Oscar Wilde is probably the top Irish writer of the 19th century. There is only one Oscar Wilde novel among a body of work that includes many poems, plays and short stories.
Oscar Wilde lived and worked in England and was certainly one of the most famous men – both as a writer and a personality – in Victorian London. His plays dominated the Victorian theatre so he was a household name for that reason alone. He was a wit and popular man-about-town, but he also achieved notoriety for an episode in his private life.
Wilde’s relationship with a young aristocrat, Lord Alfred Douglas, burst into a public scandal when Douglas’ father decided to make an issue of it. Being gay was an imprisonable offence in England at that time, and Wilde was tried and convicted of gross indecency and imprisoned for two years. On his release he found that English society had rejected him and he went into exile in Paris, where he died in 1900, at the age of 46.
Wilde’s plays are still favourites on stages around the world and appear regularly as films and television performances. The Importance of Being Earnest is, perhaps, the most famous English play since the golden age of Elizabethan dramas.
Wilde was also a poet. His long poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol was a product of the two years he spent there.
He also wrote a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and several short stories, collected under the title of The Happy Prince and Other Tales. Here we look at these two pieces of Oscar Wilde prose:
The Happy Prince and Other Tales (Short Story Collection)
This is a collection of short stories intended for children but, as is often the case with exceptional stories, relevant to all ages. They are light and humorous but also filled with moral lessons and themes about greed, selfishness and pride.
The title story is about a prince who has a statue of him constructed after his death. As the spirit of the prince looks down from it he finally recognises what his subjects are enduring. He regrets that he didn’t do more to help the poor, when he had the chance to.
The stories have been made into plays and films which have been a good addition to Wilde’s dramatic work.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (Novel)
It’s a pity that Wilde wrote only one novel because it would have been wonderful to have had more. The premise of The Picture of Dorian Gray is unique and could have come only from the most fertile and creative imagination of a great writer.
There are other premises that achieve the status of greatness, such as Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which a foolish, vain king, is conned into believing that tailors making him a new suit are weaving a magical cloth that can only be seen by those who are worthy of their positions. The courtiers, afraid of being judged unworthy, all claim to be able to see it, as does the emperor himself. When he goes out on parade he thinks he is wearing his new suit but he is wearing only his underwear. No-one says anything for a while but then a little boy points and shouts “look at the emperor – he’s got no clothes. ” The whole city laughs at the foolish emperor.
The Picture of Dorian Gray has a similarly unique idea behind it. It tells the story of a handsome young man, very popular among society, who makes a pact with the devil to stay young and handsome forever and the devil keeps his side of the deal in the most interesting way.
As an artist, Basil Hallward, is completing his portrait of a beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, he is visited by his friend Lord Henry Wooton. His lordship is a man of the world and known by both admirers and detractors as an amoral character. He loves the painting and suggests that it should be immediately displayed, but Hallward disagrees.
While that discussion is going on Dorian arrives. He quickly falls under the spell of Wooton, who talks about his view that life is too short not to indulge oneself completely in one’s desires, whatever they may be. Wooten reminds him that time is particularly short for the young man as beauty and youth are fleeting. Dorian laughingly declares that he would give his soul to the devil if his portrait were to grow old while he remained young and beautiful. He then goes home with the finished portrait.
Wooton decides to take Dorian under his wing and teach him the ways of the world. They start hanging out together. One day Dorian tells Henry Wooton that he’s fallen in love with an actress and he takes his friend and the artist to see her. Her performance is poor and she tells Dorian it’s because she’s obsessed with him. He is turned off by that and tells her he wants nothing more to do with her. When he gets home he notices that his portrait has changed – there is a cruel expression on his face. Wooten visits him the next day and tells him that the actress has committed suicide, but that Dorian need not feel bad about it.
Dorian puts the portrait in the attic. Under the influence of Wooton, he spends the next eighteen years in overindulgence, and is increasingly drawn to evil and callous acts. He visits the portrait from time to time, noting the signs of ageing and corruption on the face. At the same time he remains young and beautiful, without a blemish or any sign of aging.
One evening he encounters the artist, Basil Hallwood, who accuses him of having destroyed the lives and reputations of several people. Dorian refuses to be accountable. He takes Hallwood to the attic to see the portrait, which has become horrifying, with its subject’s face contorted and hideous. The artist tells Dorian that he has to repent and, in a fit of rage, Dorian kills him. He forces an associate to dispose of the body.
After escaping a revenge plot by the actress’ brother Dorian tells Henry Wooton that he has decided to change his ways and has started by not taking advantage of a young woman who has fallen for him. He hurries to see whether the portrait has improved after his honourable gesture and finds that the face is no less hideous but has also acquired a cunning look.
He takes a knife and attacks the portrait. His servants hear a scream coming from the attic and when they arrive they find the body of a loathsome old man, and a portrait of the beautiful young man, which they recognise as their master.
That’s our take on Oscar Wilde’s novel and prose writing. What’s your take on these works? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.