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The Nightingale and the Rose | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde | Biography


Early Life

Born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, Oscar Wilde lived a life that was in many ways as colorful and dramatic as those of the characters he invented. He came from an established and well-respected family. His mother was an accomplished poet and translator, and his father was a doctor who also wrote books and was knighted for his service in the Irish census. An uncle also served in the Irish Parliament.

Education and Early Career

Wilde received a first-rate education, attending Portora Royal School, Trinity College Dublin, and then Oxford University. He won honors at each institution, first for his scholarship and then for his writing. After graduating, Wilde began a varied literary career that was at first very successful and then highly notorious. Wilde published poetry, criticism, fiction (including fairy tales), and plays. While some of his poetry and fairy tales are still read, it was his fiction, criticism, and plays that won him literary immortality. Essays such as "The Decay of Lying" (1889) and "The Critic as Artist" (1891) make their cases through conversations among paired selves representing different components of an argument. Wilde followed this structure both in his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and in his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He published other plays as well, including Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and An Ideal Husband (1895). He also published collections of fairy tales, including the 1888 collection The Happy Prince and Other Stories, which includes "The Nightingale and the Rose."

Through his writings and his public personality, Wilde earned a reputation as a famous wit, and this reputation persists. When he visited the United States to give a series of lectures in 1882, he told customs officials that he had "nothing to declare but his genius." He also famously dressed extravagantly and affected a flamboyant persona, which made him both popular and controversial in socially conservative Victorian England. Wilde became a key proponent of the aesthetic movement in England, a late 19th-century artistic movement that championed the idea of "art for art's sake."

Fame and Controversy

On August 30, 1889, J.M. Stoddart (1845–1921), managing editor of the American Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, hosted a dinner in London. That evening he solicited stories from two very different authors: Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), the writer who created the famous detective character Sherlock Holmes. This request produced The Sign of Four from Doyle and The Picture of Dorian Gray from Wilde, both published in 1890. Doyle's story was immediately celebrated, but Wilde's story received a much more negative response. Stoddard cut 500 words from the manuscript, editing the story to make the references to homosexuality less explicit, before he published it in one installment. However, this wasn't enough to save Wilde from controversy. Critics objected to the story, suggesting it was written specifically for a homosexual audience. In response Wilde edited the story still further. He added six chapters and a preface and toned down the sexual content before it was published as a book in 1891 by Ward, Lock and Company. In 2011 scholar Nicholas Frankel published a version of the novel with the original sexual references restored.

Even with Wilde's edits, the controversy the novel generated caused problems for the author at the time his career had begun to blossom. In 1895, during the run of his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest, at St. James's Theatre in London, Wilde got into legal trouble over a homosexual affair with a younger man, Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945). Douglas, incidentally, adored The Picture of Dorian Gray and said he had read it 14 times. Wilde was charged with "gross indecency," and the novel was part of the evidence used against Wilde at his trial.

Last Years and Death

Wilde spent two years in prison starting in 1895, and when he emerged, he lived barely five more years. During the autumn of 1900 he resided in Paris at the Hôtel d'Alsace under the name Sebastian Melmoth. On November 30, 1900, at age 46, Wilde died there without enough money to pay his hotel bill. In his last moments, he converted to Roman Catholicism.

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