Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
The Victorian Scene
In the second half of the century the technological an scientific discoveries and the theories on the origin of man (Charles Darwin, The origin of the Species) set a new mode of reasoning that challenged the role of religion and the authority of the Bible, offering a rational explanation for everything. Side by side with people conscious of the new atmosphere were authors who put themselves at the centre of their own world and called it beauty, making of Beauty their Goddess, their faith and their defence from the ugliness of Industrial England.
The Age of Reforms
Involved in the Crimean War (1854-56) in defence of the Ottoman Empire against Russia, England was slightly touched by the American Civil War (1861-65). Fought in India and in Sudan (1863-82), and, at the close of the century, was still engaged in the Boer War, South Africa (1882-1902)
Art And Literature
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1892)
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: Dorian Gray is the pure, beautiful, young man that falls under the influence 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”
Sibyl Vane: 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 Prince 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.
Anti-Victorianism and Beauty
The Victorian society of the last decades of the 19th century was conventional and hypocritical and O. Wilde reacted to that “filthy and suffocating” atmosphere, while rejecting any political commitment and any religious and moral creed.
He was an Irish –born Englishman and as so he was a treble 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 to show his refusal of Victorian ideas.
To him the worship of beauty became an end in itself, the Beauty that enchants and produces deep sensual pleasure, that Beauty is the only goal in man’s life and, as a result, he cured his “soul by means of the senses” and became the prototype of a man who used his exteriority to attract the society he lived in.
He took no religious, scientific and ethical ideas into consideration; he lived an empty brilliant life, as empty and brilliant as his conversation was. This antithetical vision should be at the basis of any analysis of Wilde’s style.