Oscar Wilde: Life and works
1854 Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin of a wealthy family (his father was a surgeon,
his mother a novelist).
1874 He studies at the Magdalen College in Oxford.
1881 His first work appears “Poems”
1882 He performs a series of lectures in the U.S.A. dealing with aestheticism and –
pre-raphaelitism. Then Wilde settles in Paris where he brings to an end the
romantic drama “The Duchess of Padua”
1884 He marries Constance Lloyd and has two children.
1887-89 The writer takes care of The woman’s World, a periodical that publishes some
poems named “Fantasies Decoratives”. Meanwhile “Lord Saville’s Crime” and
“The Canterville Ghost” are published on several magazines.
1888 A collection of illustrated fables full of musicality “The Happy
Prince and other Tales” is edited
1889 Oscar Wilde publishes critical essays like “The Decay of Lying “, “Pencil and
Poison” and “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”, a fanciful reconstruction of
1890 “The Soul of Man under Socialism” is published: Oscar Wilde writes abou his
theory that considers Socialism as a means to reach individualism.
1891 He writes “The House of Pomegrates”, another series of fairy tales.
His first novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is published.
1892 Wilde starts his fortunate series of comedies influenced by the elegance of
the Restauration theatre and the contemporary French drama with”Lady
1893 Other two comedies are successfully performed, “A Woman of No Importance”
and “An Ideal Husband” while the author does not obtain the permission to
bring on the stage “Salomè” written in French for Sarah Bernhardt
and later represented in Paris.
1895 Wilde reaches a perfect fusion of subject and style in “The Importance of Bei
ing Earnest”: In the same year, the catastrophe falls on him: the Marquise of
Queensberry ( father of Lord Alfred Douglas, whose nickname was Bosie),
accuses him of homosexual practices: Wilde loses and is condemned to two
In the jail of Reading he writes “De Profundis”
1898 He writes the poem “The Ballad of the Reading Jail” about his period in prison
In it Wilde shows an intimate sympathy for the outcasts.
1900 He dies in Paris.
The novel opens In a painter’s studio with Basil Hallward, the artist, that is painting the portrait of a young extraordinary beautiful aristocrat, Dorian Gray, and speaks about him to his friend Lord Henry Wotton. Then Dorian appears and is so fascinated by the words about beauty and youth of Lord Henry that, looking at his portrait, expresses a wish “If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old”.
One day Dorian reveals his two friends his deep love for a young actress, Sibyl Vane and wants them to see her perform. But Sibyl, that night, acts without passion and Dorian, disilluded, abandones her with cruel words. .During the night she commits suicide and on the portrait appears the first touch of cruelty on the mouth. Dorian decides to hide the picture in a secret room.
From this moment on, the young man leads a double life and rumours about his behaviour spread in London, but Dorian’s face remains as pure and innocent as ever.
One night , when Dorian is thirty-eight, Basil Hallward goes to to inform him he is going to Paris where he would like to show the picture. Dorian brings him in front of the canvas and stabs him to keep the secret of his life. Later he blackmails Alan Campbell, once a friend of his, and obliges him to destroy the painter’s body chemically.
One evening , while going out of an opium den, Dorian is seized round his neck by James Vane, Sibyl’s brother, who follows him to Selby Royal, Dorian’s country residence, James is killed in a shooting party. Dorian feels safe and wants to change his life. He goes back to London to see if the picture shows a sign of repentance, but the canvas is even more disgusting. He stabs it, but in so doing kills himself. The servants find a beautiful portrait, but it is hard to recognize Dorian in the wrinkled old man lying dead on the floor.
The American publisher J. M. Stoddard commissioned Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write a mysterious tale for Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Conan Doyle wrote The Sign of Four and Wilde’s contribution was The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this novel the writer intended to collect the ideas, the experiences and the literary influences of his life. In fact he had already dealt with the motif of the struggle between Good and Evil in The Portrait of W. H. or Willie Hughes.
Some critics have suggested several books as the basis of this novel: H. De Balzac’s Peau De Chagrin (1831); Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886); J. K. Huysman’s A Rebours (1884) mentioned in the novel and Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer(1820). This author was an uncle of Wilde’s mother, an Anglican Minister with an extravagant taste for dressing up, whose book was a Gothic novel full of mystery and terror. Wilde had been so impressed by his work that he took the pen-name of Sebastian Melmoth during his French exile till his death.
In a letter to Ralph Paine, february 12, 1984, Oscar Wilde wrote “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be- in other ages perhaps” It means that there is only one character in the novel: the writer himself.
Dorian Gray is the pure, beautiful, young man that falls under the inflluence of the clever and perverse Lord Henry. Then he expresses the wishes he could remain forever young while the picture grows old. From this moment on, Dorian leads a double life, starting his descent to hell: charming, educated, fascinated by pleasure,he brings his corruption to the extreme with a fatal attraction for evil. This side of his personality appears with evident signs of depravity on his portrait, his alter-ego “It is part of my self. I feel that”
She is introduced by Dorian’s words that describe her to Lord Henry as a very good actress:for the young man, she represents art. She considers Dorian her Prine Charming. Her innocence contrasts with the environment she belongs to, completely different from Dorian’s. The reader knows only she has died after taking something the people of the theatre use.
He seems older than he is because of his cruel life: Jim embodies the difficulties of a class whose main struggle is for survival. He loves his sister and would like to protect her.He foretells what might happen to her because he does not trust Dorian, an upper class man. But his revenge is frustrated and the social order is re-established.
Disillusioned by her life, Mrs. Vane still hopes in a better future for her daughter. She lives as if she were always on the stage, that is her world, her possibillity to survive. The characters she plays mirror what she would like to be. The reader can only guess her sorrow and her death through James’s words after twenty years.
She represents the lady of the middle-upper class who lives according to the social standards of the time, wearing a mask to hide her true feelings and fears
Completely involved in his art, he is the typical stereotyped artist attracted by beauty. He is the only one who feels true affection for Dorain and who tries to redeem him when he perceives his detachment and his gradual descent to evil
He represents the opinion the world had of Oscar Wilde in that period: a brilliant conversationalist, with a fascinating voice, able at playing with words. Lord Henry uses his ironical criticism to attack every aspect of the Victorian society and is the mouthpiece of Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic and hedonistic beliefs. He acts as Dorian’s private devil and is never worried about the consequences of his actions. He phisycally disappears to give place to Dorian’s degradation, but his personality is always present. He is a spectator, not a man of action and never puts his theories into practice.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is set in London and the protagonist feels at ease in parks, halls, studious that are described with words that appeal to the senses. The characters seem to belong to the setting that, on its turn, is the representation of the fashion of the period (Liberty style). On the contrary, when Dorian Gray gets in touch with the low districts of the city, the descriptions become full of pathetic echoes of the melodramas, Sinister and ugly faces emerge out of a deep fog in this vulgar world.
Oscar Wilde was influenced by his own experience and literary fashion of this time, the Gothis Novel and the Detective Story. To these new genres he added the deep doubts that man feels and the duality of a split personality. The new scientific theories of Darwin, the social gap existing in the Victorian period between upper and working classes and. between the colonies and the mother country.brought this dualism to the extreme. Several critics underline the faults of the novel as a crime story: Dorian’s presumed homosexuality is never told; Jim’s revenge is frustrated; the scene at the opium den is not realistic. They also condamned the work because of his lack of morality even if Oscar Wilde himself denies this judgement with his own words: “There is a terrible moral in Dorian Gray, a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but it will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy. Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book.”
1- Dandysm. There are different interpretation of the word Dandy
– It comes from the French DANDIN, ninny, booby.
-It was a coin struck by Henry Vll of very little value and, at that period, defined worthless people.
-It is in the song Yankee Doodle Dandy in which it represents the American soldier of the revolution seen through the English soldiers’ eyes
-It is mentioned in the essay by Jules Barbey D’Aurevilly’s Du Dandysm et de Geoges Brummel. Lord Brummel was the symbol of the emerging middle class that wants to be acceped by aristocracy and upper classes
– It is used by Lord Byron, J. K. Huysmans and C. Baudelaire to define the new hero, a rebel that protests against the democratic levelling.
2- Art for Art’s Sake. It is the Aesthetic motto that according to some critics was first uttered in French by Professor Victor Cousin in 1818 at La Sorbonne; for others it was firstly used by Theophile Gautier in his Mademoiselle de Maupin. Swinburne translated it into English in his essay about William Blake
3- Aestheticism. The word derives from the Greek aisthetikòs=percetive, and aisthánesthai=to feel and to perceive. The writers belonging to this movement stressed sensations as the main source of art and their aim is to identify the characteristic value, that is Beauty, of aesthetically satisfying objects. The aesthetes judged every work of art according to aesthetic criteria, not on moral, political or religious bases.