An Irish writer living in London at the end of the 19th century, Oscar Wilde is as famous for his life as for his literature. He was a leading figure of aestheticism, the idea that art should be about beauty, rather than morality. He was witty, fashionable and often lived beyond his means. He was a critic of stuffy Victorian values, and his gently mocking plays were immensely popular — until, in 1895, his relationship with another man became public and he was arrested for “gross indecency”. He was imprisoned for two years, and died penniless three years later. His work, including plays and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, often drew on the playful, powerful themes in his personal life.
“All art is quite useless,” Wilde once wrote, and that is how he thought it should be. Art is about beauty, and beauty should be celebrated for its own sake — not how “useful” it is to the rest of society or the “message” it sends to others. What should art be for?
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Much of Wilde’s work engages with the morality of the Victorian era, mocking and questioning the constraints that it puts on his characters. For this reason, he was sometimes accused by critics of immorality. But “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” he wrote in Dorian Gray. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Do you agree?
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Wilde is one of the first openly gay public figures in British history — in fact, it was around the time of his trial that the term “homosexuality” first came into use, and homoerotic passages from his work were also used as evidence against him in court. “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power,” he wrote. Is this true?
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In contrast to the austere Victorian stereotype we are used to, Wilde and his characters indulged in a life of pleasure and excess. But there were always consequences. The most famous example comes in Dorian Gray, where a man trades his soul to stay young and beautiful — but the sins of his hedonistic life are revealed in a decaying portrait. Do we still share this anxiety?
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“Fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months,” Wilde once wrote. And yet he also took it seriously; that quote is from an essay about Victorian dress and the corset. For many years, he was also editor of Lady’s World, a fashion magazine that he argued should not only deal “with what women wear, but with what they think and what they feel”.
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