Wilde and Bosie as Types

Wilde’s audience in De Profundis is ambiguous. While this letter is addressed to Alfred Douglas, he often disappears from the letter entirely as Wilde reflects on personal philosophies and religion. At times, Wilde seems to use De Profundis as a diary, while at other times, he seems to be appealing to an audience beyond Bosie to justify his actions and philosophies. Regardless of who Wilde was originally writing to in De Profundis, his decision to publish it widened the letter’s audience significantly, making the world privy to intimate details of Wilde and Bosie’s relationship. This immortalized Wilde and Bosie not only as historical figures but as queer characters.

In my research for my final paper, I read an article by Alan Sinfield arguing that Wilde “constructed” homosexuality through his work and his public life. In the Victorian era, there were no clear-cut ideas about same-sex attraction. Our modern terms and ideas about queerness did not exist to shape Victorian thought about same-sex passion. Sinfield argues that as an “outed” queer figure, Wilde became symbolic of same-sex attraction. His philosophies and characteristics became associated with queerness and served as marks of queerness in later years.

Considering Sinfield’s argument, De Profundis likely had a significant impact on how people viewed same-sex love. By publishing what essentially serves as a memoir documenting his relationship, Wilde added his personal life to his body of work. This puts intimate details of Wilde’s life up for literary interpretation. As people looked to Wilde’s fiction and philosophy retrospectively with knowledge of Wilde’s same-sex attraction, Wilde and Bosie became literary “types.” They can be likened to Basil and Dorian, or Lord Henry and Dorian, depending on how one reads their relationship. Their relationship calls back to the boy-love of The Symposium and prefigures novels like Giovanni’s Room, where the wealthy and aging Jacques pays attractive boys for company, and beautiful Giovanni’s relationship with the older and more powerful Guillaume proves fatal.

De Profundis puts Wilde’s life and loves up for literary interpretation, placing real people in literary history. Wilde accomplishes what he proposes in Phrases and Philosophies For the Young: to “become a work of art.”

Inherent class divides

Class differences have been a recurring theme in Wilde’s work. For example, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell advises Jack to acquire some relations. Despite Jack’s wealth and ease in conforming to high-class society, he cannot change his nature without obtaining the proper lineage. This idea of class predestination, so to speak, appears again in De Profundis. Wilde paints class as something inherent in determining one’s character, sensibilities, and abilities.

I first noticed this when Wilde spoke of the men who testified against him, who belonged to the lower class. He states: “People thought it dreadful of me to have entertained at dinner the evil things of life, and to have found pleasure in their company. But they, from the point of view through which I, as an artist in life, approached them, were delightfully suggestive and stimulating.” Wilde uses a patronizing tone for these lower-class men, objectifying his dinner guests as merely artistic stimulation. He does not even recognize their humanity, likening them to panthers or cobras while setting himself apart from them as an “artist.” It is not for particular acts that Wilde dehumanizes them- Wilde, after all, welcomed them to dine with him and engaged in homosexual acts himself. In terms of unlawful acts, Wilde is no better off than them. Wilde draws this distinction because they are lower class. He characterizes them as dangerous and rough, as if this is inherent to their class. Wilde additionally asserts that “fishermen, shepherds, ploughboys, and peasants” know nothing of Art. He seems to claim art for the upper class in addition to humanity.

Wilde also makes a class distinction when describing his fellow inmates, mentioning that he is “not one of them.” Even in prison, where Wilde is subjected to the same treatment as his peers, Wilde sets himself apart from the lower classes. There are no advantages to being high class, yet Wilde asserts his class anyway. Again, this goes to show that Wilde does not think of class as something resulting from what you do, but rather who you are, and this distinction is critical in determining what you are worth.

Ideas On Trial

During Wilde’s cross-examination in the first trial, Wilde’s work seems on trial more than Wilde himself. Each time the opposing attorney references Wilde’s artistic allusions to homosexuality, Wilde flips the narrative to address the craftsmanship and artistic beauty rather than the content. He champions the message that resonates throughout his work: art cannot be moral or immoral, but it can be artistic or crude. He is focused on style. 

Wilde does not seem to care what people think of the content of his work except in denying that it incriminates him. Instead, he urges the audience- for this seems to be a performance- to appreciate the beauty he creates. Regarding a letter he wrote to Bosie, which the cross-examiner presents as evidence of an improper relationship, Wilde states: “This is a beautiful letter. It is a poem. I was not writing an ordinary letter. You might as well cross-examine me as to whether King Lear or a sonnet of Shakespeare’s is proper.” Wilde maintains that even his letters are artistic rather than purely functional. When he brings up another homosexual story, The Priest and the Acolyte, Wilde refuses to address the content but condemns it for poor writing. Each time the cross-examiner attempts to address homosexuality in various written works, Wilde returns to form. 

However, this reframing does not deter the cross-examiner, who shifts his focus away from homosexuality and instead on Wilde’s artistic philosophy. Instead of looking for what he calls “perverted content,” he briefly attacks Wilde for his amoral view of literature. He presents Wilde’s philosophy as dangerous because it does not condemn immoral content; thus, a perverted book might be “good.” There seems to be underlying anxiety that if people consume art merely because it is well written, its content may corrupt them. Society presents a rigid sense of what is unacceptable, and Wilde’s flippant attitude about content rattles that construct, at least as it appears in art.

I think that the first trial was a fight over artistic ideals and ultimately came down to the questions that Wilde himself poses in Dorian Gray: Can art corrupt? Can art be dangerous? Should those who view art only look at the surface? Wilde seems to anticipate the controversy over his work years before it is brought up in court. 

Salome and the Sonnet

While reading Salomé, I noticed several themes and techniques that led me to believe that Wilde may have drawn inspiration from the Victorian love sonnet tradition, which I studied in a different class. However, if Wilde borrowed from the sonnet tradition, he also subverted it.

First, I noticed the theme of the beloved as “looked upon,” which is very characteristic of the love sonnet tradition. Usually, a male lover looks upon an unaware female beloved. Both Salomé and Jokanaan function in the role of the beloved. Salomé is looked at by others constantly from the very beginning of the play. “The Young Syrian” cannot help himself from staring. Later, Herod is scolded by his wife for the same excessive staring. In dancing, Salomé puts herself explicitly on display, stressing her role as looked upon. Jokanaan is also looked upon by Salomé, who observes his preaching from afar before approaching him. Wilde subverts this trope by putting men and women in the role of both the lover and beloved. Furthermore, the beloved is aware that they are looked upon. Salomé even uses this knowledge to her advantage. Finally, Wilde subverts this trope by warning about the danger of looking at the beloved.

Another common theme in love sonnets is for the beloved to be pure, good, and leading the lover to the divine. This is also a component in Salomé. Salomé is continuously described as extremely pale, suggesting purity. Meanwhile, Jokanaan is described to be “as chaste as the moon is.” Furthermore, his role as a prophet suggests his connection to the divine. Wilde subverts this trope by undermining Salomé’s innocent exterior with her desire for revenge. She dances on the blood, allowing the whiteness of her feet to touch a staining substance.

In looking at their beloved, the lovers use blazons to describe what they see, which is also common in the love sonnet tradition. Salomé’s lovers speak of her “little white hands like fluttering doves” and “feet like little white flowers.” Meanwhile, Salomé looks upon Jokanaan and notes eyes “like black holes burned by torches in a Tyrian tapestry” a body “like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never moved” or “like a plastered wall where vipers have crawled,” hair “like clusters of grapes” or “like a crown of thorns” and a mouth “like a pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory.” Though blazons are usually amorous, Salomé’s blazon becomes hateful as Jokanaan rejects her over and over. Wilde subverts this literary device by changing its connotation.

Finally, I saw a theme of power-play which struck me as very Petrarchan. Often in love sonnets, the beloved holds power over their lover, who is helpless to resist them yet cannot access them. The tension between lover and beloved is evident in Salomé as Salomé refuses to dance, agonizing Herod, Jokanaan refuses the kiss, agonizing Salomé, and Salomé seeks revenge against both Herod and Jokanaan. Wilde subverts this trope by making the beloved both aware of their power and having Salomé use it for her own means. Wilde gives the beloved much more agency than the typical sonnet. 

Overall, I could see a link between Wilde and love sonnets, though Wilde puts his spin on convention. Salomé especially reminded me of Christina Rossetti’s sonnet series Monna Innominata. These sonnets also reverse gender roles and give the beloved more agency while working within the tradition.

Marriage and Romance

A common thread in Wilde’s work, especially his plays, is a distaste for marriage. Wilde’s “clever” characters often criticize the triviality or unhappiness of marriage while praising the art of romance. These characters describe marriage as the end of emotional attachment and the beginning of a tedious and constricting relationship. 

For example, when Jack tells Algernon of his plans to marry Gwendolen, Algernon laments that this will ruin the romance between them, saying “there is nothing romantic in proposing” and characterizing marriage as “business.” He champions the uncertainty of romance as its chief appeal and notes that marriage destroys uncertainty. In An Ideal Husband, marriage is talked about as something that can succeed or fail in being fashionable. Married minor characters complain about the dullness of their spouses and comment on the optics of other marriages, while unmarried couples are praised for their artistic romance. Even in Dorian Gray, marriage is depicted as a social expectation rather than an emotional commitment. Harry and his wife divorce after years of happily ignoring one another. Marriage creates a false exterior of emotional commitment that poorly hides the detached relationship between spouses.

Given Wilde’s mocking depictions of marriage, I wonder what Wilde truly thought of marriage as an institution, and if that view was influenced by his attraction to men. Though married himself, Wilde’s work may suggest that he saw marriage as a failed institution. This is not to say that his own marriage was unhappy; rather, he found the rules of marriage tedious and suffocating. Considering his extramarital affairs, he may have seen marriage as failing to encompass all passions and romances and purposefully removed passion from marriage in his work. The most passionate relationships that Wilde writes about seem to be outside of marriage (for example, Basil’s commitment to Dorian or Tommy’s repeated proposals to Mabel). Wilde’s attitude towards marriage could be frustration with society’s rigid social structures that made no room for same-sex passions or even heterosexual extramarital affairs.

Basil, Harry, and Creative Urges

Throughout Dorian Gray, I found the presentation of art to be incredibly interesting. Basil and Harry seem to fight over Dorian as opposing artistic forces. On a larger scale, Basil and Harry’s work and its relationship to Dorian may reflect Wilde’s larger body of work. 

For example, Basil’s relationship with Dorian emphasizes meaning. Basil worships Dorian’s appearance and recreates his image in his artwork. Against his better judgment, Basil reveals himself completely in his work. Just by looking at his painting, his feelings towards Dorian are apparent. One can look through the exterior to find depth without trying. Basil may represent one aspect of Wilde’s creative process and philosophy, which yearns for meaning.

Meanwhile, Harry’s influence on Dorian shows a conflicting artistic urge. Harry’s quick quips are impressive on the exterior but contain nothing of value. He insists that the book he gives Dorian is nothing but a well-written book, with no true meaning or message. The artist puts nothing beyond the surface, yet Dorian takes Harry’s remarks and the book he recommends incredibly seriously. After Harry gives Dorian the book, Dorian obsesses over it, buying copies in different colors to suit his mood. He views the work as predicting his own life and often accuses Harry of poisoning him. 

This difference between Basil’s style of providing art and Harry’s style of providing art resembles the range of Wilde’s work. When we talked about Wilde’s Happy Prince tales as outliers in Wilde’s work, we considered that they may not mean anything at all. Like Dorian’s reaction to Harry’s influence, those trying to find meaning in these stories may be digging for something nonexistent and providing their own meanings instead. This would mirror the “Harry” style of art. Meanwhile, works like Dorian Gray are transparent. The story holds meaning beyond the surface, and Wilde’s focus on meaning in art provokes the reader to search for these meanings. Similar to Basil, he puts himself in the work. Wilde divorces the urges in his creative process and personifies them in Harry and Basil. One urge is to create clever and outwardly beautiful work, while the other is to create work that conveys meaning.

Poisonous Books

Considering the preface of Dorian Gray in hand with the “poisonous book” that Lord Henry gives Dorian, I wondered where the “poison” in the story truly originated. In the preface, Wilde insists that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” and that “those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.” Later, Lord Henry echoes Wildes’s point: “As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that… The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” On the other hand, Dorian maintains that the book does poison him: “It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain.” The narrator seems to confirm this by saying that “Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book.”

Wilde presents juxtaposing ideas: books can be poisonous, or they cannot. It is difficult to tell what Wilde truly believes or what he wants to communicate. While the preface does seem to state the author’s view explicitly, it also provokes the reader to look for meanings. What the preface says and what the preface accomplishes stand in contrast.

Likewise, while Lord Henry claims that books do not contain influence or convey meaning beyond what the reader brings, the text seems to contradict this at times, stating explicitly that “Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book.” Simultaneously, the text informs the reader that “[Dorian] never sought to free himself from it.” This points to culpability on Dorian’s end. The book may not have poisoned him; rather, Dorian allowed himself to be poisoned.

Perhaps Wilde’s point is that art cannot actively “poison” or influence, but if humans choose to let it poison them, it will transform them. Humans must provide meaning that will work through art to change them. Wilde describes the relationship between Dorian’s life and the book: “The hero, the wonderful young Parisian in whom the romantic and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended, became to him a kind of prefiguring type of [Dorian]. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.” This passage goes in hand with the idea we saw in Wilde’s other work: life imitates art. Humans bring meaning to art, which in turn influences life. Thus, life comes to imitate the meaning humans give to art.

Choice of Form in The Happy Prince Tales

One thing that I found particularly interesting about The Happy Prince stories was their similarity to fairy tales. This literary form seemed out of character for Wilde, whose works tend to cater to an educated and upper-class audience. Many of his poems, essays, and stories have the pre-requisite of being “in the know,” referencing other decadent works and making allusions to texts with which the average person would not be familiar. Additionally, some of his work comes off as classist. He treats the poor as predisposed to a certain lifestyle and favors the educated and bored wealthy as the main subjects of his work.

The Happy Prince tales took on a completely different mode of communication. They were generally straightforward stories that were easy to understand. They featured talking animals, mythical creatures, and even anthropomorphic rockets. Most seemed to contain a moral. Some even seemed to criticize the wealthy and upper class, like The Remarkable RocketThe Happy Prince, and The Devoted Friend.

While reading these stories, I wondered why Wilde would choose to write in this form. One reason could be that he was reveling in contradiction. Wilde eschews consistency for fear of becoming boring and deliberately runs from the familiar in The Happy Prince tales. The morals he presents throughout the story may be true beliefs as much as his seemingly contrasting beliefs in other stories. His use of a simple form may be an appeal to the uneducated as he makes his work more accessible. This great contrast in his work could have been appealing to Wilde’s aesthetic of difference and contradiction.

On the other hand, the stories may mean nothing at all. Wilde might be following a different belief and creating art for art’s sake, in which case the fairytales are merely beautiful. According to Wilde, art for art’s sake should lack meaning completely, voiding the morals throughout the collection of stories. 

Lastly, the stories may have been a personal challenge for Wilde, who stressed the importance of letting the genius shine by constraining them within a form. Wilde may have been challenging himself to work within the fairytale form to produce greater beauty and genius. Whatever his motive, The Happy Prince stories were an interesting break from Wilde’s usual style and revealed a range of creativity. 

Wilde and The Tempest

I noticed that Wilde referenced The Tempest in The Decay of Lying. This struck my interest because The Tempest seems to reflect some ideas of the decadent movement. 

In The Decay of Lying, Wilde describes Shakespeare’s career as one that gradually steers away from focusing on style and opts instead for realism and freedom. He reminds the audience that “it is working within limits that the master reveals himself.” He then states that “we need not linger any longer over Shakespeare’s realism” before calling The Tempest the “most perfect of palinodes.” However, it is unclear in what way Wilde sees The Tempest as a palinode. While it could be interpreted as a palinode of the realist work described earlier, it could also be interpreted as a palinode to his stylistic work. I am more inclined to believe the latter based on the contents of The Tempest and Wilde’s view of art, though the organization of this passage could suggest the former. The Tempest switches between verse and prose depending on who is speaking. Caliban even switches between the two depending on his audience. In this way, Wilde could be criticizing Shakespeare for failing to work within a limited structure. 

Though Wilde may be criticizing this work, I find it interesting that this is not the first time we have seen him reference The Tempest. In the preface to Dorian Gray, which we read on the first day, he states, “The nineteenth-century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in the glass.” In The Tempest, Caliban can be read many ways, but one interpretation of his character is that he represents raw human nature. With this interpretation, the line is read as humanity seeing themselves accurately in realism and despising what they see. 

While Wilde references The Tempest in these two works to make slightly different points, I find it fascinating that he has referenced it twice given the way that The Tempest could tie into the decadent movement. In The Tempest, nature is subordinated to magic and illusion as the powerful Prospero uses his magic (which could simply be interpreted as education) to conquer the island. Other characters fantasize about finding an untouched island to mold and fashion it to their liking, while Caliban, who is described as animalistic and inherently earthy, is constantly held captive by someone else. While it is certainly not the only interpretation, The Tempest can be read as a story about man’s dominance over nature. This certainly seems to be a central part of the decadent movement, which subordinates nature to man to the point that it bends at the will of art. Overall, I found this continued reference fascinating considering Wilde’s view of the relationship between nature and art.

Audience and Art

While reading Wilde’s work in this class and another class on queer literature, I have found myself most fascinated by Wilde’s philosophy of art. His preface to Dorian Gray explains that beauty should be enjoyed sans meaning- “l’art pour l’art.” He states: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” If any meaning is found in art at all, then it is brought by the audience rather than the artist or work itself. This message permeates his work, as I have found by reading his poems, prose, and Dorian Gray (in another class). He seems to go beyond this philosophy to assert that the human is not only a spectator but art as well. He states this, in part, in “Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” saying “one should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.” Given what we have learned about Wilde’s personal life, he took this to heart in his way of dressing and performative lifestyle.

Wilde expands his point beautifully in “The Disciple,” recalling Narcissus, who stares into a pond to see his own beauty. The sentient pond then reveals that Narcissus allowed it to see its own beauty in the reflection of his eye. In this situation, each character is at once art and audience. It is only because they are viewed by the other that they acquire meaning, yet that meaning comes from themselves. The art that they view acts only as a mirror for them to see their own beauty, reinforcing Wilde’s view that art is nothing in itself, and merely a means for self-discovery when it is enjoyed.

This message is echoed further in Dorian Gray, where Wilde toys with the idea of humans as art. His warnings that ugly meanings are reflections of ugly people are realized in Dorian. The portrait and Dorian seem to swap places, with Dorian becoming a surface that others cannot find meaning in, and the portrait becoming pure meaning. Dorian’s inner self finds its meaning in artwork, though the meaning he finds is dependent on his own mindset and soul. This goes to show Wilde’s original philosophy. However, Dorian is not merely an audience member, but also art itself. Harry remarks that while he has not taken up an artistic hobby, he instead lives his life as a piece of art by being physically beautiful. Simultaneously, Dorian becomes a “poison” to all he meets, ruining lives and reputations. Under Wilde’s view, while Dorian is reflected in the portrait, those he interacts with find themselves in him. They see what they do not like in themselves after interacting with Dorian though he remains unchanged artistically. Thus, the human is at once audience and art in Dorian Gray as well, albeit a nastier audience than Narcissus. 

I am excited by and interested in this conception of humanity. As we read more of Wilde’s work, I look forward to characters that see reflections in others while acting as mirrors.