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Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900)  
 
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The importance of Oscar Wilde resides both in his art and in his personality. He is one of the most accomplished writers of his generation, but quite apart from his actual literary achievement, he is significant as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness, the crucial final decade of the nineteenth century.

Actually, however, Wilde's literary significance is inseparable from his function as a symbolic figure. Although he frequently asserted the impersonality of art, his own art is irreparably bound to his personality.

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In fact, his greatest artistic creation is the complex and contradictory persona reflected in his work and in his life. Ultimately, that persona became transfigured from a witty aesthete into a figure as poignant as it was unpredictable, Saint Oscar, the homosexual martyr.

Born to accomplished but eccentric parents in Ireland in 1854, Wilde was educated at Trinity College, Dublin, and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was almost equally influenced by the practically incompatible artistic doctrines of the moralistic John Ruskin and the epicurean Walter Pater.

Leaving Oxford in 1878, he declared prophetically, "Somehow or other I'll be famous, and if not famous, I'll be notorious." A master of drawing attention to himself, he quickly became known as the high priest of aestheticism, the intimate of artists, and the companion of actresses.

A superb conversationalist and a flamboyant dandy, he became a celebrity by virtue of his outrageousness as much as through his actual accomplishments.

Wilde's penchant for self-advertisement and for audacious posing ought not to obscure the seriousness behind his apparent flippancy, however.

The apostle of aestheticism and decadence, the dandy addicted to gold-tipped cigarettes and exquisite objets d'art, the social butterfly who cultivated the lords and ladies of the aristocracy, and the witty epigrammatist who delighted in deflating Victorian pomposity while celebrating the trivial at the expense of the earnest was also a penetrating social critic who defended individualism and pluralism and attacked economic and social exploitation and injustice.

Wilde as a Social Critic

In The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891), for example, he enunciated a doctrine of libertarian socialism quite at variance with his mask of frivolity. For all its utopian idealism and arch wit, the pamphlet acutely dissects the harmful effects of private property on rich and poor alike.

It is also filled with subtle insights into the nature of oppression, as when it redefines selfishness in terms of authoritarian morality: "Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people's lives alone, not interfering with them."

Wilde's antiauthoritarianism and his scorn for the philistinism of his late Victorian age are particularly important aspects of his persona and of his emergence as a symbolic figure, even as they are qualified by his almost equally strong need for social acceptance.

Wilde's Homosexuality

Wilde's need for social acceptance may have been a factor in his 1884 marriage to a young, somewhat conventional and naive socialite, Constance Lloyd, a union that quickly produced two sons.

Although he had flirted with homosexuality for many years and had aroused the suspicions and gossip of many (and later came to regard himself as having always been homosexual), he seems to have begun the sustained practice of homosexuality in 1886, when he met a young Canadian, Robbie Ross, who was to be his lifelong and faithful friend and eventually his literary executor.

In 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, the twenty-one-year-old son of the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, who was to hound Wilde to his spectacular fall. Douglas apparently introduced Wilde to the Victorian homosexual underground of male brothels and procurers and prostitutes who were to figure prominently in the sensational trials of 1895.

Although Douglas appears to have been a thoroughly undisciplined young man, utterly unworthy of Wilde's devotion, the writer became so infatuated as to lose all sense of proportion and finally to embark on the course of action that was to culminate in his sentence to two years' penal servitude at hard labor.

His Homosexuality and His Literary Achievement

In hindsight, Wilde's association with Douglas seems a disaster. At the same time, however, the tumultuous affair may have inspired Wilde to some of his best work. Unquestionably, the discovery of his homosexuality liberated his art and marks a major breakthrough in his artistic maturity.

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Top: A photograph of Oscar Wilde inscribed "To Robbie from his friend Oscar."
Above: A portrait of Wilde created by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1895.

  
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