Oscar Wilde part 2


Grace Chalhoub, Staff Writer


In 1890, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine began serializing “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” much to the rage of Victorian society, despite the fact that Lippincott’s editor had already censored some of the book’s most shocking content. In the novel, the title character leads a hedonistic and decadent lifestyle, replete with both heterosexual and homosexual affairs and morbid violence. Victorians deemed it wildly immoral, capable of negatively influencing its readers. Wilde thought that the Victorian view that art should impact morality was ridiculous.  Despite this, Wilde cut some of the more controversial parts of the novel when it was published as a book.

Life started imitating art when Wilde met the young, beautiful and spoiled Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas in 1891, the same year that he published “Intentions,” a book of essays. Bosie, a real life Dorian Gray, became Wilde’s much-younger lover, but would eventually go down in history as the source of Wilde’s ruin.

Following the publication of his controversial novel, Wilde turned to drama as a medium to further scandalize and criticize Victorian society. In his eyes, the English Victorians fostered a culture of rampant hypocrisy disguised by complex societal rules. Wilde probably knew of other well-regarded men who partook in London’s homosexual underground (his lover’s brother had been romantically involved with Archibald Philip Primrose, who later became Prime Minister of England in 1894). He saw falseness everywhere, false guises that people assumed to fit into society.

In 1892, Wilde published two plays, “Salome” and “Lady Windermere’s Fan.” “Salome,” written initially in French and strongly influenced by French decadence, was banned from being performed on the English stage, having been deemed “blasphemous” for its subject matter. However, “Lady Windermere’s Fan,”  a social satire and comedy of manners, was a success with the public. Wilde followed up “Lady Windermere’s Fan” with “A Woman of No Importance” and “An Ideal Husband,” but his biggest success came in 1895 with “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The play, which makes fun of the Victorians, features a young man who goes by the name Jack in the country but Ernest in the city, so that he can get into as many scrapes as he likes in the city without ruining his reputation in the country. Despite the blatant distaste that Wilde expresses for the Victorians in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” theatregoers and critics alike adored it.   

Wilde had little time to enjoy his success, however, because only four days after the play premiered, the Marquess of Queensberry, Bosie’s father, stopped by Wilde’s club and left a calling card that read “For Oscar Wilde, posing as Somdomite” (he had misspelled the word ‘sodomite’). The Marquess of Queensberry had been enraged by his son’s relationship with Wilde, and was intent on ending the relationship and humiliating Wilde in the process. Bosie, a manipulative young man who despised his father, convinced Wilde to sue the Marquess for libel. Wilde agreed, unwittingly securing his own downfall.

Downfall and last works

Wilde evidently did not take his own trial seriously, despite the fact that if Wilde’s homosexual affairs were revealed, he could be imprisoned for “gross indecency,” the term that Victorians used to refer to homosexual transgressions. He told the judge that he was thirty-nine years old when he was in reality over forty, and sassed Edward Carson, Queensberry’s defence, at every opportunity, causing laughter throughout the courtroom and prompting the judge to demand order.

Carson cited “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as indicative of Wilde’s homosexuality, reading passages from the novel to the court, as well as passages from Wilde’s love letters to Bosie. As the trial continued, Carson began inquiring about Wilde’s relationships with numerous young men. Wilde finally incriminated himself when Carson asked Wilde if he had kissed a young man named Walter Grainger, whom Wilde flippantly dismissed as plain. Carson capitalized on Wilde’s reason given for not kissing Grainger, causing Wilde to finally lose his cool. Wilde withdrew the prosecution, but it was too late. A warrant had been sent out for his arrest, and at his first criminal trial, Wilde stood on charges for gross indecency. After a few trials, Wilde was declared guilty, sentenced to imprisonment and hard labor for two years. Forced to do meaningless menial labor, disallowed access to most books, and living in conditions unfit for livestock, Wilde became depressed and ill. While in prison, Wilde, allowed only one piece of paper a day, wrote “De Profundis,” a letter addressed to Bosie, accusing him of abusing and manipulating him. After his release, Wilde went to Paris and published his last work, a poem titled “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” His wife Constance and her family forbid Wilde from seeing his two young sons. Two years later, the impoverished and nearly friendless Wilde died miserably in a cheap Parisian hotel, probably of meningitis, the result of untreated illness and terrible prison conditions. Wilde, however, did preserve some of his signature humor until the very end. As he looked around the cheap and vulgar hotel room, Wilde addressed his last words to his loyal friend Robbie Ross, remarking “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

Works cited