De Profundis | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde | Biography


Early Life

Oscar Wilde was born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854. His father William Wilde (1815–76) was a highly regarded physician who founded a hospital for the poor of Dublin. Wilde's mother Jane Francesca Elgee (1821–96) was a poet who influenced and encouraged her son's own interests in literature.

Wilde was an excellent student and earned a scholarship to study at Trinity College in Dublin in 1871. He continued his academic achievements by studying at Magdalen College of Oxford University and again earned a scholarship. Wilde concentrated on Greek and classics during his college years but also began to write his own literary works. His poem "Ravenna" (1878) won him an undergraduate prize for best English verse composition.

Professional Career as a Writer

In 1881 Wilde published his first collection of verses, Poems. The collection received mixed reviews, but Wilde led a successful lecture tour in the United States, Canada, Ireland, and Britain in the years afterward. Back in England Wilde became editor of a women's magazine known as Woman's World. At the same time, he remained highly active as a writer and published works including the children's story collection The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), the essay collection Intentions (1891), and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891).

Wilde received wide acclaim for the successful productions of several plays he wrote. His notable dramatic works include Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

Development of Wilde's Aestheticism

Wilde was highly influenced by some of his professors at Oxford. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was a high-profile essayist, art critic, and architectural historian. He held liberal views arguing for social and economic equality in a time when he perceived industrialism to be destructive to human dignity. Ruskin's political theories shaped Wilde's essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891) and Ruskin's aesthetic ideas upholding art as a means to reach idealism strongly influenced Wilde's own belief in the transformative power of art.

Wilde was similarly influenced by his Oxford professor Walter Pater (1839–94). Pater was a renowned English critic, essayist, and humanist who argued for the value of art for art's sake rather than for the representation of morality or other instrumental purposes. Wilde adopted Pater's perspective and embraced the movement known as aestheticism. This movement took Pater's ideas further. The Picture of Dorian Gray and other works by Wilde exemplify aestheticism. Some critics complained that Wilde's works lacked morality, but he continued to have success as a writer throughout the early 1890s.

Personal Life, Scandal, and Legacy

Wilde's wife Constance Lloyd (1859–98) was a wealthy Englishwoman. The couple married in 1884 and had two sons named Cyril Wilde (1885–1915) and Vyvyan Wilde (1886–1967). At the same time, Wilde pursued relationships with men and adopted a flamboyant personality to correspond to his beliefs in aestheticism. Wilde's writing career placed him under the microscope and opened his personal life up to scrutiny.

Wilde began an affair with a young man known as Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945) when he was at the height of his career. Throughout "De Profundis" Wilde refers to Douglas as Bosie. Bosie's father accused Wilde of sodomy, and Wilde sued him for libel. His lawsuit was dismissed and Wilde was arrested on charges of gross indecency in 1895. He was imprisoned and suffered from the hard labor and poor conditions imposed on him. While in Reading Gaol, Wilde composed "De Profundis" as a long letter to Douglas. The letter analyzes the events that led to Wilde's arrest and also includes his meditations on suffering and art. Wilde was released from prison in 1897 but incarceration had taken its toll. He wrote little in the last years of his life and died of meningitis on November 30, 1900, in Paris, France. Wilde's literary output continues to be praised for its wit and style. His dedication to resisting social norms, conventions, and stereotypes has also had lasting influence.

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