Born: 16 October 1854
Died: 30 November 1900
Notable works: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), The Happy Prince (1888), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
Oscar Wilde was an Irish novelist, dramatist, and poet best known for his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the short story The Happy Prince, and comic masterpieces The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan.
1. Oscar Wilde’s Biography
1.1. Early Life and Education
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on 16 October 1854 at 21 Westland Row, Dublin. His father, William Wilde, was a renowned surgeon, while his mother, Jane, was a literary hostess and writer. He was the second-born child with an older brother, William (Willie) Wilde, and two illegitimate younger sisters from other marriages, Isola and Emily Wilde. William had also fathered three other children before marrying Jane, but their identities are still obscure today.
Sir William acknowledged the paternity of his illegitimate biological children; he provided for their education but arranged for them to be reared by his relatives, separated from his legitimate children in the family.
Jane Wilde had minor Italian heritage, and in 1848, she composed poetry for the revolutionary Young Irelanders under the pen name “Speranza” (the Italian word for “hope”). She fostered in her sons a passion for poetry. Charles Maturin, a novelist, playwright, and clergyman, was related to Jane Wilde through marriage, which may have impacted her writing career.
Oscar grew up amidst affluence because of his mother’s prominence in the literary world. He attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Ireland, with his older brother Willie when he was nine. Oscar studied there for seven years, from 1864 to 1871. He thrived there, achieved academic success, and even won a royal scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin.
From 1871 to 1874, Oscar spends his days there studying the classics. Upon graduating, he furthered his education at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he made himself known for his role in the aesthetic movement and for indulging in decadence.
1.2. University Days and Aesthetic Movement
While at Oxford, Oscar Wilde had a reputation for being flamboyant. He kept his hair long, despised what was considered manly sports, and was said to have decorated his room with peacock feathers, lilies, blue china, sunflowers, and other objects he fancied. Unlike traditional men of the period, he carried himself with a specific sense of style, his flashy costumes becoming a recognizable trademark.
He once said, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” to his friends. The phrase immediately gained notoriety and was adopted as a catchphrase by fellow aesthetes who shared his interests. But because of his obstinate devotion to aesthetics, his distinctive tastes were immediately condemned by critics as awful vapidity.
Additionally, Oscar contributed a great deal to The Journal of Hellenic Studies, an academic journal focusing on the research of Ancient Greek culture. Oscar became fast friends with John Pentland Mahaffey, the leading Greek scholar at Trinity College.
The Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science & Medicine describes the “Greek ideal” as the philosophical ideal within an individual, having a harmonious combination of physical, mental, and spiritual components. Mahaffey introduced Oscar to this idea. Oscar combined this concept with his sexuality, savoring the beauty and intellect of the College’s young men.
Another person who shared Oscar’s love for such beauty was Walter Pater, who he met during his third year. Oscar had read Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance, which argued in favor of Wilde’s worldview, suggesting that one should fully experience each moment and cultivate a sense of beauty above everything else.
Decades later, Wilde recounted Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance in De Profundis as the book that had a strange influence over his life. It was Pater who gave Oscar his enduring devotion to art. Contrarily, critic John Ruskin gave him renewed motivation via Ruskin’s lectures and writings.
2. Publishing Career
2.1. Journalism and editorship
After graduating from university, Wilde contributed to various journals from 1885 to 1887, including The Pall Mall Gazette. A frequent writer for these journals, he enjoyed reviewing and article writing, as the form suited his style. Wilde organized and shared his perspectives on art, life, and literature in a less tedious and patronizing way.
Most of the time, he created a positive aura with his reviews. He even proved himself ever more eloquent when he wrote a series of defense columns in the Daily Chronicle in favor of falsely-accused Charles Stewart Parnell.
His flare, formerly restricted to socializing, was well-suited for journalism and quickly caught attention. Midway through 1887, with a family to support, Wilde became editor of The Lady’s World magazine, and his name was prominently displayed on the cover. As soon as he changed the name to The Woman’s World, he also shifted the publication’s tone, preserving the topics of fashion and the arts but adding serious articles on parenting, culture, and politics.
Usually, there were two pieces of fiction—one meant for youngsters and the other for the ladies. While his “Literary and Other Notes” were already well-liked and humorous, Wilde worked hard to solicit good contributions from his extensive network of creative acquaintances, including his wife, Constance.
His initial enthusiasm for the job started to wane as office work, trips, and other monotonous tasks took over. Around the same time Wilde’s interest flagged, the publishers began raising concerns about circulation. Sales of magazines continued to be poor despite their one shilling charge.
Wilde started a new phase of creative activity, increasingly providing magazine directions by letter, with his column gradually ceasing to appear. By October 1889, Wilde had finally found his voice in prose and left The Woman’s World at the end of the second volume’s run.
It was evident that Wilde’s stint at the magazine played an essential role in his development as a writer and was instrumental in his rise to fame. When he was a journalist, he worked under the guidance of his editors, supplying articles industriously. As an editor, he forced himself to learn and manipulate the inner workings of the literary marketplace himself.
2.2. Famous Works
Oscar Wilde published The Happy Prince and Other Tales in 1888. He had been penning fairy tales for periodicals before and during this period. Wilde’s signature story, “The Happy Prince,” stands out among his collection of short stories because it captures his stance on the interrelation between inner and outer beauty. Obviously, “The Happy Prince” drew inspiration from earlier fairy tales, like those by Hans Christian Andersen.
“The Happy Prince” evokes themes of societal injustice, the rehabilitative power of love, and the loss of innocence with a sorrowful conclusion. Some critics claim that Wilde slipped in romantic undertones between the story’s male protagonists—the Swallow and the title character—by describing a kiss between them before they both die.
Regardless of the reader’s interpretation, the love that remains central to “The Happy Prince” is between two selfless, kindred souls. The Swallow loves The Prince, which drives him to help the latter. The Prince, in turn, harbors a compassionate love for the city’s poor and downtrodden, so he readily gives up his material wealth.
It is also interesting how “The Happy Prince’s” themes and concepts contrast sharply with Wilde’s next book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, released two years later, in 1890.
A classic that captivates our eyes and minds till this day, Dorian Gray was initially published as a serial in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and took the form of a book in 1891 with six additional chapters. The novel is a stellar example of the Victorian Gothic Horror genre and a cautionary tale of decadence and aestheticism, otherwise known as ‘art for art’s sake.’
It was the only novel written by Wilde, an archetypal moral fantasy of a young man who makes a Faustian bargain, exchanging eternal youth for the detriment of his soul. Serving as a romantic exposition of Wilde’s love for the aesthetic, it is also speculated that Dorian symbolized the author’s unconscious attitudes.
The novel attracted controversies; reviewers scathingly denounced it for references to homosexuality and immorality. The Daily Chronicle condemned The Picture of Dorian Gray as “unclean” and “poisonous.” In response, Oscar defended his stance, writing to the editor of the Scots Observer: “If a work of art is rich and vital and complete, those who have artistic instincts will see its beauty and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly will see its moral lesson.”
To further push back against his detractors, Oscar revised the manuscript to fit the form of a book. In 1891, he published a new edition with six new chapters, some overtly decadent passages and homo-eroticism edited out, and an added preface containing twenty-two epigrams. One of the epigrams included the iconic quote: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That’s all.”
By 1891, Oscar was an established writer, living at 16 Tite Street with his wife, Constance, and two sons. However, he was not content with being known in London and decided to expand his literary conquests into Paris in October of the same year. In Paris, he was welcomed into literary salons, notably the famed Mardis of Stéphane Mallarmé, a well-known symbolist poet of the period.
Although Wilde’s two plays, Vera; or, The Nihilists and The Duchess of Padua, were not well received, he still held his interest in theatre. Now that he had found his voice in prose, his thoughts returned to the dramatic form as biblical imagery of Salome filled his mind.
He returned to his hotel one evening after ruminating over historical images of Salome and found a blank copybook on the desk, and it occurred to him to write down what he had been saying. Salomé, a new drama written quickly and in French, was the outcome. Salomé was concurrently published in Paris and London in 1893, although it wasn’t performed there until Wilde’s later incarceration in 1896.
Unapologetic in his demeanor, Oscar had intended to upend Victorian high society with his appearance and political rhetoric. Dorian Gray was a triumph in igniting the crowd. With his plays and novel, he criticized societal expectations and norms. The debut of Lady Windermere’s Fan took place on 20 February 1892 at St James’ Theatre in front of a packed house.
It appeared to be sophisticated comedy on the outside, but subversive undertones were underneath it. Just like Lady Windermere, the audience was persuaded to disregard rigid societal norms and open their minds to more complex viewpoints.
The play was extremely well-liked, received much praise from liberal critics, and toured the nation for months. Oscar earned £7000 within the first year because of the play’s runaway success.
Wilde’s final play, The Importance of Being Earnest, reprised the theme of mistaken identities, giving them allowance to escape Victorian social norms. The Importance of Being Earnest was even lighter in tone compared to Wilde’s earlier comedies and lacked the classic character cliches:
- There was no “woman with a past.”
- Their personalities were neither villainous nor cunning.
- The idealistic young women were no longer so pure of heart.
The Importance of Being Earnest lacks the inner decadence depicted in The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome because it is primarily set in drawing rooms and has practically no action or violence.
The play, now regarded as Wilde’s masterpiece, was written in 1894 at the height of Wilde’s aesthetic and literary maturity. It debuted in London’s St. James’ Theatre on 14 February 1895. That marked Wilde’s sophomore collaboration with George Alexander, the producer.
In the months leading up to the film’s premiere, they diligently reviewed, planned, and rehearsed every line, scenario, and setting, meticulously constructing a hilarious parody of late Victorian society.
Alexander asked Wilde to reduce the play’s four acts to three during a rehearsal, and the author agreed. The Importance of Being Earnest’s premiere at St. James’s Theater was on the scale of those grand events the theater was known for. Allan Aynesworth (who portrayed Algernon) recounted the experience as the greatest triumph in his fifty-three years of acting.
Wilde’s prominence finally cemented into a durable artistic reputation thanks to The Importance of Being Earnest’s immediate acclaim as his finest work. When reviewing the play for The Pall Mall Gazette, H. G. Wells praised the play’s humor and Wilde’s natural wit.
3. Relationships and Personal Life
Oscar Wilde’s first love was his childhood sweetheart, Florence Balcombe. He gave her a cross etched with his name and drew a pencil sketch of her with a sweet, wistful expression. Sadly, their relationship never flourished as Florence married Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, in 1878.
On 29 May 1884, Oscar married Constance Mary Lloyd. She was the daughter of an Irish barrister in London. The couple settled down at No. 16 Tite Street, Chelsea. Their first son, Cyril, was born in 1885. Their second, Vyvyan, was born the following year. Oscar would spend hours playing with his children, building the image of an attentive family man.
Despite keeping up that wholesome image, Oscar secretly joined underground gentlemen’s clubs, where queer men were known to gather for illicit liaisons.
Also known as Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde was introduced to him by Lionel Johnson in the middle of 1891. Known to his family and friends as “Bosie,” he was a handsome young man but very spoiled. An intimate friendship developed between Wilde and Bosie, and by 1893, Wilde was infatuated with Douglas. They consorted together regularly in a tempestuous affair. If Wilde was relatively indiscreet in how he acted, Bosie was unabashedly reckless in public. Wilde appeased Bosie’s whims, whether they were materialistic, artistic, or sexual.
Bosie quickly introduced Wilde to the Victorian underworld of gay prostitution, and Alfred Taylor introduced Wilde to several young, working-class male prostitutes (rent boys) starting in 1892. Wilde would meet the youngster, give him gifts, serve him dinner in privacy, and then take him to a hotel room during these uncommon meetings.
These consorts were illiterate and unacquainted with literature, in contrast to Wilde’s idealized relationships with Ross, John Gray, and Douglas, all of whom continued to be a part of his artistic circle. It didn’t take him long for his private and public life to become severely divided.
Bosie and his friends founded a journal, The Chameleon. Wilde sent them a page of paradoxes titled Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young. Six months later, it would come under fire at Wilde’s trial, where he was required to vindicate the publication to which he had delivered his work. In any case, The Chameleon was never again published.
The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Bosie, was well-known for his outspoken atheism, rough demeanor, and the invention of contemporary boxing rules. Queensberry, who frequently fought with his son, repeatedly challenged Wilde and Lord Alfred about their friendship, but Wilde was able to appease him. He visited Wilde at 16 Tite Street in June 1894, threatening physical harm if he ever saw him and Bosie together again in public.
3.2. Trial and Imprisonment
As Wilde’s feud with Marquess Queensberry escalated, his professional success was marred. Queensberry intended to humiliate Wilde publicly by hurling a bouquet of stale vegetables onto the stage. Queensberry was denied entry to the theater once Wilde received word of the tip.
Having lost his chance at smearing Wilde, the Marquess of Queensberry struck again on 18 February 1895. He left his calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albemarle, inscribed: ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.’ Meanwhile, Wilde went against the advice of his friends, initiating a private prosecution against Queensberry for libel since the note amounted to a public accusation that Wilde had committed the crime of sodomy.
Wilde’s friends advised him against going after the prosecution at a Saturday Review meeting at the Café Royal on 24 March 1895; Frank Harris warned him that they would prove sodomy against him and advised him to flee to France.
During Douglas’s trial, the case became a ’cause célèbre’ as saucy details of Wilde’s private dalliances with Taylor and Bosie trickled into the press. A team of private investigators led Queensberry’s lawyers to the site of the Victorian underground. Wilde’s interactions with blackmailers, male prostitutes, cross-dressers, and gay brothels were recorded. Several people involved were interviewed; some were made to appear as witnesses, as they were accomplices to Wilde’s alleged crimes.
On 3 April 1895, the trial got underway at the Old Bailey, with Justice Richard Henn Collins amid chaos in the press and public galleries. Sir Edward Clarke, Wilde’s attorney, started the trial by interrogating him directly about two suggestive letters he had sent to Douglas that the defense had in its possession. Evidence was heavily tilted against Wilde.
The letters, according to Wilde, were discovered by blackmailers who had tried extorting money from him. Wilde claimed they should have accepted the £60 he gave. He asserted that he did not think the letters were anything to be embarrassed about but rather that they were works of art.
Carson, a fellow Dubliner who had attended Trinity College Dublin at the same time as Wilde, cross-examined Wilde on how he interpreted the moral content of his works. Wilde replied with characteristic wit and flippancy, claiming that works of art were not capable of being moral or immoral but only well or poorly made. Such assessments of art would only be made by uneducated and illiterate people whose viewpoints were astronomically ignorant.
Leading attorney Carson deviated from the custom of asking closed questions; he questioned Wilde on each subject from every conceivable angle, drawing out the subtleties of his responses and removing the original context. This gave Wilde a penchant for being elusive and decadent.
Carson then brought up factual evidence, questioning Wilde about his dalliances with younger, lower-class men. Wilde admitted knowing them by first names and bought expensive gifts for them but insisted nothing scandalous had happened; the men were simply good friends of his, he claimed. Carson repeatedly pointed out how these relationships seemed suspicious, implying the men were prostitutes.
Carson also straightforwardly asked Wilde if he had ever kissed a servant boy. Wilde denied it, replying that said boy was particularly plain and ugly. Carson interrogated him on the answer, pressing him on why the boy’s appearance mattered. Wilde hesitated, then for the first time became flustered: “You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me; and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously.”
Carson revealed that he had discovered several male prostitutes who would testify that they had had sex with Wilde during his opening remarks for the defense. Upon being advised by his lawyers, Wilde dropped the charge. Queensberry was not guilty, as the court declared his accusation of Wilde being a sodomite well-founded. Under the Libel Act 1843, Queensberry rendered Wilde legally liable for the considerable fees Queensberry had incurred in his defense, leaving Wilde bankrupt.
Wilde was detained on 6 April 1895 for gross immorality per Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. Ross and Wilde’s butler entered the bedroom and library of 16 Tite Street per Wilde’s orders, carrying some personal items, artifacts, manuscripts, and letters. Wilde was remanded at Holloway, where he received daily visits from Bosie. His subsequent prosecution opened on 26 April 1895 before Mr. Justice Charles.
Wilde pleaded innocent. Douglas refused to leave London for Paris despite Wilde’s repeated requests for him to do so. When forced to depart, he quickly escaped to the Hotel du Monde. Ross and many others left the UK at this time out of fear of persecution.
When questioned about ‘the love that dare not speak its name,’ Wilde made comparisons to David and Jonathan, Plato’s philosophy of soulmates, and cited the sonnets written by Michelangelo and Shakespeare. He called it beautiful and fine and deemed it the “noblest form of affection.” He added it was something that the world could not understand, going as far as to jail someone for that.
This response backfired, instead serving to bolster the charges of homosexuality. During the final trial on 25 May 1895, Wilde and Bosie were convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years of hard labor.
Up to 18 May 1897, Wilde was incarcerated. He was inspected at Newgate Prison in London before being transferred to Pentonville Prison. He was only allowed to read the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress (per prisoner rules). The long hours of hard labor he was convicted consist of picking oakum and using a treadmill (separating the fibers in scraps of old navy ropes).
A few months later, he was shifted to Wandsworth Prison in London. He kept to the routine of “hard labor, hard food, and a hard bed,” which took a toll on Wilde’s frail health. He passed out in a church in November due to illness and hunger. His right eardrum was ruptured in the fall, an injury that later contributed to his death.
When Wilde was transferred to Reading Gaol on 23 November 1895, it was at the lowest point of his term, as a crowd jeered and spat at him on the railway platform. He carried out the remainder of his sentence there, addressed and identified only as ‘C.3.3’.
Charles Thomas Wooldridge was taken to Reading Gaol five months after Wilde arrived. Wooldridge was to await his sentence for murdering his wife on 29 March 1896 and got the death sentence on 17 June, with his hanging carried out at the same place on Tuesday, 7 July 1896. Wilde garnered inspiration to write “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
Pen and paper were restricted, but Lord Richard Haldane, a friend of Wilde, brought him books and writing supplies when he visited Wilde. Wilde penned a 50,000-word letter to Douglas between January and March of 1897. When freed from prison, he was allowed to keep it but not send it.
He delivered Ross the manuscript when he was freed on 19 May 1897, and Ross may or may not have sent a copy to Douglas per Wilde’s request (who later denied having received it). The entire letter was published in 1963 in The Letters of Oscar Wilde after being partially published in 1905 under the title De Profundis.
Oscar Wilde is one of modern history’s most renowned playwrights, poets, and novelists. His legacy has endured since his death in 1900, with literary works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest still widely read by people worldwide. Wilde’s wit and social commentary have made him a legendary figure whose works continue to inspire generations. Wilde’s works have been adapted for television and movies such as An Ideal Husband (1999) and Dorian Gray (2009).
4.1. Biographical Films about Oscar Wilde
There are several biographical films about Oscar Wilde. The most recent one was The Happy Prince, which came out in 2018. Produced by BBC, it notably bears the same name as Wilde’s classic short story. This time, it chronicled his life post-incarceration up till his death.
Another biopic titled Wilde was a dramatization of the author’s life, starring Stephen Fry as Oscar. It was released in 1997.
4.2. Oscar Wilde’s photographs
One of the most famous photographs of Wilde is conserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was taken in January 1882 by Canadian-born Napoleon Sarony, known for his celebrity photography work based in New York. According to the Museum, Wilde arrived at Sarony’s studio dressed in what he would usually wear to his lectures: a jacket, velvet vest, silk knee breeches and stockings, and slippers decorated with grosgrain bows.
5.1. Oscar Wilde’s Books
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
5.2. Oscar Wilde’s Short Story Collection
The Happy Prince and Other Tales
A House of Pomegranates
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories
5.3. Oscar Wilde’s Plays
Vera; or, The Nihilists (1880)
The Duchess of Padua (1883)
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892)
A Woman of No Importance (1893)
An Ideal Husband (1895)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
Salomé (1896) Translated from French by Lord Alfred Douglas
La Sainte Courtisane (incomplete)
A Florentine Tragedy (incomplete)
5.4. Oscar Wilde’s Essays
The Philosophy of Dress
The Decay of Lying
Pen, Pencil, and Poison
The Soul of Man under Socialism
Intentions (revised dialogues)
The Critic as Artist
The Decay of Lying
Pen, Pencil, and Poison
The Truth of Masks
Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young
A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-educated
5.5. Oscar Wilde’s Posthumous Publications
De Profundis (1905)
6. Quotes from Oscar Wilde
“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That’s all.” – from the Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray
“To define is to limit.” –The Picture of Dorian Gray
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
“Surely love is a wonderful thing. It is more precious than emeralds, and dearer than fine opals. Pearls and pomegranates cannot buy it, nor is it set forth in the marketplace. It may not be purchased of the merchants, nor can it be weighed out in the balance for gold.” – from The Nightingale and The Rose
7. Frequently Asked Questions about Oscar Wilde
How tall was Oscar Wilde?
He stood at a towering 1.91m, or 6′ 3″.
How did Oscar Wilde die?
His death was caused by suffering a ruptured eardrum and its subsequent infection from his prison term.
What were Oscar Wilde’s last words?
He was reported as saying: “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes, or I go.”