The Critic as Artist | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde | Biography


Family Life

Oscar Wilde's full name was Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde and he was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. Wilde's parents were professional writers. Wilde's father Sir William Wilde (1815–76) was a leading ear and eye surgeon in Ireland and published books about archeology, folklore, and Jonathan Swift (1667–1745). Wilde's mother was born Jane Elgee (1821–96) and was a revolutionary poet and an expert on Celtic myth and folklore. She wrote under the pseudonym Speranza.


Wilde attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (1864–71), then Trinity College in Dublin (1871–74), and Magdalene College in Oxford (1874–78) where he was awarded his degree with honors. He earned a reputation as a classical scholar as well as a poet. He wrote a long poem called "Ravenna" for which he was awarded the Newdigate Prize in 1878. Wilde was influenced by English writers John Ruskin (1819–1900) and Walter Pater's (1839–94) writings on the importance of art and particularly Pater's emphasis on the role aesthetics should play in a person's life. Wilde tried to live by Pater's motto "to burn with a gemlike flame." He was known as much for his exuberant and outspoken personality and his flamboyant manner of dress as he was for his written work.

Literary Accomplishments and Personal Life

Wilde became the spokesperson for the aesthetic movement in late 19th-century England which promoted art for art's sake. Wilde was a poet and a dramatist. Nevertheless, he is best known for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and for his comic pieces Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). In 1891 Wilde published The Critic as Artist in which he used the structure of a conversation between two men to expound upon his views regarding aesthetics and the role of critics in the art world.

In 1884 Wilde married Lady Constance Lloyd (1859–98). Their two children were Cyril Wilde (b.1885) and Vyvyan Wilde (b.1886).

A central theme in many of Wilde's works is the exposure of a secret sin or indiscretion and the inevitable ensuing public disgrace. This theme played out in Wilde's personal life when he was accused of sodomy as a result of a close friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas (1844–1900) and was sentenced to two years of hard labor. Wilde was bankrupt when he was released from prison in 1897. He went to France in the hope of rekindling his writing career. Wilde had persistent money problems but had good friends by his side. In his last published work The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), Wilde expresses his concern about the inhumane conditions in prison. Wilde died on November 30, 1900, from acute meningitis.


George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) said that Wilde had an exceedingly joyful spirit. Wilde was unconventional in his writing as well as his personal life and is often remembered more for his dramatic, energetic personality than his literary work. Nevertheless, his novel The Picture of Dorian Grey and his play The Importance of Being Earnest are counted among the late Victorian literary masterpieces.

Since his death Wilde's reputation has undergone many iterations. Following his death Wilde was ignored in Britain because his widely publicized arrest and imprisonment for homosexual activity were seen as a fall from grace. However, he was celebrated for his imprisonment in a variety of countries such as the United States, France, and Russia. In 1908 Wilde's reputation received a boost when a friend and former lover published a 14-volume edition of his works. In 1967 sales of Wilde's book increased during a legal struggle that ended with the British Parliament decriminalizing homosexuality.

In the 1960s Wilde's work began to be viewed in a new light. He came to be known as an author worthy of academic study. Wilde's work has influenced many writers such as playwrights Tom Stoppard (b.1937) and Noel Coward (1899–1973) and novelists Edmund White (b.1940) and Armistead Maupin (b.1944). Wilde ignored convention. He prioritized the artist's vision and pointed out hypocrisy and intolerance. He helped push the boundaries of literature and broaden the artist's role in society.

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