Who Was Oscar Wilde?

who was oscar wilde


Oscar Wilde was the world’s first celebrity. A flamboyant dandy known for his epigrams and plays, he celebrated “art for art’s sake.” Wilde believed that decadence and vice offered a release from the mediocrity of Victorian society. He became a literary giant. Yet the very same year of his greatest triumph, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), he was convicted of gross indecency for consensual homosexual acts. His downfall was swift. Two years in prison was followed by exile in Paris, where he died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis aged just 46 years old. 

The World’s First Celebrity

A photographic print of Oscar Wilde on card mount, by Napoleon Sarony (1882)
A photographic print of Oscar Wilde on card mount, by Napoleon Sarony (1882)

Oscar Wilde was one of the most iconic and recognizable figures in Victorian society. A supremely talented playwright, writer, and poet, Wilde unsurprisingly lived a life of sharp contradictions seemingly tailored for the impending age of celebrity. He was both a socialite and a socialist; a stern critic of poverty and decadently indulgent in his tastes; a family man who enjoyed extramarital affairs with young men.

Most notably, Oscar Wilde was a master of spin with a thirst for fame. He understood the limited attention span of the public, and realized that a memorable image was worth a thousand words. When he did speak and write to his public, he dispatched his ideas in short aphorisms and epigrams. 

Through the meticulous cultivation of his persona, cleverly constructed quotes, and eye-catching outfits, Oscar Wilde sculpted a highly consumable image and, in the process, invented the idea of modern celebrity. 

A Literary Giant

picture of dorian gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray serialized in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, 1890, via British Library, London

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Oscar Wilde’s repertoire of short stories, spanning semi-comic mysteries like Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime (1891), to enchanting fairy tales such as The Happy Prince (1888), helped solidify his status as one of the great literary giants of his day. However, the pinnacle of his literary fame came with the publication of his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890). 

This controversial book tells the tale of Dorian Grey, a deeply immoral man whose outward appearance remains youthful and handsome while his portrait reflects the ugliness of his character as he spirals deeper into a life of debauchery and vice. 

During its time, the book sparked intense controversy and was censored for its ‘immoral’ sexual content and homosexual themes. In response Wilde famously asserted that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book, books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

A Social Critic

Oscar Wilde in New York City (1882), via Wikimedia Commons
Oscar Wilde in New York City (1882), via Wikimedia Commons

Amidst Oscar Wilde’s many literary accomplishments, The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891), captures his political views most succinctly. Alongside his famous satirical accounts of upper-class Victorian society, The Soul of Man under Socialism seeks to uncover some harder truths. The genius of this short essay is neatly summarized: “to live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” In this context, Wilde is particularly concerned about poverty, and scathing of charity as a remedy to cure it. 

Rather than solving the issue of poverty, charity for Wilde merely aggravates the problem. He argues the proper solution would be to “reconstruct society in such a way that poverty would be impossible.” Only a society liberated from the “sordid necessity of living for others”, where every individual is free to pursue a “beautiful, healthy individualism” on their own terms, will do.

Oscar Wilde Faced a Tragic Descent

oscar wilde at bow street
Press coverage of Oscar Wilde’s first criminal trial, April 1895, via British Library, London

Oscar Wilde’s tragic descent began in 1895 when he faced conviction at the Old Bailey on charges of “Gross Indecency”. Ironically, his legal troubles began after the Marquess of Queensberry (correctly) publicly accused him of having a relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde sued the Marquess for libel. However, the maneuver soon backfired and he ended up on trial himself. Following the world’s first ‘celebrity trial’ Oscar Wilde received a sentence of two years hard labor. 

He spent much of his time in solitary confinement, endured restless nights on a plank with no mattress, and suffered from chronic dysentery. Yet from the confines of his prison cell Wilde also penned one of his most profound works. A letter addressed to his lover, De Profoundis is without doubt one of the greatest love letters ever written. 

The Victorian ‘Homosexual’ Archetype

oscar wilde new york times
Oscar Wilde as a “Young Artist” in the United States, 1882, via The New York Times

Oscar Wilde left an enduring legacy. His epigrams and wit continue to illuminate the contradictions of high society. His endorsement of vice and indulgence as a remedy for monotony and stagnation continues to resonate. However, one of Oscar Wilde’s most notable contributions was his cultivation of a flamboyant, dandyish, effeminate ‘homosexual’ style and identity in Victorian society. This stereotypical archetype endures in contemporary culture.

Ironically, Wilde himself seemed  far from embracing his own sexual identity. From his prison cell in Reading Gaol, he lamented his sexuality as ‘the most horrible form of erotomania.’ He left behind no heroic statement of gay pride for posterity. Nonetheless, Oscar Wilde’s life and work are celebrated as early and defiant expressions of queer culture. Yet, as Alan Sinfield points out, much of Wilde’s work appears ‘queer’ simply because our prevailing idea of male homosexuality comes from Oscar Wilde himself.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with an interest in physical cultures, far-right movements, and Indian politics. He has a doctorate in political sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.

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