The Importance of Being Victorian: Oscar Wilde
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility” (Wilde 14). As a brilliant writer of the 1800’s, Oscar Wilde devoted the majority of his works towards unveiling the harsh truths of the Victorian society. Leading a life of deception himself, he chose to showcase his distastes for the social injustice he saw around him with unrestrained humor. Being the first playwright to include homosexual innuendos, uplift women, and mock present social norms, it was surprising to find how widely accepted his production became. Reviews praised his use of witty dialogue and comedic characters, creating the most enduring play of the Victorian Era. In “The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Oscar Wilde utilizes his personal experiences to unmask the social conventions of the British Aristocracy during the late 1800’s.
Oscar Wilde’s life was far from conventional. Born under the irregular name Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde on October 16th, 1854, he grew up in a “richly eccentric” family (Woodcock 9). His father, Sir William Wilde, was an esteemed aural doctor for the Victorian upper-class who was “appointed medical advisor to the Irish Census of 1841” by the young age of twenty-eight (Gately). Wilde’s mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, often referred to as Lady Wilde, was an Irish nationalist who believed herself to be a revolutionary. She wrote poetry under the pen name “Speranza,” for a weekly Irish newspaper, The Nation, and organized several gatherings for artists to converse upon intellectual topics (Harris 3). Between the two of his parents, Wilde was introduced to a wide array of artists, intellectuals, and doctors from around the world. These ideas helped Wilde to learn to value witty and intellectual conversation, which he illuminates throughout “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
Wilde was provided with the advantage to attain a superior education. Winning several awards at Portora Royal School, he was already considered a profound scholar before attending college at Trinity and Magdalen in Oxford (Pearson 18). At these schools, Wilde began a lifelong adoration of the classics, which would later influence his subsequent writing (Harris 17). Under the influence of three professors, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Frank Mahaffy, Wilde was transformed into a capital gentleman who dressed in unorthodox clothing and constantly questioned the Victorian norms (Harris 24). Ruskin inspired Wilde’s imagination and aristocratic soul with “his prose” style and romantic writing (Harris 28). Pater, Wilde contends, “taught me the highest form of art: the austerity of beauty” (Harris 28). His emphasis in the arts also urged Wilde to live for pleasure and experiment with “the instrument of speech,” which later helped him form witty dialogue in his plays (Harris 28). Mahaffy took him on trips to Italy and Greece, inspired his love for the Greek language, and challenged him to look at the repressive ethics around them (Harris 27, Pearson 34). Without the guidance and encouragement of these professors, Wilde may not have evolved into the humorous and esteemed writer seen today.
Wilde entered into the celebrity limelight through his intellect and irregular lifestyle. To make himself memorable, he wore eccentric clothing and sported flowers and lilies with each of his outfits. He traveled and lectured to increase his fame in Britain and abroad (Pearson 38). Listeners proclaimed, “[he] was without exception the most brilliant talker I have ever come across, the most ready, the most witty, the most audacious… Nobody could pretend to outshine him” (Pearson 170). As his reputation blossomed, he began to court celebrities and book triumphant tours. On one of these tours, Wilde met his wife Constance Lloyd, for better or for worse (Harris 52). They settled down together, became...
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