Thursday, 19 November 2015

Oscar Wilde in Defence of Himself

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested for gross indecency with men. During the trial of Sir John Sholto Douglas, the homophobic father of Wilde’s lover, evidence was unearthed that led to Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading Gaol, about which he wrote his famous poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. To some extent, this event demonstrates Wilde’s aversion to the stringent morality of Victorian society, which he believed led to self-denial and an admonition of life’s splendour. In his earlier comedies, Wilde expresses these beliefs through his plots, which imply the need for a less extreme moral code, though they still adhere to traditional moral ideas. But he also demonstrates his opposition to conventional morality through the dialogue of his dandies and through their complete rejection of conventions and mores, a rejection that reaches its pinnacle in his final play, The Importance of Being Earnest. An examination of these two methods points to the clear division in Wilde’s work, possibly the result of his desire on the one hand to please his audience, and on the other hand to scold them. Despite this division, throughout his career Wilde appears to defend those who transgress, and thus in a sense, his work can be seen as a defence of his own actions, either suggesting that he should be forgiven, or suggesting that his so-called sin is really no sin at all.

Wilde’s earlier comedies, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of no Importance and An Ideal Husband, all adhere to somewhat traditionally moral plots, whilst also suggesting that those who have transgressed should be forgiven and that moral rules should not be so “hard and fast” (Lord Darlington). The plays have a number of similarities: all three feature a character with a secret sin in their past. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Mrs Erlynne describes herself as being “despised, mocked, sneered at” for running away from her husband. Similarly, in A Woman of no Importance, Mrs Arbuthnot has an illegitimate son, Gerald, though this is not such a concealable secret. Finally, Sir Robert Chiltern has also sinned in his past, selling private state information to boost his political career and personal fortune.
 
The plots necessitate, to an extent, the forgiveness of all three of these characters. Though Mrs Erlynne continues to live a life of trickery and wickedness, her act of true maternal affection in protecting her daughter indicates that she is still good at heart. Indeed, we pity her when she laments her position as an outcast, explaining how “One pays for one’s sin, and then one pays again, and all one’s life one pays.” The same goes for Chiltern (An Ideal Husband), who tells Lord Goring that he does not regret what he did, though he has “paid conscience money many times” to public charities – again showing that he is good at heart. We pity him in his predicament and his fear of ruining his marriage: “I couldn’t do it. It would kill her love for me.” By contrast, Mrs Arbuthnot is, according to Lady Hunstanton, a “good, sweet, simply” woman who lives a life of unparalleled virtue and spends her time in helping the poor. She has sinned, but she has thoroughly repented, and so she too deserves forgiveness. This idea alone implies that Wilde sympathised with the figure who has transgressed, arguing that a person who is inherently good should not be ostracised from society for a mistake they made years ago.

There is also a character in each of these three comedies that is forced to give up their stringent moral beliefs. In Lady Windermere’s Fan, it is Lady Windermere herself who preaches rigorous principles to Lord Darlington.

LORD DARLINGTON: Well then, setting aside mercenary people, who, of course, are dreadful, do you think seriously that women who have committed what the world calls a fault should never be forgiven?

LADY WINDERMERE: [Standing at table.] I think they should never be forgiven.

At the end of the play, however, Lady Windermere is forced to see that a sinner like Mrs Erlynne can indeed be a “very good woman,” as she tells Lord Augustus. It is somewhat ironic that she is perfectly happy to see goodness in a well-intentioned lie, and to cover up Mrs Erlynne’s real reason for going round to Lord Darlington’s. Likewise, Lady Chiltern ends the play on good terms with her husband even though she has discovered his flaws. As Lord Goring says, it is a woman’s job to pardon her husband, not to punish him. And finally, the American puritan Hester Worsley has her beliefs altered throughout the play. When Mrs Arbuthnot first enters, Hester exclaims: “Let all women who have sinned be punished,” but at the end of the play, she comes to realise that “God’s law is only love,” and that sins can be forgiven.

Thus, in every play, a sinner is forgiven and a strict moralist is taught to forgive. However, not every offender is pardoned: the likes of Lord Illingworth (who crudely tries to seduce Hester) and Mrs Cheveley (who tries to blackmail Lord Chiltern) are villains who have not repented and show no real goodness, and so they are not forgiven. Perhaps this is because Wilde wanted to illustrate his belief, as expressed in the St James’s Gazette, that “All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.” The renunciation of Lady Windermere, Lady Chiltern and Hester Worsley is challenged, just as the excess of Lord Illingworth, Mrs Cheveley and Dorian Gray is punished, though the case for Dorian Gray is somewhat different, as his youth is corrupted by Lord Henry and he does inevitably repent. Thus, by working with and suggesting changes to the conventional morality of his time, and by implying that those who have sinned but who are not necessarily ‘evil’ should be forgiven, Wilde seems to suggest that he himself should be forgiven by society for his transgressions and apparent sins.

However, there is a whole other aspect to his writing, what Arthur Ganz describes as the dandiacal world, that I have yet to come to. Throughout Wilde’s work, even in these earlier comedies that adopt Victorian morality whilst showing its flaws, there are suggestions that contemporary ethics should be rejected altogether. These suggestions, more often than not, come from Wilde’s dandies, Lord Darlington, Lord Illingworth, Lord Henry and Lord Goring, amongst others. It is from these men that Wilde’s most famous epigrams come (for example, Darlington tells Lady Windermere that “Life is far too important a thing to take seriously about it,”), often purposefully reversing conventions in speech and satirising the foibles and mannerisms of high society. Whether or not they are wicked and full of ‘excess’, these dandies are Wilde’s most alluring figures. They praise aestheticism (“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” says Lord Henry) and seem to embrace life with humour and wit, creating stark contrasts with the more dull characters of the plays. As Ganz argues, whilst the likes of Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Chiltern may insist that their hearts have remained pure and ask society for pardon, the dandies are pugnacious and they defend the sins they have committed.

It is in The Importance of Being Earnest that this dandiacal world is fully realised, in a farcical realm that seems wholly to have escaped orthodox codes of morality. This play is different because, whereas his earlier plays had serious plots with occasional pauses of epigrammatic dialogue, Earnest is based entirely on a pun and is totally farcical – the paradoxes and witticisms fit right in. But this is not to say that the play is not serious (Bentley described it as “a trivial comedy for serious people”) – it still raises serious points about social conventions, largely through satire. As Otto Reinert argues, in The Importance Wilde’s basic formula for satire is his characters’s assumption of a code of behaviour that represents the reality that Victorian convention pretends to ignore.” To an extent, then, the dandies of the play adopt a moral code directly opposite to that of convention. This is demonstrated by Algeronon’s hatred of husbands and wives flirting with one another in public. He hates this public flirtation precisely because it is a moral convention – he wishes it was not, and that adultery were the norm. And so, the dandy’s standards are the standards of common corruption.

Algernon also reveals the hypocrisy of Victorian society in that, in order to avoid the pretence of being good, he must adopt a false personality and become what he calls a Bunburyist. Ironically, in order to escape the hypocrisy of society, he must become a liar, and this demonstrates the flaws of convention. Indeed, the plot seems to prove the two Bunburyists right, with both Algernon and Jack happily getting married at the end of the play. Thus, this play demonstrates Wilde’s aversion to Victorian morality which, though he has worked with it in his previous plays, he now seems to reject completely. It is largely through Wilde’s famously epigrammatic dialogue that these radical ideas are shown. Whether or not Wilde believed in what his dandies were saying we can never know, though he certainly wanted to question orthodoxy. After all, Ransome argues that the plays were only written “to carry Wilde’s voice across the footlights.”

And so, I have shown that Wilde is torn: he can either win his audience’s moral approval by working with accepted ideas as in the first three comedies, or he can reject orthodoxy completely, as he does through his dandies and through his final comedy. Despite this conflict, all of Wilde’s plays seem to defend his transgression: the earlier comedies suggesting that he should be forgiven, and The Importance suggesting that Victorian morality is inherently flawed and thus that his transgression is really no transgression at all. There may be, as Wilde himself said in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” but Wilde’s books and plays undoubtedly express certain moral opinions and ideas, the overriding opinion being that the renunciation of all desire is dangerous. Nonetheless, Wilde’s audiences seem never to have heeded his advice, and so he suffered for what society viewed as an immoral act. Though he may have fought a battle in defence of himself, it was a battle that he would never win.

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