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Classic Recommendations: Oscar Wilde

Irish playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde, became the leading figure of the Aesthetic Movement. Like Romanticism, the Aesthetic Movement aimed to explore the beauty of art and literature, but independently from social or political ideas. Wilde is arguably most famous for his poetry and his satirical plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). He married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and had two sons, but his unconventional life led to his arrest in 1895 when he had an affair with a man. After serving two years, he was released but, only three years later, he died in poverty. This feature aims to highlight his two most famous pieces of literature, and to introduce Oscar Wilde into your classic reading.


The Picture of Dorian Gray

Published in 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray was Oscar Wilde’s only novel. It follows well-known artist Basil Hallward, who finds great inspiration and admiration from his favourite subject Dorian Gray. He is enthralled by his flawless beauty and perfection. This all changes when Basil’s good friend, Lord Henry Wotton, becomes Dorian’s acquaintance and mentor, introducing him to the ways of the world (according to him) and thus corrupting his perfection as Basil feared. Dorian becomes obsessed with youth and beauty under the strong influence of Lord Henry. This leads to much destruction and increasing chaos, with the constant haunting of Dorian’s portrait revealing the truth through it all.


Due to the many horror adaptations, I had preconceived notions of the novel being potentially gothic, which perhaps altered the first read. There are elements in the novel that comply to such ideas, like the murder of Basil and the tragic, yet curious ending. If you have these expectations like I did, you may be disappointed with the lack of horror, but it is still an incredible novel. This has further proved to me that you should read every book with no expectations and take every page as it comes.


The character development of Dorian Gray was brilliant. Wilde didn’t rush any aspect of it and avoided the story becoming a cliché. The idea of Dorian meeting Henry after Basil’s concerns may make Dorian’s transformation inevitable and predictable, but it felt right. The impressionable qualities of Dorian are reflected in the reader when reading the way Lord Henry speaks, which is so witty, wordy and wise. Even as a contemporary reader, it is easy to understand how Dorian fell for his seductive ways and corrupted ideas. He speaks so boldly and confidently. To me, this character embodies the Romantic and decadent ideology of Oscar Wilde.


If you enjoy great lengths of description and philosophy, this is a classic that is very thought-provoking, and which will satisfy your thirst for knowledge. There was a lot of mystery and potential with the portrait itself, but Wilde deliberately left the reader to further imagine and decipher the outcome.


The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed at St James’s Theatre in London on Valentine’s Day 1895 and it is one of Oscar Wilde’s most well-known and beloved plays. False identities and irony are central to the comedy of this play, and Wilde is often commended on his witty and satirical take on the social conventions of the Victorian era.


The two main characters in The Importance of Being Earnest are Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. The plot of the play hinges on the fact that both of these men use false identities and dishonestly to escape the responsibilities and expectations imposed on them by Victorian society. Jack has invented an irresponsible younger brother for himself named Ernest who is constantly getting himself into trouble and requiring Jack’s assistance in London. Similarly, Algernon has created a gravely ill friend named Bunbury, who he must also often attend to at a moment’s notice. The lack of honesty and earnestness displayed by the two men allows them to disappear from their respectable lives whenever it suits them and makes for a good deal of comedic misunderstanding and confusion throughout the play. Jack and Algernon both ultimately pretend to be named Ernest in order to woo their respective love interests, Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew. As a result, the two women mistakenly think they are engaged to the same man.


Wilde skilfully satirises Victorian conventions in the play, constantly mocking the importance of marriage within society. When Jack tells Algernon of his love for Gwendolen and his intention of proposing to her, Algernon replies, “I thought you had come up for pleasure? … I call that business.” He continues on to explain that, while “it is very romantic to be in love,” “there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted.” This is a classic example of how the play challenges and pokes fun at the social convention of marriage in Victorian England.


The Importance of Being Earnest is perfect for anyone looking for an entertaining and light-hearted classic to add to their bookshelf!