Influence of Oscar Wilde's Sexuality
Disclaimer: This dissertation has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional dissertation writers. You can view samples of our professional work here.
Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a writer whose homoerotic texts pushed the social boundaries of the Victorian era. Born to a family of unabashed Irish agnostics, the self-proclaimed "dandy" valued art, fashion, and all things physically beautiful. After receiving a comprehensive education from Oxford, Wilde made a name for himself in London first as a novelist, penning the now famous The Picture of Dorian Gray.
A string of successful plays followed, among them "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "An Ideal Husband". Wilde also published a variety of short stories and essays, but is acclaimed by historians for his pioneering influence over the aesthetic movement, a progression that opposed the accepted Victorian take on art in every way, shape, and form. Wilde postulated that art existed solely for itself, only for the sake of being art. His play "The Decay of Lying"exemplified this tenet best, personifying his distaste for society's proclivities through a conversation between two people in a park.Though he fathered two sons, Wilde's marriage fizzled as his personal life continuously hinted at homosexuality. Wilde's inability to keep his private life secret proved to be his downfall; a love affair with a prominent nobleman resulted in Wilde's imprisonment and expulsion from British social circles. Victorian Britain became increasingly morally rigid, its period marking a time when Britain was experiencing a growth in imperialism and conservative thought. While serving his term for homosexual acts, Wilde wrote the deeply spiritual De Profund is, in which he discussed his aspirations of individuality and freedom from the proprietary values that bound late Victorian society.
An avant-garde writer and raconteur, Wilde's sexuality had a profound effect on his works, influencing imagery and the nature of his characters in both The Picture of Dorian Gray and "The Importance of Being Earnest". Wilde's sexuality and effeminate nature shaped his relations to aestheticism, which in turn manifested itself in his works' moral implications. Wilde frequently employed thinly disguised doubles, representing himself in his work in order to juxtapose anaesthete and a traditionally Victorian society. Wilde's aesthetics are strangely connected to his obsession with Jesus Christ. It is peculiar that such an unorthodox figure such as Wilde would find so much solace and inspiration from such a religious source. In De Profundis, Wilde's admiration for and comparison with Jesus takes on many levels. He likens his persecution to Jesus' crucifixion, a notion that evokes hubris, especially given Wilde's naturally flamboyant disposition.Though not entirely humble, Wilde's comparisons are based more on parallels drawn between Wilde's persecution and the events leading to Jesus' martyrdom. Many speculate Wilde's eventual baptism and acceptance of Catholicism was a manifestation of imminent death's madness as the famed author was too radical to accept religion within the boundaries of sanity. However, there are critics who contend that Wilde "was very much in the mainstream of the intellectual currents of his time, a man clearly aware of what he was trying to achieve in terms of his life and art"; in the end, he was willing to accept his newfound status as a pariah, provided he could still create plays and prose.
Considered by many to be "the most outrageous trial of the century", Wilde's fall from grace was so indicative of his progression and the significance of his unique works set in a time "between the Victorian era and the modern age" (Hoare 4). Wilde's persecution reflected a clash of morals and ideals not unlike those faced by the protagonists of his novels. Wilde's trial mimicked his imaginative fiction:
"...it was a clash of opposites: of good versus evil, of heterosexual and homosexual, of masculine and feminine, of the safe and the dangerous, of what was seen as morally right or morally wrong" (Hoare4).
Homosexuality's Influence in The Picture of Dorian Gray and "The Importance of Being Earnest"
Wilde's homosexuality had a profound influence over his work. His own experiences and relationships are projected into The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it is widely speculated that the characters Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian are different aspects of Wilde himself. Wilde wrote that "Basil is how I see myself, Lord Henry how the world sees me, and Dorian how I would like to be" (Ericksen 101). The controversy behind The Picture of Dorian Gray was based in the extreme homoeroticism of the characters' interaction; it is easy to see how Wilde's writing elicited such a reaction. The male relationships are surely suggestive enough to stir even the most open-minded in the Victorian era. Wilde'ssexuality affected the structure of the relationships as well, opening the book with the making of a homosexual love triangle involving Basil, Dorian, and Lord Henry. Basil's painting is intimately connected with his adulation of Dorian's physical beauty. Dorian, in turn, adores LordHenry, a man of stature who introduces him into a new coterie. LordHenry, in turn, adores Dorian's physical beauty but also his relative innocence and the opportunity to mold him into the type of Victorian socialite everyone will adore.
The novel opens with Basil's overstated obsession with Dorian's good looks. Basil's sentiments, however, are undeniably romantic. As he paints his masterpiece, Basil is described as looking wistfully at the canvas, "a smile of pleasure" passing across his face as he lingers over the image he created (Wilde 1962, 20). In the case Basil's day dreaming was too speculative a conclusion to make, Wilde provided his readers with interaction between Basil and Lord Henry sufficient enough to establish a romantic attraction for Dorian inside Basil. WhenLord Henry walks into Basil's studio, Basil plans on keeping his subject's identity a secret out of jealousy. Basil "immensely likes"Dorian, and has "grown to love secrecy" as it ensures that he will not have to share Dorian with Lord Henry (Wilde 1962, 22). Though it is later discovered that Basil is concerned that Lord Henry will corrupt Dorian with his cynicism and overdeveloped penchant for amorality, Basil is extremely protective of a man who he has befriended solely on the basis of his physical appearance. He describes to Lord Henry how upon seeing Dorian for the first time his "face grew pale", knowing he met someone "whose mere personality was so fascinating that [it could]absorb" him if he allowed it (Wilde 1962, 24).
Wilde's homosexuality is significantly influential not just over the course of the plot, but also in the development of character relationships. Lord Henry's attraction to Dorian Gray is multi-tiered. Half the attraction to Dorian is on account of his youth, a possible reflection of Wilde's relationship with younger men. The other half of Lord Henry's attraction to Dorian is his ability to mold Dorian into alike-minded socialite, a member of his "New Hedonist" group. However,Lord Henry's attraction, like Basil's is undeniably romantic in nature. Though Lord Henry finds Dorian attractive, Dorian's hold over Lord Henry does not fully take root until after Basil rambles on and on about his "curious idolatry" he has developed, and how he "couldn't be happy" if he "didn't see Dorian everyday"; Lord Henry takes serious notice of Dorian after Basil confides that he finds the young man to be"absolutely necessary" to Basil's life (Wilde 1962, 27). Wilde developsLord Henry in this way to stress his association with society at large; most people are not loved by everyone unless they are first loved by a few. Society, Wilde argues, will love whom it is deemed fashionable to love. Following Basil's affirmations and affections, Lord Henry observes the "young Adonis [made out of] ivory" as "wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved, scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes,his crisp gold hair"; it comes to no wonder why "Basil worshipped him"(Wilde 1962, 33). The love triangle develops past Basil's death; even Dorian finds himself attracted to Lord Henry. A peculiar observation is Dorian's loss of composure after observing Lord Henry's "romantic, olive-colored face and warm expression"; Wilde writes that Dorian is in disbelief at his trepidation upon meeting Lord Henry (Wilde 1962, 38).After all, Dorian is "not a schoolboy or a girl" (Wilde 1962, 39).
As Wilde's homosexuality became more apparent, he began leading double lives. One of his lives was socially acceptable, as society perceived him as a married man with two sons. His other life was one spent among male prostitutes, renting houses outside London in which he would have extramarital, homosexual affairs. The incredible restriction Wilde faced was more because of his homosexuality than his marital infidelity. In leading his double lives, Wilde designed four characters in "The Importance of Being Earnest" to exude differing degrees of duality. The multiple personas were a reflection of the masks Wilde used as a "means of personal adjustment," a prevailing theme among the four characters (Ericksen 151). The first character is Jack Worthing, a responsible man typical of the Victorian era. The legal guardian of a young woman, Jack finds it to be increasingly difficult to enjoy himself through the minor indiscretions that provide the average young man with such entertainment. As a result of his guarded nature, Jack creates his double, an alter ego he claims as his younger brother, whom he names Ernest. When Jack leaves the country and his responsibilities, he becomes Ernest, a mischievous character in contrast to the composed, model citizen Jack. The second character is Algernon Moncrieff, friend to Jack Worthing and first cousin to the woman Jack intends to wed. Algernon also leads a double life, though his double life involves an"imaginary friend" of sort, a man whom he names Bunbury. The third character Wilde incorporates is Gwendolen Fairfax, the object of Jack'saffection. Though she accedes to her mother's will in public, Gwendolenrebels in private, pursuing "Ernest" without her mother's consent.After Jack plans to wed Gwendolen, she mentions she cannot marry a man whose name is not Ernest; this creates quite the dilemma for Jack, as he had originally planned to "kill" Ernest with another fabrication.The final character, Cecily Cardew, is a ward under her guardian, Jack Worthing. Tutored in the country, Cecily longs for a life outside her country estate, falling in love with the deviant Algernon.
The doubles are a forward testament to Wilde's life as a homosexual inVictorian London. As a "Jack" among his peers and "Ernest" among his lovers, Wilde is best personified in Algernon, though is present in both Jack and Algernon as they are "constructed on similar principles and ideas" (Ericksen 151). Both Jack and Algernon lead double lives, hence the similar principles and ideas. However, where Jack and Algernon differ is the nature of their double lives. Jack's alter ego, Ernest, is someone whom he actually becomes upon entering town. Algernon, on the other hand, claims to be visiting Bunbury, his imaginary ego. Algernon remains the same; the only thing that changes is his behavior. While "both Algernon and Jack are sophisticated men of the world," only Jack finds the need to change his identity and life as he shifts social circles (Ericksen 152).
Like the socially accepted individuals in Victorian society, Jack is rigid, morally sound, and never deviant. Initially known to Algernon as Ernest, Jack's transformation is almost instant as Algernon reveals his knowledge of Ernest/Jack's deviance with names. Ernest is wistful and madly in love with Gwendolen until his true ego, Jack, is revealed. As soon as Algernon shows Jack/Ernest the cigarette case, Jack shows himself, pointing out how "ungentlemanly [a thing it is] to read a private cigarette case" (Wilde 2005, 12). Algernon, now Jack's foil following Ernest's departure, retorts with an epigram truly reminiscent of a dandy, stating the "[absurdity in] having hard and fast rules"(Wilde 2005, 12). The two characters play off each other from the very beginning, revealing their intentions. Algernon remains the deviant, bored with his surroundings and endless cucumber sandwiches (Wilde2005, 4). Jack leaves to indulge in the sort of behavior from which he is restricted as he is responsible for Cecily. Like Wilde, who has a family of his own, Jack cannot overindulge without risking social harm to his family. Ernest, then, is a double play on words; in indulging one's "earnest," or true self, one escapes the constrictive Victorian society of moral and social obligations. Wilde's aim here is to escape the Victorian moral code, returning to the Hellenistic antiquity of male relationships.
Strangely, most everyone except Jack longs to see or meet Ernest.Algernon himself assumes the identity of Earnest in his quest to meet Cecily. Much to Jack's chagrin, Algernon decides to assume the identity of Algernon simply out of curiosity. Algernon has no ulterior motives; he wants to be Ernest just to be Ernest, a reflection of Wilde'spredisposition toward universal simplicity. Cecily also longs to meet Ernest, as she has heard of his antics and looks forward to a relative several degrees less rigid than her estranged guardian. Gwendolen is madly in love with Ernest partly due to her empathy for Jack'supbringing, and partly because of her obsession with his name. ThroughErnest, Wilde reveals his wishes of acceptance; he wants people to desire his homosexual identity and accept him not in spite of it, but because of it.
Victorian values were imposed on every part of culture. Because of the great successes and advances felt by the 1860s, it was assumed that the throne had arrived at something new and worth keeping. An increasingly prudish era, the Victorian, puritanical movement required that all art have purpose. Whether to emulate a person, place, or event, art needed a reason to exist. It could be veneration of the object, veneration of the genre, or even veneration of the artist, but all art, including the written word, was subject to the Victorian standard if it was to be accepted by the general public. Like so many other movements, the Victorians were faced with the concept that art existed for art, that its sole end is itself and nothing more.
While many mistakenly attribute this movement to Wilde, he in fact did not create aestheticism, "he was merely its vehicle" (Gaunt 119). As an Irishman, it was only natural that Wilde would be the catalyst for such a movement. Ireland was still relatively free of the imperialist expansion, allowing for a medium of trade most of England could not match. Wilde, after all, was not from the industrial wastelands of Liverpool, Manchester, or London. He was from "the dingy magnificence "of Dublin (Gaunt 119).
Wilde's aesthetics are rooted in his education, primarily his preoccupation with Hellenistic Greece and the old texts involving male relationships. When searching for the concept of beauty, he might have"gotten his ideas from the great 6th century Hellas", where Wildeperceived "the triumph of Greece and great civilization was its creation and representation of a supreme form of beauty" (Gaunt 120).The ancient Greeks may have appealed most to Wilde because of the high premium they put on male-male relationships. Viewed as the most pure of all loves, homosexual male love was venerated by great leaders as well as scholars. The king of the gods and Mount Olympus, Zeus, was known to have a male lover, a young shepherd by the name of Ganymede.
Contrary to the Victorians, "who had inherited a set of religious beliefs based on faith rather than reason," Wilde had no concrete religious beliefs at all (Ericksen 19). The "Aesthetic Movement, of which Wilde was soon to become the representative figure, was essentially a reaction against the ascendance of "Philistinism in art and life" (Ericksen 19). Wilde was determined to "cultivate his own individual impressions of the world (Ericksen 19). Though he quickly became the most prominent aesthete, Wilde's views were not unique. He had previously traveled to France, where he met with names such as de Goncourt, Flaubert, and Huysman, who showed him the depth of suffering as beauty. After Wilde settled in London in the 80s, he began to showcase his aestheticism, sporting garb such as "plum-colored velveteen knickerbockers with perhaps a soft loose shirt and a wide turned-down collar" (Ericksen 21).
Wilde advocated art as having intrinsic, immeasurable value. Unlike the Victorian stance, art did not have to feature a moral code, teach a lesson, or exist as a monument to an ideal supporting morals. Art is art, and exists only to exist for itself. For example, paintings of the Last Supper, though beautiful, existed to be a testament to Jesus or Christianity. Wilde's Aestheticism would interpret the Last Supper to exist solely for the purpose of being a beautiful painting. The colors, shapes, and figures would be the central focus as they would represent beauty; the connotation behind twelve disciples sitting around a solitary figure would be dismissible. Wilde's sexuality ties indirectly to the concept of art; one of the reasons Wilde advocated the aforementioned moral system was his relation of the system to antiquity. Homosexual union was not a defiled perversion; Wilde argued that it was a sign of progress, like aestheticism. Aestheticism and homosexuality would be placed in the same context as other time periods such as Hellenistic Greece, Classical Italy (Michelangelo), and Shakespearean England. The aforementioned periods involve the perfection of the male form; Wilde believed himself to be in line with the traditions of old because of his Oxford rearing. Hellenistic aesthetic coincided with Wilde's sexuality and his aesthetic movement in the shared view that the male form was the most beautiful.Homosexual relationships were therefore considered an act of beauty, the most revered form of affection possible.
Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" is a multi-page testament to his belief in art's greater purpose as having no such purpose. Essentially an extended metaphor for the ill consequences of turning art into a mathematical measure, "The Decay of Lying" describes lying "and poetry as arts" (Wilde 1997, 7). The metaphor continues, equating art with an exaggeration of reality. True art, Wilde argues through the protagonists Cyril and Vivian, is so abstract that the real "becomes unreadable" (Wilde 1997, 13). The nature of art and beauty is so abstract that nature and life are meant to imitate it.
The dangers of regarding art as a moral calculus are detailed in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The strange stasis in which Dorian findshimself—the state where his self-portrait shows his aging and the negative effects of his actions—is a wonderful example of Wilde'saesthetics in motion. The story unfolds as Dorian is sitting in front of Basil; Basil is seen pondering the sheer physical beauty of the scene in front of him. The true aesthetic, Basil seeks out the beautiful solely because it is beautiful. He becomes enamored with Dorian only because of his beauty. On the other hand, Lord Henry findsDorian irresistible because of the potential socialite he sees in a mind that has yet to be molded. Basil the aesthete warns Lord Henry, imploring him not to make a cynic out of something beautiful; in this case, Basil is ultimately requesting Lord Henry to take caution in his approach to Dorian. Basil wants to preserve Dorian the way he is because he finds him beautiful, where Lord Henry wants access toDorian's private time so he can mold something new and different.Dorian becomes a work of art, manipulated by Lord Henry, killing Basil, the aesthete.
Later in the novel, Lord Henry gives Dorian a yellow book, one with no title that is presumably about art and philosophy (Ericksen 115).Dorian becomes obsessed, using it as a Bible with which he leads his whole life. In the end, Dorian dies, having gone mad. This is an unequivocal warning from Wilde to those who would pervert the course of art (Victorians). Wilde shows the reader what happens when art is taken out of context and into a completely inappropriate light. Moreover, its hows how damaging the Victorian approach is; Dorian is unable to change his ways. Shortly after his inhuman treatment of Sibyl, he attempts to reform, only to find the painting smirking back at him.This is a reflection of the unyielding nature of Victorian society; itis a reflection of Wilde's suffocation and inability to move freely, creatively, or inspirationally in the context of British society at the close of the 19th century. Just like Dorian, Wilde cannot express himself freely; though he had a chance in the beginning of the novel, Dorian did not follow the poor artist Basil. He instead opted to conform to the higher-ranking Lord Henry, whose coterie led Dorian to his death. Once in the clutches of Lord Henry, Dorian was fully supplicated to the mercy of his manipulator. Lord Henry almost immediately changes in his affections for Dorian, the extreme differences being Dorian's perception as an "Adonis" in the beginning and as an unrecognizable, withered, man who is unidentifiable until they "check his rings".
Wilde's third play, "An Ideal Husband" makes use of the witty banter known as "epigrams" to reveal the darker side of Victorian values in a"tongue-and-cheek" fashion. The whole play is an epigram of sorts, exemplifying the imperfections of the Victorian bourgeois by mockingly portraying the inefficacy of their incorporation into Wilde's ideal society. The traditional Victorian values Wilde mocks in "An Ideal Husband" are devotion, forgiveness, sacrifice, loyalty, moral integrity, and a composed disposition, all traits that Wilde subverts in his character portrayals. Though Sir Robert, the "ideal husband", finds himself at the disadvantageous end of blackmail, his past does not warrant Wilde to present him as vile or duplicitous, as Lord Goringpostulates to Lady Chiltern that every man of "every nature [has]elements of weakness" (Wilde 2004, 27). The play, however, becomes"centered around a conflict caused by [Lady Chiltern's] unyielding moral rigidity" (Ericksen 142). Sir Robert faces a moral dilemma in his coping with Mrs. Cheveley's blackmail. Wilde makes a useful point in the Sir Robert's circumstances; on one hand, Sir Robert is faced with making public his dark and relatively shameful past, there ineffectively nullifying Mrs. Cheveley's threats. On the other, he must deal with a Puritanical wife "who cannot forgive anyone who has done a wicked or shameful deed," including Sir Robert's possible complicity(Ericksen 141). Would an ideal husband accede to the blackmail, there indenying his wife's request to challenge Mrs. Cheveley? In either event, Sir Robert's relationship is put in jeopardy. He can either lie to his wife, giving in to Mrs. Cheveley and compromising his marriage, or he can make his past public domain, marring the perfect public image his wife so treasures. Ironically, the couple's social coterie perceivesSir Robert as the ideal mate, a man who, until his blackmail, was known for his impeccable reputation. Even his private life with Lady Chiltern was blissfully free of blemishes. Sir Robert's reputation and relationship with his wife, however, could have been saved by a simple lie. Had he never revealed the truth to his wife and given in to Mrs.Cheveley, giving in to her will, Lady Chiltern wouldn't have been one to know the better. An ideal husband in this case would therefore lie;for Wilde, the Victorian moral impetus lies not with adhering to the traditional values, but rather in maintaining the facade of keeping values in general. Ironically, Lady Chiltern "learns of her husband's past" all the same, "[castigating] him and [rejecting] his please for forgiveness" (Ericksen 141). No amount of marital maneuvering can spareSir Robert. In the end, it is Lord Goring who confronts Mrs. Cheveleyabout Sir Robert's blackmail; he is the only empowered character as he speaks and acts under no false pretenses. While he is far from perfect, chastised by his father for "dancing until four o'clock in the morning", Lord Goring is Wilde's idealist—he is an art lover, whose witty repartee is surpassed only by his willingness to fight Mrs.Cheveley.
One of Wilde's most effective comic devices is his employment of epigrams, and more comical still is his utilization of Vicomte deNanjac's malapropisms. The French Attaché in London, Nanjac representsWilde's interpretation of those not fortunate enough to be born elite; Nanjac is easily recognized by his adoration of society and "hisAnglomania" (Wilde 2004, 4). His malapropisms are a reflection of the sad attempts of many to engage in epigramic banter, the object of LordGoring's successful use of epigram. A ridiculing character, Wilde'sNanjac is one whose blind aspiration to join a society hampers his vision and taste, therein earning him the scorn of the more capableLord Goring.
Wilde's assault on the Victorian bourgeois is personified best by the duality of his characters. Sir Robert, for example, "presents a public mask of absolute personal integrity but has actually built his fortune and career upon a deception" (Ericksen 144). An almost hero, Sir Robert is a manifestation of Wilde's implications regarding a relatively innocent man's subjugation under society. Lord Arnheim, Sir Robert's former co-conspirator, first seduces Sir Robert with his "doctrine of wealth", elucidating his view that controlling others is life's greatest attribute (Ericksen 142). Mrs. Cheveley displays this best as"Lord Arnheim's theoretical protégée"; the two are almost Machiavellian in their manipulation (Ericksen 145). Where Lord Arnheim seduced SirRobert by playing to the discrepancy between his noble birth and modest financial holdings, Mrs. Cheveley is absolutely ruthless in her willingness to wreak havoc on all aspects of Sir Robert's married life in order to secure her investments. In his surrender to the wills of the two manipulators, Sir Robert becomes an ideal human, one whose proclivity to err alienates him from society. By succumbing to the two prominent materialists, Sir Robert embodies Wilde's disdain for the financial drive of Victorian social coteries; contrary to the art-collecting Sir Robert, the female villain has no pleasures outside control and exploitation.
Wilde addresses the lack of humanity in Victorian society, personified by the promulgation of perfection among the social elite. In the first Act, Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon discuss their unfortunate marital situation. Lord Goring notes they are married to "the most admirable husbands in London", to which Mrs. Marchmont responds that their husbands' perfection "is exactly what [they can't stand]"; "there is not the smallest element of excitement in knowing [them]" (Wilde 2004,10). In this sense, the true Sir Robert, the one susceptible to suggestion and whose past compromises his future, becomes the ideal husband. Wilde suggests all Victorians wear masks, alternate identities that shield them from being human and enjoying existence. The ideal marriage is manifested best by the speculative union of Mabel Chiltern and Lord Goring, who at the play's close reject the common Victorian roles and morals previously discussed.
Wilde's Victorian surroundings were instrumental in his development of aesthetics, but were unfortunately not tolerant of his private life. A controversial figure, Wilde was homosexual, and had an ongoing affair with a younger nobleman by the name of Lord Alfred Douglas. Lord Douglas' father, enraged at his son's homosexual relationship with Wilde, accused Wilde of being a sodomite, a grave offense in Great Britain at the time. Though acquitted in his first of two trials, Wilde was later sentenced to serve two years' hard labor on the aforementioned charges. First imprisoned in London's Wandsworth prison, Wilde was denied pen and paper until his transfer to Reading Gaol, where he eventually wrote De Profundis. While "Wilde revealed his fascination with the figure of Christ [throughout] his literary career, only in De Profundis did he actually make [Christ] a part of his aesthetic system" (Ericksen 156). A dramatic monologue on spirituality and society, De Profundis features several metaphors likening Wilde toChrist. Wilde felt his unjust imprisonment made him a martyr; upon initial circulation of rumors regarding his sexuality, Wilde could have left London for France, therein spared persecution. Unlike "Hamlet, who became a spectator to his own tragedy", Wilde the Christ-figure actively sought out what he perceived as his end (Wilde 2003, 28).Where Christ accepted his fate for the benefit of mankind, Wilde was a self-convinced saint and martyr for art and what he perceived to be the threatened aesthetic movement. Having "passed through every mode of suffering," Wilde was convinced that his redemption would be realized through his incarceration and subsequent release, upon which his newfound humility would help him "rise again" (Wilde 2003, 4). Just as mankind would redeem itself through the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, Wilde felt society would be redeemed through his incarceration. He continued, developing his incarceration to salvation, likening greatness to requisite sorrow. Wilde admired Jesus for having realized his calling as being "completed," reaching "fulfillment" upon its end(Wilde 2003, 19). Marveling at his situation, Wilde mused on the incredulity of "a young Galilean peasant imagining that he could bear on his shoulders the weight of the world," including all the world's past sins as well as what "had yet to be done and suffered" (Wilde2003, 13). Jesus' death and resurrection was that toward which Wildeaspired, conceding that imprisonment was most likely an act of retribution for the fanciful and carefree life he led previously.Incarceration, then, was Wilde's means of atoning for the errant life he might possibly have led upon his release. He hoped his relationship with Lord Douglas would be forgiven, and longed for society's acceptance. Wilde could "claim on [his] side that if [he realized] what[he had] suffered, society should realize what it [had]" in turn inflicted; with a mutual cognizance shared between Wilde and society, he hoped there would be "no bitterness or hate on either side" (Wilde2003, 7). Just as Jesus attempted to win over his captors and aggressors through his death and resurrection, Wilde hoped to pacify society's enmity by paying his social dues in prison. Wilde even likened the course of his life's events to those leading up to Jesus'martyrdom. For example, Jesus was given direction by God the Father and condemned by Man. Wilde, in turn, ascribes "the two great turning points in [his] life" as when his "father sent [him] to Oxford, and when society sent [him] to jail" (Wilde 2003, 6). Wilde's foreknowledge of an impending criminal proceeding did not dissuade him, just as the disciples could not sway Jesus' acceptance and willingness to die on the cross. Neither Wilde nor Jesus could ignore their calling, no matter the grisly end. As a sinner, Wilde conceded that he had to accept the fact that martyrs were equally persecuted "for the good as well as for the evil" committed (Wilde 2003, 7).
However similar to Jesus Wilde would assert himself to be, there weredefinite discrepancies in De Profundis that could testify to Wilde asan admirer of Jesus rather than his attempted emulator. Wildepostulated that Jesus saw Man in the same fashion as the aestheticmovement saw art; Man existed simply to exist. Wilde wrote that Christ" regarded sin and suffering as being [beautiful]" in and of themselves, that such a notion was the "dangerous idea" that led Christ to his demise (Ericksen 157). Just like Christ, Wilde's own "dangerous idea" that ran against the Victorian grain was what led to his downfall.Wilde also saw his imprisonment as a period of transition. Hisindictment of the Greek gods as deities emulating humans indicatedhislife prior to imprisonment; Wilde labeled the Olympian gods as ableto "reach greater heights" (Wilde 2003, 17). Each Olympian representeddifferent aspects of humanity that, when indulged by Wilde, resulted inincarceration. In his simile, Wilde indirectly likens himself to eachgod's moral flaws. He lauds Zeus for not being able to "resist mortalman's daughters" and Hera for her pride and "peacocks", a catharticevaluation of the Victorian bourgeois who imprisoned him (Wilde 2003,17). Wilde also attributes his former peers to Apollo and Athena, eachof whom failed to forgive. Apollo slaughtered the mortal Niobe's sons," leaving Niobe childless" for her hubris in claiming her childrenrivaled the offspring of Leto (the mother of Apollo and Artemis);Athena turned Arachne into a spider for having claimed to be moreskilled with the loom than the goddess of wisdom and crafts (Wilde2003, 17). In describing the society that bore him, Wilde becomesimperfect, as his reformation requires penance as a medium of change.By attributing himself and his society to the Greek gods, Wildedifferentiates himself from Jesus. Jesus never required crucifixion toattain perfection—he was born perfect and lived without sin. Wilde, onthe other hand, is punished not on behalf of another (though it can besurmised that his imprisonment kept the young, impressionable LordDouglas out of jail), but for his own social transgressions. Wilde alsoheld great contempt for Lord Douglas, as De Profundis was more ascathing letter from a jilted lover than a philosophical testament toWilde's self-improvement. Wilde often lamented his situation, spitefulthat "for him, the beautiful world of color and motion [had] been takenaway, while Bosie (Lord Douglas) walked free among the flowers"(Gardiner 145). De Profundis becomes conciliatory towards its end, however, as Wilde follows through with his original assessment that"terrible was what the world did to [him]," but worse still was "what[he] did to [himself]" (Wilde 2003, 3). Unlike Jesus, Wilde is somewhatself-hating, embittered by his social persecution despite his greatcontributions in the aesthetic movement. His imprisonment wasultimately brought on by his own charges; following his falling outwith the Marquess of Queensbury (Lord Douglas' father), Wilde pressedlibel charges and lost, opening himself up to legal scrutiny. In theend, it was his own defense that cost him his freedom, unlike Jesus wholived to die, fully cognizant of an inescapable fate. Though he experienced a form of martyrdom, Wilde's self-comparisons to Jesus are limited, and he shifts from indirectly likening his life and its recent events to those of Jesus to aspiring to become Jesus-like (in essence, more Christian). Rather than claim to follow in Jesus' footsteps, Wildepurports that he has suffered just as Jesus suffered, and in doing sobecame a better man just as Jesus did. Wilde claims "to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered" (Wilde 2003,21). Despite Wilde's De Profundis presentation of himself as Jesus, there are a great number of instances that involve his own supplication before and admiration of Jesus as opposed to his presumption of equality with Jesus. Wilde admires Christ for his refusal to stone MaryMagdalene, bringing shame on her persecutorsin his statement suggesting that those without sin cast the stones tocondemn her. In his tirade against the Victorian bourgeois, Wilde alsovenerates Christ for advocating the poor; Wilde described prison as"something that earns sympathy" from the poor and earns the rich thestatus of "pariah" (Wilde 2003, 2). The poor, Wilde argued, were asimpler people who were closer to perfection. Jesus, after all, was notborn rich, but the son of a poor carpenter. In the waning years of hisimprisonment, Wilde began to consider his incarcerated state as areturn to simplicity, and in simplicity becoming closer to perfection.
Wilde's comparison to Christ was perhaps overtaken by the method in which he transformed Christ, reinterpreting him as an "artistic personality" (Ericksen 156). It is odd that Wilde would place Jesus on such a pedestal, as he remained an avowed agnostic until the twilight of his life. In fact, Wilde goes out of his way to denigrate the Christian faithful to a degree, describing his faith as something superior because it is tangible, that his "gods dwell in temples made with hands"; Wilde asserts that only "within [actual] experience is[his] life complete" (Wilde 2003, 5). Wilde's adulation could also be construed as a comparison of himself with Christ as a purely literary figure; his assertions were not hubris, but merely the lamentations of a writer recognizing a universally acclaimed protagonist in the world's most renowned tragedy. By placing Jesus in the context of a literary figure rather than reading Wilde's comparisons from a religious perspective, the reader is further able to understand the context in which Wilde worked. Wilde never deified himself, though he did perceive himself as "a defiant artist intensely conscious of his cultural role as an innovator of art" (Erickson 13). De Profundis waivers between the veneration of Christ and the open advocating of agnostics, with Wilde often professing that agnosticism "has its martyrs and should reap its saints" just as Christianity has (Wilde 2003, 5). In this respect, Wilde transcends the figure of Jesus in his simplicity; Jesus' death and the events of his life were a leap of faith, whereas Wilde's belief system and his life, cultural contributions, scandals, and downfall were historically documented. His "actual experiences" previously discussed were in themselves defined as real in their sorrow. For a man whose "fop" and "dandy" were all encompassing, Wilde's redemption would not be nearly as invigorating as that of Christ (Gardiner 15). WhereChrist was promised a seat at the right hand of God Himself, Wilde'sfuture upon release was one of almost guaranteed estrangement.
Wilde's homoerotic imagery and context are unique; they served as an effective device in the establishment of Dorian as both an evil character and one manipulated by another. The homoeroticism, for example, first serves to establish Dorian in a protective love affair with Basil, where Dorian is portrayed as innocent, his face bright with the naïveté that can only be attributed to youth. That Dorian is drawn to Lord Henry in a sexual manner makes his fall from grace all the more decadent, giving the reader the impression that Dorian was "stolen" away from the clutches of youthful exuberance. Without the homoerotic subtext, there would be no logical explanation for Lord Henry'sattraction to Dorian, or Dorian's willingness to follow Lord Henry.Though Dorian could be portrayed as having left Basil behind so as to aspire to greater social heights, the manner in which Wilde uses homosexual tensions prompts the reader to make different conclusions, ones that are steeped in suspicion and communicated in whispers. The taboo of same-sex relationships is cast aside with the introduction of Sybil, but it remains in the back of the reader's mind, solidified by several characters' effeminate preoccupation with physical beauty. Wilde's own sexuality manifests itself in three stages among the three male characters; first, the image of Basil, the affirmed homosexual who lives a detached life. Second is the image of Lord Henry, the private homosexual who is an irrevocable face in the local coterie. Third is the image of Dorian, who begins innocently, but upon realization of his homosexuality and his attempt to become assimilated into society perishes against his own will. Wilde's sexuality is therefore instrumental in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
"The Importance of Being Earnest" is a reflection of Wilde's duality; contrary to Dorian, who cannot exist detached from or assimilated into society, Jack is an amalgamation of Basil and Lord Henry. His dual life is revealed, but only by another who also wishes to take part in social duplicity. In "The Importance of Being Earnest", Wilde communicates the impetus of self-truth as a panacea for unhappiness. Both Algernon andJack are happiest as Ernest as they are free to act as they wish.Unhampered by the Victorian society that constricts them, the twoerst while-Ernests move, speak, and do as they please. The elaborate lengths to which Jack resorts is a reflection of the life Wilde must have led behind his family's back; when Jack assumes the role of Ernest, he risks crossing his stories, getting his two lives intertwined in the form of Cecily and Gwendolen meeting. Here, Wilde's sexuality affects both Algernon, the representation of the dandy and fop, and Jack, whose secret life is a metaphor for homosexuality repressed. Both are hampered by Victorian restrictions; Algernon faced the shirking of his familial duties, whereas Jack had to remain a model individual for his supposedly sheltered ward to follow. Only Jack is in peril of being discovered, however; Wilde attempts to communicate the importance of being true to one's self, as Jack is the only character of the two men to assume an entirely new identity. As Algernon uses his fabricated person as an excuse to leave his surroundings, he is never put into the same dilemmas as Jack. In the case of "The Importance of Being Earnest", Wilde's sexual constraint was an important factor in analyzing the play.
Wilde's aestheticism was highly influenced by his sexuality. He approached aestheticism the same way he approached his male relations, perceiving art simply to observe beauty. Beauty to Wilde is exactly what Dorian was to Basil; beauty was a necessity, something Wilde could not do without. In his attempts to articulate aesthetics, Wilde may have gotten lost in his purpose. Victorian thought was the standard against which to rebel, begging the question of Wilde's motives. Was his aesthetic perspective a manifestation of a new dimension of his anti-Victorian sentiment? Wilde often satirized other aesthetics, claiming that he would only "attack the unmanly oddities which masquerade in its likeness" (Gardiner 43). The irony behind Wilde'ssatirizing contention is that determining those who are "unmanly oddities" requires the same logical selection process as mandated byVictorian interpretation. For example, a Victorian observing art would employ criterion to evaluate the piece as a decent work of art. Similarly, Wilde's decision as to what constitutes aesthetic thought would require criterion to evaluate the thought or work purported to be part of the aesthetic movement. While Wilde's sexuality was only effectively used to correlate Hellenistic antiquity, it still was useful in understanding the shift in perception. Whether or not Wilde came to the conclusion that the Victorian system was inferior, subsequently adopting aestheticism is a different instance than Wildeadopting aestheticism solely to oppose the Victorian system.
Moral implications are much more concrete than art interpretation; in"An Ideal Husband", Wilde does not attempt to spoon-feed his audience homoerotic suggestion. Instead, Wilde focuses on Victorian society as a whole, portraying it in the superficial light he felt appropriate. The Puritanical attitudes relayed by Lady Chiltern are portrayed as impossible standards. The "ideal husband" is then the imperfect, unpredictable man who concedes to his own weaknesses. This is best evidenced by Wilde's warmer tone toward Lady Basildon and Mrs. Marchmont, an almost sympathetic tone to their plight of drab husbands and "perfect" marriages. Wilde's sexuality does not traditionally come into play. However, when perceiving homosexuality as an imperfection Puritan society shuns, Wilde's sexuality fits well but lacks the creative outlet to fully present itself as a viable factor. Though sexuality was an important part of Wilde's works, it was not instrumental in the proprietary "An Ideal Husband". However, Wilde did successfully present himself in the form of Lord Goring, the dandy of the play. Moral implications in "An Ideal Husband" had little do with sexuality, but had everything to do with Wilde's disdain of the Victorian bourgeois social circles.
Wilde as a Christ figure is a notion that draws several conclusions. First, it is not Wilde's sexuality that likens him to Jesus. Wilde's sexuality comes into play only as the factor of his persona that earned him persecution and eventual prison time. Simultaneously, Wilde as a Christ figure was a feasible notion only in his martyrdom for art; where Christ was nailed to a cross, died, and was reborn, Wilde was imprisoned, was released, and reborn. Wilde's speculation on his new lifestyle post prison-release was one of humility, much in the same manner as Jesus' humility throughout the history of his encounters with his disciples. A somewhat wanton display of hubris, Wilde's Christ comparisons are a bit lofty and overly ambitious. Wilde perceives Christ from an agnostic point of view, evidenced by his relative flexibility in putting himself in the same contact as the Son of God. However, both Jesus and Wilde shared parallels, such as the events leading up to their incarcerations.
Oscar Wilde's homoerotic texts, aesthetics, Christ comparisons and moral implications were largely the result of his sexuality, though it can be argued equally as effectively that Wilde's writing was affected by anti-Victorian sentiment. Had he been alive now, in an age where homosexuality is often as accepted as racial differences, it is unlikely that he would have gained the notoriety that he did while in prison and following his release. Though he died a pauper, Wilde's works were revolutionary in their latent content, the dandy style, and the fact that they addressed issues such as homosexuality in a time where society was becoming steadily more conservative. As with any author, Wilde's works are best understood when taking into consideration his biography and history, including his sexuality.
Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1977.
Gardiner, Juliet. Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, Writings, and Wit. Collins & Brown, Ltd., 1995.
Gaunt, William. The Aesthetic Adventure. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1945.
Hoare, Philip. Oscar Wilde's Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and theMost Outrageous Trial of the Century. New York, Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. "An Ideal Husband." Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press,2004. Wilde, Oscar. "De Profundis." Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press,2003.
Wilde, Oscar. "The Decay of Lying." [online] Available at:www.ucc.ie/celt/published/E800003-009/text002.html Cork: Corpus ofElectronic Texts, 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. "The Importance of Being Earnest." Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press, 2005.
Cite This Dissertation
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing stye below: