The Picture of Dorian Gray
David Stuart Davies looks at Oscar Wilde's only novel. ...
"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.
People are either charming or tedious. "
Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and then at Magdalen College, Oxford where he started the cult of ‘Aestheticism’, whose basic creed was ‘arts for art’s sake.’ He was a brilliant scholar and also revealed himself to be a great wit, entertaining people with his stories which were so fascinating that, as one observer noted, they could ‘charm toothache away.’
Following his marriage to Constance Lloyd in 1884, he published several books of stories, such as The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant, which were ostensibly written for children but in fact contained strong themes concerned with the ideas of love, sacrifice and religion. His only full length fiction was the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). It is the story of a gilded youth who wishes that he can remain as fresh and beautiful as his newly painted portrait. The wish is granted, and Dorian pursues a libertine life of varied and amoral experiences, while staying young and radiant; all the while his portrait ages in a gruesome fashion, marking his face with every sin he commits.
Wilde’s first success as a playwright was with Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892. This was the first of a quartet of brilliant plays which, while having the frivolity of humour and cleverness and sharpness of wit, satirise in a fierce fashion the morals of society, exposing the fraudulent emotions and motives that lay beneath the sophisticated veneer. It seemed that the audiences who attended these plays never fully understood that they were in their elegant and witty fashion mocking them and their pretences.
He followed this play with A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, which is considered Wilde’s masterpiece. All these plays were performed on the London stage between 1892 and 1895.
These productions brought Wilde great success and he became the toast of the town and a larger than life public figure who enjoyed the excesses of his celebrity. However his homosexual activities and his relationship with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas were exposed by the young man’s father the Marquis of Queensberry, the creator of the famous boxing rules. Wilde's professional success was mirrored by an escalation in his feud with Queensberry who had planned to insult Wilde publicly by throwing a bouquet of rotting vegetables on to the stage during a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. However; Wilde was tipped off and he had Queensberry barred from entering the theatre.
Nevertheless Queensbury accused the playwright publically of being a ‘somdomite’ (sic). Rashly, Wilde brought a libel suit against Queensberry, but lost the court case. He was immediately put on trial for gross indecency. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years penal servitude in Reading Gaol. The cruelty of this sentence grows more intense with the passing years. Today, in the twenty-first century, the Establishment would barely raise an eyebrow at Wilde’s sexuality; but back in the Victorian era, it destroyed the man. In a stroke he went from being the darling of the chattering classes to being regarded as the lowest of social pariahs. He was now an outcast of society; even Douglas turned his back on him. While incarcerated he wrote some of his most moving work, including The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis.
The two years in prison broke Wilde mentally and physically and when he was released in 1897 he fled to France where he lived in genteel poverty. Soon Wilde was sufficiently confined to his hotel for him to joke, on one of his final trips outside, ‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.’
Oscar Wilde died of meningitis in 1900. He is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and his tomb is one of the most visited there. It is a mecca for all those who revere the man who could with brilliance and wit create beauty, humour and moral resonances that still have universal relevance today.
David Stuart Davies
TITLES BY OSCAR WILDE
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