The Variability of Themes in Oscar Wilde’s Fiction

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Oscar Wilde wrote his melodramatic, light-hearted comedic play, “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and his darker, tragic, allegorical novella, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, encompassing the thematic content of internal conflict using his “Wildean paradox and humour to ensure readers into confronting their own prejudices and limitations”, according to Russell Jackson. The late 1890’s, an era known as the fin de siècle, was often associated with the decadent movement and known colloquially as the “naughty nineties.” Victorian society was associated with a strong sense of decorum and propriety, yet Wilde is concerned with the themes of aestheticism and hedonism in his texts, occasionally satirising the hypocrisy of the upper class. Aestheticism, which values the importance of art over social and political morals, is less exposed in his play as “Algernon and Jack lead lives of cultivated pointlessness” as stated by Russell Jackson. Internal conflict is evident in both texts as the obligation to lead a double life due to the consistent expectation to have the façade of a respectable bourgeoisie figure results in a loss of identity from the consequences of duality. Dorian Gray’s conflict with the painting is highlighted as if it is the “visible emblem of his conscience” conveying his hate towards Basil’s work. This visual sense of the man versus man allows the reader to understand Dorians enemy is himself as he claims he would “resist temptation”. Due to him having temptations to commit harmful sins portrays his identity has been lost and the duality within his mind is conflicting with his desires. The novel “explores Wilde’s own view of art, which in itself suggests the possibility of taking a moral position” as maintained by Mike Haldenby. In addition, the contrast in setting further illustrates the impact surroundings has on one’s morality as it causes the abnormality of the mind to flourish, however, in Dorian’s case, this may have been his true self all along. Wilde’s texts are the complete antitheses of one another, however both act as a veiled critique of Victorian society, satirising and ridiculing their behaviour in public with his protagonists acting as the embodiment of a didactic message. Both the play and his only novella explore the concept of internal conflict through Wilde’s strong characterisation, epigrammatical language and paradoxical humour.

Duality is depicted to radiate the concept of a double life and “within the duality of the Victorian era presented through “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” the ethics of society are brought into question”, according to Shylab. The concept of duality, clear through Dorian, is conveyed when Lord Henry manipulates him into believing his views and beliefs on institutions in society reflecting the Bad Angel of Dr Faustus. Dorian’s maliciousness begins to show in his actions as he becomes heartless, ignorant and self-obsessed. Furthermore, Basil, trying to convince Dorian to remain the same “wonderful boy” with a “simple, natural” aura, could symbolise the painting as they both remind him of the sins he has committed, however, it is clear Basil does not have as much power over Dorian as the painting due to Dorian successfully murdering Basil but killing himself when trying to get rid of the painting. Dorian’s hate for himself is clear through the absence of ethical co-operation and his consistent desire to lead a double life conveyed through the painting. He hides part of his inner personality to keep up his reputable public standing, thus producing a sensation of with himself as he cannot be the man he desires to be.

Through Dorian’s incapability to accept his consequences reflects the upper class as their deception to the public life was a trickery to hide their immorality of their private life. In Victorian era the public attitude was that if a lady was to have sex outside marriage, they would become known as “fallen women” and married men would frequently visit prostitutes. Thus, the middle and upper class didn’t talk about their behaviour, yet many secretly indulged, alike Dorian. Correspondingly, Algernon creates “Bunbury”, “an invaluable permanent invalid,” to be able to avoid social obligations representing the thematic content of deception and escapism. Wilde may have used this as it originates from when he met a young male lover in the town of Banbury and arranged to meet him again in Sunbury. Algernon’s alter-ego is symbolised by his fantasy friend and he can evade any consequences of his actions by simply discarding of his “invalid”. Algernon’s use of escapism links to the “Fin de siècle” found in Wilde’s novel when Dorian begins to feel a sense of ennui in social circumstances being “sorry he had to come.” “The fin de siècle represents an irrational disturbance in the smooth-running certainties of the Victorian epoch”, according to Richard Kaye. This feeling of discontent and dissatisfaction could foreshadow Dorian’s existential crisis leading to his heavy downfall almost as if his uncontrollable double life is his own hamartia. The fact Dorian refers to the melancholy “fin du globe” could symbolise an ending to his moral conscience as he has surpassed Lord Henry’s wickedness, however, can still manage to put on a façade of felicity and joy.

Algernon, in “The Importance of Being Earnest”, displays witty and paradoxical attitudes and acts as a hedonist and aesthete to portray his views on marriage and society portraying his conflict with himself and the world, he lives in. Algernon’s cynical view of marriage being so “demoralising” and “business” like contrasts the typical ending of a comedy, however, contradicts his ridiculous engagement with Cecily in the country. The idea that Algernon has a double life due to his “burying” could also allude to his double and split ideas and views on marriage when they have been “engaged for three months.” Algernon switching from detesting marriage to referring to Cecily as “darling” and when he falls in love, ironically occurs when hearing of her fortune and legacy. During Victorian society, the bourgeoise refused to work as they had fortunately received their financial heritage which links to Algernon not wanting to work even though he is in debt, thus, notices and recognises Cecily as an opportunity to continue his frivolous lifestyle. Similarly, Lord Henry depicts an ominous view on marriage as though “one charm of marriage is that it makes life a deception” which connotes a double life like Basil due to when “I leave town I never tell people where I am.” This acceptance of a double life among the bourgeoisie was common for the rich in Britain which included drinking, gambling, drugs and secret affairs. However, it was more accepted for men than women highlighting how Wilde’s characters guilty of The Double is more common among the male gender, especially in association to marriage. This consistent pessimism on marriage, noticeable between the two witty characters, Algernon and Lord Henry, could convey their core conflict as they believe they are superior to marriage and is not worthwhile due to their significant way of life.

The thematic content of a loss of identity is evident in the novel and play as Wilde depicts the effect of internal struggles resulting in an abandonment of one’s self. Dorians deception of his persona highlights when he covers the painting with a “large purple satin coverlet heavily embroided with gold.” This visual metaphor is an embodiment of Dorian as he must cover himself with his corrupted beauty, however, does not cover up his conscience as his “loathing of it was intensified.” The painting is portrayed to be an epitome of Dorians sins and consequences like the figure of the mad Mrs Rochester is an embodiment of Jane Eyre. “The Madwoman in the attic” links to Dorian’s repressed criminality in the painting almost as if he was his public life and the painting beheld his private life. Also, “Dorian’s failure to integrate his opposing ‘selves’ is not a consequence of his own psychological inadequacy, but a condition of modern life” stated by Liebman. It is clear the astray of one’s self was a problem in the Victorian era linking to Jack and Algernon using different names to find somewhat comfort in themselves. The dominance the female characters have over Jack and Algernon juxtaposes with the separate spheres as woman were the domestic sphere. This rejection of gender stereotypes results in Jack deciding “my name is earnest in the town and Jack in country.” This links to contradictory setting as the use of the abnormal aura in unalike surroundings causes characters to be indecisive with their persona as if they feel nihilism being in one location for too long. Algernon attempts to be content with himself when in the countryside when subtly hinting to Cecily she can have “any name you like – Algernon – for instance”, however fulfils Cecily’s dream to “love someone of the name of Ernest” as if he accepts this demeaning, belittling and degrading circumstance that has resulted him to lose his identity. The name “Ernest” is Jacks alter-ego, similarly to Algernon’s “Bunbury” which could allude their desires to constantly escaping situations they prefer not to be in almost as if they lack responsibility and do not take any accountability for their actions. “Wilde mocks the fact it was common for men and woman to capitalize upon an advantageous family name through marriage,” according to Christina Campodonico, thus, undermining the Victorians marriage of class and character. This concept of loss of identity is clear across the novel and play as the idea of duality causes Wilde’s characters to feel a sense of obligation to change themselves in the eyes of the public.

Through the use of contradictory setting in both “The Importance Of Being Earnest” and “The Picture Of Dorian Gray” Wilde depicts the horrors of the callous society in the 1980’s, highlighting the stark differences between “illicit measures located within the East; [and] social elegance in the West,” in opinion of Dryden 126, further conveying the impression the milieu has on one’s conscience. Towards the end of the 19th century the east end was constructing a reputation for misconduct, overpopulation, poverty and debauchery and was once described as “a terra incognito for respectable citizens.” As a result, citizens turned to frantic ways of escapism by visiting opium dens and brothels. The protagonist, Dorian Gray, in Wilde’s only novel takes on the role as a mentally – deficient, ostracized, upper class gentleman, who lacks conformity of the traditional Victorian upper-class roles in society, risking social stigma and humiliation accompanied with the inner conflict with himself when associated with the east end. His double life of existing in juxtaposed worlds, the West End and East End, is a direct parallel to his physical and mental double life—the cruelty of his soul and the beauty he attires from the painting. Dorian is portrayed as a pure, beautiful and gallant gentleman being in the west but a corrupt, “devils – bargain” in the east as if he is an unambiguously, malevolent ghost emphasising his duality. According to Colin Wilson “wilde hated the way that respectable behaviours robbed spontaneity and felicity from people’s lives” that encompasses no social structure or respectability, in complete contrast to the bourgeois society which is the complete embodiment of morality. However, due to the vast amount of criminality Dorian undertakes in the east end supports the fact that he is his own hamartia and fatal flaw, resulting in his internal conflict with his ethics. Moreover, it seems Dorian only appears to have interior struggles when in the east end as if he has a complication which links to lady Bracknell not being able to accept Jack as she initially thought of him in “the unfashionable side.” Wilde continues to show the hypocrisy and insensitivity the upper class have on anyone they believe is inferior to them almost as if Lady Bracknell has inward battles with herself on whether to stick to the known fact that all citizens should merely be with someone of their social class. Wilde may have used her to paint the perfect comedy of the upper class and is “Wildes secret weapon, the very embodiment of radical decadence dressed in the respectable clothes of Victorian high society” according to Chris Sandford. Her sanctimonious conflicts with her morals as she cannot risk her social standing and legacy with someone who she feels is worthless.

As claimed by Michael Ventom, “The novels contrasting settings portray a gulf between social classes in Victorian society” in The Picture of Dorian Gray. To an extent this is true as the east end, with “streets like the black web at some sprawling spider” accompanied with “shadows,” swarms with hopeless civilians that wish for “fin de siècle, whereas the west end filled with “delicate china” and “gardens…full of roses” talk over dinner parties about how significant dandyism (a man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable) is and conforming to the traditional roles of Victorian society. However, this can be argued as although Dorian’s malevolent characteristic flourishes in the east, his criminality moves from the east to the west, as towards the end of the novel, his despicable actions are now occurring in his home, “creating an “othering” of the self” which encourages him to have additional internal conflict. In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, it is ironic how there is little Wilde has included about the deprived displaying his comical aspect and not allowing his play to sound too profound, unlike his novel. It is as if “to read politics or history through it is a hopeless task,” claimed by Chris Sandford, and evokes no feature of a didactic message. Furthermore, the ambiguity of Algernon contradicting himself in the town and the countryside highlights his confused state of mind as though his perspectives on institutions in society differ when in a dissimilar environment, alike Dorian. Thus, Wilde “stresses the falseness of middle-class values,” as stated by Colin Wilson, due to the double life in either the horrid aura of the east end and the aesthetically pleasing west end or the demanding city life and passive countryside resulting in the inner hatred to modify themselves.

Overall, Wilde satirises the society’s in which the texts were written to convey the problematic lifestyle of consistently changing one’s self in order to suppress the internal conflict flourishing into ambiguity or, by extension, criminality. The dialogue, “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” highlights mockery, the dynamics of gender and the stark differences between the bourgeoisie and proletariat to depict Wilde’s attack on the aristocracy who conforms to a conventional role of respectability. Wilde explores the common themes of duality, double life and marriage within his works to express the loss of identity resulting in the increase of the characters inner hatred. “Like Dr Faustus, whose twenty-four years of supernatural power were an empty façade, Dorian Grays vapid hedonism leads to its inevitable conclusion” claimed by Mike Haldenby. Although, “The Importance of Being Ernest” is a comical play which “lacked political purpose,” in the opinion of Gabi Reigh, it demonstrates, subtly, the callous and sanctimonious rich population while degrading those who are seen inferior to them “who lived in a period of much higher standards of conduct” reported by Walter Houghton. The requirement to retain a reputable, respectable and honourable façade in both texts may link to Wilde obliged to live the optimistic life and keep his sex life hidden which could be why he focuses abundantly on the desire to self – change, whether that is due to environments or the social stigma many of his characters flaw in.


Read more