I appreciated hearing everyone else’s opinions of De Profundis this week in class. I tend to get bogged down in the sadness and the tragedy, particularly in this part of Wilde’s story, and ignore the other parts of the piece — those that are confusing or contradictory. Though tragic and self-reflective, yes, it’s still important to interrogate how much Wilde really owns his faults and takes upon himself the moral revolution he seems to be outlining in this piece, rather than falling into the trap of martyrdom that even he seems to be outlining for himself. What does he recognize as his own faults or wrongs and what does he lay instead at the feet of Bosie or even the aesthetic lifestyle more broadly? It’s kind of amazing that a text can be both so self-reflective and blind at the same time. Revisiting some of the lines about prophecy from my last post, Wilde writes that he doesn’t regret the life he lived for pleasure, but that a change from that lifestyle was necessary: “I don’t regret for a single moment having lived a life for pleasure. … But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting, I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also” (1026). In this depiction of his aesthetic life, there is no explicit remorse — in fact there is an explicit lack of remorse and rather a desire for novelty, new experience. He is detailing an almost natural passing from one extreme of life to another, as if he is suggesting: what better way to really appreciate aestheticism than to experience its opposite, and then know its highs all the more? This attitude, the desire for a novelty of experience (that still feels strongly informed by aestheticism) instead of a remorse for the destruction created by his aesthetic life, feels particularly poignant when considered within the context of the fall-out of Wilde’s immediate family and the way he maintained his relationship to Bosie even after denouncing him in the text. Did he really learn from these experiences or make any lasting change? Further, in a text that seems to release the mask of Wilde the contradictory, performative author, there still is that note of contradiction that suggests instead a Wilde that didn’t know himself very well. What is revelation, what is denial? He writes at one point that “most people live for love and admiration. But it is by love and admiration that we should live” (1034). It’s a classic Wilde one-liner in a sense, and contains what feels like a real, valuable, easily palatable insight into how we should live life. But in the tone that De Profundis is written and, as it is a criticism leveled at Bosie, this revelation seems to beg an extra line about Wilde, something recognizing how he too lived, almost grossly at times, for love and admiration as much as anyone else — the lack of such a line feels, frankly, ridiculous given the project of this letter. The text is littered with these aphorisms about life, nature, and Christ, but they are without the bite of satire, without the cut of self-awareness. What then do his “one-liners” from De Profundis even say? Or, to return to my usual focus on tragedy, does this all just serve to highlight once more, and sort of finally, another aspect of the tragedy of Wilde’s life. That perhaps he was unmoored from self-hood when faced with the realities of prison, that even in this stripped down moment, he maintained a pervasive, and tragic, lack of self-knowledge.
Since our discussion on Kiberd’s Inventing Ireland, I have been thinking about the ways his interpretation of doubles in The Importance of Being Earnest could apply to Salomé. The Importance of Being Earnest explores the consequences of the double lives of Jack and Algernon. The theme of a double life can be interpreted as Wilde coding a play about homosexuality, but Kiberd instead reads the doubles in the play as symbolic of the relationship between England and Ireland. He says, “… the Double is a close relation of the Englishman’s Celtic Other. Many characters in literature have sought to murder the double in order to do away with guilt (as England had tried to annihilate Irish culture), but have then found that it is not so easily repressed, since it may also contain man’s utopian self” (Kiberd 42). In Salomé, the audience witnesses the absolute downfall of Salomé, and following Kiberd’s model, she can be read as the double of both Herod and Jokanaan. Salomé is the epitome of desire, both in her actions and how other characters view her beauty.
While Salomé is the “femme fatale” of the play, Herod is equally, if not more, morally corrupt. Kiberd says, “If the English were adult and manly, the Irish must be childish and feminine. In this fashion, the Irish were to read their fate in that of two other out-groups, women and children; and at the root of many an Englishman’s suspicion of the Irish was an unease with the woman or child who lurked within himself” (30). Therefore, Salomé is the Herod’s double in the sense that he villainizes the emotions and desires that she expresses because he recognizes the same desires in himself. She says to Jokanaan, “Jokanaan, I am amorous of thy body! …Let me touch thy body” (590). Her desire is parallel to the incestuous desire Herod expresses for her during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Salomé represents the “Celtic other,” within Kiberd’s paradigm because of her femininity, childishness, and the orientalism associated with her character, and therefore, Herod represents her English double. He pleads with Salomé, offering her any gift in replacement for the head of Jokanaan. He says, “Your beauty has grievously troubled me, and I have looked at you too much. But I will look at you no more. Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks” (601). When Herod looks at Salomé he is essentially looking at a mirror, and what is reflected back is his own wicked desires; his mask of righteousness is removed, exposing his immorality.
I believe Jokanaan serves as an English counterpart to the Celtic Salomé as well. Wilde’s writing constantly criticizes the rigid morality of Victorian English society, and Jokanaan is the voice of judgement in this play. He actually has very few lines in the play, but he constantly speaks of the wrath of God that will come down upon Salomé and Herod. He says, “He shall be seated on this throne. He shall be clothed in scarlet and purple. In his hand he shall bear a golden up full of his blasphemies. And the angel of the Lord shall smite him. He shall be eaten of worms” (598). Herod vehemently denies that this prophesy is about himself. Despite Jokanaan’s condemnation of the other characters, he suffers the most gruesome death as he is beheaded. What does Wilde suggest by giving the voice of religious judgement such a violent end? As Salomés seizes the head of Jokanaan, she says, “Art thou afraid of me, Jokanaan, that thou wilt not look at me…? Thou didst reject me. Thou didst speak evil words against me. Thou didst treat me as a harlot” (604). Returning to Kiberd’s paradigm, the English compulsion to annihilate their “Celtic other” is motivated by fear. As Salomé asks if Jokanaan is afraid of her, Wilde suggests that the English perhaps fear the Irish, the people on whom they project their emotions and immorality, because they represent a repressed side of themselves.
This is the first of Wilde’s plays we have read, and I found the stage directions to be almost more interesting than the dialogue. While plays are obviously meant to be performed live, given the detail in the stage directions, I wondered if Wilde really wrote An Ideal Husband to be read. Most stage directions come to life through the set design, movement, and dialogue of the actors, but he notes, “HAROLD, the footman, shows Mrs. Cheveley in. Lamia-like, she is in green and silver. She has a cloak of black satin, lined with dead rose-leaf silk” (557). The “Lamia-like” point colored how I interpreted the rest of the play, and an audience would have missed this in a live performance unless the stage directions were read aloud.
Keats’ poem, “Lamia,” is, at its core, a story of exposure. Essentially, Lamia is a serpent turned into a beautiful woman, which further connects to the snake brooch that Mrs. Chevely stole. Lycius falls in love with Lamia, and at their wedding, a blind prophet recognizes Lamia as the serpent. In the context of An Ideal Husband, the reference to this poem obviously reinforces Sir Robert Chiltern’s intent to find some secret about Mrs. Cheveley in order to protect himself. The threat of exposure extends beyond Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley to Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern as well. Lady Chiltern is the most interesting and puzzling character to make sense of when reading “Lamia” alongside the play. I expected, since Mrs. Cheveley represents the evil serpent, that Lady Chiltern is the most obvious beautiful and morally righteous counterpart. Sir Robert describes her as such: “She does not know what weakness or temptation is… She stands apart as good women do – pitiless in her perfection – cold and stern and without mercy. But I love her Arthur” (561). However, she ultimately turns into a different form of Lamia, threatened with the exposure of her letter to Lord Goring and attempting to end her husband’s career similar Mrs. Cheveley (578).
I think there is much more that can be done with Wilde’s use of “Lamia” in this play, but the main effect I walked away with was the deconstruction of morality. Even the morally righteous characters, like Lady Chiltern, have secrets, and despite her twisted approach, Mrs. Cheveley is really just in love with Lord Goring. Wilde explores morality in a lot of his works like “The Harlot’s House” and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but his exploration of morality in political and domestic spheres in this play is the most effective in proving that it is nearly impossible to label people as “good” or “bad.”
Many of the writings of Wilde that we have read so far have all been rather straightforward in their praise of decadent ideas about morality and social life. The dialogues especially (“The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”) make it clear that they are trying to convince you of a decadent ideal; it is their sole purpose. Because of this, it is very easy to read Wilde as a staunch defender of decadence and no more. However, The Picture of Dorian Gray complicates that idea.
Although the text is awash with decadent ideas (the worship of male beauty, the simultaneous rejection and desire for education and learnedness, the carefree attitudes towards social order), it does not seem to be defending those ideas. As Dorian grows more and more decadent, the painting of him grows more and more corrupted. His relationship with Lord Henry is seen as corrupting in the novel, much like Wilde’s relationship with Bosie was seen as by the public.
But the decadent ideals are not completely slandered either. To some extent, Dorian Gray is getting what he wants. He lives a life of luxury, enjoys whatever he likes, and is hardly even touched by the public’s perception of him. And if there are similarities between the relationships of Dorian and Lord Henry and Wilde and Bosie, then it is hard to believe that Wilde would view his own relationship as pure corruption.
All of this is to say that I have been grappling with the question of whether or not The Picture of Dorian Gray has some deeper moral or social message, and what that message might be. I have not found an answer yet, and Wilde is so slippery, I’m not sure I will. The one thing I am reasonably sure about is that this text feels deeply personal in a way that his other works have not.
I thought “The Canterville Ghost” was hilarious. Or if hilarious is too strong, at least extremely amusing. The interactions between the twins and the ghost, that it’s this big, brash American family that can’t be flapped by the spirit — there’s something so charming about the subtle reversals of expectation Wilde is working with. That humor however, is distracting from the more sinister aspects of the tale, which is something Wilde seems to have a talent for — trivializing or distracting from the sinister when it suits the story, a misdirection from the actual end of the tale. Focusing on the trivialized darker details, the crime of the ghost itself is quite interesting. When confronting Virginia near the end, the ghost explains his reasons for killing his wife and remarks that “it was purely a family matter, and concerned no one else,” (196) an interesting framing considering he’s most directly haunting another family. His wife couldn’t starch his ruffs properly and couldn’t cook so naturally he took family matters into his own hands. Though the ghost killed his wife, for seemingly very little, Wilde doesn’t seem to wholly condemn him for that action. His little domestic reasons for killing his wife, that make his crime seem particularly petty, distract from the ghost’s preceding point, “Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics” (196). In light of some of the reversals of the text, this then seems to be the most crucial and serious criticism Wilde is leveraging in this piece, a questioning of the rigidity of moral assumptions, and perhaps just assumptions in general.
Thinking further about the relationship of the ghost to his crime and the more sinister elements of the tale, I am also particularly intrigued by the end and some of the story’s final questions. The Duke says to Virginia, “you have never told me what happened to you when you were locked up with the ghost” to which Virginia replies that she has never told anyone and that the ghost “made me see what Life is and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both” (204). Nothing about that is singularly intriguing, until the Duke suggests that she’ll at least tell her children one day and Virginia just blushes. I can’t put my finger on exactly what about that ending is so uncomfortable, maybe that her name is Virginia and something happened with the ghost that she’d blush to tell her children, but in some ways this unknown is the most sinister of all, the irresolution, particularly in regards to Virginia. Because of some of those outstanding questions this story is a good place to interrogate a lot of the questions that plague readers of Wilde’s work — what are we supposed to take seriously, can we take the story at its word, is it a reflection of our moral ethics or Wilde’s design that we sort of sympathize or at least lightly pity this murderous ghost, (amongst other questions)? It’s difficult to know where to stand at the end, what the story was trying to tell you (if anything at all), and some of that discomfiture is from Wilde’s clever uses of reversal, humor, and the cheap severity of your own ethics.