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literature

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Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900)  
 
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Wilde's homosexuality leaves its mark on most of his canon, usually expressed indirectly in the form of a recurrent interest in scandalous secrets, mysterious pasts, and divided lives, though he may have contributed to the explicitly homosexual erotic novel Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal (1893), which was apparently written by several members of his circle.

In a play like The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde translates the ambivalence he felt toward his homosexuality--epitomized by the very notion of "Bunburying," the need to lead a double life--into a complex parody of both himself and his society and thereby creates a masterpiece, perhaps the greatest comedy in the language.

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Without ever mentioning homosexuality, Wilde in Importance creates the quintessentially gay play. He turns Victorian values on their heads and discovers in the comedy of camp a means of covertly attacking his society's prejudices and discreetly defending his own nonconformity.

The farce brilliantly depicts the liminal position that Wilde occupied in relation to his society, in it, yet not of it. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of Importance is the fact that its comedy is fueled by Wilde's desperate desire to be accepted by the very society he lampoons.

In his earlier works that approach the homosexual theme more directly, however, the author's ambivalence fails to achieve resolution, and the result is a kind of imaginative paralysis: a rueful suspension between idealism and realism in "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." and a melodramatic moralism in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Only after his dizzying fall, in the painful but sly De Profundis does Wilde achieve a vision at once unified and capacious enough to contain his contradictoriness.

"The Portrait of Mr. W.H."

"The Portrait of Mr. W.H." is a work on which Wilde expended great time and effort, and it is one of the most revealing of his stories.

The original version was published as an article of 12,000 words in 1889, but Wilde became more and more obsessed with the subject of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and during the next four years, he revised and augmented the story, in the process more than doubling its length.

The manuscript of the revised story, actually a novelette, was thought to have been lost in the chaos that accompanied the sale of Wilde's property after his arrest; many years later, it was discovered in the offices of Wilde's publisher, John Lane, and the revised version finally achieved print in 1921.

On one level, the story is merely a pleasant speculation on the identity of the young man of Shakespeare's Sonnets, whom Wilde identifies as a boy actor named Willie Hughes, and a detailed interpretation of the sequence and its relationship to Shakespeare's plays.

But on another level, the work is also a meditation on homosexuality and a foiled coming out story, Nabokovian in its complexity and irony.

"The Portrait of Mr. W.H." is divided into five sections, the middle three of which are devoted almost entirely to analyses of Shakespeare's poems and his relationship with the young man of the Sonnets, whereas the first and final sections are devoted to the contemporary frame story. Significantly, both the middle and the framing sections are self-consciously homosexual in tone.

Whereas the Shakespeare material deals specifically with the poet's attachment to a young man, Willie Hughes, who becomes the symbol of an idealized homosexuality, the framing sections are concerned with characters who are sketched in terms of an easily recognizable homosexual style--one that Wilde more than anyone else helped establish in the popular imagination. Cyril Graham, Erskine, and the unnamed narrator are effete connoisseurs who interpret high culture to the middle classes.

Central to both sections is the association of homosexual Eros and creativity and the motif of an older man inspired by the beauty of a younger one.

"The Portrait of Mr. W.H." can be read as a cautious defense of homosexuality in terms very similar to the defense that Wilde would later offer for "the Love that dare not speak its name." Associating Willie Hughes with Gaveston in Marlowe's Edward II and linking the love of the Sonnets with the neoplatonism of Ficino and Michelangelo and the Hellenism of Winckelmann, the story presents homosexual passion as transcending but not denying the physical.

At the same time, however, the narrator frankly acknowledges that the idealistic sixteenth-century philosophy that explains Shakespeare's attachment to Willie Hughes would be denounced as immoral and criminal in his own age. In answer to critics who see in the Sonnets "something dangerous, something unlawful even," he defiantly asserts the superiority of the soul's affections to man-made law.

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