“Avenge Oscar Wilde”

This might be a weird end of the semester post. Still, I think the cultural phenomenon of stickers is a fascinating way to understand the popular perception of celebrities, such as bands, writers, or characters. Stickers are a way to identify your interests, from slapping them onto your water bottle to your laptop for everyone’s viewing consumption. Professor Kinyon’s approach to modernity can be framed in the sense of stickers because they are a very modern or “Gen Z” type thing—simply walk into a classroom and spot everyone’s laptops littered with the stickers, showing off their interests to the world. One day, I looked up Oscar Wilde stickers on popular websites out of curiosity, such as Etsy and Redbubble, and an interesting phrase popped up: “Avenge Oscar Wilde” (https://www.redbubble.com/i/sticker/avenge-oscar-wilde-by-dangerdancing2/43456543.EJUG5).

            The way we talk about writers from the past now highlights the cultural shifts, from Victorian to the aesthetes to the contemporary environment we are currently living. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, avenge means: “to take vengeance, inflict retributive punishment, exact satisfaction, or retaliate, on behalf of (an injured person, violated right, etc.).” Avenge is an intriguing word in the context of Wilde’s charge for gross indecency. It implies that the charge was a wrongdoing and that Wilde was a person who was violated by the legal system and their punishment for his queer identity (and arguably his subversive views on art being put on trial). I think the frame of avenging Oscar Wilde carries on his history of prison reform, the primary topic of my paper. But at the same time, I believe this vague phrase of avenging Oscar Wilde is more in the context of his identity as a queer man, which we have talked about a lot over the past semester, and how we label him a “homosexual” when those labels did not exist at the time. The prison wronged Wilde for his queer identity. Looking into the modern future, where being queer is still subject to hate crimes, microaggressions, stereotypes, and other similar things, Wilde still would not be prosecuted for his crimes today. The sticker assumes that by continuing to fight against a largely homophobic and heteronormative society, one will “avenge Oscar Wilde.”

Oscar Wilde: The Wounded Hero?

Because I’m going to write my paper on De Profundis and Wilde’s interaction with the prison system, I decided this week to read his two letters to “The Daily Chronicle,” respectively titled “The Case of Warder Martin: Some Cruelties of Prison Life” and “Prison Reform.” Both letters are Wilde’s attempt to draw public attention to prison experiences by writing to the editor—highlighting ways to stop the three punishments of hunger, insomnia, and disease (965). Searching for scholarships, Julia Wood states in “WILDE THE EXILE: A LIFE LIVED IN LETTERS,” an article in The Wildean, that “there is an invariably underlying drama in Wilde’s expression [of his letters about prison], and this drama is his need to play out the role of the wounded hero” (44).

            A lot of our comments in class slightly align with this perspective. We spoke about how Wilde was classist in De Profundis, acting “holier than thou” as he was a middle-class artist in prison amongst people of another class status. This might well be the case in De Profundis, but Wilde being a wounded hero disregards the actual content of his letters to “The Daily Chronicle.” It should be noted that in the letters, Wilde does not speak of himself and his own experiences; he mainly takes up the role of an observer of injustices he witnessed in prison, such as with the young boy in “The Case of Warden Martin” and the lunatic man in “Prison Reform.” He doesn’t center himself in these interactions, which goes against the “wounded hero” portrayal of Wilde. The narrative space of the letter focuses on punishment, how prison can become a reformed system (if it ever can become one), and the portrayal of prisoners suffering who lived alongside Wilde. If anything, Wilde does not individualize himself in prison; he instead becomes part of a collective force, where the “really humanising influence in prison is the influence of the prisoners.” (961).

Wilde takes upon himself the role of being the voice of the voiceless. Although this grants Wilde the agency to portray his agenda, whatever it is, in the letters to “The Daily Chronicle” he focuses on prison as a system and how it wounds—not specifically wounding him but wounding prisoners, the most sympathetic class.

Redemptive Nature

One aspect that I did not expect to see in De Profundis is Wilde’s appreciation for nature. I remember reading “The Decay of Lying” earlier this semester, which featured a dialogue between Cyril and Vivian, Wilde’s two sons. Wilde writes through Cyril that “what art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition” (970). Variety is seen through Art rather than Nature, residing in the fantastical imagination that Wilde constantly calls forth. However, we have all seen how Wilde has shifted his views toward many things in De Profundis. And one of those things is nature.

            When living in a prison cell, confined and lacking mobility, Nature is much more sought after by Wilde. He still has books (paid for by Robbie), and even if sorrow has stolen many things from him, he still returns to his true love of Art and how imagination and self-realization feed into that. But he does not have Nature. He is much more aware of the space he is living in (a prison cell) and the physical tasks he has to complete, such as scrubbing the floor of his cell. While we once stated in class that Wilde’s plays take place in some utopia setting, not quite Britain, De Profundis undeniably grounds him in the physical location of his prison cell in Reading Gaol. Wilde plans to go to a “little seaside village” after his release, where “the sea… [will wash] away the stains and wounds of the world” (954). Nature takes on a redemptive quality in this light. Instead of having monotony and an unfinished condition, Wilde believes that people have forgotten the “uses of any single thing” and how “Water can cleanse” (954). Of course, this reminded me of holy water and Christianity, as De Profundis directly concerns itself with the religion. Still, I argue that Wilde’s physical confinement made him ground himself into more of the physicality of everyday life, everyday Nature. Wilde is going to come back to a society after his imprisonment that has sneered, mocked, and punished him at every turn. But he will be able to form his own society and community, and Nature will welcome him with open, cleansing arms.      

Gross Indecency vs. Murder

One instance of intrigue in Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde is how judges and prosecution alike equate the crime “gross indecency” to be worse than murder. It reminded me about our conversation last Wednesday in class when we talked about how Wilde might have “created” the death ending for queer people in media with The Picture of Dorian Gray. But then we also emphasized how this narrative may have manifested because there is no other outcome for queer people but death when they end their bloodline and go against society’s heteronormative model. Placing the act of “gross indecency” above murder interested me based on our conversation.

            Narrator 4 says: “I would rather try the most shocking murder case that has ever fallen to my lot to try than be engaged in a case of this description” (125). The judge also directs to Wilde: “…the crime of which you have been convicted is so bad that one has to put a firm restraint upon oneself to prevent oneself from describing, in terms I would rather not use, the sentiments which must rise to the breast of every man of honor who has heard the details of these three terrible trials… People who can do these things are dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them” (126). In this closing statement by Justice Wills, who delivered Wilde’s sentencing, I found more said in the transcript through the link https://www.famous-trials.com/wilde/335-statement, which further aides the argument that gross indecency is elevated as a crime, viewed as worse than murder. So why exactly is “gross indecency” worse than murder? Wilde’s “influence” and “corruption” have to be a significant component of this view. Gross indecency entails a sexual deviation towards something more focused on pleasure and sensuality. Justice Wills states that Wilde “has been the center of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men,” placing Wilde in the occupation of ringleader who yields all the influence. To deviate from the sexual norm towards something which does not have a reproductive purpose and is seen solely as an activity of pleasure is equivalent to murder: the murder of duty, of normative sexuality, of reproduction, of sex’s purpose. It is a bad thing that Wilde has submitted to pleasure, according to the trial, even when pleasure elicits happiness. The trial believes that Wilde has committed several acts of murder based on the several men he has committed gross indecency with.

Dance of the Seven Veils

The act of dancing, which allows Salomé to bargain for what she so deeply desires—the head of Jokanaan—intrigued me while reading “Salomé.” When Salomé and Herod reach their sworn oath of giving Salomé her desire if only she will dance, there is only one stage direction: “Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils” (570). She does this solely for Herod’s pleasure, a dance for him and his consumption alone. What surprised me about this part of the play is that we have seen through our close reading of Wilde’s other plays how his way of writing stage directions can be prose-like, as if it has come straight out of a novel. While Salomé dances for everyone at the feats at Herod’s request, Wilde abandons his usual prose-like stage directions. Instead, Salomé dances the dance of the seven veils, and its description passes uneventfully. The audience doesn’t know if she’s dancing with grace, seduction, nervously. Wilde is purposefully leaving these details and the description of her dance out of the play, but why?

            The word “veils” is fascinating here. There have been many other blog posts about how we can arrive at a deep reading to where Wilde’s homosexuality manifests in the act of looking. Similar to staying in the closet, hidden by a “veil,” Salomé slowly unveils herself and her nature through the dance of the seven veils. When she unveils herself and says what she truly wants, Herod no longer gains sexual satisfaction from looking at her; instead, he is terrified at her request to behead Jokanaan so she can have his head. He realizes her true nature after she dances for him. I wonder why Wilde chose “the dance of the seven veils” for Salomé to dance, as this was the first recorded instance of this phrase. Can we read this in terms of Wilde’s homosexuality and the act of unveiling, or are we reading too deep into it all?

The Four-Acts of “The Importance of Being Earnest”

While reading “The Importance of Being Earnest,” I watched a play version of the text to follow along on YouTube. It is performed by Bethany Lutheran College (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BWPftxsBPz0&t=4593s). It was only halfway through the play in Act II that I saw the divergence between both versions, which made me turn back to the introduction written by Vyvyan Holland. In the introduction, he writes, “Wilde originally wrote the play in four acts, as he had written his other three major plays. He submitted this form to George Alexander, who, with the object of making room for a ‘curtain raiser,’ as was usual in those days, asked Wilde to cut it to three acts… As Mr. Phillip Drake, who is responsible for this edition of Wilde’s works, remarked, it seems a pity that George Alexander should have a permanent influence on the play” (13). Vyvyan also notes how the three-act version is typically reprinted, published, and referred to. I became curious about the differences between both versions of the plays and their comparison.

            In the four-act version of the play, Gribsby, a solicitor with many quips and amusing lines, issues a writ to Mr. Earnest Worthing, who is Algernon but actually Jack, for racking up an extravagant bill while dining. He would be incarcerated for twenty days if he could not pay his bill. Jack claims he has “never saw such reckless extravagance in all my life,” ironic precisely because he is the cause of the extravagance and the bill when under his persona of Earnest (350). He ends up paying the bill when Algernon refuses to do so, praised for his “generosity [which is] quite foolish,” according to Miss Prism (352). As many have been saying in their blog posts, Wilde satirizes the aristocracy, but in the same subtle way as he did in “An Ideal Husband.” Since this was the original play and Wilde intended for his audience of English high society members to experience this scene, it is a bold move because it shows how excess extravagance has legal implications, like being incarcerated. Although Jack can pay off the bill (a critique of aristocracy and how they can use money to get out of such situations), he was still under the threat of incarceration. I wonder what others think about this scene and how Wilde himself would view people reprinting the three-act-version, with the four acts primarily forgotten. It is also interesting considering this scene in the context of Wilde being incarcerated for gross indecency quickly after “The Importance of Being Earnest” opened. How do incarceration and class status interact in this English society?

A Queer Reading of Dorian’s Mobility and Immobility

I wanted to make another post related to my previous one. For those who didn’t read it, I made an argument that Basil keeps Dorian physically confined by demanding him to sit for his portrait. At the same time, Lord Henry, who is epitomized as “Life,” renders Dorian physically mobile (70). He gets integrated into society: attending plays, dinner parties, and other outings. Initially, I thought the argument was odd; I spent some time reconciling with it. Lord Henry is the one who influences Dorian, who is a significant contributor to his corruption. How is somebody who makes Dorian more mobile somebody who also makes him immobile by implanting his ideas of influence? After finishing the novel this week and thinking my argument did not make sense in the grand scheme of the story, I found out it did have a place with a queer reading. The discussion on Wednesday in class about concepts such as the closet helped me arrive at this conclusion and look deeper into the confession scene I pointed out in class.

Again, a lot of the language in the confession scene was overtly queer, with Basil making “a strange confession” about how he “was dominated, soul, brain, and power by [Dorian]” (93, 94). However, the most explicit part in this scene for me lies when Dorian says, “you and I are friends, Basil, and we must always remain so” (95). Basil then says, “You have got Harry” (95). I found it interesting that both of these situations are incompatible, according to Basil; Dorian, for some reason, cannot both be friends with Lord Henry and Basil. I also found it intriguing that Basil states he will be exhibiting the portrait in Paris close before the confession scene. Dorian is entirely against it: “Was the world going to be shown his secret? Were people going to gape at the mystery of his life?” (92). One could read it in the light that Dorian does not want the world to see his aged, disfigured self in Basil’s portrait. However, the proximity of both pieces of text in the narrative is too close not to correlate them together. I read it to be that Basil exhibiting the portrait to the world is an allegory for displaying his true self and homosexuality; Dorian does not want to be a part of this due to his fear and the “corruption” that life has inflicted upon him. This is supported because Basil says, “’ every flake and colour seemed to me to reveal my secret… I felt that I had told too much, that I had too much of myself in it’” (94). Since Dorian is hiding the portrait in his childhood schoolroom, where nobody can access, and only Basil sees, it operates similarly to the metaphorical closet. It reminded me of Giovanni’s Room (a fantastic novel, and James Baldwin is a great author!). At first, Dorian is confined to the studio with Basil, sharing a secret and creating a truly beautiful portrait. Then “Life” or Lord Henry comes in all his influence, and Dorian becomes corrupted in his integration into society, no longer confined to the room where virtually no public perception exists. Dorian’s killing of Basil reflects this decay of that part of himself, the part he wants to hide.

Dorian’s Immobility and Mobility

Our discussion today had me thinking a lot about the philosophies that Wilde is portraying through his characters, as well as how Wilde himself fits into the narrative of his own novel, but then I started thinking about the physical world in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I brought up the point in class that the whole reason for Basil’s downfall becomes his trust in Lord Henry. He believes that Dorian will become influenced by Henry, and “the influence would be bad” (26). At the end of chapter six, Basil mourns the “strange sense of loss” of Dorian becoming influenced by Henry and then states that “life had come between them” (70). I’m not going to be focusing on the word strange and the homoerotic implications it has in this blog post (although it’d be cool if somebody commented on it!), but rather I want to talk about how we can understand the relationships through their physicality and mobility. I find it interesting that at the beginning of the novel, when first introduced to Basil and Dorian’s relationship, the artist and the art, Dorian is physically immobile. He stays confined and seems satisfied simply being inside his studio. There is a part after where Dorian goes out to the garden because he is impatient with posing, but it happens after he meets Lord Henry. After Lord Henry, Dorian cannot be confined to the studio anymore, as a subject of art. He creates the subjects now; he goes from dinners to outings to the theater with Lord Henry, who makes Dorian into somebody physically a part of the world, somebody that can move around unlike when Basil confined him to the art studio. This makes sense with the line that “life had come between” Basil and Dorian, and life is Henry personified because Henry is integrating Dorian into all of the societal outings and sensory experiences that life has to offer over the studio.

            I’m not quite sure what to make of this argument as well as the level of nuance that Basil is creating backdrops and environments in the portrait that are not a part of the physical realm since they are birthed from his artistry and his mind, which is also an interesting perspective to consider. I think that the material and physical world will start to tell us some things about the contradictory philosophies we are reading that come from all the characters. What does it mean that Basil is “confining” Dorian? Is it a bad thing to become integrated into the society of dinners, outings, and theater? How does Basil’s trust become his downfall; what does it say about him?

What is the Point of it All?

Our talk about “The Happy Prince” and other tales on Wednesday stuck with me a lot after class because, weirdly, they allow us to have a framework about what art is. We read Wilde’s essays about art through “The Critic as Artist” and “The Decay of Lying,” but even then, his philosophy of art is difficult to pin down when we place them in the contexts of his poems, short stories—and soon—his plays and only novel. On Wednesday, we talked a lot about how we were unsure whether the tales could be classified as an accurate “fairy tale” or whether they were Wilde’s twisted version of a fairy tale. We also discussed whether children could understand everything Wilde placed before them or if the tales were meant to evolve and grow over time with the reader. Why did we read the short stories we read (“The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime)? What is the point of it all?

Professor Kinyon’s argument that Wilde is playing with us makes the most sense to me, admittedly, but it’s hard to justify this with the religious elements peppered throughout each story. “Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime” is mostly humorous; that’s the value I see in it, at least. Yet I can’t overlook the message about predestination, as well as the attack on “duty” that the Victorians upheld. It is the same with “The Canterville Ghost,” where nationality undoubtedly plays a role in the story with Wilde’s poking fun at Americans. But then I pose another question: Why do I take religion seriously but everything else not seriously? My current view is that I find great entertainment value in Wilde’s art; it makes me laugh in all its cleverness and the jabs at his characters. Suddenly, when we talk about religion in Wilde’s art, everything takes a deeper, more serious dimension—but why does it suddenly become deeper than just entertainment when religion is introduced?

We’ve also already discussed that Wilde’s philosophy of art is contradictory; some of the philosophy he puts forth in his essays ends up contradicting elements in his stories or poems, such as the strictness of form he adheres to in the poem as well as his introducing “moral imperatives” through “The Happy Prince,” “The Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Selfish Giant,” and possibly “The Devoted Friend” arguably introduce moral imperatives. Yet the contradictory part of this lies in the last closing paragraphs of “The Devoted Friend”:

“‘I am rather afraid that I have annoyed him,’ answered the Linnet. ‘The fact is, that I told him a story with a moral.’

     ‘Ah! that is always a very dangerous thing to do,’ said the Duck.

     And I quite agree with her.”

This blog post is all over the place because Wilde’s philosophy is also all over the place, and I find with these beginning tales we have been reading that it’s challenging to see Wilde in his art. All in all, I am super excited to start reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and compare my theses and arguments with Wilde’s treatment of the novel, because Professor Kinyon has argued that Wilde shows too much of himself in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the preface protects himself as the artist against being identified in the art.

A Study of Duty: Wilde’s Subtitles

As I read “The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” I became interested and even confused at the short phrases under the title. For “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” it is “A Study of Duty” (168). For “The Canterville Ghost,” it is “a Hylo-Idealistic Romance” (193). After reading each of the stories, I wondered why Wilde used the specific words to place under the title to encapsulate the art piece; why did he even need to prescribe such short phrases under the short stories if the stories speak for themselves? In addition, I thought it was almost contradictory to offer these phrases to encapsulate the art piece if the aesthetes and decadence believe that art impresses rather than expresses; it is the individualism of the reader that art finds its beauty. By bestowing a phrase on a story, many will examine the story through that specific lens that the phrases offer. I attempted to see if the phrases underneath each title allowed me a newer perspective to think about the stories.

Like others have said in the blog posts, Wilde ironizes Calvinism and the idea that Arthur Savile is predestined to murder; although he is clearly the worst world’s murderer in his multiple failed attempts, he finally succeeds when he murders somebody who advocates for Calvinism, who Wilde portrays as the embodiment of predestination. So why didn’t Wilde include predestination under the title? I speculate that he possibly did not want to attack such Calvinist ideals directly. Still, I believe it is more likely that he wanted to examine duty as a whole in society. In class, we’ve talked a lot about how Victorians were mortified by the aesthetes and decadents’ beliefs in the individual and “art for art’s sake.” At the same time, the Victorians emphasized collectivism and duty to the common good. In “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” Wilde “studies” duty and questions its validity. Does one person even have a duty? Much like the victims that Arthur chooses at random (179), predestination operates on similar grounds, implying that duty is also arbitrary. The subtitle helps ground the story and its more significant implications. Still, I also think that Wilde telling us what the story is (a study of duty) goes against some of the aesthetes’ viewpoints because what if somebody does not interpret it as a study of duty?

“The Canterville’s Ghost” is largely an enigmatic story to me. It was my favorite of the two, but the phrase underneath is hard to reconcile with, mainly because I didn’t view Virginia and the ghost to be in a “romance.” If anybody else has an interpretation, I would love to hear it and hope we talk more about this in class!