Literary Devotional: Oscar Wilde

I’m going to be a total lame-sauce, and bring you today’s literary devotional. Why does that make me lame? Why, I have only been MIA for the past week.  I should be enlightening you with interesting thoughts, and whatnot. Unfortunately, it’s 8 pm, I’ve had a long day, and I’m clean out of enlightening thoughts.  And since I won’t be reviewing Djibouti here (initially, at least), I guess that means I have to keep on truckin.’ So, let’s just pretend last week didn’t happen.  Yeah, that’s a great idea.  So here you are: it’s Tuesday, and time for your Literary Devotional.

Irish playwright and essayist Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was one of Western literature’s sharpest wits and certainly one of its most flamboyant personalities. Though best known for mercilessly exposing the hypocrisies of Victorian society, he also made significant contributions to the philosophy of art and aesthetics.  His colorful personal life, meanwhile, was just as fascinating as his works, and his eccentricities made him a celebrity during his day.

Born in Dublin to well-educated parents, Wilde studied at Trinity College and at Oxford specializing in classics and poetry.  At school, he quickly made a name for himself as a writer and also adopted the affected demeanor and showy dress that would become his trademark.  From his earliest college days, Wilde was fascinated by the concept of art itself: what it is, why it is important, and what its role should be in life and society.  Wilde came to identify himself with the Aesthetic movement that swept Europe in the late 1800s, believing strongly in the concept of “art for art’s sake”—the idea that art needed no justification or concrete purpose whatsoever.

Wilde wrote most of his major works during a burst of productivity in the 1890s.  The first among these was a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), in which the portrait of a vain young man transforms over time to reflect the man’s corruption and advancing age.  More famous are Wilde’s plays—drawing-room comedies whose barbed wit eviscerates the attitudes and habits of affluent British society.  Late Windermere’s Fan (1892) concerns a woman who blackmails her son-in-law; An Ideal Husband (1895) portrays a similar blackmail of a public official.

Wilde’s masterpiece is undoubtedly The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a mistaken-identity caper involving two slippery young men, two young women, and a hilariously condescending noblewoman.  Typical of Wilde’s work, the play is riddled with secrets and misunderstandings and skewers its targets with smart satire rather than open mockery or insult.  Its characters are prodigiously quotable, uttering a near-constant stream of epigrams that are both witty and substantive.

Wilde’s meteoric rise to success during the 1890s was followed by just as precipitous a crash.  Though Wilde was married and had children, he was openly homosexual and in 1895 was put on trial for having an “indecent” relationship with a nobleman’s son.  After serving a sentence of two years’ hard labor, which weakened his health considerably, Wilde died, virtually penniless, in 1900.

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