Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde was the most important representative of the English Aesthetic Movement. Not only his works, but his life, too, reflected the principle that the only thing in life that matters is art and pleasure.
LIFE: He was born in Dublin on October 16th, 1854. He was not happy at his early years at school because he didn’t like his schoolmates and didn’t join them in their sports and games, which he considered ‘virile’ activities. He used to live in solitude, fishing or reading the classical authors. Things changed when he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, where he spent four happy years distinguishing among the other students for his unconventional character and establishing a reputation as an anti-conformist, a brilliant talker and a wonderful entertainer. Among his teachers at Oxford there were Walter Pater, considered the father of the English Aestheticism, and John Ruskin. They had a strong influence on Wilde’s literary formation. After the University, he made a tour in Italy and Greece and then he settled in London. He began to draw attention to himself dressing in a very bohemian and eccentric fashion. He often used to walk up and down Piccadilly Circus holding a sun-flower or a lily in his button-hole His personality, conversation and behaviour attracted public attention. He became famous and, as for Byron,he became a model for the young from the wealthy class.Everybody wanted him at their dinner parties . In 1881 he toured America giving talks on Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism. His audiences were very impressed by his new ideas on art. He was well aware of that. At the New York customs when he was asked whether he had anything to declare he answered:”I have nothing to declare but my genius”. On his return to Europe he moved to Paris where he was in touch with the French decadent writers, Verlaine in particular. He married Constance Lloyd, who bore him two sons. He had won fame and wealth, when, in 1895 at the peak of his career, he was charged with homosexuality, arrested and sentenced two years of hard labour in prison.As far as his homosexuality, some critics advanced the idea that his homosexual inclinations depended on the fact that his mother, who wanted a daughter, used to dress him in girl’s clothes and to engage him in girl’s activities. After the trial, the public opinion turned against him and his plays did not sell well as before. When he was released he was a broken man and turned to alcohol. His wife refused to take him back and he chose to go on a forced exile first to Naples, then to Switzerland and finally in Paris where he died after converting to Catholicism and almost forgotten by everyone, on November 30th, 1990.
WILDE/BYRON: There is a strong analogy between them: they both were models imitated by the young generation of their age, they both were rebels against society and shared the same sensation of being isolated figures well in advance of their own time, they both had a scandal in their life and were rejected by society and chose to live on exile abroad, where they died.
WORKS: Wilde was a dramatist, a poet and a novelist. Among his poems we can mention The Ballad of the Reading Gaol, a long poem about his prison experience at Reading. A murderer, a soldier who had killed his lover,was hanged. Wilde describes how the execution and the burial of the soldier had affected the other prisoners.
He wrote delightful short stories such as The Canterville Ghost, The Happy prince and Other Tales, The Portrait of Mr W.H.
Nowadays he is remembered for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which caused great scandal for its supposed immorality, and for his plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan, A woman of no importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. They are called Society Plays because the characters are mostly people in society, that is the wealthiest people among whom Wilde spent much of his time before the scandal. They can make us laugh, but they attack a society with fixed ideas, hypocrisy and the pretence one is or believes to be better than he is. The attack is carried out with irony and it is often amusing because of the use he does of paradox and provocation. He was against seriousness and sincerity because he thought they had killed both art and the imaginative creative artistic ability. He tried to make people laugh, but also think, saying things that were provocative.
POLITICAL IDEAS: Despite his Dandyism, Wilde was a socialist. He exposed his political ideas in an essay, Soul of Man under Socialism. Like Thomas More, he had his own utopia: no private property, equality of man and levelling of the social classes. He wished a utopian socialism totally free and devoid of any form of authority. He saw the future salvation of Mankind in the individualism because only it could free man from all kinds of enslavement and could let him live happy and in harmony with himself and his environment.
THE ARTIST AND HIS ROLE: The real artist is an isolated figure, well in advance of his own time and then different from his contemporaries. His role is to create Beauty for Beauty’s sake: “he has not to prove anything and not worry about what is wrong or right, it’s not his duty to change society or to instruct people because he is only the creator of beautiful things.”A writer mustn’t communicate important ideas simply but he has to suggest them by comedy and paradox.
AESTHETICISM: Wilde and the Aesthetes considered life as a series of experiences and believed that the only way to give meaning to life was to live them as intensely as possible. They saw their contemporary life as ugly and sordid. Art should not reproduce the world as it was, but it had to offer alternatives to it. It could not be right or wrong but just good or bad: ‘there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all’ (Preface to the Picture of…). They reversed the relationship between Art and life: “In the past Art had always imitated life while now, if we want a beautiful life, we have to imitate Art, which is the only beautiful thing.” Society, too, was ugly, vulgar and inhuman. According to Wilde, Art was superior to life because it could be made perfect. In the essay The Critic as Artist he wrote:”It is through art and art only that we can realize our perfection; through art and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.”
The fundamental principles of the aesthetic doctrine of European decadence are: the cult of Beauty, the choice for a life beyond common morality and the theory of the spiritualization of the senses. They are also the main themes of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The Cult of Beauty is well illustrated in the novel: Everyone is fascinated by Dorian’s beauty, even grosser people who ‘became silent when Dorian Gray entered the room … … Even the people who had heard the most evil things against him … … could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him. He had always the look of one who had kept himself unspotted from the world … … His mere presence seemed to recall to them the memory of innocence.’ Dorian himself is fascinated by this situation and by the sight of his perfect face he looks at in the mirror.
THE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN SENSES AND SPIRIT: Wilde tried to solve it through a theory of the spiritualization of the senses. He thought that the senses should become elements of a new spirituality dominated by the cult of beauty. Sensuality in the past had been condemned because men were afraid of passions and feelings they thought to be stronger than themselves. They also thought sensuality would degrade man to animals and so they had always repressed it because they didn’t want to share anything with the lower forms of life. Wilde was deeply dissatisfied with the world where Puritanical ideas gave no importance to senses. He longed for a world in which sensation was to be fundamental. Social and moral conventions had to be rejected because they imposed limitations to experiment with new sensations.
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
It is Wilde’s only novel and was published in 1891. Based on Huysman’s novel A Rebours, it was influenced by Walter Pater. It contained a Preface which is considered a Manifesto of English Aestheticism.
PLOT: The novel tells the story of a rich and beautiful young man who had inspired an artist, Basil Hallwords, to paint his picture. Dorian was fascinated of his own beauty as it appeared in the picture and wished that the portrait could change and he could remain young and beautiful for ever. His wish was magically fulfilled and he managed to remain young while the signs of the passing years and dissipation appeared on his portrait. Under the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, a cynical pleasure-loving aristocrat whose conversation fascinated him, Dorian led a very dissolute and immoral life abandoning himself to all sorts of sins. Both the signs of age and those of sins transferred on the portrait made the face on the portrait become so hideous that Dorian finally stabbed it. He himself was found stabbed with a knife in his heart. At the moment of death the painting regained its original beauty while on Dorian face appeared all the passed years. The end of the novel does not imply a moral judgement of Dorian’s way of living. On the contrary, it points out Dorian’s misinterpretation of aesthetic ideas: he had gone beyond in his pursuit of pleasure, stimulating his appetites and senses. Having been granted eternal beauty and youth, Dorian believed that he had been freed from the consequences of his dissolute actions. In the end Dorian, like Doctor Faustus, discovers that he had been cheated because he was only different from his portrait in appearance but not in substance.