Everyone has secrets—skeletons in the closet they hope, for whatever reason, will never be brought to light. Literary characters are certainly no exception. A classic example is that of the titular character of The Picture of Dorian Gray, who is kept young and beautiful by a hidden portrait that ages in his place.
Oscar Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Gray, also had some skeletons in the closet—only his were revealed during a grueling court case. Wilde was outed as a homosexual after his lover’s father hired private detectives to dig deep into Wilde’s personal life. As a result, Wilde was arrested and spent two years in jail. He died three years later, destitute and disgraced. It was only in 2017 that Wilde received a pardon for the crime he’d been imprisoned for in 1895, some 122 years earlier.
Professor Jill Galvan teaches an entire class dedicated to Oscar Wilde and the concepts surrounding his work and his life, such as aesthetics, modernity, celebrity, sexuality and individuality. Students enrolled in English 4564.02 read Wilde’s plays, novels, fairy tales and poems as well as work by his contemporaries that shed light on the zeitgeist of Wilde’s time.
The study of Oscar Wilde is inexorably tied with the idea of sexual expression, for which he was condemned. The prudishness of the late Victorian era was forced into the open during his trial as questions arose of morality, masculinity and performance: was Wilde just an effeminate man, or was he really an immoral “sodomite”? Although, to a modern audience, the legal condemnation of his sexuality seems bigoted and puritan, many people may be surprised to know that 72 countries still criminalize homosexuality today.
When one goes to study Wilde’s work, it makes sense to presume that Wilde presents Dorian’s closeted portrait of sins as a metaphor for sexuality and sexual identity. To do so would not be incorrect. However, professor Galvan also stresses Wilde’s theories about art and generative meaning— that the critic, rather than the artist, is the creator of meaning. Art means whatever the audience needs it to mean.
The life of any artist, especially one as prevalent as Wilde, has a way of reaching through the centuries and touching the modern world through their creations. Today, Wilde is known for his work, for his words, for his charisma and for his style. He championed the idea of making and appreciating art for art’s sake. He recognized the beauty of life and all it has to offer. Despite his tragic demise, Wilde has gone down in history as an icon of literature, philosophy and sexuality.
For students interested in this subject, Galvan recommends the following critical works:
- “Salomé!!: Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde and the Drama of Celebrity” by Sharon Marcus
- Oscar Wilde in Context edited by Kerry Powell and Peter Raby
- Oscar Wilde by John Sloan