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Library > Decadent Art and Freedom > Chapter 4 - Oscar Wilde



I have now outlined some of the main concerns and anxieties of the Decadent Movement regarding the bourgeois capitalist world and its principles. I will now turn to Oscar Wilde, whose life epitomises many of the Decadent themes that I have highlighted in the previous two chapters. Denisoff (2007) claims that in Wilde's writing "one…finds the influence of Gautier, Baudelaire, Pater, the Pre-Raphaelites and Huysmans" (p. 39). I, therefore, will now tie this argument together through an examination of Oscar Wilde's life and art. I will begin by discussing Wilde's covert homosexuality and the portrayal of the double life in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). The novel received harsh criticism due to its representation of homoerotic relationships. Wilde, in a similar manner to Gautier, defended these attacks by producing essays that demanded the freedom of art from utility and morality. Also, Wilde's essays defended his method of life, which was, like many of the Decadent writers mentioned throughout this dissertation, a life that refused to conform to the useful and productive life of the bourgeois capitalist. I will end this thesis by turning to mainstream society's counterattack towards the Decadent Movement by looking at the trial and imprisonment of Wilde. It could be argued that Wilde's arrest and imprisonment signalled the end of the Decadent rebellion - something which I will discuss. Also, the harsh treatment of Wilde reveals the genuine threat that the bourgeois state felt regarding the Decadent lifestyle and art, which is additional proof that art and life were inextricably linked during the period.

As mentioned above, Wilde's life and work share key themes with other Decadent artists, such as the representation of hedonism, ennui, dandyism and the valorisation of art. But Wilde also presents themes concerning clandestine homosexuality. Gagnier (1997) claims that "the British aesthetes' critique of purposiveness, productivity and Nature was related to homosexuality" (p. 27). Hence, in a similar manner to Des Esseintes' refusal of family and reproduction, Wilde's homosexuality is linked to the Decadents' negation of bourgeois principles. Yet, unlike French Decadent artists who had more sexual liberty in France during the period, Wilde had to hide his homosexuality as it was illegal in Britain, and, as a consequence, 'the love that dare not speak its name' was depicted in his work through allegorical references, which brings me to my next point: the double life.

Thus, in order to depict homosexuality, which is a negation of bourgeois notions of reproduction (a point which will become important later in this chapter), Wilde allegorically represented it through the portrayal of the double life in his work. The theme of the double life can be seen in many of Wilde's plays. For instance, in The Importance of Being Ernest (1895) characters discuss their adoption of fictitious names in order to clandestinely break society's constraints. Wilde was not the only writer during the period that depicted the double life: Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) also depicts the double life as an escape from hypocritical Victorian notions of morality. But it is another Gothic novel that I will now discuss in conjunction with the double life: The Picture of Dorian Gray.

John M.L. Drew (2001) states that "Wilde's experiences of living a double or multiple life in order alternately to hide and indicate his secret is frequently felt to underwrite directly Wilde's presentation of Dorian's secret life" (p. viii). In a similar way to Dorian, Wilde was a recognizable figure who had to uphold his respectability in public; however, like Dorian, Wilde wanted to escape from the oppressive and hypocritical demands of society. In a similar manner to Gautier and Des Esseintes, Dorian and Wilde want to be free from the "harsh, uncomely Puritanism that is having, in our day, its curious revival" (Wilde, 2001, p. 104). Also, similarly to Baudelaire and Sickert, Dorian preferred the forbidden underside of the modern world: "Ugliness was the one reality. The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of Art" (Wilde, 2001, p. 147). However, unlike Baudelaire, who openly declared his moral subversion, Dorian begins to live a secret life of clandestine trips to brothels and opium dens.

Dorian also subverts bourgeois respectability and conformity by indulging in similar hedonistic experiments as Des Esseintes. In fact, it is insinuated that Dorian's 'yellow book' is actually A Rebours. Dorian is unable to "free himself from the influence of this book" (Wilde, 2001, p. 102) - it becomes a kind of instruction manual for Dorian on how to live the Decadent lifestyle. Yet, there are marked differences between the protagonists of both novels. Denisoff (2007) states that "Unlike the reclusive Des Esseintes, however, Dorian is young, handsome and desperately in need of external affirmation" (p. 40). Likewise, the reclusive protagonist of A Rebours is unlike the public and recognisable author of Dorian Gray. Gagnier (1997) claims that, whereas Des Esseintes was solitarily and neurotically "reactive against the bourgeoisie … Wilde was public, erotic, active, formally dialogic and concerned with the dialectical inversions of middle-class language and life" (p. 32). Although Wilde hides his homosexuality, he does 'invert' bourgeois values through his open effeminacy and dandyism. Thus Wilde's public reaction towards the bourgeoisie is similar to that of Gautier's and Baudelaire's; however, Wilde's conspicuous and active subversion of middle-class values will prove to be his downfall.

Dorian Gray, therefore, shares key themes with A Rebours; yet both novels employ differing techniques in their attempt to subvert bourgeois values. However, Dorian Gray's association with the French novel A Rebours was detrimental to Wilde's life. In 1888, the House of Commons entertained a motion deploring "the rapid spread of demoralizing literature in this country" (cited by Danson, 1997, p. 86). This 'demoralizing' literature was linked to the rise of French literature in Britain, which was available to buy inexpensively in paperback form (Danson, 1997, p. 86). The House of Commons' knee-jerk reaction towards 'vile and obscene' French literature was echoed by the press and public. An unsigned review in the St James's Gazette states that Wilde "airs his cheap research among the garbage of French Décadents like any drivelling pedant" (cited by Beckson, 1970, p. 69). Also, the Lippincott's version of Dorian Gray was more explicitly homoerotic and caused, according to Drew (2001), "an extraordinary furore in the British press" (p. ix). An unsigned notice in the Athenaeum (27 June 1891) condemns Dorian Gray as "unmanly, sickening, vicious … and tedious" (cited by Beckson, 1970, p. 82). Drew (Drew, 2001, p. xi) believes that the 'Cleveland Street Affair' (1890), which was the revelation of aristocratic men and members of the royal family frequenting brothels in order to have sex with young boys, was a reason for the intense disapproval of the novel. Once again, life and art are shown to intertwine.

In response to these attacks, Wilde wrote his preface to Dorian Gray. Similarly to Gautier, Wilde defends the depiction of vice and crime: "Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art" (Wilde, 2001, p. 3). The portrayal of vice and crime, therefore, should not be seen as expressing the opinions of the artist - they are merely the artist's tools. Also, like Gautier before him, Wilde defends art from demands that it should be useful: "All art is quite useless" (Wilde, 2001, p. 3). Art is useless in the sense that, apart from its existence as a beautiful object, it has no use-value for society - which is analogous to Wilde's hedonistic and aesthetic life. Also, Wilde shares Gautier's view of art's capacity to resolve the futility of life. In the essay 'The Critic as Artist' (1891) the character Gilbert states that through art "we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence" (Wilde, 1891b, p. 995).

Wilde's dramatized essay 'The Critic as Artist' also includes another of Gautier's preoccupations: attacking the press. Gilbert states that modern journalism perpetuates its existence through "the great Darwinian principle of the survival of the vulgarest" (Wilde, 1891b, p. 971). This humorous criticism of the press can also be seen in The Importance of Being Earnest: Jack states that literary criticism should be left to "the people who haven't been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers" (Wilde, 1891, p. 13). However, Wilde's light-hearted quips become more serious in his essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891). In this essay, Wilde associates the press with the bigoted religious torturers of the past: "In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the press" (Wilde, 1891a, p. 1056). Wilde accuses the press and the public of interfering, not only with his art but also with his life. In response to people associating his notion of art's autonomy with selfishness, Wilde (1891a) states that "Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live … It is grossly selfish to require of one's neighbour that he should think in the same way, and hold the same opinions" (p. 1063). Ellman (1987, p. 311) believes that this statement for artistic liberty is extended to Wilde's plea for society's acceptance of his sexual orientation - a plea which was ignored.

As mentioned above, Wilde pleaded for acceptance and toleration towards both his art, and more importantly his life. Wilde's pleas, however, were dismissed. Although Wilde was accustomed to verbal abuse (Ellman, 1987, p. 409), the Marquess of Queensbury's aggressive interference in Wilde's life became intolerable for the artist. The Marquess of Queensbury was the father of Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas - a relationship Queensbury deplored and demanded to be terminated. According to H. Montgomery Hyde (1976), Queensbury was "arrogant, vain, conceited, and ill-tempered" (p. 191). Queensbury's qualities as a man can be seen in a letter he sent to his son regarding Wilde "I should be quite justified in shooting him at sight" (cited by Hyde, 1976, p. 192). Yet Queensbury chose to slander Wilde in public rather than shoot him - he even attempted to interrupt the premier of Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest. Eventually, once Queensbury's meddling became unendurable, Wilde decided to have him prosecuted for libel. However, rather than Wilde gaining his freedom from Queensbury, the trials proved to be counterproductive.

Thus, Wilde's libel case against Queensbury was his downfall. The case resulted in details of Wilde's private life being made public. Wilde's suggestive letters to Alfred Douglas were produced, as was his novel Dorian Gray. Life and art became intertwined during the trial; at times it became a debate about the purpose of art and the artistic intentions behind the depiction of 'immorality'. Although Wilde defended himself, and his art, eloquently, his fate was sealed. Wilde was sentenced to two years' hard labour for Gross Indecency. The presiding judge stated that "People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame" (cited by Hyde, 1976, p. 293). According to Hyde (1976), the judge's comments regarding Wilde were met with indignation from some onlookers, but overall there was a "hum of approval" (p. 293). Therefore, the judge was merely outlining the public's view of homosexuality at the time. The public's view regarding the case is also inherent in an article in The New York Times (1895, May 22) published three days before Wilde's conviction. The article describes a fight between Queensbury and his son in Picaddily, to which spectators were cheering on the father (a noted boxing enthusiast and inventor of the Queensbury Rules in boxing). The public, therefore, were firmly against Wilde and homosexuality - which had a detrimental effect on the future of Decadent literature, which I will discuss shortly.

Whilst in prison, Wilde suffered terribly. During the period, prison conditions were extremely harsh on the prisoner. Hyde (1976) states that even the prisoner's bed was "an instrument of torture, which inevitably produced insomnia" (p. 295). Wilde wrote about his experiences in prison, and produced some of his most notable work whilst incarcerated. In his poem 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'(1897) he describes the poor diet and conditions of prison life:

The brackish water that we drink
Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
Is full of chalk and lime,
And sleep will not lie down, but walks
Wild-eyed, and cries to Time. (v. 43-48)

Wilde's diet in prison was extremely awful: he stated that "The hunger made you weak but the inhumanity was the worst of it. What devilish creatures men are!" (cited by Hyde, 1976, p. 297). Along with the poor diet of prison life, Wilde had to spend time on a treedwheel, which was a cruel device used to force prisoners to work for food. These inhumane practices were, according to Hyde (1976), designed to "break a man in body and spirit" (p. 295). A 'broken' version of Oscar Wilde emerges from his essay 'De Profundis' (1905), in which he repudiates his previous hedonistic life and vows to live more humbly. But Wilde's body never recovered from the harsh realities of prison life and he died soon after leaving prison. The harsh treatment of Wilde was, therefore, society's method of silencing insurrection.

Wilde's trial and imprisonment can be seen as the end of the Decadent Movement; it sent out a message to all would-be Decadent rebels attempting to confront the establishment. Wilde's name become synonymous with homosexuality: in E.M. Forster's novel Maurice (1971), which was written in 1913-14, a homosexual is referred to as "an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort" (Forster, 1987, p. 139). Likewise, Decadent literature was associated with homosexuality, or its euphemism: 'morbidity'. The social climate after Wilde's trial was extremely hazardous for British Decadents: Aubrey Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book due to his association with Wilde and his homosexual group. However, Beardsley did join Arthur Symons in working on a new literary journal: The Savoy, but the journal distanced itself from Wilde by being overtly heterosexual and, as a consequence, Decadent literature lost its rebellious and non-conformist edge.

Wilde's trial and imprisonment reveal the genuine threat felt by bourgeois society regarding the lifestyle and art of Decadent artists. Whilst Wilde was on trial for his sexual orientation, his novel Dorian Gray was likewise under the same examination for 'indecency'. The trial, therefore, shows how both life and art intertwine during the period. The Decadent artist's rejection of utility in art was an extension of the rejection of utility in life. Art's only purpose seemed to be for pleasure, and to reconcile life's meaninglessness. But this rejects capitalist society's insistence on utility and productivity. Wilde's character Gilbert states that "in order to ensure its [society's] own continuance and healthy stability it demands, and no doubt rightly demands, for each of its citizens that he should contribute some form of productive labour to the common weal" (Wilde, 1891b, p. 996). But when its stability is under threat, society lashes out - violently in the case of Wilde.

It is also appears that capitalist society attempts to ensure the survival of the mass, at the expense of the individual. Gilbert states that "They miss their aim…these philanthropists and sentimentalists of our day who are always chattering to one about one's duty to one's neighbour. For the development of the race depends on the development of the individual" (Wilde, 1891b, p. 1000). What the Decadent ideology offers is a way for the individual to flourish, or 'develop'. Those social reformers who insist on art's didactic function seem to forget the needs of the individual in their attempt to solve the problems of the mass.

What is also evident in the trial of Oscar Wilde is the hypocrisy and absurdity of a society that prides itself on democratic progress and laissez-faire politics. Individuality would be expected in a period of liberal politics; the view of nineteenth century society that emerges from the treatment of Oscar Wilde, however, is one of intolerance and interference. It appears ridiculous that those who exercise their liberty to express their opinions do so in order to stifle and prevent the opinions of others from emerging. Although, in the modern era of capitalism, the life of the individual has improved somewhat: homosexuality is no longer spoken about in euphemisms, and there are very few taboo subjects left to subvert, the question of art's purpose, however, still remains. The Turner Prize, for instance, still attracts controversy and sparks debates concerning art's function. Yet the rebelliousness of art now seems concerned merely to shock for 'shocking's' sake, and does not appear to have the ideological counterpart which justified Decadent art's rebellion.