Everything I Have Left to Say About Oscar Wilde
Ok, this won’t be everything I have yet to say about Oscar Wilde. His writing, his approach to life, his own tragic personal dramas, pierce the center of my being in a way that I cannot package into words and ship to the cold void of the internet. The Marianas Trench of my feelings for Wilde will not be plumbed, but we will break the surface. Piece by piece.
Poe and Hemmingway have their adherents, but Oscar Wilde has always been the literary icon for me. He is a tragic, flawed hero in the Greek style. Far from perfect, but exquisitely inspiring. I have been fascinated by him ever since I read The Importance of Being Earnest as a teenager. His wit, humor, defiance, and fashion choices move me.
His tales for children, including “The Happy Prince” and “The Selfish Giant” are so beautiful, poignant, and sad. Give them a read.
Lady Windermere’s Fan
How could he have become so good at play writing so quickly? This is only his third play. Lady Windermere’s Fan is a saucy takedown of the Angel in the House idea of Victorian femininity. Through a series of misunderstandings, a vociferously upright young wife must be rescued from ruin by a woman she scorned as immoral. Wilde skewers late Victorian prudishness by presenting a fallen woman who, while not entirely selfless, is capable of great sacrifice. She had good reasons for leaving her husband and becoming ruined in the first place, too.
The plot is a bit contrived. I am absolutely not a fan of testing a character’s morals by placing them in artificially complex situations that no one could be expected to navigate. However, I can overlook it in this case, because the ideas and style of the play are just lovely. I love that Mrs. Erlynne is a brazen courtesan who represents everything that good society cannot tolerate, yet she insinuates herself into good society with grace, cleverness and a healthy dose of self-interest.
Enjoy some quotes:
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
I can resist anything except temptation.
Life is far too important a thing to ever talk seriously about.
There are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely-or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.
“How long could you love a woman who didn’t love you, Cecil?
A woman who didn’t love me? Oh, all my life!”
On now to the next play.
A Woman of No Importance
Yikes, this one is kind of bad. Sorry, Oscar. I’m shocked that he actually got it published and performed, considering the very obvious subtext of the plot. Lord Illingworth wants to give a handsome young man, Gerald, a position that he’s under-qualified for. Gerald’s mother is adamant that Gerald not go with Illingworth, because *dramatic music* Gerald is Illingworth’s son. So, you might be thinking that she wants to keep her son away from the immoral man who seduced her and abandoned her. That would be true. But. Also. She doesn’t want Illingworth to seduce his own son. Gross, Oscar. Why even write that?
I appreciate that Wilde stands up for the moral character of unwed mothers, but he doesn’t do it particularly well. His wit does not sparkle. The play is a continuous string of epigrams and paradoxes that become quite tedious.
Here’s a quote:
When good Americans die they go to Paris. And when bad Americans die they go to America.
An Ideal Husband
This play and The Importance of Being Earnest are Oscar Wilde’s best work. So clever and funny. An Ideal Husband centers on two couples and the scheming intriguer who would ruin them. Sir Robert Chiltern is a politician whose wife Gertrude, unaware of a sordid trick he pulled to launch his career, adores him as an ideal of honesty and rectitude. This pair takes themselves very seriously. Meanwhile, Chiltern’s sister, Mabel, and her beau, Lord Goring, are models of frivolity and facetiousness. Of course, dear Oscar shows that the seemingly foolish and superficial pair are much more forthright and realistic in their behavior and expectations than the couple that would like to be models of correct Victorian behavior.
I love this play. You should read it or watch one of the versions on youtube or maybe even pay to watch the 1999 film with Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver, Rupert Everett and some guy I don’t remember.
Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.
The Importance of Being Earnest
Absolutely the most delightful, whimsical play ever written. The wittiest banter of all time. It is silly, satirical and somewhat romantic. I love this play so much. I don’t think I have read anything funnier. The interview between Lady Bracknell and Jack/Ernest Worthing is a particular highlight. I won’t say anything about the plot, because you should just read it. Or at the very least watch the charming 2002 film with Rupert Everett again, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Dame Judy Dench at her absolute finest. I adore this movie. It really plays up the silliness and faux romanticism of the source material.
If you read only one thing by Oscar Wilde in your life, it should be Earnest. It is a sparkling, unique masterpiece. He was a genius.
I never travel without my diary, one should always have something sensational to read on the train.
Oh! I don’t think I would like to catch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about.
The Canterville Ghost
I highly recommend this funny story about a brazen, new-money, American family who move into a musty old British manor house and fail to be impressed by the resident ghost. They trample on tradition in a delightful way. You should definitely, definitely, definitely read it.
The Fall of the House of Wilde
I wanted to know more about Oscar Wilde’s life story, but I never can find the time to read non-fiction. The Fall of the House of Wilde by Emer O’Sullivan was the only biography of Wilde available on Audible, so I listened to it. I learned a lot. I think this would be a very engaging read or listen for anyone interested in Irish History, LGBT history or any fan of biographies.
I came for Oscar Wilde’s life story, but O’Sullivan set out to place Oscar in the context of his revolutionary, intellectual, fiercely individualistic, self-destructive, Irish family. It is true that Oscar was not a green carnation blooming in a desert. His father, William, was a noted doctor and archeologist. His mother was a poet. Both were known for their wit as well as their interest in Irish history, folklore and politics. O’Sullivan’s thesis seems to be first that Oscar is a logical outgrowth of his sparkling family and upbringing, not an natural wonder, and secondly he laments that the Wilde family was wiped out of Irish history when Oscar’s trial for homosexuality made the Wilde name unmentionable. Yes, they deserve restoration in their place in Irish history, but must we be so hard on Oscar?
I do think he is a wonder. A green carnation that bloomed from fertile soil, true. But a unique flower, nonetheless.
Final Thoughts: I love Oscar Wilde with my whole heart, but with some reservation. The biographical details of his life would not stand up to modern scrutiny. I have both condemnation and forgiveness in my heart. Read or listen to The Fall of the House of Wilde if you want to know what I am referring to. I think it’s best to hear the entire story than my one paragraph summary.
When I contemplate Oscar Wilde’s life, I am filled with profound sadness for the moral failure of the culture that I inherited. This brilliant man was condemned for loving who he loved and imprisoned in inhumane conditions. He died of illness he contracted in prison. It horrifies me to think of everyone who has suffered like Oscar suffered, for not being straight, for having the audacity to be themselves. It makes me sick and sad. The only consolation is that his art remains to lift us up, to remind us of the beauty and silliness in this life.