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!

Working with Wilde

Sitting down to write this final post, I was thinking about how the idea of a dedicated course to Oscar Wilde almost necessarily belies his own adage that the art is separate from the artist. The project of studying one author, for a whole semester and over the course of their work and its changes and nuances over time, begs questions of context, continuity, and change in the life of the artist himself — what developments in their life changed and influenced their work?  For Wilde in particular it feels extremely hard to separate the two, thinking, as we have in class, about the way the course of his life feels prefigured in almost every work we read. I of course have been most interested in Wilde’s complicated identity as an Irishman in Victorian England. For me Dorian Gray, “The Happy Prince,” and “The Nightingale and the Rose” index his complicated understanding of himself as an Irishman, from a particularly Anglo-Irish vantage point and informed by the consolidations of Irish culture being performed by the Ascendancy class at the time. But there are so many facets of his identity to read into these works and each allows us to stake some different claim on how they influenced, changed, or structured his work. 

My favorite part of class then was totally separate from any of the work I did on my own; I loved learning how everyone thought of Wilde differently and read his texts differently. And, of course, that is true for most of literature, that each person has a unique and personally subjective reading, but it feels especially poignant in a class on Wilde — his person and works were calculated to defy definition and be contradictory, despite the fact that everyone wants to put Wilde in particular boxes. To then have a class dedicated to sharing, discussing, and perhaps disagreeing on what versions and readings of Wilde they see, feels like the best way to tease out the fullest vision of Wilde you could, to try on all the various Wildes for a text. Returning to the preface to Dorian Gray, because Wilde always seems to be contextualized by his own text, Wilde writes that “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde, 17). To take Wilde at his word for once, our engagement with and diversity of opinions about the works we read for class seems indicative of the lasting influence, interest, and vitality of Wilde’s works. That they continue to ask interesting questions of us and the author. That, to Professor Kinyon’s framing of the class towards Modernism, they seem to help usher in an era of text that grounds itself in subjectivity and that exact difficulty of definition. They are as complex and interesting as the author himself. 

So by way of an inconclusive conclusion, I think the best way to read Wilde is to allow for contradiction, to let that be an organizing thought, rather than trying to pin him to one thing. Then, instead of frustration, you can marvel at the multiplicity, allow yourself to be confused, allow his works to be classist and attune to prison reform (and be critical of that), see how they critique Bosie and not himself, and allow his work to be both funny and biting, charming and tragic, without losing either. Holding all those together is the balancing act of reading Wilde to his fullest, and from this class and with everyone in it, I think we’ve been able to accomplish something pretty close. It’s been a wonderful, stimulating semester.

Hate is Blind, but so is Love

Throughout De Profundis, Wilde’s distinction between the Love within himself and the Hatred within Bosie showcases Wilde’s lack of self-awareness. He argues extensively about how hatred causes blindness but seems thoroughly unwilling to analyze how his love for Bosie might have blinded him as well. In class this past week, we talked about how Wilde can’t see past his own narcissism. He calls out Bosie thoroughly in De Profundis, but he doesn’t take the blame to the same extent. He analyzes the situation, but can’t see where he needs to change. 

One of the most scathing call-outs in De Profundis is when Wilde tells Bosie, “In you, Hate was always stronger than Love” (999). Wilde acknowledges that Bosie loves him. He believes that Bosie doesn’t just love him for his fame and wealth; he thinks there’s something more to Bosie’s love for him. However, any sense of love that Bosie might have for Wilde is far outstripped by Bosie’s hate for his father. Therefore, Wilde becomes a pawn in Bosie’s plan to hurt his father. The plan to land Bosie’s father in jail was doomed from the start, but Bosie couldn’t see that. Wilde writes, “Love can read the writing on the remotest star, but Hate so blinded you that you could see no further than the narrow, walled-in, and already lust-withered garden of your common desires” (1000). Although I agree with Wilde that Hate does blind people, Wilde exhibits a lack of self-awareness of how Love blinded him as well. He claims that “Love can read the writing on the remotest star” and therefore he could see the flaws in Bosie’s plan from the beginning, and yet, he still went along with taking Bosie’s father to court. All of Wilde’s friends were against this idea, but he just goes along with Bosie’s advice instead. This behavior reminded me of the Love in a Dark Time reading. Since Wilde loved Bosie in a time when their love was forbidden, that made the love more intense. It made him blindly follow Bosie. However, Wilde doesn’t acknowledge his own faults in this situation. 

Wilde villainizes Bosie and paints himself as a victim of Bosie’s hatred. Wilde writes, “The aim of Love is to love: no more, and no less. You were my enemy: such an enemy as no man ever had. I had given you my life, and to gratify the lowest and most contemptible of human passions, Hatred and Vanity and Greed, you had thrown it away” (1005). Although it is tragic that Wilde wasted his love and had his life ruined, if “Love can read the writing on the remotest star,” he should’ve seen this coming. Wilde doesn’t seem to realize that he was complicit in having his life ruined. Perhaps if he were more critical of his own choices, his life wouldn’t have been the tragedy that it was. Perhaps he wouldn’t have gotten back together with Bosie after he got out of prison. Perhaps he could’ve made changes in his life. However, Wilde let prison destroy him. He predestined himself for tragedy.

De Profundis and Destiny

De Profundis is by far the most raw and emotional of Wilde’s works. The piece is unique in not only its emotional tone but the way Wilde discusses religion. In his scathing letter to Bosie, Wilde touches on many of the themes that occur in his poems and plays; he meditates on God, the meaning of art, the dangers of overindulgence, love, and most significantly, predestination. Out of all of these themes Wilde is the most consistent in his views of predestination. He criticizes Bosie for his abuse and the role he had in his financial ruin, but Wilde recognizes how his own flawed actions brought about his downfall. He says, “I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me: that I ruined myself: and that nobody, great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand… Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still” (1017). Predestination is typically described in a religious context, as a sort of divine prophesy that all events are willed by God, but Wilde maintains the role one has in their own fate.

I found this to be especially interesting when considering the theme destiny and fortune telling in Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House.” When discussing these two pieces in class, we talked about how Wilde emphasizes the class differences at play in one’s destiny. Particularly in the case of Lord Arthur, Wilde presents a commentary on the boredom of the upper class. The chiropodist reads Lord Arthur’s palms and foretells his future as a murderer, but Arthur’s ridiculous actions that follow as he attempts to get the act over with serve as a commentary on how he has control of his fate all along. This contrasts with “The Harlot’s House” where the people inside move like “strange mechanical grotesques” and “wire-pulled automatons,” lacking any autonomy or control over their lives (867). In terms of his class status and his views on free will, Wilde falls somewhere between the Lord Arthur and the figures in the poem. He recognizes his level of culpability in his downfall: “Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others… I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetops” (1018). While Wilde condemns his former lifestyle of pleasure and decadence, he maintains many of his other life views and expands on his religious life. It’s fascinating reading perhaps his most revealing work and questioning if Wilde has really changed that much or if similar threads can be read in the rest of his works regarding religion and free will.

The Power of Prophecy

It’s hard not to feel the depth of sadness that pervades “De Profundis.” Like we’ve been talking about in class the whole semester, there is a sense of mythologized, perfect tragedy to Wilde’s life in popular culture. “De Profundis,” however, feels like a particularly personal look into that tragedy — it’s not Wilde’s literature made for public consumption at this point, but a reflective space for Wilde to explore and express how he’s changed, the wrongs of his life, the dehumanization of the prison experience, to his abusive lover. One of the most quoted (and misquoted at that) lines that I know of from this piece is the declaration: “with freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy” (1039). Taken out of context, this line prescribes a moving, charming sort of carefree, simple, earthy, artistic appreciation of life.  But that section of the text begins with “If after I go out” (1039), framing Wilde’s new outlook on life by his imprisonment and removal from freedom, books, flowers, and the moon. It’s an ode to what he now recognizes he misses and cannot have, not a light-hearted prescription for how to live life. Taking the particular contexts of Wilde’s writing this letter into account, this letter is a much more intimate space of Wilde’s writing and gives, what feels like, an even more immediate sense of the author than many of his other texts, witticisms, and one-liners, a much deeper appreciation of the deep nuances of his sadness and self-searching. 

One aspect of this text in particular that lends itself to the pervasive sense of tragedy and personal-destruction is Wilde’s attention to prophecy, predestination, and fate throughout the whole work. Wilde’s sense of predestination and prophecy in “De Profundis” is informed by his relationship to art and to his own works. He writes that “Every single work of art is the fulfilment of a prophecy. For every work of art is the conversion of an idea into an image. Every single human being should be the fulfilment of a prophecy.” (1032) Such personal revelations as these make it feel particularly hard to separate Wilde’s works from the tragedy of his life.  Earlier in the letter Wilde writes that he doesn’t regret the life he lived for pleasure, but that a change from that lifestyle was necessary: “I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also. Of course all this is foreshadowed and prefigured in my art. Some of it is in ‘The Happy Prince’: …. a great deal is hidden away in the note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray.” (1026) Wilde was aware of the way his writings spoke to the tragedy his life had become.  It is worthwhile to wonder if Wilde is rereading these tragedies into his works, as we do, because of the way his life turned out, or if it was all truly as inevitable as he seems, in jail, to feel it was — that no matter what a change was going to come, the thread of Doom was inescapable.  If every human being is the fulfillment of a prophecy, it begs the question, what prophecy did Wilde have in mind for himself, what was he fulfilling by his ruin and reform in jail? Was it the destruction of who lived only for art, a narrative many of his works seem to suggest? Or something about the realization of a deep set self-hatred from years of forced sexual masking? Regardless, at the end of the section on foreshadowing in his works, Wilde writes that “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol” (1026) and there could be no truer words for Wilde’s life and works — that the art became a symbol because the man, the artist, became, or maybe always was, a symbol first.

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!

What are Wilde’s thoughts on predestination?

While reading Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime I struggled to make sense of Wilde’s commentary on predestination in relation to the ideas we already talked about in class, particularly in “The Harlot’s House.” When Lord Arthur hears of his destiny to commit a murder, he thinks, “Could it be that written on his hand, in characters that he could not read himself, but that another could decipher, was some fearful secret of sin… Was there no escape possible? Were we no better than chessmen, moved by an unseen power, vessels the potter fashions at his fancy, for honor or for shame? His reason revolted against it, and yet he felt that some tragedy was hanging over him…” (165). The image of all of mankind moving around the earth as chessmen controlled by some supernatural force reminded me of the mechanical descriptions in “The Harlot’s House.” The dancers are described as “wire-pulled automatons” and “clockwork puppets” (lines 13 and 19). In both passages, Wilde presents the human condition as one that is entirely out of our control.

While this passage in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime probes our understanding of free will and reason, I could not help but think that the short story as a whole makes fun of the idea of predestination. The plot was predictable, especially in the ways that Lord Arthur tried to rush his fate and complete the crime in order to marry Sybil. I have read quite a few murder mysteries and suspense novels, and poisoning is one of the least effective ways to kill. Also, poisoning is more commonly used by women in literature, and in real life according to The Washington Post. The failed bombing is comical as well. The letter from Jane reveals it to be an “ingenious toy” that “looked so ridiculous, that James and I went off into fits of laughter… when we examined it, we found it was some sort of alarm clock” (179). What does it mean that Wilde portrays predestination so differently between Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and “The Harlot’s House”? When we discussed predestination last week in the context of the “The Harlot’s House,” one of the main points we made regarded class distinctions, the idea that the poor are unable to resist the force of destiny that pulls them into the harlot’s house, but the rich instead partake because they are bored. Lord Arthur is clearly of the upper class, and he hears of his destiny at Lady Windermere’s extravagant reception. In the last lines of the story, when Sybil, Lady Windermere, and Arthur discuss his belief in chiromancy, Arthur says, “I owe to [chiromancy] all the happiness of my life” (183). Why does the hand of fate provide happiness to the rich and suffering to the poor? Lady Windermere says Arthur’s faith in chiromancy is absolute nonsense, and this perfectly captures Wilde’s views on predestination in both the short story and poem. Given Lord Arthur’s social status, he would have married Sybil and experienced such great “happiness” had simply chosen not to listen to his fortune and murder the chiromantist, yet the same does not apply to the impoverished visitors of the harlot’s house. However, this distinction between the predestination of the poor does not necessarily mean that Wilde is sympathetic to the lower classes. In The Decay of Lying, he discusses the poor as subjects in literature. Vivian says, “Charles Dickens was depressing enough in all conscience when he tried to arouse our sympathy for the victims of the poor-law administration” (1077). Reading the “Harlot’s House” as in conversation with Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, the effect is an indifference to specific details of father and instead an emphasis on how one behaves as it looms overhead.