-based than a typical biography. A greater emphasis on visuals generally can lend itself to inspiring greater sympathy in audience members, since it is sometimes easier to relate to characters you can see rather than people you are just reading about. Putting names to faces, and hearing the voices of each of the characters, gives greater depth to historical figures than reading off a page. One can actually visualize and hear Wilde’s wit or the Marquess of Queensberry’s tirades. There is also the fact that Wilde himself was a playwright, making Kaufman’s choice to write a play feel very true to his subject matter. Another negative, however, is that with a play it may be easier to dramatize or romanticize history. While this can be useful in inspiring interest and care, it has the potential to neglect things as they truly were and put characters on a pedestal that they may be deserving of in some aspects of their lives, but undeserving of in others.
In Salomé, the prophet Jokanaan prompts strikingly different reactions in his listeners, showing how the beholder inserts themselves and their presumptions into the words and actions of others. When we are introduced to Jokanaan, we are told by a soldier that “He is always saying ridiculous things.” They, along with Herod, are fearful of his words. This seems to be due to a fear of speaking the truth. Herod in particular, though he indulges in the prophet’s speeches, wants to hide Jokanaan from others because of the truth he speaks about Herodias. The truth is unpleasant and dangerous to consider. Yet Herod remains curious about what the prophet has to say, questioning what the future has in store for him (and often spinning what Jokanaan says in a favorable light, when others consider the words to be against him). Herodias has no curiosity and is merely enraged by the prophet. This points to her impatience and selfishness, but more importantly it points to her desire to maintain her public image. She revolts against the words being spoken against her, and frequently returns to the topic of how she and Herod must treat their guests well by returning to the dinner party in order to preserve high opinions of them. Herodias wants to maintain a façade of a happy marriage, though beneath the surface there is tension on account of her original marriage and her current husband’s apparent attraction to her daughter. Salomé’s response to the prophet is the most complex. She is fascinated by his words and by his appearance, and becomes obsessed with seeing him, hearing his voice, and touching him. Salomé’s desire grows so strong that she needs to fully possess Jokanaan, which she can only do in his death. I wonder whether one of the causes of Salomé’s downfall was that she was poisoned by Jokanaan’s beautiful words.
After our class discussions on An Ideal Husband, and now having read The Importance of Being Earnest, one of the themes that is interesting me most is the discovery of the self, and how this plays out very differently in Wilde’s two plays. In An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert experiences trauma as a result of the discovery of his true self, or at least the self he was in the past. He wore the mask of an honest, righteous politician, and this version of self was the foundation of his marriage to Lady Chiltern. Lady Chiltern wishes her husband’s mask remained intact, preferring to be ignorant of his true behavior. She exclaims, “Lie to me! Lie to me!… You lied to the whole world. And yet you will not lie to me” (Wilde 520). In An Ideal Husband, the idea of the mask takes on a much lighter tone. The two male protagonists wear masks to change their identities, simply to escape to either the country or London. The discovery of their true selves, particularly for Jack, is a humorous, joyous occasion that provides him with a family that he only imagined having, in addition to a wife. Not only is he now permitted to marry Gwendolen, but he is also thrilled that he has “a brother after all,” someone who is already his close friend (Wilde 380). This contrasts Sir Robert’s moment of discovery, which nearly tears apart his marriage. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the removal of the masks is what permits a happy ending for each of the couples. In An Ideal Husband, though his true self is revealed to his wife and close friend, Sir Robert maintains his public façade and enters an even more significant role in the government on account of his well-maintained secret, the protection of the mask becoming necessary for a happy ending.
After finishing The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the questions I am thinking about is the question of what makes a good book, which relates to some ideas we’ve been exploring in “Victorian Literature” as we read Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning. In this narrative poem, the narrator is an avid reader and talks about how books and poetry have influenced her life and her own work. She says she read books “Without considering whether they were fit / To do me good,” believing that it is when “We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth” that we get the good from a book (Browning 701-2, 706-8). In these lines, it seems as though her ideas align with the notion that it is the reader’s disposition and commitment to literature that contributes to what they get out of reading, not necessarily the content of the book itself. The way the reader approaches the book has an impact on their reading experience and the lessons they take away from it. With these ideas in mind, we can consider Dorian’s approach to the poisonous book he receives from Lord Henry. He approaches it with a mindset already leaning towards corruption. Dorian “never sought to free himself” from the influence of the book, believing that it contained “the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (Wilde 102). The sins he sees lived out in the book are sins he chooses to enact. He actively chooses his way of life, and though he blames the book for his actions, he actively chooses to take what he does from the book and connect it so closely to his life. If we question the power of the book as a corrupting force in Dorian’s life, we may also consider the power of Lord Henry over Dorian, and question whether it was Lord Henry’s influence that changed Dorian, or whether Dorian, perhaps inspired by Lord Henry, chose to follow a path of corruption farther than Lord Henry had ever followed it.
I am interested in what The Picture of Dorian Gray has to say about class, particularly through the eyes of Mrs. Vane and her two children. Mrs. Vane seems to have conflicting visions of the world. On one hand, she seems excessively practical about money and supporting her son and daughter, but on the other, she seems deeply devoted to the world of theater and how she presents herself to the world from an artistic perspective. She feels obligated to Mr. Isaacs because of the money she owes him and how he has given them the opportunity to work. She thinks he has treated them very well (though Sibyl disagrees with this). She is also obsessed with the idea that her daughter’s Prince Charming might be very wealthy, in which case “there is no reason why she should not contract an alliance with him” (Wilde 60). In Mrs. Vane’s eyes, if Dorian is a member of the aristocracy, there could be nothing wrong with him.
Her son, James, on the other hand, seems very distrustful of Dorian and other members of the upper class. He worries very much about his sister’s safety and reputation as she pursues a relationship with a man she hardly knows. He thinks that Dorian’s intentions in becoming involved with a poor actress is that he “wants to enslave” Sibyl (Wilde 62). He worries that Sibyl will share the same fate as their mother, who is now a single mother in much debt after being wronged by a “highly connected” gentleman like Dorian (Wilde 64). Sibyl seems very naïve in her approach to Dorian, not caring about the fact that she knows nothing about him other than that he adores to watch her act. She cares not at all for money, exclaiming, “what does money matter? Love is more than money” (Wilde 57), and “Poor? What does that matter? When poverty creeps in at the door, love flies in through the window” (Wilde 62). It will be interesting to see how her relationship with Dorian plays out, and how her family and Lord Henry affect it.
I am interested in Wilde’s idea in The Decay of Lying that Art imitates Life, rather than Life imitating Art. In his essay, he claims that “Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil” (Wilde 983), and provides several fictitious examples of this. The example I found most humorous was his reference to Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, which was written by “great sentimentalist” William Makepeace Thackeray and originally published in 1848 (Wilde 984). Wilde’s character Vivian describes that well after Vanity Fair was published, the governess who was a loose inspiration for Becky’s character “ran away with the nephew of the lady with whom she was living, and for a short time made a great splash in society, quite in Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s style, and entirely by Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s methods” (Wilde 984), following the exact trajectory of Becky after her disastrous marriage to Rawdon Crawley. I find Wilde’s reference to Becky interesting because she was the ultimate liar. A vicious social climber, she is cunning and seductive, and uses her intelligence to take advantage of wealthy men. If art is lying, Thackeray’s biting satire is evidence of this. It presents heavily exaggerated characters and weaves together their stories in a ridiculous manner.
It is interesting to consider, then, how writers of Wilde’s time were turning away from Victorian literature. Certainly, Vanity Fair is not an example of art for art’s sake, but Becky’s interest in all things beautiful and her desire to live a pleasure-filled life seems to align with the code of the Decadents. Becky put on a show in society, masking her true background and creating a glamorous façade. She reminds me of some of the characters in Wilde’s short stories, particularly Lord Arthur Savile and the Canterville ghost. Lord Arthur creatively plots several murder attempts to maintain his position and relationship to his fiancée, creating a life based on deception and crime. The Canterville ghost initially is interested in putting on masks to terrorize the Otis family and maintain his fear-based position of power in the household. Their scheming and cunning for the sake of comfort cause them to act similarly to Thackeray’s Becky.
Reading Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” reminded me of some of the ideas Margaret Cavendish presents in The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World. In The Blazing World, which was published in 1666, Cavendish embarks on a fanciful, philosophical journey through the character of a young lady who becomes the Empress of a new world. In this world, the Empress uses her unconstrained power over the native inhabitants to uncover truths about the world through a variety of scientific fields. While doing this, however, Cavendish satirizes the experimental science of her time, critiquing many aspects of the field and proposing what she considers to be a better way to seek truth. Cavendish’s critique relies on her use of fiction to demonstrate what can be done when reason is combined with fancy. Using the fictional form of The Blazing World, she presents possibilities in science beyond the constrained work of her time, and relies on character and plot to critique the narrowness of experimental science.
Much later than Cavendish, in 1891, Wilde relies on the form of a dialogue to perform a similar critique of the overuse of fact when understanding society and creating art. He writes, “Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance. Their chilling touch is over everything” (Wilde 980). His character Vivian argues that there must be a place for fancy and lying in art, or it becomes boring and pointless. Though Wilde is critiquing art rather than science, both authors use their work to point out the limitations of pure reason and observation, while showing their readers a better way to seek knowledge. When Cavendish combines reason and observation with fancy in her work of fiction, she is able to ponder what the possible applications of science could be for society, or how technology could be advanced to learn more about the inner workings of creatures and objects rather than just what is visible on the surface. When Wilde talks about fancy in art, he sees how it changes how one looks at nature and understands different cultures. They show how fiction and reason are both necessary to find truth, and demonstrate the power of incorporating fancy into reason.
This week I was interested in our discussion of the connections between sin and wickedness with art, criticism, and attractiveness. I think art is a way to work through what it is that makes wickedness attractive, because curiosity is a compulsion to learn more, a sense of mystery and the unknown, and art is a way to represent things which seem mysterious to us. I think poetry in particular is capable of helping us understand elements of things we don’t understand and that we might be slightly afraid of. I remember back in my Intro to Literary Studies class, it was mentioned that poems are only about three things: love, death, and God, because people struggle to represent these notions linearly. The unique structure and figurative language utilized by poets can often paint a clearer picture of obscure or convoluted ideas.
I am looking forward to thinking about Wilde’s poetry and other work with this idea in mind, particularly thinking about the ways art touches the critic rather than being an expression of the artist. How will Wilde’s work challenge us to think of big picture concepts like love, death, and God? He already is using religious vocabulary to discuss art and criticism, so I am interested to see how religion plays out in his work. I am expecting a continued emphasis on curiosity, in particular the “indignant curiosity” that we discussed last week and the connections between what is suspicious and what is attractive. In what ways is art capable of making wickedness seem attractive? I am looking forward to reading more of Wilde’s work to see how the arguments in “The Critic as Artist” play out in his actual art.