End of the Semester Post

Coming into this class, I only really knew about Wilde’s reputation with his trial and imprisonment. Actually reading his work has illuminated so much about him, and made me think about the circumstances around his fate. That is what I focused my final paper about, specifically thinking about the concept of predestination. 

I thought the concept of predestination was interesting because it is the idea of an inescapable fate. Wilde talks about this in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, with Lord Arthur thinking he was unable to escape his fate of having to murder someone. But the chiromantist is proven to be a fraud, and this, along with the use of comedy, shows that Wilde is critiquing predestination. But, I then thought about the ending through the lens of what type of fate one gets based on their status and class. 

Lord Arthur, even though his fate was false and he committed the crime, had a happy ending. I think this was because he was a member of the conventional aristocracy, a group of people who always had a prosperous ending in Wilde’s stories. Wilde, on the other hand, did not share the same social acceptability because his identity as a queer man. So, thinking about his fate, you could say that he was predestined to have a tragic ending. This is related to the concept we discussed in class of queer people not getting happy endings in many cases of life, and art. Wilde partly predicted his fate through his art, namely through The Picture of Dorian Gray, looking at the parallels between the relationship between Dorian Gray and Lord Henry in comparison with the relationship between WIlde and Bosie. I thought another interesting point from his work was in The Importance of Being Earnest, where Jack and Algy’s bunburying (which could be seen as a representation of a queer double life) started to derail their lives, but they both got happy endings when they submitted to the conventional Victorian marriage and lifestyle. 

I really enjoyed getting to read deeper into Wilde’s works and in turn learn more about his own life this semester!

De Profundis: Performance and Vulnerability 

De Profundis is arguably Wilde’s most vulnerable piece of art. He writes from prison, his reputation eroded, and with a new outlook on life. It greatly differs from his other works, but in a sense it is still performative. I think Wilde partly uses De Profundis as a performance of his own truth, but a truth that does not fully consider his own actions and their consequences. 

Wilde starts the piece with a pretty scathing denouncement of Bosie. His indiscretions about their relationship really illuminated how horrible Bosie treated Wilde, and it was a very vulnerable move on Wilde’s part. I think Bosie deserves to be called out for his actions, but Wilde fails to take into account his own choices in his involvement with Bosie. I think that this failure to address his own mistakes, and the fact that he went back to Bosie after getting out of jail makes me think about De Profundis being some ways in the context of a performative piece. 

In class we discussed the question of if Wilde thought that others would be reading his letter. I think that he knew others would be reading it, and so in a way it was a method for Wilde to try and better his reputation. It is true that the mask is off and the jig is up, but by showing how bad Bosie was, maybe Wilde could have hoped to both work through his experience, and also to slightly clear his name. Wilde is shaping the narrative around their relationship, which is of course all he can do, but still there exists that intention alongside the vulnerability. 

As much as it is frustrating to read that Wilde went back to Bosie even after everything that happened, I think about how complicated it was. I still think about how much of Wilde’s involvement with Bosie was feeling like he had no other choice. Like we read in “Love in a Dark Time,” when you are told that your love is gross and indecent, that must make you feel that you don’t deserve a healthy love. But then I also think about how neglected Wilde’s family was, and question Wilde’s thought-process there. I don’t know why Wilde went back to Bosie, if it was because he felt he had no choice, or just him not considering that he could and should live a life without him. But since he did go back, I do see a bit of performativity when I read De Profundis.

Going on Trial as an Act of Defiance 

Our last class made me think about the idea of the courtroom as the theater and Wilde’s demeanor while on trial.

The courtroom has many times been referred to as a theatrical setting, with the aspects of storytelling and drama playing into the workings of a trial. This particularly applies to highly publicized trials, such as Wilde’s. His was the “trial of the century,” and a condemnation of Wilde in the sense of his sexuality and his work. It was a serious matter for his reputation, and more importantly his life. But, as we saw from Gross Indecency by Moises Kaufman, Wilde was not so serious while testifying. He still used his wit to poke fun or when giving answers to the judge/prosecutor. We knew Wilde had an affinity for using this wit based on the characters he wrote in his stories, but why would Wilde not take a more somber tone for his own trial for gross indecency?

And added to this question, as we have discussed before, in some ways Wilde has written his own demise into existence through his stories, particularly with The Importance of Being Earnest. He seems to predict his fate, which prompts interesting ideas about predestination, but also makes me think that Wilde knew that, because his feelings were criminalized, that his sexual actions were unignorable and could lead to his downfall. But, even if he knows this, and then it comes to semi-fruition with the trial, what made him choose to go to the trial rather than leave the country?

I think that Wilde stayed in England based on a series of unfortunate events but had a witty demeanor during the trial because he had a lot to prove to Bosie’s dad and to the people of high society. His status as an outsider, whether through his Irishness or his sexuality, made it so he had to work to fit in. And, I think he was determined to stand up for himself against Bosie’s father, who tried to shame him into exile. Wilde worked hard to build a successful career and good reputation for himself, and given his status as an outsider, it was important to keep that. Part of that reputation was his wit and cleverness, two things that were maintained during the trials. If Wilde were serious in demeanor, I think the people who were trying to criminalize him for his actions would have won in a different sense.

Exploitation and Orientalism in Salome

When we were discussing Salome’s character in class, I did not see her agency as much as I saw her exploitation and sexualization. The added conversation about approaching this story through a post-colonial Orientalist lens also made me think about the construction of the piece and the intentions of Wilde behind it.

As we discussed, Orientalism is the production of a romanticized version of the “East” that is not accurate and more of a projection of Western views on the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. It isn’t a true representation. There is a heavy focus on tropes and stereotypical or projected traits. It is shown in works of art and literature as barbaric, violent, sensual, exotic and emotional. 

The story of Salome, who we know is a young girl, was not inherently sexual in the Bible. As we read in class, her asking for John the Baptist’s head was her mother’s idea, not her own. She was not even named. Her dance could have been out of celebration, or spiritual in nature. I do think that this lack of information on Salome and her unnamed presence made her story attractive for Wilde and other artists to reimagine, as we connected it to the story of W.H. Perhaps she was an opportunity for Wilde to tell his own story, to represent himself in literature and history. 

However, Wilde made Salome into a femme fatale, a sexualised and seductive character who was killed for expressing such sexuality and villainized for having John the Baptist killed, although Herod was really the one who had the power to kill him. I think this is more exploitative of a young girl who did not have these traits in the original story. Her dance of the seven veils changes the nature of her dance into something more sexual, and her desire to kiss the lips of John the Baptist makes her the villain who was responsible for his death.

Thinking about how her story was changed by Wilde’s reinterpretation, and knowing the nature of Orientalism, I feel like the first thing that jumps out at me from Wilde’s version is Salome’s exploitation. Perhaps Wilde was acting on his own desires, wanting to create a popular story, or not thinking about the consequences of this characterization, but I don’t think it was a just choice to Salome.

You accept the love you think you deserve

I was at first surprised to see the subject matter Wilde chose for this play. It felt out of place to me, especially in comparison to the other pieces we have already studied, which focused more on Victorian society. But, as I continued to read, I could see the connections between this subject matter and Wilde’s own life, notably when considering the ideas of desire and indecency. 

The play Salome centers itself on the action of desiring, looking, and lusting after. Herod and the Syrian captain both look at Salome with sexual desire. This gaze is condemned by others, with the feeling that “something bad” happening being reiterated over and over again. And, that prophecy is fulfilled, as the Syrian kills himself and Herod is forced by his oath to Salome to behead Jokanaan. Salome also lusts after Jokanaan, which is condemned by almost everyone in the play. For her display of unacceptable lust, and her display of power in being able to get Jokanaan beheaded, she is killed herself. 

The lust that these characters exude is considered to be “wrong.” This makes me think of Wilde and his homosexuality. As we discussed in our last class, Wilde was told that his natural attraction and feelings of love were unnatural, gross, and indecent. Since Salome, the Syrian, and Herod had tragic ends (though Herod doesn’t die, just is forced to behead Jokanaan), Wilde is saying that unnatural lust results in bad things happening to you, either by yourself (in the case of the suicide), or by others. And we see this in Wilde’s case with his imprisonment.

We asked the question in class: what does thinking your natural attraction is wrong do to one psychologically? What does it make you feel that you deserve out of a relationship? I think it would make you think that you do not deserve a traditional, healthy relationship, and this makes sense to me in the context of Wilde and Bosie. Being told you are a bad person may make you think that you deserve bad things being done to you, like Bosie did to Wilde.

Class and Blame in The Importance of Being Earnest

In a great deal of his pieces Wilde confronts the issue of class, and in our more recent classes we have been especially focused on how Englishness and Irishness fits into this conversation with class identity. I particularly noticed this in the way the lower classes are commented on by the upper (English) classes in The Importance of Being Earnest.” 

The plot of this play revolves around the maintenance of two identities by one man: Ernest and Jack. One of them, Ernest, a bachelor who dines expensively but “cannot pay” for such endeavors in the city and often falls ill, and Jack, who is a reserved and responsible caretaker in the countryside. 

Those who care about high English society in the play spend a good amount of time commenting on Ernest, or others of lower classes who they deem unrespectable societally. When hearing the “lax” views on marriage from Lane, Algernon comments that “They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.” (358) To Miss Prism, who cares deeply about the formation of Cecily as a refined Englishwoman, Ernest “falling ill” is a sign of bad character, despite that being something that hypothetically cannot be controlled. Lady Bracknell, even deeming Jack suitable in other areas, says that he cannot marry her daughter because of his lack of relations, and that losing both parents (something he could not control and is actually quite tragic) was a “carelessness.”

This attitude of `you get what you deserve’, or as Miss Prism puts it, “As a man sows, let him reap,” seems harsh or unfair because a lot of the things they are judging on are things that cannot be controlled by characters. In the case of Jack being barred from marrying Gwendolen, this especially shows that even if you are pretty well acclimated to the English society (you do everything “correct,”) you could still be rejected because of something you cannot control, like your birth, or your Irish identity in Wilde’s case. 

I think Wilde is intentionally poking fun or criticizing the upper classes without them noticing or provoking them too much. I think it will be interesting to see how this idea develops because at the halfway point, I would guess that the story will end with a sentiment of “it doesn’t matter where you come from,” or something along those lines, but I am not sure. Will he try to conform to the narrative of English high society (that relations matter,) or will he try to suggest something new, and in a way change the way society functions? Is he trying to fit in with this play, or stand out?

A “Careful Carelessness”

The discussion we have had about how Wilde has related to each character in A Picture of Dorian Gray has fascinated me. And, I am still particularly curious about the idea of the way Wilde presented himself versus his true self. As we have discussed in class, a way we can view Wilde is through the many parallels between him and the characters of Lord Henry, Basil, and Dorian. 

My train of thought first begins with Dorian’s character, after the point of his “poisoning.” To the outside eye, Dorian is beautiful, but troublesome. He seems to negatively impact everyone he has a close relationship. He has become the poisoner, and though it is not reflected physically, it is reflected in the portrait. And that display of his soul deteriorating is ruining his life. Because he cannot reveal who he truly is, because his real self is locked away in a closet, he is breaking down, and taking those around him down with him. But, this was partly learned behavior, taken from Lord Henry. But then why is Lord Henry not facing the same consequences? Perhaps it is because Lord Henry does not take anything seriously, including his own words or feelings. He is capable of contradicting himself and changing his mind constantly. Dorian is not. 

This makes me think about the idea of aestheticism and the preface of the book. Are we meant to not take ourselves seriously, lest it destroys our soul? Are we meant to not look beyond the surface? Oscar Wilde certainly made others think that is how he thought. But, we learned that in university Wilde curated a feeling of nonchalance, in witty humor and knowledge, despite locking himself away to read for a good portion of the day. We referred to this in class as a sort of “careful carelessness.” Was this what Lord Henry was doing as well? Putting in so much effort to appear uncaring? To never reveal what is truly underneath? But then how is it that in the book Basil’s greatest work was the result of baring his soul in his art? Was this book Wilde baring his soul, or just another contradiction? 

A Picture of Dorian Gray certainly presents many contradictions about aestheticism, to the point where I find it sort of comical. And maybe that is Wilde’s point, to in part confuse the reader for his own amusement. But, perhaps that is what he wants us to think, when in reality this is, like Basil did, a way that Wilde showed his soul through art. Wilde has built this image of “careful carelessness” to the point where it makes it hard for us to really know the truth, even now. In my opinion, I think Wilde truly is revealing himself in this work, but I am curious to see how his tone changes, if it does, in the next works we read, particularly De Profundis.

Corruption of Beauty

After reading the “The Ballad of a Barber,” and some of The Picture of Dorian Gray, I started to think again about the idea of creation of beauty, artist as creator, and corruption of beauty.

In “The Ballad of the Barber,” the barber is known for his abilities to make things beautiful. Just as much as an artist in any other sphere of art, the manipulation of hair and one’s face with makeup is an act of creation. But the barber suddenly loses his ability to do so when he is confronted with the young princess, an already stunning girl. The princess is naturally beautiful. Perhaps, like in “The Decay of Lying,” one’s natural state being beautiful is something hard to understand. If it is not man-made, then it can’t be beautiful. But since the princess already is, perhaps that is why she was killed by the Barber. His act of murder may be a sort of morbid creation itself. He could not understand or handle her natural beauty, and so had to get rid of it, or one-up it with her murder, in a twisted way.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is also already beautiful. With Basil, he is admired for such beauty. He is confined to the inside world, where he sits for portraits and enjoys his influence over Basil. He’s like a princess sitting in a castle. But Lord Henry gets him out of the castle. Again, this sense of twisted manipulation comes in. Lord Henry enjoys corrupting Dorian, he has this power over him that he utilizes. Dorian is described using flower-like imagery, showing he is beautiful, pure, fragile, and corruptible. Henry likes to think that he created Dorian out of his influence, like I’m sure the Barber felt he created beautiful things out of his influence. Perhaps, like the Barber, Lord Henry does not know what to do with something so naturally beautiful except to corrupt it. That is the only thing you can do to something that you can’t make any more beautiful: try to ruin it. Or maybe, to try and make it one’s own. Murdering the princess gave the Barber a tie to her. I’m not sure yet if Lord Henry is really trying to “ruin” Dorian, but I get the sense that he has this compulsion to corrupt, and a compulsion to make Dorian his own.

I’m interested to see how Lord Henry and Dorian’s relationship develops throughout the rest of the story, and if it is going to go down a similar path as the princess’s fate.

Freedom through Lying

One of the questions we asked about “The Decay of Lying” was: Why did Wilde choose to use the word lying? Vivian found no value in Nature having anything to do with Art, but found that Art’s real aim was to lie. Why was this?

I think this relates to the ongoing conversation we have been having about the aspects of mystery and curiosity that enveloped Wilde. Lying is mysterious. It’s not straight-forward. It piques curiosity. And of course it is fun. 

Lying is something to do. Not only does it prevent boredom, but it contributes to Wilde’s dedication to creation at the hands of the artist. A good lie is personal, it is nurtured and shaped by the teller. And if it is successful, a lie is entertaining. It is the same as a great story.

At first when I read that the aim of Art was lying, it didn’t make sense to me. But, the more I think about what lying really means, the more I see how Wilde loved and appreciated a good lie. My favorite thing about lying that relates to Wilde is that lying can be pointless. Lying for no reason, only for entertainment, even if just for one’s self. That makes me think of “art for art’s sake.” There is no reason, you simply lie to make something, to create. And like art, it can turn out good or bad. 

I think this also relates to “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.” The reason the party was thrown in the first place was out of Lady Windermere’s boredom, and her boredom contributed her to bringing Mr. Podgers as entertainment. His form of entertainment was lying, and he could do it well. The lie he created was so effective that it was the catalyst for the creation of the rest of the entire story. 

It also made me think of the ideas of freedom that we discussed with the imagery of birds in “The Happy Prince.” What if, since Wilde couldn’t be straightforward about his personal identity most of the time, lying was his form of freedom? As we have speculated about in class, I believe that Wilde wore a mask a lot of the time to prevent having to explain things about himself that he didn’t want to. The truth would, and did, take away his literal freedom. So, lying could’ve been a way for him to have the freedom to construct and live in the world the way he wanted to.

Calvinism and ideas of predestination in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”

I found myself really enjoying Wilde’s short stories that we read for this week, particularly “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.” I think I found this one really striking because it made me think about the topic of religion and Wilde and the Aesthetes’ relationship to it. 

When Lord Arthur is told by the palm reader that he will commit a murder, he feels as though his fate is sealed, and that there is no way to escape it. He is destined to commit a grave sin. This reminded me of Calvinism and the idea of predestination, or that no matter what humans do in life, some are meant to go to heaven and some are meant to go to hell. This realization drives Arthur Savile into a panicked state of planning to murder his extended relative(s) in order to fulfill his destiny and move on with his life. I like how Wilde toys with comedy as the first attempt of murder fails, and his second becomes further comically tortuous to Savile as nothing seems to be working. It is only when Savile kills the palm reader that he can really move on. It is as though the palm reader is a representation of God or a leader in the Calvinist church, he is whoever is telling people that their fate is set. And, comically, the palm reader is a fraud! As though Calvinism itself is a sham.

This story indirectly showcases the ideas that Wilde had about religion. As we learned in class, Wilde believes in Catholicism, and other Aesthetes did too. But, I am still unsure exactly why Catholicism appeals to him. Is it because of free will… the freedom of agency in doing what pleases you? Is it because he sees similarities in the transformative power of the artist, like the transformative power of Christ? Is it because he replaces Christ with art? Is it a genuine spiritual connection that appreciates the ritualistic nature of Catholicism? I still have a lot of questions about Wilde’s relationship with religion that I look forward to hopefully answering as we continue reading.