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11 English H
June 7, 1999
Oscar Wilde and the World Around Him
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) was an Anglo-Irish dramatist, novelist, essayist, short-story writer, critic, and poet. He was part of the Decadence, a loosely affiliated coterie of writers and artists of the 1890s whose lives and works manifested a highly stylized, decorative manner, a fascination with morbidity and perversity, and an adherence to the doctrine “art for art’s sake.” After having a hard childhood, where he was dressed as a girl until the age of nine, he viewed life more critically than others. He often focused in on the upper class, and wrote of their absurdity, superficiality, and snobbery. Yet mainly, he wrote of what he felt at the time and what is around him. In The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman of No Importance, it is evident that the environment, lifestyle, and events in the life of Oscar Wilde has influenced him in writing such one-sided critical satires, in which he reserved none of his strong opinions.
When it came to satires, Wilde was the master of such literary art. “Wilde has accomplished such satire from the hallowed edifice of romantic literature certain standard characters, themes, and plot situations in order to build out of them a comedy that fuses contemporary social satire with a straight-faced taking-off of the usages of the popular fiction and drama of his time” (Poupard 418). In the beginning he tried to be a serious writer, but failed miserably. It was believed that as an entertainer he was more morally clearsighted (Bryfonski 504). Although he was full of strong idealism and human sympathy, his dissatisfaction with the society of the 1880’s and 90’s caused him to make highly personal and melodramatic attacks on issues which he possibly have never looked close enough to understand. Because of this, he was thought of as only presenting one side of life (498). He presented the upper English class with clear hostility, and stressed their corruption, shallowness, snobbery, and lack of genuine moral scruples (502).
Wilde had a colorful and scandalous social life, and was even jailed for a while. He believed that people should be self-expressive vs. self-repressive, and therefore never held anything back. “What is termed sin is an essential element of progress . . . without it, the world would stagnate or grow old or become colorless” (Bloom 101). Wilde found criticism and self-consciousness necessary as sin. He believed that criticism plays a vital role in the creative process, and that criticism is an independent branch of literature with its own procedures (91). “Wilde was one of the first to see that the exaltation of the artist required a concomitant exaltation of the critic. If art was to have a special train, the critic must keep some seats reserved on it” (90).
Wilde stated that: “If we are all insincere, masked, and lying, then the artist is prototype rather than exception. If all the sheep are black, then the artist cannot be blamed for not being white” (Bloom 102). Wilde believed that art should be made for the sake of art, and that art is permanent, and near immortality. “Only the artist can give to the beauty he sees a form that moves it towards its own ideal and preserves it from erosions of change” (Bryfonski 505). Wilde felt that since man and nature are in constant change, art was more ordered than life, more beautiful. The world of art is “more real than reality itself” (506). Yet Wilde had a word of warning: “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” (Schmidgall 149). What Wilde was trying to express is that art is so real, that if one dares to go beneath the surface, one may find things that he/she does not want to find.
Wilde loved children, and loved the youth. Wilde proposed to speak for the young, with even excessive eagerness at times. Both The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman of No Importance mainly evolves around the youthful characters
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