Oscar Wilde and The Fallacy of Martyrdom

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.  

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!

Can Anybody Be an Artist?

With our discussions from previous classes and today, a ton of questions started to overwhelm me, with none that I had the answers to. While reading selections from Aesthetes and Decadents as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as an Artist, I began to wonder whether anybody could be an artist. The aesthetes, Symons specifically, constantly mention people such as littérateurs who “are impressionists because it is the Fashion, Symbolists because it is vogue, Decadents because Decadence is in the very air of the cafés” (144). In the modern-day, I feel like this description is synonymous with “pseudo-intellectuals.”

Before this class, I held a view that anybody can be an artist, as long as they consistently practice their craft. Some can be more gifted than others, but art is something that can be open to anyone, accessible and unbarring. The way the aesthetes speak about art almost contrasted this view, and it reminds me a lot of what we were talking about today regarding predestination in “The Harlot’s House.” The Calvinist view of poor people being poor because they were destined to be that way, making them more susceptible to “wicked things,” almost resembles the same argument of the littérateurs that Symons puts forth: art is for art’s sake, but somehow when saying that phrase, the artist and whether they were predestined to be an artist matters.

This line of logic lead me to our conversation in today’s class, where we talked about how Oscar Wilde’s poems in prose flowed better than his poems, as he adhered to the strict parameters and conventions of poetry with the rhyme scheme. He is better suited for the prose format to express himself and impress the reader at a deeper meaning—but what is the reason that we all agree his poems are not his strong suit? What is it about them? Was he, as an artist, simply predestined to be only skillful with prose and plays? I hope this semester that I can keep thinking about style and the aesthetes, and why exactly everyone praises him for his prose and plays rather than his poetry.

Style in Poetry and Prose

Reading these poems, I was very interested in Wilde’s style of poetry writing, because of his belief in “art for the sake of art.” To me, especially in the context of poetry writing, this concept makes me think of poems with rapid fire imagery, creative uses of sound, and a lack of a real narrative thread. It was a surprise to me, then, that Wilde’s poetry was so structured, and often very narrative heavy. Most of the poems we read did contain sonic elements, but they were contained within very strict rhyme schemes. My reaction here is probably an effect of Wilde and me being born in different time periods, however, I thought it interesting because even as Wilde and his contemporaries are arguing for more creative freedom, these forms are imposing a different set of restrictions upon them.

The poems I thought that were the least restrictive were the prose poems. Even though they were heavily narrative based, I think they really challenged both the traditional narrative form and the messages surrounding the subjects they contained. Most of them involved themes of theology, mythology, and the historical figure of Jesus, who is depicted in several poems using only the pronoun “He.” I think the choice not to reveal Jesus’s name was a very cool one, as it made the reader draw the connection for themselves while allowing the prose poems to wander into more “dangerous” subject matter. For example, in “The Doer of Good,” the “He” wanders around the city, encountering people who “He” had saved. However, after being saved, these people did not follow the traditional motif of living a holier life, but instead spent the time relishing their salvation. What’s more, “He” seems powerless to change their minds, not even attempting to. This departure from traditional Biblical themes is a challenge to the time Wilde was writing in, however, because of the form, the challenge is partially disguised.