If, with the literate, I am— Dorothy Parker, 1927
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
My first encounter with Oscar Wilde’s writing was in sophomore year of high school when my English teacher announced that the next book we would be studying was The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). I had heard of the novel before; in fact I had bought a copy at Shakespeare and Company in Paris just the previous summer although I never got around to reading it. In hindsight, thank goodness I didn’t because it was through in-depth analysis of the novel and of Wilde’s philosophies that I got to fall in love with both the novel and its author.
Wilde is generally well known for his paradoxical epigrams such as the following:
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” – The Importance of Being Earnest
“I can resist everything except temptation.” – Lady Windermere’s Fan
However, his wit comes second to his ability to put into words feelings that I thought to be simply indescribable. I am simply awed at how he can effortlessly bust out beautiful sentences like this:
“I want to make Romeo jealous. I want the dead lovers of the world to hear our laughter, and grow sad. I want a breath of our passion to stir dust into consciousness, to wake their ashes into pain.” – The Picture of Dorian Gray
His epigrams are all fine and dandy, but the core appeal of Wilde’s writing is his ability to tap into vast human emotions and delve into the contradictions and paradoxes within. He was a man unafraid to face the darkest parts of not just himself but also of the society he lived in, and he strived to expose the hypocrisy of his contemporaries through humorous quips.
Wilde started his literary journey with poetry; in 1881 when he was 27, he published a collection entitled Poems (creative, I know) which was well received, but lacked the impressive, cutting-edge element that was present in his subsequent work. A review in the magazine Punch puts it aptly: “the poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame”.
Wilde then went on a tour of North America lecturing on art, decoration, and aesthetics, where he became known for his ideas on the aesthetic movement. He then worked on a few magazines, wrote some short stories, plays and essays before starting his magnum opus: his one and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Inspired by Faustian legend, Dorian Gray scandalized audiences with its decadence and moral ambiguity as well as its homosexual undertones. I’ve read both the final version and the original draft with marginal changes by Wilde’s editor, many of which suggest cutting lines depicting physical touch between male characters.
What really spoke to me about Dorian Gray is that it’s infinitely complex and multi-layered; you can read it many times and find something new that you hadn’t noticed before. Everything written in that book is there for a reason—my class essay on it was about the use of flower imagery throughout the novel, for instance. It is a novel so well-written and well-structured that it draws you in and before you know it you’ve read half the book.
I did what can be called my high school thesis (extended essay for those familiar with IB vernacular) on the Aesthetic movement, comparing Wilde’s views with those of French aesthete Théophile Gautier. With Wilde, I mostly focused on Dorian Gray. Because the novel was so scandalous, Wilde wrote a preface to the newer editions, consisting of aphorisms aimed to expose the critics’ hypocrisy. Wilde defends his novel by stating that “all art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril”. To him, art should only exist to be beautiful and to be admired; there shouldn’t be anything didactic or political. If so, why is it that he ends his novel by killing Dorian? (This is kind of a big spoiler but c’mon, you’ve had 129 years.)
Truth is, Wilde himself was as paradoxical as his best-known aphorisms. Some scholars think Wilde’s English upbringing and Christian background kept him from crossing the line into complete amorality. Whatever it was, the point is that Wilde couldn’t help but warn readers against a life of unbridled self-fulfillment and rampant pleasure. Make of that what you will! In essence, the Aesthetic movement itself is also paradoxical: the view that art should not make a moral or political statement is in itself a moral and political statement. Wilde embodied these contradictions that make the movement so intriguing not only in his literary works, but also in his private life.
In 1895, Wilde was publicly accused of being a “posing somdomite” by the Marquis of Queensberry, and Wilde sued him for libel. Ultimately, Queensberry was acquitted as the court found his accusation just, and Wilde was arrested and charged with sodomy and gross indecency. Throughout his trial Dorian Gray was brought up as evidence of Wilde’s own moral depravity, which is ironic because Wilde spent a great deal of time trying to convince people to separate the art from the artist (to no avail, it seems). At one point during the trial he got fed up with it, and gave a passionate speech defending “the love that dare not speak its name”. His words were lifted almost verbatim from his novel; he stated that such love was “as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect”. His declaration was met with a round of applause, and a jury member even refused to find him guilty, leading to a second trial that ultimately did convict him and sentenced him to two years of hard labor.
What I find quite peculiar is that Wilde was warned against suing Queensberry for libel, because the court could easily prove that he was homosexual. He was advised to flee the country, but instead, Wilde chose to go ahead with the lawsuit. Richard Ellman, the definitive biographer of Wilde, writes that Wilde “submitted to the society he had criticized, and so earned the right to criticize it further”. Perhaps Wilde’s refusal to leave was his full submission into the society that would later condemn him. Either way, he continued to write while he was in prison, producing De Profundis, a letter addressed to his lover Bosie chronicling the events leading up to his imprisonment. After his release, he wrote a poem called The Ballad of Reading Gaol, criticizing the harsh treatment of inmates. The last few years prior to his death were spent writing on penal reform; his time in prison had killed his creative spirit. I can’t help but wonder what other great works of art he could have produced had he not been punished for his sexuality, something he had no control over. He was only officially pardoned under the Alan Turing Law in 2017, along with around 50,000 more men convicted of homosexuality. And yet, something positive did come from this tragedy: he became a martyr, an icon and hero for the gay-rights movement.
According to this fantastic article on The New Yorker by Alex Ross, “as recently as the late eighties, you could still find bookish young people coming to terms with their sexuality by way of reading Wilde”. The first pride parade following the 1969 Stonewall riots was organized by the owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York. He is even more famous in death than he was in life; his works are studied by many and read by many more.
There’s been a particular surge of interest in Wilde’s work in the past few years, specifically in Dorian Gray, within what’s called “dark academia”. Inspired by classical literature with a focus on Romantic and Victorian works, dark academia is concerned with topics such as self-discovery and self-actualization, hedonism, and an unending passion for knowledge. Other works popular within it are Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (also a great read, would recommend), the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, and the film Dead Poets Society. If you’ve read Dorian Gray, you can see why the novel fits right into this subculture of literary studies. Dorian Gray is a story about a man who lives his life doing everything that he wants, giving into every temptation, chasing every kind of happiness. Dorian lives for himself, and his eventual moral corruption and demise aside, he fits the dark academia profile to a T.
Oscar Wilde has had a big impact on my life, and I’m glad that more and more people are discovering his works. I am forever captivated by his words, fascinated by his life, and awed by how much he’s inspired me to live for myself and carpe the hell out of a diem. If you’re not familiar with him or The Picture of Dorian Gray, I strongly encourage you to give it a shot! You’ll be in for a wilde ride.