the last dandy

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Queen Victoria 

The Victorian Scene

The Victorian period was called so after Victoria of Hanover, who was Queen of Great Britain from 1837 until 1901 and who embodied the success of industrial England (see the Christal Palace Exhibition of 1815) and of its colonial expansion (Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877).
Queen Victoria set the pattern for a life of external conformity and dignified standard of fear of being rejected by society if one broke its strict moral codes.

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

Queen Victoria ascended the throne when the age of reforms had just begun, the turning point being the Reform Act of 1834 (regulating lections and constituencies). The industrial policy based on the division of labour and free trade (laissez faire) had not benefited the masses and had often exacerbated social problems such urbanization, the living conditions and exploitation of the workers. From 1833, on the wake of the Reform Act, a series of bills were passed in Parliament, intended to improve the standards of life and work of the majority of the population (Factory Laws, Education Bills, Dwelling and Health Acts). The ideas stated in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and in Das Capital (1867) by Karl Marx contributed to set the rights of the working classes and to see them recognised. Before the end of the century, the trade Unions (organisations of workers) were able to express their own party, the Labour Party, and to elect a representative in Parliament (1893).

The Empire

In the second half of the century, during the Conservative Ministries (Disraeli), England became the foremost political power in the world and gradually consolidated her empire, which eventually extended from Canada to New Zealand, including South Africa, India, Australia and a number of islands in the Mediterranean, in the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.
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

Prose, both fictional (novels, short stories and serials) and non-fictional (newspapers and magazines) became the most popular instrument to awaken Victorian public opinion to the problems and social necessities of the time. The Victorians, as a whole, were not particularly interested in art or activities that had no utilitarian purpose. However, from the 5os to the 70s, some writers felt the need to return art to simplicity, emotional sincerity and above all beauty. Among them John Ruskin (1819-1900) who believed that the sources of art lie in the moral nature of the artist; the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, including poets and painters like Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) and William Morris (1834-1894) whose main aim was to reproduce the emotional purity and the precision of detail typical of the Italian paintings of the Middle Ages (e.g. by Giotto and Leonardo Da Vinci); Algernon Swimburne (1837-1909) who expressed in his poems a kind of “paganism” indifferent to the moral issues of love and centred on pleasure and the joys of passion; Walter Pater (1839-1834) who stood for a form of Renaissance “paganism”, claiming that man’s happiness lies in the perfect and complete enjoyment of something beautiful, be it a work of art or any other experience of the senses.
By the 1880s the Aesthetic Movement came into being and Oscar Wilde was its recognised leader. The Motto “Art for Art’s Sake” implied that Art was to be the supreme aspiration, subject to no moral, didactic or practical purpose: is purpose was to exist only for the sake of its own beauty.

Oscar Wilde

Life and Works
1854: Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin of a wealthy family (his father was a surgeon, his mother a poetess).
1874: He studied at magdalen College, Oxford, and became known for his eccentric habits and witty conversation. He met and felt the influence of John Ruskin and Walter Pater.
1881: His first work Poems , was published
1882: He went to the U.S.A. on a year-long tour lecturing about Aestheticism and Pre-Raphaelitism. Then he settled in Paris where he concluded the romantic drama The Duchess of Padua.
1884: He married Constance Lloyd (they had two children)
1887-90: He became the editor of the periodical The Woman’s World in which he published some poems (Fantasies Décoratives); he also wrote a charming collection of illustrated fables The Happy Prince and Other Tales 81888) and a considerable amounts of criticism: Pen, Pencils and Poisons (1889), The Decay of Lying (1889), The Critic and the Artist (1890) and The Soul of Man under Socialism (1890).
1891-92: In 1891 a new set of stories appeared under the title of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other stories, soon followed by The House of Pomegranates (1892); his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published, and his tragedy in blank verse The Duchess of Padua was produced in New York. Wilde’s real success as a dramatist was marked by Lady Windermere’s Fan ((1892), a high social comedy influenced by the Restauration theatre and the contemporary French drama.
1893-95: Wilde became famous and popular thanks to very successful plays, A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) a mostly to his masterpiece The Importance of Being earnest (1895), whose witty and brilliant dialogues fascinated the London audience.
In 1893 the play written in French, Salomeè, for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, did not obtain the licence to be put on the stage
1895: The Marquis of Queensberry accused Wilde of having ahomosexual relationship with his son.Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed Bosie). He was arrested. Tried and guven the maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment. In Reading prison he wrote De Profundis, a long letter to Lord Douglas.
1898: After leaving prison he lived mainly on the Continent and published The Ballad of the Reading Gaol,a sympathetic poem inspired by his prison experience.
1900: He died in France, abandoned by everybody, at the age of 46, under the name of Sebastian Melmoth.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1892)

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 abandons 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 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 any 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.


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.

James Vane: 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.
Basil Hallward: 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

Lord Henry: 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 physically 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.


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.

Technical devices
Wilde’s style is characterised by technical devices that help classify it as satirical.
He employs wit and ironical humour. “Wit” has a wild range of meanings, all of them conveying an idea of intellectual and verbal brilliance not far from the poetical ability to reveal hidden implications by compressing words, and by using double associations to link two incongruous ideas.
“Ironical humour” does not have the malicious quality of wit, but it 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 also uses epigrams and paradoxes to impress the mind of the reader permanently: the polite brevity of the epigram cruelly aims at the destruction of someone or something; the statement of the paradox apparently seems self contradictory, in conflict with all logical reasoning, yet a meaning or a truth lies behind the superficial absurdity of the words.

All critics agree that Oscar Wilde is still one of the most interesting writers. He did not conform to the Victorian “respectability” and did not adopt the ethic approach for literary works.
Wilde himself considered his novel imperfect as it could be read as a moral book because of the protagonist’s death at the end. By killing the picture Dorian kills his real self, his soul.
The theme of the duplicity of man was much exploited by Wilde’s contemporaries and later, under the influence of Freud’s psychoanalytic science (by R. L. Stevenson wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and G. Wells in The Island of Dr. Moreau)
Probably society itself suggested the topic of duplicity. England was divided into two halves: on one hand the middle classes represent a full economic development and industrial progress; on the other the working classes lived in very poor financial and sanitary conditions. Besides Wilde was surely influenced by the Romantic Gothic literature. An uncle on his mother’s side, a dandy priest, had become famous as the writer of the Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer. But Dorian is not properly a Gothic hero: he lacks the “barbaric energy” and the knowledge of bad and mean way of living. Wilde is not at ease when he describes London underworld (the theatre where Sibyl acts or the opium den on the docks). Also the details concerning crime are quite vague: Wilde’s mind is more centred on the quest for immortality accompanied by speculations on art, beauty and their relationship with life and vices.
The aim of life is self-development and man must live fully and completely. The turning point in Dorian’s life is Sibyl’s death. The protagonist of the novel did not love the young woman, but the art she expressed, the heroines she performed on the stage.
From that moment on, his picture assumes a cruel expression and his life starts falling into a winding way of corruption and self-deception.
He admits to be under the evil influence of Lord Henry and of the book he gave him, but the real protagonist of his decay is the picture he hid, his fate.
The author gives a clue to better understand his characters and his aim at writing the novel. He says that there is only one character in the book, Wilde himself. Lord Henry Wotton, Harry, is how he appears in society, Basil Hallward, the painter, represents what he really is, Dorian Gray is the man he fears to become. Wilde speaks through their voices using the language that made him famous.
The author uses wit and ironical humour, puns and nonsenses to attack and ridicule his contemporaries. Nevertheless the structure of his sentences is simple; his language never falls into obscure complexity. The result is a melodious rhythm and a warm language of sense impressions that gives, by means of metaphors and images, vivid and fresh descriptions.