In Oscar Wilde, Robert K. Miller declared that this ironic turn reveals Wilde's "ambivalence toward love" that is "related to his ambivalence about women. The imaginative sympathy of the giant is similar to that which Wilde ascribes to Christ in his later work, De Profundis. Both Quintus and Miller emphasized Wilde's moral point of view in these stories.
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This element has already been seen in some of the early poems, and it reappears in Wilde's novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Quintus was careful to point out, however, that "Wilde's tales are not. This is Wilde's only novel, a blend of French decadence and English gothicism. It is filled with genuinely witty dialogue and beautiful descriptive passages, while sometimes descending to the level of slick melodrama and ponderous theorizing.
The novel details the life of a hedonistic aristocrat, Dorian Gray. When Dorian sees the portrait that Basil Hallward paints of him, he wishes he could change places with his likeness, remain always young and beautiful, and allow the portrait to bear the effects of time—and, as it turns out, the effects of sin. As in the world of the fairy tale, the wish is granted, but at a terrible price.
At the time he was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde became friendly with Robert "Robbie" Ross, whom he had first met in at Oxford and who later served as Wilde's literary executor after faithfully standing by him through Wilde's trials and the horrors of Wilde's two years in prison.
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Montgomery Hyde, in Oscar Wilde: A Biography, cited "strong grounds for believing that it was with [Ross] that Wilde first deliberately experimented in homosexual practices. I heard a clergyman extolling it, he only regretted some of the sentiments.
A particularly scathing attack in The Scots Observer made a veiled reference to Wilde's homosexuality and suggested he take up tailoring or some other "decent" trade. For the novel's hardcover edition, published the following year, Wilde made some changes, most important of which was the addition of six chapters and the famous epigrammatic preface.
Perhaps surprisingly, the reviews this time were more favorable. Joyce Carol Oates in Critical Inquiry described the novel as a "parable of the fall" and identified Dorian's sin in his practice of involving others, "without any emotion,.
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His life becomes a series of one-night stands, each encounter briefer than the last. The painter Basil Hallward, for all his goodness, sublimates his true feelings in the beautiful portrait. Lord Henry Wotton, for all his theories about the importance of indiscriminate experience, does not act. And Dorian Gray, whose actions with others lead him only to the point of prizing things such as tapestries, jewels, and vestments, unconvincingly tries to redeem himself with the village girl Hetty, but succeeds only in ending his life in a melodramatic fashion.
Though hastily written and clumsily constructed, it manages to haunt many readers with vivid memories of its visionary descriptions. From the reader's viewpoint, the picture suggests the treatment of angle and distance—the ways of telling and showing—which make up the perennial issues of the aesthetics and criticism of fiction.
It is rather because of his dramas that Wilde's reputation has remained most secure.
Louis Kronenberger, in The Thread of Laughter, mentioned Wilde together with the great eighteenth-century dramatist, Richard Brinsley Sheridan : "The brilliant stage comedy that glittered briefly in Sheridan and then remained dormant, if not dead, for over a hundred years is in some measure brought back to life with Oscar Wilde. Britain's Lord Chamberlain, responsible for licensing stage performances, banned the play on the technical grounds that it portrayed biblical characters, which was forbidden since the days of the Protestant Reformation.
The play no doubt offended on other grounds as well, such as those expressed by a critic in the London Times in "It is an arrangement in blood and ferocity, morbid, bizarre, repulsive, and very offensive in its adaptation of scriptural phraseology to situations the reverse of sacred.
This exotic one-act play has more the atmosphere of the earlier poem The Sphinx in its variations on the themes of obsession, lust, incest, and violence. Richard Ellmann, in Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, described this unity as "the extreme concentration upon a single episode which is like an image, with a synchronized moon changing color from pale to blood-red in keeping with the action, and an atmosphere of frenzy framed in exotic chill.
This impression was undercut for critic Alan Bird, who, in The Plays of Oscar Wilde, contended that even in this play Wilde's wit shows through: "Yet the reader or audience can never escape the uncomfortable sensation that the author is actually parodying the action, the words, the characters, the whole ensemble of the drama. This suspicion of parody, however faint, produces an intentional distancing, a deliberate alienation, which far from allowing us to dismiss the drama seems to increase the total effect of decadence.
This play and his last, The Importance of Being Earnest, reveal Wilde at the height of his powers, dealing in a sure way with those things he knew and did best—portraying the upper crust of society, creating characters who could mouth his brilliant epigrams and paradoxes in amusing, if conventional, plots. These plays use much of the typical material of the comedy of manners: mistaken identities, sexual indiscretions, cases of unknown parentage, and social snobbery.
Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband also deal, in varying degrees of seriousness, with Wilde's favorite themes of the loss of innocence and the assertion of individuality. Lady Windermere's Fan was originally produced by the actor-manager George Alexander before a thoroughly appreciative audience.
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It ran for performances and solidified Wilde's position in the fashionable society he so much aspired to. He retained this exalted status for only three years before his trial for homosexuality made him a convict and a social outcast. But while his fame lasted Wilde enjoyed it with his usual flair. When the first-night audience at Lady Windermere's Fan called him to the stage after the final curtain, he smugly offered to those present: "The actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent.
I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself. Lady Windermere's Fan is a story about a woman with a past. Erlynne, the fallen woman who years ago left her husband and her daughter—now Lady Windermere—reappears and tries to regain a social position. Ironically it is the fallen woman who turns out to be the "good woman" of the subtitle "A Play about a Good Woman" , and the good woman of the first act, Lady Windermere, is forced to undergo a painful realization that things are not always what they appear to be.
Arthur Ganz observed in British Victorian Literature that Lady Windermere "learns that a single act is not a final indicator of character and that a sinner may be a very noble person indeed. Lines such as "Why, I have met hundreds of good women. I never seem to meet any but good women. The world is perfectly packed with good women.
To know them is a middle class education" probably flattered the upper class audience and confirmed the suspicions of the middle class that this is the way dandies spoke in their drawing rooms and clubs. Robert Keith Miller complained that the play suffers from the juxtaposition of this verbal wit with the serious nature of the plot and maintained, "The union of Mrs. Erlynne with Lord Augustus, in the last fifty lines of the play, strikes one as a rather desperate attempt to relieve the tension of the last several acts in order to end on a light note.
Wilde had been introduced to "Bosie" Douglas, the son of the eighth Marquess of Queensberry, by the poet Lionel Johnson. A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband followed quickly on the success of Lady Windermere's Fan and received similar acclaim from the audiences and similar disdain from the critics. In both of these plays, Miller noted, "we find Wilde condemning absolutes and pleading for tolerance in a world that is apt to be harsh. Agreeing with Speranza, Wilde's mother, that the plays needed "more plot," Alan Bird declared that in A Woman of No Importance "the plot is weak, and is, in fact, practically nonexistent.
The incident, such as it is, of a woman meeting a former lover and being involved in a tug-of-war over their child does not offer sufficient action or opportunity for development to fill four acts. Hyde reported that Allan Aynesworth, who played Algernon in the first performance, recalled many years later: "In my fifty-three years of acting I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest.
The audience rose in their seats and cheered and cheered again. Superficially, at least, The Importance of Being Earnest contains many of the same elements as the earlier plays.
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Once again there are the question of parentage, a matter of mistaken identity, and a character who has been living a lie for years. But, as Louis Kronenberger observed, "the only difference is that here nothing can seem bogus because nothing pretends-to-be-real; nothing can offend our feelings because nothing can affect them. Each of the men leads a double life: Jack, who lives in the country with his ward Cecily, has invented an alter ego named Ernest for his life in town; Algernon has done similarly with his imaginary invalid friend Bunbury, who lives in the country.
When the audience shortly learns that each of the young women absurdly wishes to marry a man named Ernest, the stage is set for farcical twists and turns. Very near fine.
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