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Oscar Wilde

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English Literature

Oscar Wilde, whose full name was Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, was an Irish playwright, novelist, and poet. Wilde is still one of the most often quoted authors in our current age, and his works, The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891) and Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), are among his most famous and well-regarded works.

Wilde is also known as a remarkable essayist and a children's book author. Perhaps the most long-lasting and widely popular aspect of his legacy is his much-quoted razor-sharp witticisms. So, let's explore some ideas and facts about Oscar Wilde's life and works as a writer who remains as extraordinary today as he was in the 19th century.

A witticism is a comment or remark that is both insightful and humorous.

Oscar Wilde: Biography

Oscar Wilde was born on 25 October 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. His father was a famous doctor named William Wilde. He was knighted for his contribution to medicine and the creation of St. Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital for treating the poor. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, was a politically active poet known for her English translation of Wilhelm Meinhold's Sidonia the Sorceress (1849). This was the story of the Pomeranian legend of Lady Canoness of Pomerania, Sidonia von Bor (1548–1620), who was tried and executed for witchcraft.

A preternaturally intelligent child, Wilde excelled at the classics from a young age. Wilde's ability in Greek and Roman studies won him the top place for classics at the Portora Royal School. As well as winning school prizes for art, he was awarded a scholarship to attend Trinity College Dublin upon his graduation in 1871.

At Trinity, Wilde excelled once again and was awarded the Foundation Scholarship in 1872. Not stopping there, he added the Berkley Gold medal for best Greek student in his final year 1874 and also the Demyship scholarship for further studies at Magdelena College, Oxford.

Wilde transformed himself from a reportedly 'awkward and uncouth'1 character into what a Balliol College don described as:

A brilliantly clever scholar, who had strangely good taste in art and humanity.

Having the advantage of a three-year degree in classics already, Wilde took the time to develop his social skills, make a name for himself, and begin his creative writing career. His first poem, 'Ravenna', (1878) won him Oxford's Newdigate English Verse Prize and landed him in the prestigious company of past winners like Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin, and John Addington Symonds.

Student fame or notoriety was an important factor in life during the Victorian era at Oxford. For instance, Wilde's contemporary, Christian Cole, was from Sierra Leone and one of Oxford's first African graduates. He was part of the 'Great Gun' crowd and was enough of a celebrity to warrant diary entries by young women who spotted him at Oxford. Unfortunately, his history is largely unrecorded beyond this. Wilde established himself as a brilliant scholar and flamboyant dresser who hosted soirees.

In his traditionally witty way, Wilde described Oxford as:

A place where one can be, simultaneously, brilliant and unreasonable.

Whatever he had to say, he graduated with a double first, and the Prize helped to launch his career as an up and coming writer.

After the publication of his first collection, Poems (1881), Wilde went on several American and UK tours to establish himself as a leader of the Aesthetic movement on the lecture circuit.

The Aesthetic movement promoted art for art's sake, devoid of any social or political connotations. Self-standing beauty is considered the pinnacle of artistic practice in this movement. The movement began in the late 1800s and included artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882).

On 29 May 1884, Wilde married fellow author Constance Lloyd, who was known for her children's books and her short story collection, There Once Was (1888). They had two sons, Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born in 1886. Wilde also had several homosexual relationships during his lifetime, including during his marriage.

Shortly after his marriage, Wilde became editor of the outmoded and failing Lady's World. During his two years there, he revolutionised the magazine by expanding the content to cover women's opinions on literature, art, and contemporary issues rather than merely focusing on what they should wear. When discussing these changes, Wilde said that:

It should be a magazine that men could read with pleasure.1

Oscar Wilde: Death

Although he built a successful career as a dramatist and author, Wilde died in exiled poverty on 30 November 1900 due to a 'gross indecency' conviction (a term often used to imprison homosexual people) in 1895. While in prison, Wilde collapsed from starvation and illness, which injured his ear. Upon his release in 1897, he died after becoming ill with meningitis which is believed to have been directly related to his prison injury.

Oscar Wilde: Famous Works

The 1890s was a decade of extensive creative output that would see Wilde producing his most famous and long-lasting works. In 1888 he published his children's short stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales. In 1891, he published the acclaimed essay, 'Intentions'. This work set the stage for his approach to aestheticism and defined the tenets of the movement. In the same year, he published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was received with much criticism and outcry.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

Originally published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray had six additional chapters when it was published in book form. The novel tells the story of the protagonist, Dorian Gray, who leads a hedonistic, amoral, and self-indulgent life while his portrait withers and ages on his behalf.

Hedonism is an overindulgence in self-pleasing activities.

The novel caused much controversy when it was published. The English Victorian era was one of industrial revolution and materialism, but there was also a focus on religious morality. Wilde's novel was viewed as amoral and scandalous due to the homosexual content and Dorian's many unsavoury escapades, including the murder of artist Basil Hallward.

However, it is also possible to read the book as a cautionary tale rather than an amoral one. Wilde does not glamourise Dorian's descent to murder in any way; he describes how grotesque the portrait becomes as it reflects Dorian's life, and the novel ends with Dorian's death and the restoration of the portrait.3

What do you think about this novel? Do you think it presents a stance on morality? Why or why not?

Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)

First staged in 1892, Lady Windermere's Fan is Oscar Wilde's most famous play. Set over four acts that occupy 24 hours, the play is both improbable and comedic. The main characters include Lord and Lady Windermere, with a cast of other members of the English upper classes. The fan is often seen as a symbol of the performative nature of female roles in society, but it takes on many different meanings in this play.

Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan, StudySmarterA key symbol in Lady Windemere's Fan, pixabay.

It has been argued that the play is also satirical and presents a subtle mockery of the English upper classes 'gender based double standards for respectable behaviour'.3 In the Victorian age, wealthy men were permitted to have extramarital affairs as long as they were discrete. On the other hand, similar behaviour would have ruined a woman's reputation for good. However, Mrs Erlynne of Lady Windermere's Fan is not portrayed as a typical 'fallen woman' character, which has led to readings of implied social commentary in what is seemingly just an enjoyable, witty play.

In the Victorian era, a 'fallen woman' was a woman who had 'fallen from God's Grace' by behaving in ways deemed inappropriate for women at the time, especially concerning sexuality and sex outside of marriage.

Lady Windermere's Fan was a huge West End success, making Wilde wealthy and finally cementing his reputation as a relevant dramatist.

Do you think that there are undercurrents of social commentary in Lady Windermere's Fan? Or is it just comedic art for art's sake?

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)

The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a satirical play set in London and Hertfordshire in England. The protagonist is John Worthing, who is known as 'Jack' by his country friends and 'Earnest' by his city crowd. Supporting characters include Algernon, Gwendolen, Cecilia and Lady Bracknell, who are all affected by John's double life.

Broad themes include morality, hypocrisy, class, courtship and marriage. The use of the name Earnest is a pun, as 'Earnest' is not only a name but also an adjective that means 'serious' or, more specifically in this context, 'sincere'. Take a look at the title, The Importance of Being Earnest, to spot the wordplay. This pun sets the tone for much of the dialogue throughout the play, which also uses farce and melodrama to depict the world on its stage.4 John's dual life means that he is not able to be sincere. Ultimately this ends badly, hence the title.

  • Farce is a type of comedy that uses physicality, absurdity, miscommunication and ridiculous situations to convey humour.
  • Melodrama is sensationalism. It uses dramatic situations to create entertainment.

What do you think of puns? Do you think they can be a good way of revealing interesting meanings and connections? Why?

Oscar Wilde: Quotes

Dorothy Parker wrote a witty poem about Oscar Wilde, saying that if anything funny is to be quoted, but no one knows where it came from, we can just assume that Wilde said it. Wilde is a much-quoted author, famous for his insight and wit. The topics of society, the human condition, and art are the thread that runs through many of his most quoted witticisms.

Take a look below at some of the most famous quotes that have been attributed to Oscar Wilde. These are still relevant and in use today in many different contexts; in fact, you might even come across some of them being used as inspirational content on social media sites.

How do you interpret these quotes? Can you link their themes to his novels?

Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

All Art is at once surface and symbol.

As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.

Why is Oscar Wilde important?

As a key proponent of the Aesthetic movement, Wilde embodied the ethos in his writing, lifestyle, and dress. His work can be read as 'art for art's sake,' but it can also be interpreted as more layered and subtly critical.

He created two masterpieces of late Victorian literature in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and his play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). These works have had a lasting influence on novelists and dramatists up to today.

His novel and plays are reflective of his time and yet also progressive in their themes and content. Few authors of his age addressed homosexual themes, subtly promoted women's rights, or challenged accepted concepts of respectability in the witty and astute way that he did.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) - Key takeaways

  • Oscar Wilde was a key figure in the Aesthetic movement, which promoted art for art's sake. He lived from 1854-1900.
  • Despite being married, Wilde's homosexuality was an open secret that eventually had him imprisoned.
  • Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), caused a scandal when it was published due to its amoral and homosexual content.
  • Wilde was an author, essayist, dramatist, and poet with famous works in each of these categories.
  • Wilde is known for his wit and flamboyant dress style, and many of his works are considered to have a place within the Western canon.

1 Michèle Mendelssohn, 'When Oscar Came To Oxford'. Alumini Oxford, 2018.

2 Andrew Dickson, 'An Introduction to Lady Windermere's Fan', The British Library, 2018.

3 Peter Dickson, Wilde and Morality, Philosophy Now, 2008.

4 John Stokes, An Introduction to the Importance of Being Earnest, BL online, 2014.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish playwright, novelist, and poet. He is still probably one of the most often quoted authors in our current age. The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891) and his famous play Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) are among his most famous and well regarded works.

The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891) and his famous play Lady Windermere's Fan  (1892) are among his most famous and well regarded works.

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted of 'gross indecency', a term used in the sentencing of homosexual people to prison.

Sentenced to two years in jail for sodomy and 'gross indecency' (terms often used to imprison homosexual people). While in prison he collapsed from starvation and illness, which injured his ear. Upon his release in 1897, he later caught and died from meningitis which is believed to have been directly related to his prison injury.

Wilde's most famous poem is considered to be 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' (1897) which was written while Oscar was in exile after his release from prison.

Final Oscar Wilde Quiz

Question

When did Oscar Wilde live?

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Oscar Wilde lived from 16 October 1854 - 30 November 1900.

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What is the name of Oscar Wilde's only novel?

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The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde's only novel.

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Why was Oscar Wilde imprisoned?

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Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for being homosexual.

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What are some of Oscar Wilde's most famous works?

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Ernest are some of Oscar Wilde's most famous works.

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What movement did Oscar Wilde belong to?

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Oscar Wilde belonged to the Aesthetic Movement.

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Name two of Oscar Wilde's most famous plays.

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Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest.

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What universities did Oscar Wilde attend?

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Oscar Wilde attended Oxford and Trinity College, where he studied classics.

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What genre is The Picture of Dorian Gray?

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The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel that is considered to be Gothic.

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Where was Oscar Wilde born?

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Oscar Wilde was born in Ireland.

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What types of literature did Oscar Wilde write?

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Oscar Wilde wrote plays, novels, poems and essays.

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Who is the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray?

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Oscar Wilde

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When wasThe Picture of Dorian Gray published?

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1891. Though, an initial version was published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890.

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What was the name of the philosophical movement that Oscar Wilde was a follower of?

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Aestheticism

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Who are the three main characters of the novel?

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Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward.

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What are the major themes of the novel?

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The purpose of art. Beauty and youth. Homosexuality.

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What was the contemporary reception to the novel's first publication?

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Controversy and outrage. Victorian society was scandalised by the novel's uncouth themes.

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When was The Picture of Dorian Gray published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine?

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1890

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What was the name of the magazine that Oscar Wilde was the editor of?

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The Lady's World

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What were the main criticisms of the novel when it was published?

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The novel was called impure due to its allusions to homosexuality.

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Who did Wilde prosecute for libel?

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The Marquess of Queensbury. He was the father of one of Wilde's lovers.

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What was the name of the philosophical movement that Wilde was a key member of?

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Aestheticism

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When was The Picture of Dorian Gray published in its revised form?

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1891

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When was The Picture of Dorian Gray published in its first form?

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1890. It was published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.

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When was Oscar Wilde imprisoned for crimes of indecency?

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From 1895-1897.

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What was a key addition to the novel when it was revised?

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Wilde included a new 'Preface' that defended his artistic choices and his belief in Aestheticism. Wilde also added the character James Vane to the novel.

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What was Wilde known for in London literary circles?

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Oscar Wilde was an incredible conversationalist, known for his flamboyance and wit.

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