Upon reflection, I have come to the conclusion that my greatest lesson from this course is that a literary work is so much more enriching if the reader looks below its surface. Wilde’s writings have an incredibly entertaining and often humorous surface; however – after learning about his life and about how to more closely read his work – I have found that an intensely tragic subtext exists beneath this cheery exterior. Most of this deeper meaning seems to be influenced by Wilde’s continual struggle with his identity as his sexuality, Irishness, upper middle-class background, and interest in aestheticism made him an outsider in aristocratic, English society. Furthermore, I really enjoyed exploring elements of this subtext such as the themes of bunburying, fatal attraction, wearing a mask, etc. Reading these works without discussing these metaphorical themes would still be worthwhile (as Wilde’s whit and surface-level social commentary are so masterful that they warrant study), but I would argue that one would never be able to fully grasp these writings’ true significance because so much of their greater meaning is connected to these hidden themes. As a result, I now feel that examining a work through an autobiographical lens is a much more fruitful endeavor than I originally thought.
This semester’s coursework really helped me engage with this subtext in a more structured way. The blogs gave me the flexibility to more deeply engage with the aspects of the works that I was most interested in. They also allowed me to experiment with different interpretations of these hidden meanings, which provided me with a more holistic view of each work. Additionally, the final presentation/paper gave me the opportunity to more substantially examine one of these themes (fatal attraction) and engage with the scholarly/critical discussion surrounding this element of subtext. While my paper primarily focuses on Salomé, I enjoyed connecting my ideas to other works (ex: Gross Indecency) because this practice helped me to synthesize the class’ greater themes into a valuable final discussion.
For my final paper, I have decided to examine Salomé through the lenses of colonialism and orientalism. I wanted to use this blog post as a method to attempt to connect these ideas to Wilde’s Irishness (a test-run).
The first interesting parallel to British-Irish relations in the play relates to its setting in “colonial” Judea. The Romans seem to share a similar role to the British as both empires conquered a diverse array of peoples while also trying to impose their cultural and religious beliefs on a resistant populace. In the beginning of the play, two soldiers (presumably of Roman but definitely of imperial background) have a conversation in which they dehumanize and critique the local Jewish citizenry. One soldier asks, “Who are those wild beasts howling” (552) while the other soldier answers, “The Jews…They are disputing about their religion” (552). The comparison of the Jews to “wild beasts” seems to mirror the British’s animalistic depictions of the Irish, and the verb “howling” could specifically connect to how many of these offensive representations included simian undertones. The fact that the Jewish people were “disputing about their religion” may also relate to Ireland as Protestants and Catholics were constantly thrown into conflict over the doctrines of the overarching Christian belief system. The British elite may have looked down upon this theological disagreement as their religious landscape looked much calmer and more uniformly Protestant on the surface, and this idea appears in the play when one of the soldiers remarks that “it is ridiculous to dispute about such things”– as most Romans would have shared a largely uniform belief in their traditional pantheon or might have not been very passionate about critiquing the majority religion (552).
Continuing on the topic of religion, both the British and the Romans seem to have attempted to eradicate local religions in their respective colonial territories. For example, the Cappadocian character explains, “In my country there are no gods left. The Romans have driven them out. There are some who say that they have hidden themselves in the mountains,…but I think they are dead” (553). This “driving out” of a competing belief system may relate to how the Protestant British attempted to destroy Irish Catholicism, which also managed to retain many localized and traditional pagan influences. In another literature class, I learned about how some people in rural Ireland believed that ancient mythological beings had escaped into the further reaches of the countryside – mirroring the Cappadocian pantheon’s retreat into “the mountains.” Additionally, imperial oppression has the ability to create a larger sense of pessimism within the colony, and the Jewish character expresses this feeling when he states that “God doth not show Himself…Therefore great evils have come upon the land” (563). In this way, the disappearance of God is described as an abandonment because his absence has caused “great evils” or suffering. The character further elaborates this sense of hopelessness by explaining that “God is terrible. He breaketh the strong and the weak as a man brays corn in a mortar” (563). I would argue that this statement may loosely connect to Ireland as there must have been frustration about the many hardships of being under colonial rule – especially after the devastating Great Famine (occurred earlier in the 19th century).
After reading De Profundis, I was shocked to learn about the extremely toxic and nonreciprocal nature of Wilde’s relationship with Bosie. This chaotic romance/friendship reminded me of a concept from my Economics of Innovations class last year. In the course, I learned about how one’s quality of peers can greatly influence his or her life. A good peer can inspire a friend to reach their fullest potential by sharing knowledge or increasing joint productivity while a low-quality peer provides the opposite effects. I would argue that Bosie is a low-quality peer for Wilde as he helped to destroy his art and career. This negative influence was clearly recognized by Wilde himself when he describes the result of his “unintellectual friendship” (874) as being “intellectually degrading” for Wilde’s art (875). Additionally, Bosie did “not understand the conditions requisite for the production of artistic work” and would hamper Wilde’s artistic process by dragging him to incessant dinners and social outings – instead of giving him the space and time to write (874). A good peer would have faithfully supported Wilde’s artistic process by reinforcing the behaviors/traits that had allowed Wilde to have such great success throughout his career. One the other hand, Bosie was the “absolute ruin of [Wilde’s] Art” (876) partly because “[Bosie’s] interests were merely in [his] meals and moods…[while his] desires were simply for amusements” (876). In this way, Bosie was nowhere near Wilde’s intellectual or creative equal and his distractions did seem to have a sizable negative effect on Wilde (both artistically and financially). Wilde even appears to define Bosie as a low-quality peer by stating that “ultimately the bond of all companionship…is conversation, and conversation must have a common basis” (880). Here, “a common basis” most likely refers to having intellectual ability as a truly great conversation must be stimulating to both sides. From Wilde’s account, Bosie did not bring much substance or excitement to deeper conversation, which would have not enriched Wilde’s life academically or creatively. If Wilde had spent more time with his higher-quality peers (i.e., other great literary minds), he may have been pushed to reach even greater heights through competition and inspiration; however, Wilde was trapped in this toxic relationship with Bosie, which slowly poisoned his artistic ability until he was eventually thrown into prison.
I really enjoyed reading Kaufman’s Gross Indecency. The author’s decision to create his trial narrative using excerpts from various historical accounts was a little jarring at first, but, once I read further into the play, I found this structural decision to be quite inventive and stimulating. On a plot level, I found Wilde’s involvement in the Douglas family drama to be quite tragic as, in many ways, Wilde seemed to be caught in the crossfire of a father-son feud. Obviously, his sexuality was also on trial, but I would argue that this whole problematic event was more focused on a father’s hatred towards his son because of concerns about his own reputation. As George Bernard Shaw noted, Queensberry’s “real objective was to ruin his son and to finally break the heart of his ex-wife” (23). The play mentions the extreme level of toxicity and ill-will that was harbored on both sides of the Queensberry family divorce, and, as the concept of divorce was much more scandalous in the Victorian Age, I could see how Queensberry might have been ashamed of this initial affront to his own personal reputation. Once rumors of his son’s homosexual activity gained traction, I can also see how Queensberry might have been concerned that his reputation would be further tarnished. Furthermore, I think that Queensberry was less enraged about his son’s acts than he was about being associated with someone with a well-known nonheteronormative lifestyle. This idea may relate to Queensberry’s decision to initially accuse Wilde of “posing sodomite” rather than of sodomy itself (26). In Queensberry’s own words, Wilde “looks [like he is having a homosexual relationship] …and poses as it, which is just as bad” as actually being gay in the first place (21). Here, the verbs “look” and “pose” connote a sense of visibility, which could suggest that Queensberry is ashamed that the public may suspect that his son is nonheteronormative. If Wilde and Bosie were more secretive about their romance, the public would be less aware of this relationship, and Queensberry’s reputation may not be criticized as much. Additionally, if Bosie’s father really cared about the flawed more code of the age and wanted to “save his son” like he claimed, I feel like he would have used a much more diplomatic and pleading tone in his letters in order to try to return his prodigal son home (22). Instead, Queensberry is very combative and violent in his letters – repeatedly threatening to “shoot [Wilde and Bosie] on sight” (18 & 20) while also desiring to “thrash” his own son (19 & 20). This tonal consideration adds further evidence to the idea that Queensberry is really primarily concerned with his own reputation because he seems to be actively trying to widen the rift between him and his son through threats, which would also help to further separate him from Bosie and Wilde in the public’s perception (makes it clear that he does not condone their relationship).
I found Salomé to be quite different than any of Wilde’s other prose works. The diction of the play had a very hypnotic quality as certain ominous phrases were often repeated (ex: Salomé’s paleness and the depictions of the moon) and as certain object were described in vivid and poetic detail (ex: Salomé’s descriptions of Jokanaan’s appearance). The theme that stood out most to me was that of a dangerous or deadly attraction. This idea is connected to both the Syrian’s and Herod’s lust for Salomé as well as her own infatuation with Jokanaan. In the Syrian’s case, Salomé is considered beautiful because he views her “like a woman who is dead” (552) – being specifically attracted to her “paleness” (553) and the fact that “she is like a woman rising from a tomb” (552). Here, Wilde seems to subvert traditional beauty standards (brightness and vibrant colors, vibrant energy, etc.) by connecting death and decay with attractiveness, which could represent how certain kinds of love or lust are be deadly or even corrupting in some way. Additionally, the page even criticizes the Syrian’s feelings for the princess by saying, “You look at her too much. It is dangerous to look at people in such fashion. Something terrible may happen” (553). This foreboding warning turns out to be prophetic and reinforces the theme of the dangers of attraction as the Syrian “kills himself” after Salomé expresses her lust for Jokanaan (560). This example is eerily repeated when Herod expresses his infatuation with Salomé. Like the page, Herodias warns Herod about looking upon his daughter and stresses the potential dangerousness of his feelings. However, Salomé’s interest in Jokanaan might be even more similar to the Syrian example. She is obsessed with this prophet’s beauty and proclaims that he was “the only man that [she] has loved” (574). Unfortunately for her, Jokanaan wholeheartedly rejects her advances and views her attraction towards him as being unnatural or “accursed” (560). This rejection causes Salomé to resort to ordering his death, so that she can finally “kiss his mouth” and give into her lust (575). Like the Syrian, Salomé’s willingness to give into her feelings is considered to be dangerous and destructive, which causes Herod to execute her at the end of the play. After thinking through this theme, I wonder if Wilde was reflecting upon his own challenges with having homosexual desires when writing this play. In a way, his infatuation with Bosie was unhealthy as most people considered it to be a toxic relationship. Additionally, Wilde seems to suffer a similar fate to the characters of the play. His feelings for Bosie were (wrongly) seen as unnatural and dangerous, which would lead to his demise as he was sent to prison because of this desire.
I have really enjoyed the first half of The Importance of Being Earnest. The play’s comedic elements have been quite entertaining, and I found Wilde’s portrayal of the aristocratic class’ ridiculousness to be especially humorous. More specifically, Lady Bracknell’s extreme callousness was of particular interest to me. The first instance of this quality occurs when Bracknell blames the infirm for their own lack of health. She says, “Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids…Health is the primary duty of life” (329). Because health often cannot be controlled (especially with illness), Bracknell’s classification of this physical condition as a duty seems utterly absurd and cruel. Along these same lines, she strangely implies that it is Jack’s fault that his parents are dead by explaining that “to lose both [parents] seems like carelessness” (333). Again, the death of your loved ones is almost always not in your control, so Bracknell’s statement is extremely ignorant and cold-hearted. This almost hyperbolic insensitivity is then connected to a political bias when Bracknell describes her political philosophy of refusing to “put the asses against the classes,” which could allude to her aristocratic aversion of the rise of the “asses” or educated middle class (she also complains about the rise in education earlier in the play) (333). Furthermore, the climax of her lack of empathy and classist views occurs when she exclaims, “To be born…in a hand-bag…seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution” (334). This statement continues her pattern of blaming people for things that they cannot control (here: being an orphan) while also criticizing Jack’s rags to riches story by comparing it to the French Revolution’s aggressive stance against the aristocracy. She even has the gal to suggest that Jack “to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible” – a feat that she knows would be near impossible to achieve (334).
After reflecting upon on our class discussion, I wanted to think more deeply about Dorian’s death at the end of the novel. The ambiguity surrounding this event is very interesting to me, and I would argue that Dorian is really committing suicide rather than attempting to destroy his painting. Lord Henry’s final words to Dorian really help to contextualize Dorian’s thought process at this critical moment in his life. He tells Dorian that “art has no influence upon action…, [and that] the books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” (163). This statement seems to refute much of the textual evidence (i.e., the painting whispering murderous ideas to Dorian) for the corrupting power of art, which was often suggested to originate from the power of the yellow book or the painting itself. This shift away from external corruption implies that the culpability for the dark deeds in the novel belongs to Dorian and his own misguided choices. Here, the word “books” could easily be replaced with “paintings,” and, in either case, the second clause would symbolize how the art form is merely reflecting the immorality of Dorian’s actions – not directly causing them. In this way, Dorian is confronted by the duty to take responsibility for his own actions, which he has been trying to avoid doing during the entire plot (i.e., he refers to Basil’s corpse as “that thing” to make the murder seem less real and personal). Later on, we see that Dorian “began to think over some of the things that Lord Henry had said,” so the fact that Dorian was reflecting on these ideas shows the reader that he is really grappling with guilt (164). As art “shows the world its own shame,” Dorian may have originally attempted to destroy his portrait (in another attempt to avoid responsibility) before it reminded him of his agency and culpability, which results in him stabbing a “knife in his [own] heart” (potentially) to finally punish himself for his crimes ( 167).
One of the most interesting aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the artistic perspective of Basil Hallward. The painter states that an “artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them” (25). This passage reminds me of the decadent movement’s belief in the creation of art for art sake (in other words: for the sake of beauty), which also connects to the idea about the importance of art’s impression on the viewer. This impressionistic mindset purports that the artist should not try to infuse his or her work with meaning because all meaning is created from each individual’s unique reaction to art. In this instance, treating art “as a form of autobiography” would conflict with this decadent ideal by making art less about the viewer and more about the artist (25). This sentiment is echoed in the Preface as Wilde writes, “To reveal art and conceal is the artist is art’s aim” (17). This mantra is interesting in connection to Wilde’s own life because many of Wilde’s autobiographical details (i.e., interest in Catholicism, sexuality) would have been controversial in traditional British society and might have caused problems for him if more traditional readers were to find these themes in his work. However, despite this negative view of autobiographical influences on art, The Picture of Dorian Gray also seems to advocate for this practice. Basil seems to contradict his aforementioned views as he explains that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist” (21). As the word “feeling” connotes passion and extreme effort (qualities that are essential for masterful art), Basil may be implying that all truly great paintings reveal something about their creator. This phenomenon is also reflected in the Preface as Wilde also writes, “The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography” (17). Since Wilde has previously described criticism as an art itself, this mantra may reveal how the “highest art” skillfully is skillfully injected with autobiographical details while the “lowest” art may rely too heavily on this practice. With the context of the negative contradictory view of autobiographical influences in mind, great art might also have to try to conceal its details about its creator in order to ensure that the reader is not overly distracted away from appreciating the formal impressionistic beauty of the work.
I really enjoyed the unique blend of fiction and literary criticism in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”. The reflections about the art of acting were really interesting, and I enjoyed learning a little bit about the history of British theater. The line that stood out most to me was when the narrator explains that, “Men die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true” (1201). This statement is situated at the end of the story when the narrator criticizes Erskine’s and Cyril’s deception by “the pathetic fallacy of martyrdom,” which refers to the fact that they believed that they were dying in the name of truth (1201). I thought that this critique of sacrificing life for belief could be ironic considering Wilde’s own history. This short story was written in 1889, which is about six years before Wilde would be unjustly imprisoned because of his sexual identity. I am no expert in this matter; however, from what we have discussed in class, Wilde had the opportunity to flee and avoid the stress of hard labor that most assuredly contributed to his death a few years after being released from prison. However, Wilde refused to escape and pleaded not guilty – even though his sexual relationship with men was widely known. In this way, one could view Wilde’s decision to stay in England and to be put on trial as an act of martyrdom for his family’s honor. There is no real way to know if Wilde wished to be heteronormative, but the phrase “what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true” is interesting in this context. Could this statement be a subtle reflection of Oscar Wilde’s struggle to accept his non-normative sexual identity? Wilde lived in a society that was obviously very anti-LGBTQ, so it would be easy to see how Wilde could be pressured to become ashamed of his identity and conceal it at all costs.
When I started reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, I thought that this short story would be mainly focused on the theme of sorrow caused by the inevitability of murder and the supernatural loss of free will (Especially after this line on page 173: “he had become conscious of the terrible mystery of Destiny, of the awful meaning of Doom”). However, I found this story to be much more comedic than I previously had expected. Arthur’s strange sense of duty to the laws of chiromancy and his repeated attempts at murder were so ridiculous that I wholeheartedly agreed with Lady Windermere’s last exclamation (a response to Arthur’s assertion that chiromancy had given him Sybil’s love) that she had “never heard such nonsense in all [her] life” (192).
Much of the comedy seemed to come from the very character of Arthur. Wilde describes him as a man with “common sense;” however, Arthur’s actions seem to prove otherwise. I was shocked when he immediately accepted Mr. Podgers’ prediction that he would eventually kill a distant relative. This fortune teller did coincidently make eerily correct physic readings about some of the guests, but their validity could have easily come from doing prior background research about every person in attendance – rather than from an otherworldly source. In fact, Windermere even alludes to this possibility by calling Podgers “a dreadful imposter” later in the story (192). I would have expected Arthur to at least harbor a few doubts about the supposed inevitability of the murder (especially if he was rational with “common sense”); however, “life to him meant action, rather than thought,” and he impulsively decides to kill one of his relatives, so that he will not have to do this while married (178). Furthermore, when Arthur actually does think, he seems delusional as he even hilariously considers his plan of murder to be “his self-sacrifice,” which is ironic because he is not the one that will be dying. The above factors can be summarized as Arthur’s refusal to critically think about his situation, and this failure leads to many foolish and hastily planned murder attempts, which definitely heighten the comedy.