A Reflection on The Semester

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.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

When I came home from the hospital after I was born, the first thing that my dad read to me was The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It’s an odd thing to read to a newborn baby, and it is the first thing that was ever read to me. After I read the poem for class, I texted my dad and asked him why, of everything he could have chosen to read to me, he chose that poem. His response was simple: “it’s a good poem.” That is true, but it still didn’t feel like enough of a justification. The poem is fairly dark and has intense themes. Of course, a baby isn’t going to understand the poem, but it is interesting for a new parent to reach for such a poem to share with his daughter.

I thought about it a bit more, and thought about what draws us to poetry in the first place. My dad did not connect to the actual material in the poem, but something about the poem made him want to read it in that moment. I was born on 9/11, and my dad was in Lower Manhattan when the Twin Towers fell. I reread the poem thinking about that and wondering if that experience made him think of the poem in the days afterwards. The Ballad of Reading Gaol–while far from related plot-wise–does have some themes that I imagine would have resonated with someone at the time. There is despair throughout the poem as the prisoners feel their own shame and watch the death of their fellow prisoner. Especially as the poem reaches its end, there is a transition from a more general attitude describing what prison is like to a deep sadness at the death. Such themes are universal to tragedy, which is what people experienced on 9/11 in a grand scale.

That leaves us with the question of why people are drawn to poetry in the first place. My dad has not been to prison and has not “killed the thing he loves,” yet something about the poem felt important to him at a specific time in his life. There are certain poems that I love that follow a story that I don’t relate to, but that doesn’t stop me from loving them or connecting to them. I think that part of the benefit of poetry is that it can make us feel connected to things far away from ourselves because certain themes apply in a variety of situations. When poetry works well, it resonates on a personal level even when the poem isn’t personal at all. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is much better than Wilde’s other poetry because it is less concerned with appearing to be a certain thing and more concerned with expressing a story that Wilde clearly thought was important. Because the aim is different, the poem comes out feeling more genuine, which I find much more interesting to read. When we read Wilde’s earlier poetry, we talked in class about how it seems as if Wilde felt as if he had to follow a certain form in order for his poetry to be legitimate. By this poem, that is no longer his focus.

De Profundis and Ballad of Reading Gaol are interesting shifts for Wilde because they–to use his term–are so much more earnest than everything else that he wrote. The material that came before these works was witty and clever and carefully constructed. Although that person is still very much apparent in his later work, it seems like how he comes across is less of his focus. What came before is so intentionally masked, and by the time Wilde was in prison, it seems as if he no longer felt as if masking would be useful. That brings about very honest writing that I found to be some of the best that we’ve read this semester. There is a lot of charm in Wilde’s witticisms, but De Profundis and Ballad of Reading Gaol are different in that it feels as if there is so much more passion in them. I think it is easier to connect with Ballad of Reading Gaol than it is to connect with any of his other poems, and that is because he is expressing what feels real rather than trying to be clever or construct a mask.

Talented Men

As we discussed Moises Kaufman’s play Gross Indecency, I kept coming back to the question posed about why people have latched onto Oscar Wilde as an icon or idol. It is clear to modern audiences and represented in the play that what Wilde did was problematic, even if it was not problematic in the way that people thought at the time. There is something almost insidious in Wilde taking men as young as sixteen out for dinner and buying them gifts, presumably with the understanding that they will then sleep with him. Even so, Wilde has become an icon largely because he was imprisoned for his identity. That development raises an interesting question about how we engage with celebrity.

When I first set out to write this blog post, I planned on critiquing Wilde and arguing that, in the modern day, his behavior would not be accepted–not because of his sexuality, but because of his use of power. However, I then started to think about our society and the kinds of things that we let men get away with. In particular, it is relatively easy to name successful male celebrities who date or have dated very young women with little criticism or impact on their lives and careers. Leonardo DiCaprio and Jake Gyllenhaal are only two examples of men who repeatedly date women who are considerably younger than they are to that point that it is creepy. And they are two of the most successful actors in Hollywood. Clearly, we don’t care that much about inappropriate men as long as they do not go so far as to be abusive. I wonder if Wilde’s case occurred today, what would happen. I had a hard time thinking of an example of gay male celebrities who engage in similar behavior, in part because the sample size is smaller. The closest example I could think of was the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name. The characters in the film have a seven year age difference, and the actors in the film had an even larger age difference. More importantly, the younger character is only 17, making the dynamics in the film feel predatory if you stop to think about it. There was considerable backlash against the film–Queer Eye star Karamo Brown said that the movie appears to be “glorifying” a sexual assault kind of relationship–but the film still was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture and won for Adapted Screenplay. It seems as if there is still a part of our society that is willing to accept inappropriate age differences like the ones that existed between Wilde and the men that he slept with.

We are left with a bad taste in our mouths when we read the lines about how young the people involved with Wilde were, but we as a society have not actually moved that far forward in our criticism of these kinds of relationships. I wonder if that made it easier for Wilde to become an icon for the queer liberation movement. The fact that he was imprisoned for “gross indecency” has a large role to play in how he is remembered–he was one of the few famous people during that time that was open about who he was and was punished for it. That makes him a prime candidate for remembering fondly and holding up as an idol. When a person is punished for their identity, that identity becomes a rallying cry, so it makes sense that Wilde became an icon in the way that he did. After reflecting on our own society, it also makes some level of sense that people didn’t care enough about the specifics of his relationships with men. He was a talented writer in his own right beyond his queer identity, and I think that the common denominator in how we dismiss creepy behavior in men is that people who are talented have an easier time receiving forgiveness.

What’s in a name?

While we were discussing Salomé in class on Wednesday, I was struck by the fact that her character is not named in the Bible. I wasn’t familiar with the Bible story before we discussed Wilde’s play in class, so I didn’t have many preconceived ideas when it came to the play. However, I was surprised by Salomé’s lack of a name in each version of the Bible that we looked at. As someone pointed out in class, a name is a sign of power. It establishes your identity outside of your relationship to anyone else. In the New Living Translation, Salomé is first identified as “Herodias’s daughter” and after that is only referred to as “the girl.” That language completely ties up Salomé’s identity with her mother. The value of having a name is that you have something to identify you irrespective of your relationship to anyone else. Wilde’s naming the play Salomé embodies the newfound agency that she has in his telling of the story. Instead of a girl listening to her mother, Salomé is strong enough to articulate what she wants and what is necessary to get it.

However, I think that it is important not to oversell Salomé’s agency in the play. Although she takes action to get what she wants, she does so in a manner that is relatively restricted and her course of action results in her own death. As we noted in class, Salomé is ultimately killed for expressing her sexuality. She does so in a confined system in which the only way to express her agency is to lean into Herod’s desire for her and perform a dance. Although Salomé has agency in doing what she thinks is necessary to get what she wants, I think that it is important to remember that she is still limited in how she can go about getting it, and that chasing what she wants ends in her death.

Regardless of how independent she is and how clear she is in her desires, Salomé is still restricted to the society in which she lives in which Herod has all of the power. She can try to carve out a space for herself, and is able to trick him into killing John the Baptist, but that is not enough for Salomé to truly be powerful because it only takes three words from Herod for Salomé, too, to be killed. The differences in power are clear throughout the play, and  acknowledging Salomé’s weak position is necessary to understand what happens to her in the play. A queer-desire reading of the play would suggest that Salomé is killed because of her sexuality, which is deemed wrong. In order for that reading to be clear, I think that it is important that Salomé is not the character with the most agency. She still must feel pressure to conform to the society in which she lives, which is why it is so offensive to Herod when she backs him into a corner in which he must kill John the Baptist. Salomé in Wilde’s play certainly has more influence than the character in the original story, but it is important that she is not a hugely powerful character. Ultimately, she is still the girl who dances and then dies.

What Makes a Tragedy?

While reading Salomé, I found myself coming back to the same question: what makes a tragedy? In my edition of Oscar Wilde’s complete works, the play is introduced with the following information: “A Tragedy in one Act. Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas” (583). The fact that it is called a tragedy put preconceived notions in my head about what the play would be like, which I didn’t fully notice until finishing the play, when I found myself unsatisfied with the ending. That dissatisfaction did not come from the quality of the play itself, but from my ideas about what tragedy should be.

We are aware of comments people make frequently about tragedy and comedy and the way in which they are connected. “Comedy is tragedy plus time” or “A tragedy ends in death, a comedy ends in marriage” are two common ways of saying that tragedy and comedy lie on a razor’s edge and the difference between the two is in how they make us feel. For example, over spring break, I saw comedian Mike Birbiglia perform his new show, “The Old Man and the Pool.” The show is stand-up comedy, but it is also a story about fearing death and the belief that we only have one chance on this planet so we need to learn how to use it for others. In a different context, the show would have been tragic and almost uncomfortable as the audience was forced to consider their own mortality, but because of the framing of the show as comedy, we laughed throughout, even in serious moments.

That experience offers an insight into how closely comedy and tragedy exist, which is important to remember when dealing with anything that is meant to be a pure comedy or is meant to be a pure tragedy. When I read that Salomé is a tragedy, I expected there to be death in the play, but part of me also expected to grow a deep connection to the characters, which I did not. Because the play is so short, I felt a bit of whiplash when reading. The Young Syrian kills himself only seven pages into the play, and it comes with almost no warning. This death startled me more than it made me feel anything for the characters, which then clouded my reading of the rest of the play. After the Young Syrian dies, he is not seriously considered by the other characters, whose focus is entirely on Jokanaan. It seemed as if the Young Syrian was meant to be forgotten as a kind of nameless victim of Salomé’s desire for Jokanaan, but, because his death was so sudden, I couldn’t let it go.

Salomé is undoubtedly a tragedy from a technical standpoint. Death is a driving factor in the plot, and the play ends with one of the most brutal deaths of all. However, I did not feel a real emotional attachment to any of the characters involved which made it hard for me to care about the death beyond a basic human level. That made me think about what the purpose of tragedy is. Is it meant to make us feel deeply, or do something else? After comparing Salomé to other tragedies I’ve read, I came to the conclusion that tragedies are meant to reveal something dark in ourselves. We connect to the tragedy and we care about the tragic hero because they seem like someone we know or someone we could be and we see the way in which they can avoid their fate. For example, Hamlet is a particularly interesting tragic hero because he seems so thoughtful and reasonable in his fears about killing Claudius until the end of the play, when he seems to have actually gone slightly mad. We understand every action that Hamlet does, in part because he tells us what he wants and why he is scared. The audience walks away from the play moved and even disturbed because we understand Hamlet on a basic level, and it is worrying to understand a person who leaves so much destruction in his wake. Hamlet is a tragedy because of the brutality involved, and it is a successful tragedy because it makes us look at ourselves and question whether we are capable of such brutality.

In that sense, I think that Salomé is a successful tragedy, even though I did not connect with any of the characters. The play seems to advocate for tolerance towards other people’s wishes. Salomé is insistent that Jokanaan must die, which leads to her own death, and Herod is tricked into promising that Jokanaan will die because he refuses not to get what he wants. The death in the play comes from characters refusing to bend their will, which can be a lesson for audiences. Stubbornness is very common among people, and this play shows the extreme version of such obstinance. Herodias repeatedly tells Salomé not to make a deal with Herod, yet she does anyway, which leads to her own downfall. The warning is the reminder to the audience that the play does not have to end the way it does: if only Salomé backed down, she and Jokanaan would both be alive. That is an important reminder for the audience to get, which makes the tragedy feel rooted in reality even though there are moments that feel over the top.

Reflecting on The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ve read Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest three times. The first was in high school for a drama class. We read the play, and then were put into pairs to prepare and perform a scene for the play. The second time was for a theatre class at Notre Dame. We both read and watched a recording of the play to talk about staging and costumes. The third time was for this class, and it’s the only time that I’ve read the play with a specific focus on Oscar Wilde.

If I’m being totally honest, I have a hard time with this play. The first time I read it, I knew that it was considered a great comedy and I didn’t understand what I was missing because I did not find it funny at all. There were witty lines, but nothing that made me laugh out loud and, if anything, I was more annoyed by Wilde’s witticism than amused by it. I had a similar reaction the second time that I read it, and, at this point, think that that is just the way that I react to reading this play.

However, I loved watching the play. That was when the comedy really clicked with me, and I understood why people love The Importance of Being Earnest so much. The Importance of Being Earnest is so farcical and a lot of the comedy is physical. Even though it’s not slapstick, moments like when Cecily gives Gwendolen the opposite of what she asks for at the tea party thrive when you can see the actors make the decision or react to what has happened.

The difference in my reaction to reading versus watching (or even performing a scene) The Importance of Being Earnest made me think about theatre in general and the way in which we approach studying plays. I act in my free time, and there is a lot of value with sitting with a script and really thinking through the language. I think it requires you to move slowly and notice things you might otherwise skim over. However, I think it is equally important to consume art as it was designed to be consumed. Plays are written to be watched and performed, and it is in that setting when they really soar. Plays come to life when they are put onstage, so in order to develop a full opinion of a play, I think it is most fair to watch it and then to go back to the script to read through key moments.

My outlook on this question is shaped by the fact that I have been involved with theatre for most of my life, and the setting in which I have read The Importance of Being Earnest has always–until now–been in a drama class. I may be missing a key element of reading plays that a person coming at it from a different perspective may see.

The Preface to Dorian Gray

As I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I kept thinking back to its preface. As we’ve discussed in class, what Wilde writes in the preface seems to contradict the content of the novel itself. There are many potential reasons for this discrepancy. It could, as we focused on in class, be a means to protect Wilde from the content of the novel. The Picture of Dorian Gray is very personal and it does reveal Wilde in a variety of ways. Although Wilde’s queer identity was not my main focus as I read the novel, it is clear that Wilde’s queerness made its way into the story and shaped it in a revealing way. Perhaps the preface is a means of protection, a way for Wilde to tell a story of himself without being damaged by it.

That reasoning is compelling to me, but I think that there is another key value for the preface. In my opinion, the preface is intentionally ironic. It praises the values of aestheticism in order to open a story about a man whose obsession with his beauty leads to his downfall. Dorian values his beauty above anything else, to the point where he sacrifices his soul in order to stay physically beautiful together. More than anyone else in the story, Dorian lives the values of aestheticism. He buys into “art for art’s sake” so much that he starts to view his life as a kind of art. He considers joining the Roman Catholic Church because “the Roman ritual had always had a great attraction for him.” He loves Sybil because of her artistic talent, and as soon as that talent is gone, he loses interest in her. He says he would “give everything” for the portrait to grow old as he continues to be young and beautiful, and he does.

Dorian actively believes in the aesthetic values listed in the preface, unlike a character like Lord Henry who constantly contradicts himself and seems more interested in entertaining himself than anything else. Rather, Dorian embraces the value of beauty above anything else until it corrupts him so thoroughly that he ends up dead in his attic. To commence The Picture of Dorian Gray with a preface about art being valuable for its own sake and the danger of looking beneath the surface seems to poke fun at aestheticism in general and at the audience for taking what Wilde says seriously. How can it be that the artist’s aim is to conceal himself when the greatest art Basil ever did revealed too much of himself? How can there be no such thing as an immoral book when Dorian is corrupted by a book? Perhaps we are not meant to take the preface seriously, but to use it as a reminder of what aestheticism states and where it falls short.


As we discussed the first third of The Picture of Dorian Gray in class on Wednesday, I found myself struck by two details. First, the way in which Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) kept coming up in conversation felt notable because so many people saw him in the story. Second, the fact that Oscar Wilde did not meet Lord Alfred Douglas until the year after Dorian Gray was published would indicate that Bosie could not have been in the story in any intentional way. I was somewhat surprised by the way in which, even after we learned the chronology of their meeting–something I did not previously know–Bosie continued to be central to our conversation. It felt as if we were so tied to what we know of Wilde’s life that we see it in all that he does, regardless of whether or not we should.

This conversation felt like a good representation of a point that has been brought up throughout the semester: we project onto the past using what we know about the present. I am a history major, so I spend a lot of time–probably most of my day while school is in session–thinking about events of the past and the way in which we try to understand them in the present. Every historian has a different answer to the question, “why does history matter,” and their answer shapes the way in which they contextualize the past. For me, history is a study in compassion. I believe that most of history can be summed up by saying, “people tried to do what they believed was good and failed.” That failure comes from a variety of factors from prejudice that blinded historical actors to the true cruelty of their behavior to an inability to see the side effects of a decision. Of course, there are exceptions to this narrative, but I think that it works as a general rule. For that reason, it is important to study and understand the past in order to build empathy in the present. We must look at historical actors with compassion in the hopes that the people who come after us view us the same way. Part of that process is actively studying the way in which one event led to another, and remembering that historical actors did not have the full picture that we now do.

When it comes to talking about Oscar Wilde, it is important that we remind ourselves that he did not know the trend his life would take before it happened. It is easy for us to view Wilde with compassion, but it is sometimes hard to get the idea of inevitability out of our heads. When Dorian Gray was published, Wilde had not met Bosie and did not know what the long term effects of that meeting would be. For that reason, I believe that we should try to read The Picture of Dorian Gray with the chronology of Wilde’s life in mind. After we do that, we can take the next step and try to explain why Dorian Gray was used against Wilde at his trial without using that fact as indication enough that Bosie is–even accidentally–in the text.

What Makes a Fairytale?

As we discussed The Happy Prince and Other Tales on Wednesday, I found myself drawn to the question “what makes a fairytale?” It’s a question I had not thought of before, mostly because I think that we learn fairytale stories when we are young and accept that the stories that we learned are fairytales. But as I thought about it further, I found that that explanation is unhelpful. For example, if asked whether Disney princess movies are fairytales, I would say no but many people would say yes. I would insist that they are adaptations of fairytales, not fairytales themselves, but if pushed I could only say that when I was a kid my parents read to me books of fairytales that told many of the traditional stories Disney used as inspiration for their films, so I consider those stories to be “true” fairytales, while someone who only watched Disney movies and did not read fairytales might say that the Disney films themselves are fairytales. “This is what I learned when I was a kid” is not a good enough justification for how to define a fairytale.

As I pondered this question, I came up with a variety of potential definitions. A fairytale has to have a Happily Ever After? Anyone who has read the Brothers Grimm know that’s not the case. A fairytale has a princess in it? Jack and the Beanstalk, the Three Little Pigs, and Little Red Riding Hood are only a few examples that show that’s not true. Perhaps a fairytale is simply a fantastical short story intended for young audiences. That is the most satisfactory definition I could find after trying to classify books I read as a kid into different categories and looking in various dictionaries to see what they had to say.

With that definition in mind, in order determine whether “The Happy Prince” is a fairytale, we must reflect on whether Wilde intended for children to read the collection. I think it is fair to say that they are short, fantastical stories. Birds and statues speak to one another; rockets are personified; giants exist. It is more difficult to determine whether the stories are directed towards children. We talked in class about how critics are divided on this question. Vyvyan Holland said that the stories are more poetry than they are fairytales, but other people have argued that Wilde wrote these stories for his own children. Ultimately, I think that stories can work on multiple levels. These stories are entertaining for children to read, and they can also appeal to adults, regardless of which group was meant to appreciate the tales. With that in mind, I think that it is fair to categorize The Happy Prince and Other Tales as a collection of fairytales.

Wilde and Morality

While reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, I was struck by how the story seemed to be almost void of morality as we traditionally understand it. I do not mean that there is no right or wrong in the story, but that audience expectations are not met. In my experience, people come to expect stories like Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” When the main character does something wrong, he gets his comeuppance, even if it is at his own hands. However, in Wilde’s story, Lord Arthur Savile never even acknowledges that he did anything wrong.

I think it is fair to state that murder is wrong without needing to explain why, and I would argue that most people would agree with me. The average person reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime would see Savile’s actions as morally reprehensible. Yet, he still gets his “happily ever after” and does not so much as acknowledge that what he did was wrong. The narrator is explicit: “never for one moment did Lord Arthur regret all that he had suffered” (182). Not only does Lord Arthur not show guilt for his actions, but he sees them in the lens of his own suffering. Throughout the story, Lord Arthur treats murder as a task he must complete in order to live the life he wants, not as a moral question. That is an uncomfortable reality for the reader to face, especially because Lord Arthur clearly shows no remorse.

The story does not seem to want the reader to look deeply into questions of right and wrong, yet I could not stop myself. Wilde seems content to represent a world in which people can do awful things with no punishment while innocent men–like the chiromantist–suffer for no reason. Arguably, that world is as akin to our own as the one of moral judgment that I choose to read into the story, even though it is difficult to accept. It is a concept for which I do not actually have an answer, and it paints a picture of an almost arbitrary world in which morality comes second to people’s desires–or doesn’t come up at all. I’ll be interested to see whether this notion is reflected in Wilde’s other work, particularly in The Picture of Dorian Gray.