oscar wilde – historical and literary background, life, works, style


GENERAL INTRODUCTION – VICTORIAN ENGLAN

The Social Scene
“I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws”, wrote Oscar Wilde in “De Profundis” while in prison in 1897.
Oscar Wilde is one of the most evident exceptions to the period he lived in.
Even if his life (1854‑1900) entirely covers the so‑called Victorian Age, he cannot be considered a Victorian as he never accepted the overwhelming motherfigure Queen Victoria had imposed.
Queen Victoria
By the time Queen Victoria died (1901) the monarchy was better loved among the British people than it had ever been before and above all when she had come to the throne in 1837.
She was the sixth monarch of the Royal House of Hannover. Her predecessors, among them her grandfather George III (1760‑1820) together with his two sons George IV (1820‑1830) and William IV (1830‑1837) (both of them died without legitimate heirs), had not managed to attract the love of the English people because of their extravagant and unpopular way of living and ruling.
Victoria was the daughter of the Duke of Kent (1767‑1820), the fourth son of George III, and the German Princess Victoria of Saxe‑Coburg.
Her childhood and adolescence were impressed by religious and moral strictness: a quality that she tried to transfer to all of her subjects in the sixty‑four years of her reign.
Soon after her coming to the throne, Queen Victoria succeeded in restoring the value of monarchy offering the image of an eighteen‑year‑old lively and responsible girl, who believed in a more democratic monarchy.
She took a more public interest in the business of the kingdom. She was wise enough to say nothing and do nothing without her advisers’ help. Little by little an entire generation of people looked at her monarch in an obedient and stereotyped way.
Thanks to her book “Our Life in the Highlands”, published in 1868, the English people shared their queen’s private life: an adored husband, Prince Albert, who died when she was only 42, and nine children. They took part in her joys and sorrows, they shielded both her private and public life and encouraged the atmosphere of general respectability she was giving to the country.
Respectability
But Queen Victoria was not “a liberated woman”, she was a Puritan and as such, she set the pattern for external conformity, strenuous energy, sobriety, hard work and a joyless self‑denial of worldly pleasures.
Infused with that Puritan apparent respectability, the English felt more and more the strong impulse toward highly dignified standards of conduct. Everything led to hypocrisy, insincerity.
As a result, the Victorians lived in constant fear of getting caught and penalized for breaking the moral code, and so of being cast out of their society.
As the Queen got older, she became even surer of her repressive ideas as the only correct ones.
The Victorians
The Victorian Age turned into a period of ideas and not feelings, exteriority not spiritual values, matter‑of‑factness, not imagination, and much more hypocritical insincere conformists instead of transparent, genuine and honest people.
Oscar Wilde exemplifies a way of rebelling originated by both his being a Victorian and an agressive Irish man, unable to undergo any authoritaristic law and rule even if stated by an impressive figure like Queen Victoria.
The Victorians, who mostly looked like common people obedient to the ethical royal code, actually were disturbed by many continuous social changes and an unparalleled expansion in almost every field of activity. They were suffering from a sense of having been displaced in a world made alien by technological progress and different from the previous one.
They were the heirs of the social and economic unrests brought about by that economic movement that made England move from an agricultural and commercial society to a modern industrial one: the Industrial Revolution.
The industrial Revolution
This “label” refers to the period in England that approximately covered one century, from 1750 to 1850, and saw the greatest and most radical social and economic transformations England had ever seen.
Utilitarianism
The Industrial Revolution was ideologically supported by many intellectuals called “Utilitarians”, who believed in the reform of their society according to the principle of utility, which declares that individual and social conduct should be regulated to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This economic theory was firstly stated by the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723‑1790) in “Wealth of Nations” and later elaborated by the English thinker Jeremy Bentham (1748‑1832) in “Principles of Moral and Legislation”.
That doctrine polarized Britain into “Two Nations” (as Disraeli, one of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers once said), that is capital and labour. The former related to powerful, self‑confident rich people and the latter to poor and working people cut off from any living and working improvement.
Laissez faire
Even worse, the Government adopted the Utilitarian theories of “Laissez faire”, that is let the rich alone, and as a result the rich became richer and richer and the poor ,poorer and poorer.
Industrial free policy based on the division of labour and free trade, did not benefit the mass and brought about many difficulties such as urbanization, bad living conditions, workers’ exploitation, and hard working conditions.
New cities and towns grew very fast to shelter the workers who were abandoning their rural areas. Whole families, from the youngest to the oldest poured into the new urban settlements as they entered the factories, the wool or cotton mills and the coal mines, in order to work or simply survive.
Overcrowding brought about hunger, disease and death.
Workers
Working conditions were terrible: men, women and children had to work up to 12 hours a day in open barnlike structures or in mines, not equipped with any system of heating and ventilation.
Relief Measures
In 1833 the first important Factory Law prohibited the employment of children under the age of nine and their daily working hours were reduced to nine. Women and persons under twenty‑one years of age could not take night shifts.
The workers organized themselves in trade unions and gradually they succeeded in getting their rights. The ideas stated by Karl Marx and Friederich Engels in the “Communist Manifesto” of 1848 and later in “Das Kapital” of 1867 were of fundamental importance for the English working class to reach the targets they had established. It is worth remembering that the two German thinkers were exiled in England when they wrote their works and they had the workers’ living and working conditions clear in their minds.
Education
Once the rights of the workers were recognized, Parliament took interest in educating the people. In 1870 and 1891 two Education Acts were passed and as a result all children were compelled to go to school up to the age of thirteen, where they were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. The growth of the newspaper industry favoured the diffusion of popular magazines to make the Victorians aware of the social necessities of their time.
Prose, both fiction and non‑fiction, became the most widely used form of the Victorian Age because it could readily lend itself to the journalistic interest of the day. Many great prose writers wrote for papers and magazines too, reflecting in their writings the growing serious problems of their age.
New Trends
Industry and technology created problems to the Victorians, but they were nothing if compared to the challenge of science to theology. The role of religion and the authority of the Bible were put in doubt by the claims of scientific reasoning as the most reliable method for discovering truth. New scientific and philosophic research in the fields of geology and biology carried on by Charles Darwin, shocked a great number of the English people who found it difficult to accept theories that turned against the Bible. A battle between “faith and reason”, “religion and science” began and lasted for the rest of the century.
Darwin’s theory of the origin of species was welcomed by many as a proof of mankind’s ability to find a scientific explanation for everything. But for people, who were tied to their religious beliefs, it seemed a strong attack on the very foundations of their faith.
But there were also people who, equally aware of the new atmosphere, fought it by ignoring it. They did not consider the despair, the loneliness of the world they were living in. They put themselves at the centre of their own world: nothing else existed! They gave a name to their world ‑ their pagan anti‑Victorian attitude toward life ‑ they called it Beauty and Beauty became their goddess, faith, defence from the ugliness of industrial Victorian England.
O.Wilde made this choice

The Literary Scene

Dandyism
Literary speaking, the XIX century, which was opened by rebellious spirits such as Byron and Shelley, was closed by some assuming extroverted rebels, whose most famous representative is Oscar Wilde. Both the above mentioned Romantic poets and Oscar Wilde, were publicity‑seeking, iconoclastic men, the very prototypes of what was to become known as the “Dandy”. As such, they were cynical and hedonistic, passionate tempered, unsocial and antisocial even if never denied in anything by their society. They had a deep sense of humour and irony and influenced their contemporaries showing how it is not so much what a man does as the way he does it that can capture the public.
Naughty Nineties
The Victorian Age increased a feeling of coming changes and a restlessness over the political and social condition of the country and when the last decade of the century arrived, that dandyist attitude increased more and more giving the period the label of “Naughty Nineties”
Those years lacked any leading or decisive direction and they were described as “decadent”, that is, as a time where the decay of the old was not counterbalanced by any definite birth of the new.
Art
But the decade was artistically important not only because of the intellectuals’ desire to shock with their affected extravagances, but because the same intellectuals strongly believed in the independence of art, in the unique value of a work of art.
Oscar Wilde, together with a few intellectuals, can be considered the very last heir of the rebellious poets of the so‑called second Romantic generation, who considered life as a work of art and claimed that art and life should reflect one another.
The Victorians, as a whole, were uninterested in art or in any other activities that had no utilitarian purpose. From the 50s to the 70s, some writers felt the need of giving back art its peculiar qualities based on simplicity, emotional sincerity and above all beauty.
John Ruskin (1819‑1900) was the first writer that managed to probe deeply into the abstract theory of art and believed that the wellsprings of art lie in the moral nature of the artist.
Then the Pre‑Raphaelite Brotherhood was formed.
Beauty
It consisted of painters and poets, among them Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828‑1882), whose principal aim was to turn to such Italian painters as Giotto and Leonardo da Vinci that had lived and worked before Raffaello, because they possessed emotional purity and celebrated the enjoyment of beauty.
Ruskin’s and Rossetti’s influence is present also in William Morris (1834‑1896) who became more and more pessimistic while he was losing the consolation of religious faith and his doubts about the lack of will and power to do something were increasing. He turned to the beauty of art as a painter, weaver, draper producing all sorts of interior decorations by old hand methods.
The above‑mentioned artists had an element in common: they loved beauty, because they loved good (the moral goodness) and despised evil. As time passed, some Victorians became more and more aware of the failure of reaching good following a path of art.
Paganism
A “shocker”, a new Byron entered the Victorian stage, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837‑1909). In religion he seemed to be a pagan; in politics an overthrower of the established institutions whilst as a man he had an unorthodox personal behaviour. As an artist he had no interest in Middle Ages. He simply went back to that type of paganism that was indifferent to the moral issues of love and looked for pleasures and the joys of passions. Swinburne’s cries at the existing social orders could not pass unheard to some Oxfordians of the time.
Walter Pater (1839‑1894) represents the most eclectic answer to the various ethical and religious problems of the time. He mingled Classical and Romantic, Christian and Pagan elements to such an extent that there was no more possibilities for both religion and ethics. His philosophy of life is a “scientific paganism” that has in the Renaissance the convenient meeting point. He stated that truth is too approximate a value and man should not devote too much energy and time to its search.
As man’s life is too short, he has to spare his time in order to be happy and his happiness lies only in the perfect and complete enjoyment of something beautiful. Man’s responsibility should be to live each moment to the fullest, letting sensations arise, especially those sensations rich in profound and noble emotions that only a work of art can stimulate. Life was to be in itself a work of art.
Hedonism
Pater’s enjoyment of beauty by the experience of senses was nothing else than a revival of the ancient philosophy called “Hedonism” based on the motto “live for pleasure alone”.
Though Pater was a shy and retiring man who led a very secluded life, his hedonistic amoral approach to life, art and beauty influenced a great number of his Oxford students who took his theories to extremes. Subjectivity became the only valid meter to build up life as only personal impressions and experiences were considered real and authentic
By the 1880’s the Aesthetic Movement came into being and its recognized leader was Oscar Wilde.
“Art for Art’s Sake” became the catch‑phrase of Aestheticism.
Art was the supreme Human achievement and it should be subservient to no moral, political, didactic or practical purpose: its purpose was to exist only for the sake of its own beauty.
Pater together with his rebellious predecessors were not the only intellectuals that influenced Wilde’s aesthetic theories.
Some French writers, such as Flaubert, Zola and Baudelaire, enlarged his horizons helping him deepen his ideas of evil, beauty and language. Two of his best known literary works, the “Preface” to “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1891) and “De Profundis” (1897), are the much‑quoted summary of Wilde’s aesthetic ideas.

THE AUTHOR – Oscar Wilde
O.Wilde, the man that at the height of his fame was called “the brilliant Irishman” and after his fall, the Anglais, the Englisher, the Britisher, was born in Dublin on October 16,1854.
Ireland gave him nothing else than life, a basic scholar education and an attitude towards rebellion that would characterize all of his future choices.
Family
His parents were distinguished middle‑class people: his father a well‑known physician specialized in ophthalmology, who always lived within the bounds of scandalistic situations; his mother, a charming and eccentric lady, who published a volume of poems, under the pen‑name of “Speranza” and gathered some intellectuals in her house to discuss political and literary subject‑matters.
Studies
Oscar Wilde inherited artistic qualities from his mother and began developing them in Dublin at Trinity College where he was the favourite pupil of J.Mahaffy, the President of the Royal Irish Academy, considered the best classical professor of his time.
Wilde was twenty when, with a small reputation as a young classical scholar of great promise, went to Magdalen College, Oxford, as a winner of a five‑year scholarship. Oxford, the university town with its old grey colleges, green brilliant lawns and small pretty river, was a heaven for the sensitive, intelligent Irish young man who soon attracted his fellows’ admiration and contempt for his impudence and flamboyant affectation of manners. But Oxford meant to him also the possibility of getting in touch with men that would influence his future: Ruskin with his eloquence and knowledge of the medieval art and W.Pater, the man who fascinated him at the most. It was Pater who exerted the strongest influence on Wilde that, once in London in 1889, theorized the ideas he had been taught in the movement called”Aesteticism”.

While at Oxford, Wilde travelled in Italy and Greece where he refined his interest in poetry.
Once back in England he wrote some poems heavily indebted to various English poets. One of these poems, “Ravenna”, helped him win the famous Newdigate Prize in 1878, the year he left Oxford for ever with a wide reputation both as an aesthete and a poet.
Climbing up
The Irish rebel accomplished his innate revolt also imitating an eccentric personality of the time: the great Benjamin Disraeli who, before beginning to succeed in Parliament, had astonished the Victorian society by a daring conduct of life. Master and pupil advertised themselves bursting among their aristocratic contemporaries, to whom they did not belong for blood, using dandyish outfits, extravagant poses, dazzling clothes and unflagging brilliant talks.
“Kindliness and the desire to please gave charm to his face, which had aged prematurely, and graciousness to a certain ceremoniousness in address, which may possibly have reflected the elaborate courtesy of Ruskin, or shall we say Disraeli , whose manner,I have been told by elderly contemporaries, showed a great resemblance to that of Wilde. Disraeli …….. continued the Brummel tradition which belonged to the eighteenth century.Kindliness and irrepressible inward gaiety discounted those calculated affectations which many mistook for arrogance and vanity.” (taken from:Jean Paul Raymond and Charles Ricketts, “Oscar Wilde Recollections” Bloomsbury: The Nonesuch Press, 1932).
Wilde soon became a fashionable personality in the London society of the late seventies. He was cherished and invited by many an aristocratic family for his charming good nature and his ability to enliven social parties. But, in spite of his great social success, he found it difficult to afford his “extravagant life‑style”.
Career
In spite of his brilliant university career, Wilde had not been trained for a profession and the great amount of money he needed could not come from the small income his father had left him on his death‑bed. Thus, he decided to write poems and essays that he advertised in a bizarre and direct way.
In the meantime periodicals and newspapers began getting of him making him the subject of parody and satire. He was constantly caricatured and he allowed it because his writings sold better and better. Wilde’s career as an artist was discredited by a one‑year lecture tour in the United States: Wilde failed where Dickens had got an immense success.
The difference between the two writers is that Dickens had had something of his own to offer to the Americans, whilst Wilde had nothing of his own to give. For the sake of a little money Wilde only gained in notoriety as a “great talker and an extravagant personality”. He returned to Europe, went to France where he had some friends and then was soon back to England lecturing in some English countries.

Since the money he earned was not enough to pay for his expensive dandyish life he accepted to be the reviewer for some magazines and the editor of a woman magazine, while his ability as a brilliant conversationalist was growing wider and wider. The more he talked, the more he was invited for the pleasure people took in his talk. Intoxicated by both the luring atmosphere he was breathing and his artificial social figure, he “began that course of conduct which was to lead to his downfall in 1895” (Ramsone). “He seemed to devote all his zeal and all his worth to over‑rating his destiny, and over‑reaching himself … He used to make a point of searching for pleasure as one faces an appointed duty.” (Andre’ Gide ‑ “Oscar Wilde ‑ a Study” translated by Stuart Mason ‑ Christopher Sclater Milland ‑ Oxford: The Holywell Press, 1905).
Oscar Wilde used to say “My special duty is to plunge madly into amusement”. He wrote in “De Profundis”: “I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease ‑ I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious toy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. ……… I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me.”.
Works
While both the aesthete and the man were risking their social reputation, the writer was doing much of the work which brought him genuine fame in the nineties. Once more he looked for some forms of writing which would express the charm of his personality and please a bigger audience. He wrote fairy tales, as “The Happy Prince and Other Tales”, short stories, as “The Canterville Ghost”, and essays, as “The Decay of Lying”, later published in one volume entitled “Intentions”. Those essays were rich in readable, coloured and solidly constructed dialogues full of thought and good sense.
The year 1891 saw the publication in book form of the literary novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, and together with it a collection of short stories, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and other Stories” and the essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism”.
Wilde’s life was more and more imitating Art. “Drama, novel, poem in prose, poem in rhyme, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched, I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty” (De Profundis). Between 1891 and 1895 he captured the fashionable London theatre by his dramatic talent. He had already made more than one unsuccessful attempt as a playwright: “Vera or the Nihilists” privately printed in 1880 and first performed in New York in 1883, “The Duchess of Padua”, first performed anonymously and under another title in New York in January 1891.
He deliberately went on writing plays as he later stated in “De Profundis”: “I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or sonnet; at the same time I widened its range and enriched its characterization”. Wilde’s first real success was “Lady Windermere’s Fan” performed in London in February 1892. In the same year Wilde wrote another play “Salome'” whose performance was not allowed by the Lord Chamberlain because, as Wilde sardonically said, “no actor is to be permitted to present under artistic conditions, the great and ennobling subjects taken from the Bible”. Dismay and incredulity were the most common reactions since the great actress Sarah Bernhardt had to play Salome’. The Victorian hypocritical Puritanism had won! The play, written in French by Wilde himself, was performed in Paris only in 1896 while he was in prison! Wilde’s dominating personality is also present in the other plays he wrote:”A Woman of No Importance”, April 1893,; “An Ideal Husband”, January 1895; “The Importance of Being Earnest”, February 1895. All these comedies belong to the tradition of realistic well‑made plays in the mood of the French playwrights Scribe and Sardou. They show Wilde’s ability in taking situations, themes, styles openly from sources everyone knew and recombining them into something of his own. But all of these plays are original because of Wilde’s personality that dominates them. All the characters are born social entertainers and brilliant witty talkers like Oscar Wilde and it is just for these reasons that they are still performed even if, by general agreement, only “Salome'” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” can be considered masterpieces.
In 1895 Wilde was on the highest peak of his career as a playwright and eventually he had no more financial problems.
He was filling his life “to the very brim with pleasure” (De Profundis), when he lost “his name, his position, his happiness, his freedom, his wealth” (De Profundis) because it was sentenced to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol.
While in prison, he wrote many letters, among them the long “De Profundis”, 1897: a remorseful self‑study in poetic prose that turned also useful to improve the living conditions of English convicts. In prison he began writing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” that was later completed when he was in France. It is a long moving poem about the bitter and sad experience he witnessed in prison when a convict was hanged.
Personal life
In 1884 he married a pretty young woman, Constance Lloyd, but, even if they had two children, their marriage inevitably turned out unhappily, above all because money was never sufficient.
In 1891, on the verge of a coming financial and artistic success, Wilde met the young man that would ruin him: Lord Alfred Douglas. Even if Wilde did not hide either his passionate attachment to that “lad” or his homosexual behaviour, people thought of it as a mere affectation like the sunflowers and aesthetic clothes he was used to wear.
By 1895 Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas was becoming more and more difficult because, as a good lover, he was fascinated by that young influence to such an extent that he could no more see things clearly around him. He did not perceive to be used by “Bosie”, Alfred Douglas’ nickname, in his hatred of his father and, as a result, the legal action carried on by Wilde himself against the Marquis of Queensberry, Douglas’ father, turned into his own conviction. The sensitive warm hearted aesthete, who truly believed in love and lacked of self‑judgement, at the age of 41 was arrested on charge of “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons” and sentenced to the maximum penalty: two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol.
When in 1897 he was released from prison, both his wife and mother had died and his two children had been put under the care of a guardian. At first he rejoined Lord Alfred Douglas, but then they definitely separated one year later. He spent his last years with few faithful friends travelling to Paris, Switzerland, Italy and France. Unluckily, Wilde’s creative energy came back no more even if he made some efforts to start new plays and complete some works already partly written.
He died in Paris on November 30, 1900, soon after his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith

It may be said that Wilde’s life did not develop linearly. He always went abruptly from one experience to another: the scholar distinguished himself as a poet, the aesthete as an essayst and a novelist, the mature man as a playwright, the convict went back to his first love: poetry.
Whatever he wished to be he pursued it in the name of his Irish rebellious soul.

O.Wilde: his Style
Antivictorianism
The Victorian society of the last decades of the XIX century was stuffy and hypocritical and O.Wilde reacted to that “filthy and suffocating” atmosphere rejecting any political commitment and any religious and moral creed.
He was an Irish‑born English man and as so he was a rebel at the heart. His rebellion could not pass through a strong cultural revolution, as he was not endowed with a particularly literary talented gift, and so he chose to use culture as an overall label apt to show his refusal of all Victorian ideas.
That is why the Irish rebel became an English eccentric, a dandy, whose exteriority had to be the only element that mattered for his contemporaries.
The cult of Beauty
O.Wilde’s exteriority originated from and aimed to Beauty. To him the worship of Beauty became an end in itself.
Though the word Beauty is indeed a term so broad as to be almost meaningless, within the context of Wilde’s own life it seems to have at least one fairly clear meaning. Beauty is the only changeless, everlasting value of human life: an abstract element opposed to material utility, the Beauty perceptible to the senses, the Beauty that man catches in sensorial images and things, the Beauty that enchants and produces deep sensual pleasures, that Beauty is the only goal in man’s life.
But Wilde ran a risk following that creed; privileging Beauty he became more and more scornful of conventions, prouder and prouder of his amoral daring.
He totally forgot the “harmony of soul and body” (Ch.1, l.329) that the Greek beauty had been based on. He lost “the abstract sense of beauty” (ibid l.363) and as a result he cured his “soul by means of the senses” (Ch.2, l.10) and became the prototype of a man who used his exteriority to attract the society he lived in.
Summing up, Wilde used his very refined exterior shell, his artificious and artificial ambiguous appearance, to defy a generation of men who were losing their frail fixed points, because of the spreading utilitarianistic and materialistic ideas of the industrialized and capitalistic Victorian society.
O.Wilde was the unconscious spokesman of how the existing conflict between religion and science had already produced an atmosphere of despair.
He took into consideration no religious, scientific and ethical ideas, he lived an empty brilliant life, as empty and brilliant as his conversation was.
This antithetical vision is at the basis of any analysis of Wilde’s style.
The Conversationalist
O.Wilde, the man, was an amusing conversationalist who had the divine capacity of charming the listeners that got in touch with him.
In 1930 the critic E.F.Benson wrote of him: “How like was his talk to the play of a sunlit fountain! It rose in the air constantly changing its shape, but always with the hues of the rainbow on it, and almost before you could realize the outline of this jet or of that, it had vanished and another sparkled where it had been, so that you could hardly remember even the moment afterwards, what exactly it was that had enchanted you. Like all talk, it is completely unreproducible, for gesture and voice had no small part in it, and, essentially so, his own glee in what he said”.
Immediately we think of him, as a deep cultured talker: that’s nonsense.
Many a contemporary who knew him, such as G.B.Shaw, W.B.Yeats, A.Gide, T.Mann agree that his personality was more important than his talents, and his conversation more fascinating for the many stylistic devices he used than for the subject matters he dealt with.
The Picture of Dorian Gray
“Humour, tale, epigram, flowed from his lips, and his listeners sat spellbound under the influence” (as his best friend Robert Ross wrote about him some years after Wilde’s death) it is just the witty amusing talk with its mixture of artistic and aesthetic wisdom that keeps his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” from oblivion.
According to a wide‑spread critical opinion, actually there is only one character in the book ‑ Oscar Wilde:
Lord Henry Wotton as the man Wilde hoped to remain, Dorian Gray as he feared he might become, Basil Hallward as he himself thought to be.
All of them are unified by the voice and personality of their creator. All of them talk like O.Wilde, they are as witty and sparkling, verbose and attracting, personal and wildly irresponsible as he was.
Technical Devices
Wilde’s style is characterized by many technical devices that could help classify it as a satirical one.
He employs wit and ironical humour in attacking, and, why not, ridiculing his contemporaries even if that satirical approach derives more from “principle” than from a repressed aggressiveness.
Wilde, the good sophisticated entertainer, sharply comments on the problems that made unsatisfactory the life of his times.
Wit
The essence of Wilde’s satirical style is “wit” that is a word with a wide range of meanings all of them conveying an idea of intellectual and verbal brilliance not far from the poetical ability to reveal sudden hidden implications by compressing words.
Wilde adds something more to his verbal wit because of the unconscious use of the so‑called “bisociation” (double association) theory, elaborated by the XX century Hungarian‑born author Arthur Koestler, based on the idea that, when speaking and thinking, man follows a fixed set of rules stated by logic and grammar.
As a result, wit “is the effect of perceiving an idea or event, simultaneously or in quick alternation, in two habitually incompatible frames of reference. Instead of being associated with a single context, the event is bisociated”.
“Wit”, therefore, becomes the linking of two incongruous ideas.
Ironical Humour
If wit is the most evident feature of Wilde’s satirical style, “ironical humour” is not secondary to it. Differently from the malicious quality of wit, humour implies a more sympathetic and gentler ironical approach to people and situations.
If wit is intentional and logical, humour is unconscious and less sophisticated.
Wilde uses humour with a touch of irony, that is, many times along the story he lets his characters state one thing while intending its opposite, with the clear intention of making people laugh while they are taught a lesson.
His best ironical humour is shown in the lesson he teaches against the real use of his aesthetic theories. It almost seems as if Wilde were warning himself throughout the book that, as long as he kept his ideas to the sphere of idealistic art, he was safe.
Epigram and paradox are the tools Oscar Wilde uses to show his wit and ironical humor.
Epigram
The more usual meaning of epigram is “a memorable witticism without a memorable content”; it is something lapidary, more organized than ordinary verbal units, a very short piece of writing that makes the point in a very brief lapse of time.
An epigram has to impress the mind of the reader permanently.
Its polite brevity cruelly aims at the destruction of someone or something. Dorian Gray says to Lord Henry Wotton “You cut life to pieces with your epigrams” (Ch.8, l.161).
Paradox
When witticism is carried on not in a swift and sententious way, we speak of paradox. This is a Greek word for a statement that apparently seems self‑contradictory, in conflict with all logical reasoning. Yet a meaning or a truth lies behind the superficial absurdity of the words. Paradoxes are spontaneous and perspicuous observations that have the power to touch directly and definitely the mind and the heart of the reader.
To sum up, Oscar Wilde’s epigrammatic and witty style enables him to convey in a phrase or in few words a social judgement. His novel, using a language rich in brilliance and cynical shrewdness, pillories the corruption, shallowness, snobbery and lack of genuine moral scruples of the English upper‑classes.
Language
Oscar Wilde’s style beautifully wraps a sequence of snobbish and cynical utterances that point out the presence of a literary man that could be witty about Art and social problems without having a deep direct knowledge of them.
W.B.Yeats was introduced to Oscar Wilde in 1888 and wrote about him:”My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous ….. ….. I noticed, too, that the impression of artificiality that I think all Wilde’s listeners have recorded came from the perfect rounding of the sentences and from the deliberation that made it possible.”. This is the impression we
get reading Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.
Soon from the beginning the reader is taken into the realm of Wilde’s perfect language. His English mirrors and reproduces his own word, phrase, gesture.
Syntax
The very simple structure of the sentences, the syntax, the words he chooses never allow him to fall into obscure complexity. Even if his style makes use of witty paradoxes and epigrams that make the reader stop and go behind the surface, he always succeeds in being understood by anybody.
Sound
Oscar Wilde was very concerned with the effects of language which uses words as music uses notes: the result is sound.
Quoting G.M.Hopkins it can be said that Oscar Wilde’s novel must be read with ears to capture the melodious rhythm that his witty dialogues spread.
Oscar Wilde appeals to all the senses of both his listeners and readers as he wants to impress them in the most complete way. He succeeds in so doing because he does not use only sound devices but also images and pictures rich in sensory content.
Imagery
associates feelings and thoughts to words and his description of settings such as Basil’s studio and garden spread light, scent, noise, motion to such an extent that the reader cannot avoid being involved in that sensuous and languid atmosphere.
Wilde’s figurative language, where subtle metaphors play an important role, makes imaginative descriptions in fresh ways.

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