The Role of the Reader in Oscar Wilde's Works

A Study Commemorating the 160th Anniversary of Oscar Wilde's Birth


Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2002
367 Pages, Grade: summa cum laude (Grade 1)

Excerpt

Contents

INTRODUCTION

THE WORKS OF OSCAR WILDE

ABBREVIATIONS

1. THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF OSCAR WILDE AND HIS WORKS
1. 1. Oscar Wilde: The Origins of the Myth
1. 2. The Popularisation of the Myth in the Critical Studies of Wilde
1. 3. New Directions in Wilde Research and Objective of my Study

2. METHODOLOGICAL DISCUSSION
2. 1. The Concept of the Reader within Reader-response Theory
2. 1. 1. The Reader as an Element of the Text
2. 1. 2. The Reader as a Decoder of Textual Meaning
2. 1. 3. The Reader as a Co-producer of Meaning
2. 1. 4. The Reader as the Only Source of Meaning
2. 2. The Concept of the Reader within Reception Theory
2. 2. 1. The Historical Reader
2. 2. 2. The Implied Reader
2. 3. Justification of the Method within the Framework of Oscar Wilde's Criticism

3. THE PROCESS OF BUILDING AND BREAKING THE READER’S EXPECTATIONS IN LORD ARTHUR SAVILE’S CRIME AND OTHER STORIES
3. 1. The Teamwork between Narrator and Reader in "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime"
3. 2. The Two-fold Function of the Repertoire in "The Canterville Ghost"
3. 3. Surprise as Key Element in the Endings of "The Sphinx without a Secret" and "The Model Millionaire"

4. THE SUBVERSIVE POTENTIAL OF THE HAPPY PRINCE AND OTHER TALES AND A HOUSE OF POMEGRANATES
4. 1. Emphasis on the Transformational Process of the Characters' Patterns of Behaviour
4. 1. 1. "The Happy Prince"
4. 1. 2. "The Young King"
4. 1. 3. "The Star-Child"
4. 2. The Reversal of the Conventional Happy Ending of Classical Fairy Tales
4. 2. 1. "The Nightingale and the Rose"
4. 2. 2. "The Devoted Friend"
4. 2. 3. "The Birthday of the Infanta"

5. THE COMPLEXITIES OF THE INTERACTION BETWEEN THE READER AND THE TEXT IN THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
5. 1. Origins and Composition of DG: Two Versions, Two Audiences
5. 2. Presentation of the Characters: the Act of Image-building
5. 2. 1. Image-building from Indirect Presentation
5. 2. 2. Image-building from a Combination of Direct and Indirect Presentation
5. 3. The Oppositional Arrangement of Perspectives: Puritanism versus Aestheticism
5. 4. Trapping the Reader into an Illusory Sense of Superiority
5. 4. 1. Increase of the Reader's Feeling of Superiority
5. 4. 2. The Reader's Fall from the Position of Superiority
5. 5. The Conflict of the Contrasting Schemata within Dorian Gray
5. 5. 1. The Reader's Actual Engagement in the Construction of the Conflict
5. 5. 2. Implications of the Reader's Direct Experience in the Resolution of the Conflict

6. THE DOUBLE ATTITUDE TOWARDS THE AUDIENCE IN THE PLAYS
6. 1. Turning to the Stage: A First Approach to the Society Comedies
6. 2. Stratagems to Simultaneously Attract and Criticise the Audience in LWF, WNI, and IH
6. 2. 1. The Use of Stage Images as Misleading Fetishes for the Audience
6. 2. 1. 1. Setting
6. 2. 1. 2. Life Style
6. 2. 1. 3. Costume
6. 2. 2. Manipulation of Popular Theatrical Mechanics
6. 2. 3. Exploitation of the Synchronic Use of the Overt and the Covert in the Dandy's Dialogue
6. 3. Evolution towards a Modern Form of Drama: The Provocation of the Audience in IBE
6. 3. 1. The Interplay between the Trivial and the Serious
6. 3. 2. IBE as a Precursor of Modernist Theatre for a Contemporary Audience

7. CONCLUSIONS
7. 1. Oscar Wilde's Ambiguous Relationship with the Public
7. 2. The Concept of the Reader in Wilde's Critical Works
7. 3. The Role of the Reader in Wilde's Creative Works: Analysis of the Results of my Study

8. BIBLIOGRAPHY
8. 1. Bibliography on Oscar Wilde
8. 1. 1. Primary Sources
8. 1. 2. Secondary Sources
8. 2. Bibliography on Reader-oriented Criticism
8. 3. General Bibliography

To my parents, Luis and Lali, and my sister, Elena

“The meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it as it was in his soul who wrought it”.

Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist", 1891.

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril”.

Oscar Wilde, "Preface" to The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891.

INTRODUCTION

The present book is an updated version of my doctoral dissertation, “The Role of the Reader in Oscar Wilde’s Narrative and Dramatic Works”, for which I was awarded the title of Doctor in English Philology and was granted the unanimous distinction “Summa Cum Laude” by the University of La Rioja in 2002. In celebration of the 160th anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s birth, I have extended my PhD dissertation in order to include an analysis of the main critical works on Wilde written in the first years of the twenty-first century with a double purpose, namely, to complement the lines of investigation explored on my previous study with the latest contributions on the subject and to set it on an up-to-date framework so as to strengthen the conclusions reached in it in the light of the most recent Wildean research.

This study, which is entitled "The Role of the Reader in Oscar Wilde's Narrative and Dramatic Works", constitutes a critical approach to Oscar Wilde's creative writings from the hypothesis that they called upon the active participation of the reader in the construction of their meaning. This doctoral dissertation has a twofold objective: first, to show that Wilde's emphasis on the creative role of the reader in his critical writings makes him conceive him as a co-creator in the production of meaning; second, to explore the literary strategies which Wilde employs to impel the reader to participate actively in the construction of the meaning of his narrative and dramatic works as well as to cast light upon the social criticism which is derived from them.

The first chapter of this study, "The Critical Reception of Oscar Wilde and his Works", is focused on the analysis of the myth of Wilde. Oscar Wilde has constantly been an object of critical attention in academic and non-academic circles for more than a century, but paradoxically little has been said about his literary achievements. The explanation for this is that Oscar Wilde has been considered to be a controversial personality rather than a literary writer. In the first section of this chapter I shall explore the origins and popularisation of the legend around Wilde in order to show that Wilde created and contributed to propagate his own myth as a superficial dilettante in order to promote himself and to publicise his works. My intention is to provide an account of the formation of legend around Wilde which will reveal him as an early instance of the modern type of literary writer who knew how to exploit self-advertising strategies for his professional purposes.

The remainder of this chapter is devoted to examine the directions which have been established in Wildean research, the traditional as well as the innovative ones. During decades many critics regarded him as little more than a social entertainer whose provocative gestures and witticisms in his public life as well as in his literature were not to be taken seriously, and this served to propagate the existing "myth" of Wilde as a flamboyant poseur which Wilde himself had originally helped to create; however, modern scholars have gradually discovered that beneath Wilde's apparent superficiality there can be found a serious philosophy of art and a sharp criticism of the moral standards of society, which has led to a revaluation of Wilde and his writings in recent years. The overall view of the different positions adopted in the exploration of Wilde's life and works will provide the interdisciplinary framework within which I shall integrate my analysis. Moreover, the results obtained after the discussion of the critical reception of Wilde will serve to justify the need of the present study.

In the second chapter, "Methodological Discussion", I determine the scientific basis of this investigation as well as the procedures which will be followed in this study. I shall explain the reasons why I have adopted reader-oriented criticism as a methodological framework for my study. I shall indicate that there are two general movements in reader-oriented criticism, namely, "Reader-response Theory" and "Reception Theory" and I shall revise the various critical tendencies within each of them. Then I shall establish a typology of the reader under which I shall gather all the critical proposals of reader-response theorists and reception theorists which I shall analyse in this chapter.

I believe that the methodology to be applied into a study should be determined by the corpus which is the object of analysis. Thus, having discussed the different trends within reader-oriented criticism, I have related them to Wilde's critical theory on the reader with the aim of justifying the adequacy of the methodological constructs for my analysis of the role of the reader in Wilde's creative works in the light of his literary criticism.

The truth is that my decision to analyse the role of the reader in Wilde's creative works was largely motivated by the fact that Wilde shows a special concern with the figure of the reader in his critical works. In his critical writings Wilde consistently stresses the importance of the reader as an individual. His critical position on the role of the reader is condensed in the first quotation which precedes this introduction, where Wilde emphasises the reader's dynamic collaboration in the creation of meaning of a work of art. In addition to this, it is generally known that Wilde applied his aesthetic principles into his creative works — the second quotation is inserted as illustration — which further confirmed me in the idea that it would be fruitful to study the reader's active role in Wilde's writings.

The following chapters are devoted to the analysis of the role of the reader in Wilde's narrative and dramatic works. I have chosen the narrative and the dramatic works as the corpus of my doctoral dissertation because they reveal the gradual process by which Wilde achieved his maturity in his relationship with the public. In the present study the evolution of Wilde as a literary figure has been divided into three stages, which coincide with the turning points in his dealings with the audience: the origins, during which he wrote short stories and fairy tales that will be analysed in chapters 3 and 4 respectively; the middle point, where he transgressed the social and moral values of his audience with potentially dangerous consequences for his career in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which will be studied in chapter 5; and the climax of his success in his relation with the audience in his society comedies, which will be examined in chapter 6.

The final chapter synthesises the conclusions which I have reached after a careful examination of the results obtained in this study. I have organised them into three parameters: Oscar Wilde's ambiguous relationship with the public, the concept of the reader in Wilde's critical writings, and the overall results of the analysis of the role of the reader in Wilde's narrative and dramatic works.

THE WORKS OF OSCAR WILDE

POEMS

- Ravenna, 1878.
- Poems, 1881.
- The Sphinx, 1894.
- Poems in Prose, 1894.

"The Artist"

"The Doer of Good"

"The Disciple"

"The Master"

"The House of Judgment"

"The Teacher of Wisdom"

- The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 1898.

NARRATIVE

- Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, 1891.

"Lord Arthur Savile's Crime"

"The Canterville Ghost"

"The Sphinx Without a Secret"

"The Model Millionaire"

- The Happy Prince and Other Tales, 1888.

"The Happy Prince"

"The Nightingale and the Rose"

"The Selfish Giant"

"The Devoted Friend"

"The Remarkable Rocket"

- A House of Pomegranates, 1891.

"The Young King"

"The Birthday of the Infanta"

"The Fisherman and his Soul"

"The Star-Child"

- "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.", 1889 (original version), (enlarged version: 1921).
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890 (magazine version), 1891 (book version).
- De Profundis, 1897 (expurgated version: 1905), (full version: 1962).

PLAYS

- Vera, or the Nihilists, 1883.
- The Duchess of Padua, 1891.
- Lady Windermere's Fan, 1892.
- A Woman of No Importance, 1893.
- An Ideal Husband, 1895.
- The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895.
- Salome, 1896.

LECTURES AND CRITICAL ESSAYS

- "The English Renaissance of Art",
- "The House Beautiful", 1882.
- "The Decorative Arts", 1882.
- "Irish Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century", 1882.
- "Lecture to Art Students", 1883.
- "Personal Impressions of America", 1883.
- "The Rise of Historical Criticism", 1879.
- Intentions, 1891.

"The Truth of Masks"

"Pen, Pencil and Poison"

"The Decay of Lying"

"The Critic as Artist"

"The Soul of Man Under Socialism", 1891.

- "A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated", 1894.
- "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young", 1894.

ABBREVIATIONS

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Unless otherwise indicated, all the references to Oscar Wilde's critical and creative works are taken from Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, 1994 (1948), Glasgow: HarperCollins, which will be referred to as CW.

1. THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF OSCAR WILDE AND HIS WORKS

1. 1. Oscar Wilde: The Origins of the Myth

For a long time the critics of Oscar Wilde have traditionally perceived Wilde as a socialite who successfully amused his Victorian audience with his extravagant poses and with the witty remarks that characterized both his conversation and his works until he was imprisoned for his homosexual behaviour and ended up his days tragically. In this section I shall examine how Wilde himself created his own myth as well as the objectives he pursued with it. The interest of this study of Wilde as the originator of his own myth is twofold: on the one hand, it reveals certain aspects of Wilde's personality that are crucial in order to realise the complexity of intentions underlying his works; on the other hand, it provides clues that explain the initial directions which were followed in Wilde research. My aim is not to destroy the legend about Wilde, but to show it under its proper conditions: the myth of Wilde is a fundamental key to get to know the real Wilde, but in order to reach a fuller understanding of this literary author is essential not to confuse one with the other.

When Wilde was still an undergraduate at Oxford, he had already succeeded in becoming an outstanding personality. There were constant rumours of Wilde's extreme devotion to the new aesthetic cult and his adoration of blue china and flamboyant dresses, and multiple legends about the eccentricities of the "Professor of Aesthetics" — as he made himself known — circulated among his school-fellows. Apart from being a popular character, Wilde was also an exceptional student: in 1878 he won the Newdigate Prize Poem with Ravenna and he achieved a double first in Literae Humaniores.

In his last year at University, Wilde had not decided yet what he would do in the future, but a conversation that he held with his friend Hunter Blair makes it explicit that in any case Wilde was determined to become a celebrity:

I won't be a dried-up Oxford don, anyhow. I'll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I'll be famous, and if not famous, I'll be notorious (I & R, 5).

After having taken his degree in 1878, Wilde left Oxford and went to London, where he tried to find a publisher for a volume of verse he had prepared. Wilde had occasionally published some of his poems in various magazines such as The World, The Irish Monthly and Dublin University, and now he put together most of them along with several new ones in a book entitled Poems. His brother Willie, who worked as a journalist in London, introduced him to some editors and they published some of Wilde's poems. Nevertheless, Wilde soon realised that it was not easy for him to find a publisher for his book, and when he finally signed a contract with a small house called David Bogue, he had to pay for all the costs regarding its publication. In order to settle his professional situation, Wilde attempted to find his way in the academic world: he wrote a paper (“The Rise of Historical Criticism”) for the Chancellor's Essay Prize at Oxford in 1879, whose subject was historical criticism among the ancients, but he was not awarded. After this failure Wilde applied for a post as inspector of schools in 1880; however, he was not elected.

It was precisely these initial difficulties that led Wilde to concentrate upon his artistic career, and he decided to start to attract the interest of the public through controversy in order to be able to promote himself as an artist. As Wilde would later tell Yeats, he soon found out that "a man should invent his own myth" (quoted in Ellmann, 1987: 284). The principal reason which may have induced Wilde to devote himself to this task is revealed in one of his letters to a friend:

... London is full of young men working for literary success, and [...] you must carve your way to fame. Laurels don't come for the asking (L, 179).

Therefore it can be inferred that the creation and commodification of his own myth was actually a commercial technique consisting in becoming the object of attention in order to publicise himself and his artistic production, which shows that Wilde can be regarded as a precursor of the modern advertising strategies used for creating celebrities nowadays.

Wilde began to excel the principles of his aesthetic creed wearing extraordinary hair dresses and unconventional clothing, and people began to consider him to be the leading exponent of aestheticism. Wilde seriously adhered to the beliefs of the aesthetic movement, but his eccentric attitudes in speech and manner were part of an overall design to publicize himself among society. As Holland (1977: 29) claims, "in his daily life he was always fashionably dressed and never appeared in public except in the 'correct' clothing". Soon Wilde's self-advertising strategies produced the intended effects. Wilde become a fashionable personality in society, and the increasing interest that his effeminate poses aroused in social circles, together with his reputation as a brilliant conversationalist converted him into the 'lion' of the receptions held at the most distinguished houses of London.

This explains how, in spite of the unfavourable reviews of Poems (1881), its sales were encouraging: many readers were extremely curious about the poetical work of this extravagant wit. Beckson (1998a: 5) stresses this point when he remarks that:

... The book went through five editions (totalling 1250 copies), which, if not overwhelming, was an impressive beginning for a new poet at a time when a first volume of poems was expected to sell between 300 and 500 copies, though, no doubt, some of the public interest had as much to do with Wilde's personality as with his poetic accomplishment.

Another important consequence of Wilde's reputation as the most conspicuous aesthete was that he became the object of the satire[1] of the media, which organised a long series of attacks against the Pre-Raphaelites and the aesthetes: Wilde was the target of several parodies and satires that appeared in several poems and cartoons of Punch, and many plays included characters that represented implicit caricatures of him (e. g. the aesthete Lambert Stryke in F. C. Burnand's The Colonel). Far from being upset about this abuse upon him, Wilde learnt how to take advantage of it for his own professional objectives. Thus, the media unconsciously served Wilde's purposes because it enhanced his relevance as a public personality in front of society, although the Victorians were not provided with the image of the real Wilde but with the myth that Wilde himself had striven to create.

The most significant work in this campaign against the aesthetic movement was the production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience; or Bunthorne's Bride (1881), which was a sketch on aestheticism. The protagonists of this operetta were Reginald Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor, who stood as composites of several artists related with the pre-raphaelite or aesthetic movement (Rossetti, Swinburne, Ruskin, Whistler), but it soon became obvious for everybody that many of their aspects have been derived from Oscar Wilde[2]. Patience was immensely successful in London and the producer Richard D'Oyly Carte decided to run it in New York, where it achieved a similar success. That induced Carte to think that the Americans would be particularly interested in knowing the leading exponent the aesthetic movement, with which they had no direct contact in their country, and he proposed Wilde to lecture on the aesthetic doctrine around the United States.

This gave Wilde an excellent opportunity to turn the negative publicity about him into an effective means of self-promotion. He was acquainted with the fact that Patience took him off[3], but he had a too quick mind for business to dismiss the possibility of going on a lecture tour. In fact, Wilde had many reasons to accept this offer: first, he regarded himself as the great apostle of aestheticism and the lecture tour allowed him to propound the tenets of the aesthetic creed; second, it would give him the chance to arrange the production of his first play, Vera, or the Nihilists, which he had not been able to produce in London[4], and to initiate negotiations for a second play in preparation that was entitled The Duchess of Padua; third, Wilde expected that this project would be financially rewarding.

On January 1882 Wilde started a ten-month lecture tour that brought him to half of the cities of North America and Canada[5]. By the time he arrived at the United States, the Americans had already constructed an image of Wilde according to the fictional representation that Patience and the newspapers had propagated. As it had happened with Wilde's contemporaries in England, the Americans' first encounter with Wilde was via his myth, and again he contributed actively to encourage it to achieve his purposes: Wilde strategically used his fictional image in order to attract a large audience to his lectures but once there he indoctrinated them on the serious principles of the aesthetic movement, thereby showing them that their popular idea of aestheticism[6] was erroneous.

Murray (1980: 7) has defined Wilde's American lecture tour appropriately when she refers to it as a "mixed experience":

On the one hand, it must be acknowledged that Wilde was enthusiastically received by the journalists and society in general. There was great press coverage of his arrival, and the newspapers of the cities in which he lectured (e. g. New York Daily Tribune, Philadelphia Press, The Daily Examiner, The Toronto Evening News) reported his witty commentaries and were eager to interview him. As regards the reception on the part of society, he had numerous admirers among the public, and the most important social personalities gave parties in Wilde's honour. This offered Wilde the opportunity of making important social contacts, and he did not miss the chance to use them for his professional interests, both the purely literary ones — to meet important literary authors whose works he admired (Whitman, Longfellow), and businesslike ones — he managed to settle the production of his two plays.

Wilde wrote to his family and acquaintances about his American experience in an exalted way, as the following extract from a letter to his friend Mrs. George Lewis illustrates:

I have several [...] secretaries. One writes my autographs all day for my admirers, the other receives the flowers that are left really every ten minutes. A third whose hair resembles mine is obliged to send off locks hair to the myriad maidens of the city, and so is rapidly becoming bald (L, 86).

On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that although Wilde's pride on this social triumph was entirely justifiable, he was obviously exaggerating when he later claimed that he had a "triumphal" progress (L, 94, 109). There were several editor writers who saw Wilde's aesthetic behaviour as an effrontery to their forthright principles and they satirically described him as a "limp and clinging aesthete" (The New York Herald, 4 January 1882) or as "one of the greatest mountebanks of the age" (The Daily Graphic, 9 January, 1882).

Moreover, Wilde felt a compulsory need to comply with even the slightest expectation of the audience related to clothing in order to guarantee the success of his lectures. The following letter Wilde sent to his American representative is particularly clear on this point:

Dear Colonel Morse, Will you kindly go to a good costumier (theatrical) for me and get them to make (you will not mention my name) two coats, to wear at matinees and perhaps in the evening. They should be beautiful; tight velvet doublet, with large flowered sleeves and little ruffs of cambric coming up from under collar. [...] Any good costumier would know what I want— sort of Francis I dress: only knee-breeches instead of long hose [...]. They will excite a great sensation. They were dreadfully disappointed at Cincinnati at my not wearing knee-breeches (L, 97).

Both the positive and the negative sides of the American lecture tour were the consequences of the process of mythologizing the figure of Wilde: the myth of Wilde had soon converted him into a celebrity who was constantly the centre of attention of the public and the press; however, it had also conditioned the image of Wilde as a personality worthy of morbid curiosity rather than intellectual interest.

It is important to note that Wilde apparently adopted a position of indifference towards the hostility of the press during his lecture tour, but at certain occasions his tone reveals an unmistakable feeling of bitter indignation. And thus, he writes to his friend Joaquin Miller in contemptuous terms about the attacks of the press upon him:

... as touching the few provincial newspapers which have so vainly assailed me, [...] be sure I have no time to waste on them. Youth being so glorious, art so godlike, and the very world about us so full of beautiful things, and things worthy of reverence, and things honourable, how should one stop to listen [...] to the irresponsible and irrepressible chatter of the professional unproductive? (L, 98)

Wilde was also offended at what he considered to be the audience's trivial reaction towards his lectures, as it can be observed in the following extract from an interview that appeared in the Morning Herald on 10th October 1882:

I came out here [the American continent], never having spoken in public in earnest about my message, strongly feeling what I was saying, and I talked seriously to those people. They heard me and went away and talked about my necktie and the way I wore my hair. I could not understand how people could do such a thing. I thought it inexpressibly stupid (I & R, 105).

Before the American lecture tour, Wilde had never shown any signs of resentment at being treated in a light way by the English newspapers and society. However, the passages above indicate that Wilde's position towards these matters had become significantly different. In order to understand this change of attitude, one must not lose sight of the fact that Wilde had created and contributed to popularise his own legend because he had soon realised that, unless he achieved fame through self-publicity, he would not be able to achieve his professional ambitions, which were to succeed as an artist and get recognition for his artistic production[7].

Wilde had not initially complained to be ridiculed in the papers or to become the entertainer of the upper-classes at society receptions because he was well aware that he had to go through these situations in order to become the centre of attention of the press and the public. As Wilde had imagined, the results of this vogue for him were highly beneficial for his professional purposes: first, he was able to create an audience for his works, as the impressive social reception of Poems showed; second, he was offered to be the spokesman of the aesthetic movement in America.

The lecture tour was actually the first professional opportunity for Wilde to proclaim his aesthetic manifesto. This explains why he protested against the lack of seriousness about it on the part of wide sectors of the press and the public. Wilde was dedicated to fulfil what he considered to be his mission on behalf of aestheticism, and this is reflected in the last quotation cited above, where Wilde uses words like "in earnest" or "seriously" to refer to the way he was speaking about his "message". The fact that people went to his lectures out of curiosity did not worry him as much as the hostile reactions of the papers; as regards the former, he remarked that: "Well, I get a hearing, and still hope to do some good in my day" (I & R, 71). Nevertheless, his objection towards the attacks of the press was stronger:

I have something to say to the American people, something that I know will be the beginning of a great movement here, and all foolish ridicule does a great deal of harm to the cause of art and refinement and civilisation here (L, 88).

Wilde was strongly determined to convince the Americans of the seriousness of the aesthetic programme by means of his lectures in spite of the general abuse in the Press, and eventually a growing number of papers admitted the popular image of Wilde was misleading, as the following instances illustrate: on 27th March 1882 The Daily Record-Union commented that "he has been considerably misrepresented and unduly ridiculed. He is apparently sincere and earnest" (I & R, 75); on 21st April 1882 The Topeka Daily Capital acknowledged that "there was much less of that affected soul foulness about the talented young Englishman than one would suppose" (I & R, 80); and on 15th May 1882 The Daily Witness reported that "... Messrs. Du Maurier, Burnand and Gilbert had done him a grave injustice" (I & R, 83).

The lectures that Wilde delivered during his American tour show his deep concern with the serious principles of aestheticism. Wilde's repertoire consisted of three lectures: "The English Renaissance of Art", "The Decorative Arts", and "The House Beautiful". In "The English Renaissance of Art", Wilde presents the tenets of the aesthetic doctrine in general terms. He gives an account of the contributions of the Pre-Raphaelites to the aesthetic movement and borrows remarks from Pater about the adoration of beauty and the principles regarding the love of art for art's sake. In "The Decorative Arts" Wilde emphasises the need of creating beautiful surroundings and of using machines for doing degrading tasks, and he suggests how the artist and the handicraftsman should work together. These beliefs were new in America, but they had already been anticipated by Morris and Ruskin in England, from whom Wilde borrowed them. In "The House Beautiful" Wilde puts the principles of decoration of the previous lecture into practice because he recommends his audience how to decorate a house according to them. Among his suggestions, he stresses the need to avoid what is not useful or beautiful — which shows the influence by Ruskin and Morris — and he remarks the importance of endowing the house with a harmonic scheme in colour, using Whistler's pictures to exemplify his views.

However, these lectures also indicate that Wilde borrows ideas — and passages — from many authors without acknowledging them. It gives one the impression that he omits his sources in order to be regarded as the founder of the aesthetic movement, which is confirmed because he even goes so far as to claim that:

Well, let me tell you how it first came to me at all to create an artistic movement in England, a movement to show the rich what beautiful things they might enjoy and the poor what beautiful things they might create[8] (Jackson, 1991: 116-117).

Wilde's unacknowledged "borrowings" gain him the notorious image of plagiarist, which would not abandon him during his lifetime or till a long time after his death. Moreover they also serve to endow these lectures with incoherence, because he mixed irreconcilable ideas (e.g. Pater's ideal of art for art's sake and Ruskin's belief in the social and moral function of art). This added to the legendary view of him as an inconsistent writer.

Nevertheless, we must not lose sight of the fact that Wilde was initiating himself in his artistic career and that he was still in the process of absorbing the influences of his predecessors before attempting to elaborate an aesthetic programme of his own. As we shall see in a later section of this study (2. 3) Wilde later developed his aesthetic theory in Intentions, whose origins can in a certain sense be traced to these lectures, and this shows the lack of foundation for the myth of Wilde as an epigone or contradictory writer.

The American tour confirmed Wilde's extraordinary ability to exploit his myth in his dealings with the public in order to fulfil his professional aims. It was an important experience for Wilde due to two main reasons: first, he could explore the possibilities offered by maintaining an ambiguous relationship with the audience, which would characterise the rest of his artistic career; second, he started to give his initial steps in attempting to develop his own personality as a serious theoretician of aestheticism.

After having spent in Paris the large sums earned with his American lecture tour, Wilde came back to London in 1883. By that time he abandoned his aesthetic costume, which had become outmoded, and he took up the decadent manners of a dandy, in which he found a most promising way of continuing his self-promotion among the leisured classes of society. Since he was in a desperate need of money at his return, he asked Morse to organize for him a lecture tour in Britain for the autumn and winter. Wilde devoted most of the British tour to offer witty descriptions in an epigrammatic style of his personal experiences during his American tour. In two lectures entitled "Impressions of America" and "The American Invasion" Wilde commented satirically[9] on American people, art, culture and thought, and they became very popular among the British public. However, this lecture tour was simply a temporal source of income. In addition, the American première of Vera; or the Nihilists (1883) was a failure, and the American actress Mary Anderson, who had agreed to produce The Duchess of Padua, suddenly decided to reject it, and these events sharpened Wilde's financial difficulties.

Wilde married Constance Lloyd on 29th May 1884. His wife's dowry was insufficient to solve their alarming economic situation, which was aggravated with the births of Cyril (5th June 1885) and Vyvyan (3rd November 1886). Wilde was still the principal butt of the papers' lampoons and his extravagant personality made his presence demanded in society, but he saw himself forced to look for a fixed occupation that granted him a permanent income.

Wilde could not live on his legend alone, but it is important to remark that his popular image played again a fundamental role in propelling his career: some years ago Wilde's fame as the most outstanding aesthete had been the incentive to choose him as the spokesman of aestheticism in America; now his notoriety, which had been increased after his lecture tours, led certain newspaper editors and publishers to decide to associate his name to their publications for their own advertising purposes, and this resulted economically and professionally rewarding for Wilde.

In 1885 W. H. Stead, who was the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette since 1883, offered Wilde the post of literary reviewer for his paper. His choice of Wilde might have been based on two main motives: Stead was moving away from the initially conservative direction of the paper, and he must have seen in Wilde a figure that represented the break with conventional standards and therefore suitable to work for his paper. Moreover, Stead was one of first practitioners of the emerging "New Journalism", according to which the periodical was a "business concern" whose end was "to sell as many copies as possible, irrespective of the means" (Leavis, 1990: 178), and he must have thought that the incorporation of the notorious Wilde to his paper would contribute to its publicity. Wilde was reluctant to work on journalism, but his financial crisis led him to accept Stead's offer and between 1885 and 1890 he wrote more than eighty articles for the Pall Mall Gazette as well as literary criticisms for different newspapers such as the Dramatic Review, the Speaker, Queen, and Vanity Fair.

Another important offer which was motivated by Wilde's notoriety took place in 1887, when he was appointed as editor of the monthly The Lady's World: a Magazine of Fashion and Society, which was later renamed The Woman's World at Wilde's suggestion[10]. This magazine had started to be published by Cassell and Company in November 1886, and it had been designed to inform women of upper class society about the latest tendencies in dress and home decoration. Its sales were bad, which induced its publishers to suggest Wilde to take its editorship and reconstruct it. They saw that Wilde was strategically adequate for this post of editor not simply because he would undoubtedly attract the attention of a wider audience to the magazine but also because he had already lectured on the topics that the magazine dealt with. Besides, as Beckson adds (1998b: 242), they knew that "by moving in fashionable society circles, he [Wilde] could attract the support of influential society women".

Wilde was highly pleased at his appointment as editor of The Woman's World and he worked seriously on giving a new direction to the magazine, which he considered to be "too feminine, not sufficiently womanly" (L, 194). Most of the modifications Wilde introduced were aimed at providing the magazine with intellectual contents, which had been absent in its previous issues. In contrast to what could be expected from the popular image of Wilde, he stressed the importance of dealing with serious topics, which went in detriment of trivial matters. Although he did not dismiss the value of subjects like dress, he asserted that "we should take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel" (L, 194). This shows that Wilde's reconstruction of The Woman's World already gave hints not only of his intellectual curiosity but also of his supportive attitude towards women’s equality. In this regard, recent critics within the tradition of Women Studies (Maltz, 2003; Stetz 2004, 2013) examine Wilde’s editorship from a feminist perspective, highlighting his role as a contributor to the advance of women’s movement.

Apart from his labour as editor of this magazine, Wilde also contributed several reviews on contemporary literature and art to it, which were published in a section entitled "Literary and Other Notes" until October 1889, when he decided to resign his post.

Therefore, it can be observed that Wilde worked hard as a journalist, but he could not make a name for himself in literary circles with his journalistic career because the majority of his articles were anonymous, following the common practice in newspapers in England 1880s and the 1890s[11]. Wilde objected strongly to this rule of anonymity in English journalism, and while he was the editor of The Woman's World it was not observed in the articles published in his magazine. Wilde explained to an interviewer that the basic reason for his opposition to anonymity in the papers was that:

... A man who has a name that is valuable will not be an English journalist. English newspaper articles are written anonymously. A good writer can get no credit for good work, and so will not write for an English paper (I & R, 107).

It is true that this requirement of the English newspapers frustrated Wilde's desires to achieve a literary and critical recognition. However, Wilde's stage as a journalist was crucial in his formation as a writer and thinker, and it must be acknowledged that this was in part propitiated by the freedom of expression that Wilde enjoyed from the anonymous condition of most of his writings:

Wilde's new job gave him the opportunity to get into closer contact with the literary works of relevant authors, and this increased his interest in the serious study of novelists like Dostoevsky, Turguenev and Balzac. Moreover, it seems that as Stokes (1997: 69) suggests, Wilde managed to profit from the convention of anonymity in journalism in order to "map out his literary territory": apart from dealing with glamorous topics (embroidery, dress reform or social manners), Wilde wrote about a number of intellectual issues like the English rule in Ireland, women's rights, and cultural aspects of far-off countries that would have never been expected of him by the Victorian public, who saw him merely as a shallow dilettante. This contributed to improve his versatility as a writer, and it also reveals that Wilde already showed a serious concern as well as a liberal mind with respect to many social questions, which would later pervade his literary works.

It seems that the fact that the post of literary reviewer demanded Wilde's insertion of his personal opinions about several writings incidentally helped him to find a voice of his own in the manifestation of his aesthetic ideals. In these early literary criticisms Wilde started to insist on his belief that "as far as the serious presentation of life is concerned, what we require is more imaginative treatment" (C & R, 227), and he reiterated his assumption that "the subject of a work of art has, of course, nothing to do with its beauty" (C & R, 312). Moreover, Wilde took advantage of anonymous writing in order to denounce openly what he considered to be the lack of artistic taste of Victorian society: he manifested that "it [was] a bad thing for an age to be always looking in art for its own reflection" (C & R, 443) and he also criticised that his contemporaries had "made Truth and not Beauty the aim of art, and seem to value imitation more than imagination" (C & R, 268). More surprisingly, Wilde made use of the anonymity required in English newspapers to be able to express openly his belief in the moral function of the artist, which contradicted his previous defence of the principle of art for art's sake:

When the poor are suffering from inherent faults of their own, and the greediness of capitalists, and both are in danger of suffering still more from causes over which they have but partial control, surely the hour has come when the poets should exercise their influence for good, and set fairer ideals before all than the mere love of wealth and ostentatious display on one side and the desire to appropriate wealth on the other (quoted in Beckson, 1998b: 278).

When this passage is read against the other fragments of literary criticisms which I have referred to above, it can be observed that Wilde was shaping a personal aesthetic theory that showed a movement away from aestheticism:

Wilde separated himself from the doctrine of the art for art's sake that proclaimed the total uselessness of art, but he maintained the aesthetic ideals of the autonomy of Art and his conviction that Beauty was a value in itself. He believed that the work of art should aim at the perfect expression of Beauty over everything else but this did not imply that it could not fulfil moral purposes; it could do it as long as these remained subordinated to this main objective and were never used to determine the value of the work of art, which was to be judged merely on aesthetic grounds. The origins of Wilde's complex relationship with aestheticism can be traced to his early American lectures, and this accounts for the contradictions that resulted in his combination of Pater's and Ruskin's proposals. Now Wilde had clarified his views and had developed his own aesthetics according to them, which resulted in the theory presented in the critical essays that he later collected in a volume entitled Intentions in 1891.

It is remarkable that Wilde's manifestation of his belief in the possibility of expressing moral concerns in art is never so explicit as it is in his anonymous articles, and this has led Beckson (1998b: 241) to argue — rightly, in my opinion — that Wilde relied on this anonymity to "express his belief in the morality of art without fear of being accused of apostasy", which fits perfectly with Wilde's double attitude of revelation and disguise which he maintained with the public.

Between 1885 and 1890 Wilde was deeply involved in journalism, but he was also working seriously on his creative writings, because in spite of his previously unsuccessful attempts at poetry and drama he had not abandoned his literary aspirations. Even though he claimed boastfully that he was "hard at work being idle" (L, 147), the truth was that Wilde's supposed indolence was simply a pretence and contrary to the popular image he created of him, he was an extremely productive writer whose main concern was to obtain a brilliant reputation as a literary author.

Wilde soon realised that his experience as a journalist could prove highly useful for the fulfilment of his literary aspirations. Working for the papers made Wilde familiar with the short-fiction forms that begun to proliferate in the English periodical press at the end of the nineteenth century, and he soon became well acquainted with the tastes of the readers that consumed them. The commercial instincts of Wilde must have indicated him that this offered him an excellent opportunity to enter the literary marketplace, and as early as 1887 he started to write a series of short stories and fairy tales which he initially published in several magazines and journals until 1891, when he decided to collect them into three volumes:

One of the volumes was entitled Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, and it was a collection of four short stories in which Wilde had relied on his knowledge of the literary market (the trends for detective story, ghost story, feuilleton and topics of fashion such as chiromancy and supernatural phenomena) in order to offer his particular vision of the world. As he expected, these stories delighted the reading public and they constituted his first literary successes. The other collections that Wilde published were respectively named The Happy Prince and Other Tales and A House of Pomegranates, where he compiled his fairy tales. At that time the tradition of fairy-tales established by Hans Christian Andersen had become popular in England and Wilde moulded his tales in this manner, but avoiding its excessive sentimentality and implicitly parodying some of its conventions. The Happy Prince and Other Tales was more successful than A House of Pomegranates, which was generally considered to be excessively artificial in style and too sombre due to the negative connotations of its thematic content. In any case, Wilde's collections of short-fiction amply demonstrated his literary powers, and he started to be regarded as a writer of consequence. Their publication also confirmed Wilde's commercial ability for self-promotion: he dedicated some of his fairy tales to aristocratic women of powerful position, attempting thus to take advantage of his social connections in order to enhance his reputation in high society.

By this time Wilde had finally triumphed in social and literary circles. The society who had initially lionised him now treated him with respect, and the newspaper critics who had regarded him to be a mere figure of fun had been forced to acknowledge his literary achievements. Wilde saw with justifiable pride that his plans had worked out as he had expected: the creation and popularisation of his own myth had provided him with social recognition, which in turn had served him to advertise his literary career. This success made Wilde feel extremely self-confident about the opportunities that his new social and literary position offered him, and he decided to rely on the further exploitation of this commercial formula in order to be able to create a larger audience for the reception of his more ambitious literary projects.

However, Wilde erroneously dismissed the possible consequences that his transformation into a figure of social and literary relevance might have had in the general public's attitude towards him. So far Wilde had been able to exert certain control over his audience because they had never taken him seriously and consequently they had dismissed his effronteries as the harmless tricks of a social entertainer. However, people now began to realise that Wilde was not a clown at the service of society, and they began to feel somewhat uncomfortable at his triumph. The general public did not see Wilde as a serious writer who had primarily striven for social recognition in order to commercialise his works in the modern consumerist market, but as an insolent Irish opportunist that advertised himself simply as a means to climb up the social scale, and consequently they started to regard his writings with suspicion.

Wilde's next venture into literature was more complex than his last attempts at short fiction. He wrote "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." (1889 original version, 1921 enlarged version), which is a hybrid of fiction and philological study in the narrative mode of a short story that dwells creatively on an old theory (popularised by Thomas Tyrwhitt and Edmond Malone in the 18th century) according to which Shakespeare's Sonnets had been dedicated to a young boy actor called Willie Hughes. The critical reception was generally favourable because it was seen as an amusing parody of the traditional problem of the identity of Mr. W. H. among Shakespearean scholars. However, a few critics accused "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." of being morally offensive, referring implicitly to the homosexual allusions that appeared throughout the story. W. E. Henley wrote in the Scots Observer on 6th July 1889 that "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." was "out of place in Maga [a.k.a. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine ] — or, indeed, in any popular magazine" (quoted in Schröder, 1984: 14). Yates was more explicit when he remarked in the World on 10th July 1889: "The subject is a very unpleasant one, and it is dilated upon in the article in a peculiarly offensive manner" (quoted in Schröder, 1984: 14).

It must be admitted that these criticisms were exceptional, and that contrary to Harris's claims that "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." "set everything talking and arguing" and "did Oscar incalculable injury" (1959: 69), most reviewers found no fault with the moral tone of this story[12]. Nevertheless, these criticisms reveal that there was a new sharpness in the journalistic attacks on Wilde, which was an inevitable consequence of the general desire that existed to stop the advances of this socially mobile self-advertiser.

Wilde did not seem to care about what people said against him. His eminent success had increased his self-assurance, and he knew that the controversy around his figure was commercially valuable for his professional purposes because it attracted attention over his works. As a consequence, Wilde started to display a growing defiance in his life and in his writings. The publication of Intentions in 1891 alarmed the Victorian public, because the critical principles advocated by Wilde in the essays comprised in this book constituted a frontal attack to their assumptions on art:

"Pen, Pencil, and Poison" was a satirical biography of the forger Thomas Griffith Wainewright and it showed the amoral aspects of aesthetic individualism. "The Decay of Lying" was an essay written in dialogue form in which Wilde developed the basis of his aesthetics by dealing with the relationship between Art and Reality. Here he propounded the supremacy of Art over Life and Nature, and he asserted that the Spirit of Lying was essentially creative and absolutely necessary in Art. "The Critic as Artist" (formerly named "The True Function and Value of Criticism"), which was also written in dialogue form, was Wilde's most important critical essay. In this work he examined the interrelationship between critical and creative talent, arguing that the creative faculty necessarily presupposed a critical faculty which conferred the latter the category of art. "The Truth of Masks" (formerly named "Shakespeare and Stage Costume") was a critical essay in which he tried to prove that Shakespeare was well aware of the decorative and dramatic possibilities offered by historically accurate costumes[13].

Apart from this volume of critical writings Wilde also produced that same year a critical essay called "The Soul of Man Under Socialism". In it he concerned himself with individualism — arguing in favour of a Libertarian socialism that had nothing to do with the Webbshavian deification of the state, as well as with art — condemning the Victorian popular press and public for their attempts to restrict the creative freedom of the artist.

Wilde's challenging attitude towards the Victorian readers culminated with the creation of his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890 magazine version, 1891 book version). Wilde wrote his novel according to his artistic principles, which defied the moral and literary principles of the Victorians. Since Victorians “did not mind being shocked so much as having their basic assumptions attacked and their stability threatened” (Chapman, 1968: 234), the critical reception of The Picture of Dorian Gray was strongly negative. Wilde's novel was heavily accused of immorality, and at the basis of most of the charges against the atmosphere of sin and corruption of the book was the strong suspicion of Wilde's homosexuality, which had been initially aroused by "The Portrait of Mr. W. H".

The situation led Wilde to defend his novel from the numerous attacks of the Press, and this resulted in an intense debate between Wilde and the newspaper critics that shall be analysed in a later section of this study (see 5. 1). By now, it is only sufficient to point out that this severe abuse upon The Picture of Dorian Gray was the price Wilde had to pay for the offence provoked by his ostentatious signs of familiarity with the upper-class world and by his use of self-promotion as a means of social mobility. To this respect, it is significant to note that a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray that appeared in the St. James's Gazette on 26th June 1890 read: "MR. OSCAR WILDE'S LATEST ADVERTISEMENT: A BAD CASE" (Mason, 1908: 25). In the debate with the Press, Wilde played with his characteristic double image of flamboyant dandy and serious writer and he proved more than a match for the critics, to whom he defeated with his brilliant replies to the editors of the papers in which he was attacked.

Thus, Wilde's commercial use of his myth was working successfully, but the scandal raised after the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray showed that its excessive exploitation had started to be dangerous. However, Wilde was swelled with his triumph[14], and he did not stop to consider the risks that his new situation entailed.

This happened in the year 1891, which was also crucial in the development of Wilde's literary career for other reasons. Two years previous to it, an important American actor called Lawrence Barrett had written Wilde because he was interested in producing The Duchess of Padua. After having agreed on some modifications — such as the change of the title for Guido Ferranti — the play was staged in New York in January 1891. The performances had to be stopped in three weeks due to Barrett's ill health, but Wilde was enthusiastic about how it was running and he decided to produce it in London. He offered The Duchess of Padua to Henry Irving and George Alexander, and both of them rejected it; in fact, the play was not good and some years later Wilde himself considered it unfit for publication[15]. However, Wilde's negotiations with Alexander about it unexpectedly resulted in Alexander's suggestion to him to write a modern comedy and Wilde, for whom it was imperative to get money quickly because of the expensive life style which he had adopted after becoming the intimate friend of the aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas in 1891, readily accepted it.

During the next years Wilde devoted himself completely to drama. His works for the stage consisted in four society comedies with the exception of his one-act tragedy written in French entitled Salome (1891), which the Lord Chamberlain refused to licence due to a centuries-old ban on the representation of biblical characters on the English stage[16]. Wilde's society comedies were his most critically acclaimed works, and they were produced in the following order: Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and finally his most important play, which is The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). With his society comedies Wilde's techniques to manipulate the audience came to full fruition.

For many years Wilde had commercialised his myth among society, and this had provided him with a wide knowledge on how to please his audience, which he applied into his plays: the characters and the physical elements of the setting mirrored the elegance and luxury of the upper classes but they also revealed implicitly their shallowness and the falsity of their moral principles; and the dialogues abounded with sparkling witticisms which at first sight seemed inoffensive but they contained a veiled denunciation of the defects of Victorian society beneath the surface.

Consequently, Wilde's society comedies were very successful among the public, who enjoyed them immensely because they could not easily discern Wilde's twofold intentions. As regards the critical reception of Wilde's plays, newspaper reviewers were for the first time unanimous in their praise of his society comedies, which they found to be highly amusing for the audience. However, the majority of the reviewers were clearly influenced by the ideas raised by the myth of Wilde about his artificiality and lack of seriousness; only a few critics detected Wilde's shrewd tactics to manipulate the public, and most of them simply misunderstood those devices as mere commercial strategies without realising that there were also serious intentions beneath Wilde’s plays.

Wilde was well aware that, as his previous critical and creative works, his dramas perpetuated among the Press and the public the fictional image that he had initially contributed to encourage with the creation of his own myth. However, this was exactly what he intended. In a letter written on late February 1894 Wilde confessed it to a friend, as well as his reasons for his decision:

To the world I seem, by intention on my part, a dilettante and dandy merely — it is not wise to show one's heart to the world — and as seriousness of manner is the disguise of the fool, folly in its exquisite modes of triviality and indifference and lack of care is the robe of the wise man. In so vulgar an age as this we all need masks (L, 353).

By 1895 Wilde had reached the highest peak of his success, but this year marked the fatal events that would cause his ruin. The Marquess of Queensberry, who was Lord Alfred Douglas's father, was determined to separate his son from Wilde, and he had lately troubled Wilde in several occasions. In February 1895 he left a card for Wilde at the Albermale Club that read "To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite [ sic ]. Wilde thought about bringing an action for criminal libel against Queensberry and Douglas, who hated his father deeply, urged him to do so. As a result Queensberry was tried but he was found not guilty. Then it was Queensberry who applied for a warrant to arrest Wilde on a charge of offences to minors. Wilde was arrested on 5th April 1895, and after three trials[17] (26 April 1895 - 25 May 1895) he was convicted of engaging in "acts of gross indecency" and sentenced to two years' hard labour, which was the maximum penalty for homosexual acts according to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. From the moment of his imprisonment onwards Wilde would not write anything but letters (among them the long letter De Profundis addressed to Douglas, which was written in prison in 1897), with the exception of his poem "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898), which he wrote during his pseudonymous exile to France.

The scandal of Wilde's trials and imprisonment destroyed his social prestige and brought an abrupt end to his brilliant literary career. At the beginning Wilde had sought social recognition in order to facilitate the success of his literary works, and now his social degradation worsted his significant literary achievements: his books were withdrawn from the stalls and bookshops, and his name removed from posters and theatre programmes[18]. Given the notoriety of Wilde and the sexual nature of the affair, his trials became a sensational event and their proceedings were reported minutely in London newspapers. The Press gloated over his downfall, and with a few exceptions (the Reynold's Newspaper, the Daily Chronicle, the Illustrated Police Budget) most papers were unanimously hostile towards Wilde. The Press did not refer explicitly to Wilde's homosexuality because that would have transgressed the rules of Victorian decorum, but they emphasised the immorality of what they regarded to be Wilde's abnormal conduct. This is clearly illustrated in the News of the World of 26th May 1895, where Wilde was insultingly depicted as "disreputable", "ghoul", and a "loathsome importer of exotic vice" (Goodman, 1995: 132).

However, I think that it is particularly interesting to observe that most of the attacks were still directed to Wilde the self-publicist, echoing the continuous abuse to which Wilde have been subjected in the Press on account of his self-advertising behaviour. Thus, on 6th April 1895 The Star described Wide as "a parasite, an excrescence, an aberration which diligent advertisement had made more or less familiar to the public against its will" (Goodman, 1995: 78), and on 27th May 1895 The Daily Telegraph expressed its satisfaction at the prospect that Wilde "may well be allowed to pass from that platform of publicity which he loved into that limbo of disrepute and forgetfulness which is his due" (Goodman, 1995: 133).

All these hostile reactions towards Wilde after his downfall reveal that the Victorians were eager to get rid of Wilde, and that his homosexuality proved to be a most effective pretext to achieve their purpose[19]. Gagnier (1986) sums up the main critical views about Wilde's conviction when she classifies the reasons for it into social and political: as regards the social reasons, she comments on the middle-classes' resentment to an Irishman who dared to consider himself among the upper classes and treated them derisively as if he were socially superior to them (145-146), and she also remarks on the fear of the Victorians at possible social disruption of the increasingly visible homosexual circles (95); as far as the political reasons are concerned, she supports Douglas's and Adey's hypotheses that Queensberry had threatened the Treasury to produce evidence of the homosexuality of high figures of the government if Wilde was not convicted (205-207).

The exact motive for converting Wilde into a scapegoat cannot be known, but I believe that it is possible that it were a compendium of these different reasons[20]. In any case, what is evident is that the sensational circumstances that surrounded Wilde's final years gained him notoriety as homosexual, which added to the fictional image of Wilde as a mere flamboyant dilettante and contributed to shape the legend of Wilde. It was with justifiable pride that Wilde had claimed in De Profundis: "I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me" (CW, 1016).

In the next section I shall study how the myth of Wilde was propagated after his death in the works of his early critics, which will serve to explain the lack of serious attention to the literary figure of Wilde and his works that have characterised the research on Wilde for many decades.

1. 2. The Popularisation of the Myth in the Critical Studies of Wilde

Until recent decades many studies of Wilde have been instrumental in the perpetuation of his myth as a shallow dilettante and a notorious homosexual, and this has had negative consequences for the assessment of his literary production, whose value has been either ignored or underestimated. This section is an attempt to explore the critical reception of Oscar Wilde and his works, and it has a double objective: first, it aims to examine the different ways in which the studies of Wilde contributed to popularise the myth around him; second, it intends to show how the gradual shift of critical attention from Wilde's personality to his works was determinant in order to initiate the process of revaluation of Wilde and his writings that would occur in the 1980s.

The sensationalism that had characterised Wilde's life determined the biographical approach that predominated among his early critics. The first critical accounts of Wilde were memoirs written by his friends or acquaintances and their opinions of Wilde were inevitably biased due to the speculation and defamation that had already arisen about him during his lifetime. These early critics wrote their works as either desperate attempts at self-justification or passionate defences of Wilde, which confirmed that Wilde's claim that "every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the autobiography" ("CA", 1109) proved to be right at least in his case. This evident lack of objectivity led these critics to incur in excesses in their accounts, which were decisive in encouraging the existing mythical image of Wilde in different ways. The most important examples are the following ones:

Lord Alfred Douglas published several books in which he strived to justify his relationship with Wilde in order to dispel any possible suspicions about his own alleged homosexuality. Douglas gave a partial description of their relation that confirmed the popular beliefs about Wilde, while it revealed his personal desires of self-glorification. Douglas's final published book on his life with Wilde is Oscar Wilde: a Summing-Up (1961). Here Douglas refers to Wilde's life as a "frightful tragedy" (5), and he draws a portrait of Wilde that supports the typical vision of Wilde as a superficial dilettante: Douglas limits himself to place emphasis on Wilde's "superb sense of humour" (35), and on his fame as "the most brilliant talker in London" (36). He also contributes to propagate an idea popularised among Wilde's partisans shortly after his death, namely, that Wilde had been "a martyr to progress" (15).

Although Douglas claims early in his work that he hopes to write about Wilde "objectively", and with "little reference to myself and any grievances I may have had" (8), it soon becomes obvious that this book about Wilde is a pretext to clear up Douglas's own name from any kind of criticism to his person. This passage illustrates the general tone of self-apology that characterises the whole book:

The plain truth is that if I had been the Archangel Gabriel I could not possibly have acted better towards him than I did. I gave everything and received nothing, except abuse from his soi-disant friends [...] I am not defending myself, I require no defence; I am defending Oscar [...] I was the only person in the world who wanted him, out of pure friendship and compassion. (99).

Another friend of Wilde's who wrote about him was Robert Sherard. Sherard published many books in order to defend Wilde from his attackers, and the most influential one was a biography entitled Oscar Wilde: the Story of an Unhappy Friendship (1909). Sherard's biography reproduces the widespread ideas about Wilde's gift for conversation ("the most wonderful talker that the world had ever seen", 17) and his alleged plagiarism ("his imitativeness, one of the marked traits in his character", 46). However, this book is useful for the serious study of Wilde because it includes interesting comments about Wilde's personality: Sherard remarks on the businesslike nature of Wilde to publicise his works during his stays at Paris (70), and he points out Wilde's serious concern with political (35) and social affairs (94-97).

One of the difficulties encountered in Sherard's work is its lack of biographical accuracy, as the author himself acknowledges (15). However, the main fault with this biography is Sherard's evident bias for Wilde, which diminishes the value of his perceptive insights about him. In the first chapter Sherard expresses openly that he intends to be the principal apologist of Wilde among his contemporaries (10), and later in the work he manipulates some facts in order to show Wilde under a better light. Thus, Sherard's blind adoration for Wilde leads him to assert that "it was not in his nature to yield to excess" (47), which is obviously false, and he refuses to accept Wilde's homosexuality, arguing that Wilde "was the purest man in word and deed" (14), and that his unconventional behaviour was simply the consequence of temporal "madness" (11).

Anna Comtesse de Brémont, who was an intimate friend of the Wilde family, relied on her knowledge of the close relationship between Wilde and his mother in order to write a memoir about Wilde from a new perspective. In Oscar Wilde and his Mother (1911) Brémont states that Wilde's genius was the result of the combination of his masculine brain and his "feminine soul", which he had inherited from Lady Francisca Wilde. According to Brémont:

When the soul and the brain are united in a natural combination we behold the normal condition of the ordinary man and woman. When the union of soul and brain is abnormal, the result is genius. This phenomenon is due to the hybrid state wherein the soul and brain are bound in sexual antithesis (15).

Brémont develops a pseudo-scientific theory which was based on stereotypes about men and women that were in vigour at her time but that nobody takes seriously nowadays. Nevertheless, the interest of her approach lies in the fact that she is the first author to consider that Wilde's paradoxical behaviour towards the public is worthy of study, and in this respect she reaches relevant conclusions. At the beginning of her work Brémont criticises those critics who have described Wilde's visible attitudes "without probing deeper for the invisible mainspring of these qualities, acts, and conditions" (14). Then she moves on to discuss Wilde's posing as an intelligent strategy to catch the attention of the public (29), and she praises it for its "boldness and originality" (54). Nonetheless, the problem with Brémont's position is that she shares the common belief that Wide did not take his posing in earnest (48), which leads her to contribute to the perpetuation of certain popular assumptions about Wilde: Brémont asserts that after his American tour Wilde's increasing success among society made him abandon this habit because there "no longer the necessity of a pose" (69), and as a result she explains the subsequent development of Wilde's literary career reductively in terms of the popular assumptions about his plagiarism (111) and about his indolence (114).

The French writer André Gide maintained a short relationship with Wilde, with whom he regularly met during the latter's stays at Paris both before and after his imprisonment, and after Wilde's death he wrote an essay entitled "Oscar Wilde: In Memoriam" (1903) as a tribute to him. Gide's brief work about Wilde consists of a series of personal reminiscences, which are coloured by his own opinions about Wilde's personality. Gide does much to spread the popular belief that Wilde should be taken lightly as a literary writer, because he insists that "Wilde n'est pas un grand écrivain [...] ses oeuvres, loin de le soutenir, semblèrent foncer avec lui [...] grand écrivain non pas, mais grand viveur" (266). Moreover, he popularises a well-known sentence which Wilde said to him and that has been largely determinant for the lack of critical attention to Wilde's literary works, namely: "Voulez-vous savoir le grand drame de ma vie? — C'est que j'ai mis mon génie dans ma vie; je n'ai mis que mon talent dans mes oeuvres" (284 - 285).

However, it must be added that despite his harsh judgments of Wilde's writings, Gide never endorses the popular belief that Wilde was simply a shallow entertainer of society; on the contrary, he is one of the first critics to defend Wilde from this typical charge to him, arguing that Wilde use a mask in order to hide his serious self from the rest of people:

... Et comme il s'occupait d'abord d'amuser, beaucoup de ceux qui crurent le connaître n'auront connu de lui que l'amuseur [...] Devant les autres, je l'ai dit, Wilde montrait un masque de parade, fait pour étonner, amuser ou pour exaspérer parfois (270-271).

The most important of the early Wilde biographies is Frank Harris's Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (1916; rpt. 1959). Harris was an intimate friend of Wilde’s, and even though their relationship was unstable — particularly during Wilde's final years — Harris remained a firm defender of Wilde before and after his death. Harris's biography is significant for two main reasons: first, it is the earliest work that gives a detailed account of Wilde's life, covering from his first years in Dublin till his last days in Paris; second, it offers an image of Wilde that is less biased than the previous ones and therefore seems more credible.

Harris expresses the commonly-held views about Wilde's exceptional abilities as a talker and a charming wit, but, more importantly, he attracts attention over other traits about Wilde's personality that have passed unnoticed till then, such as Wilde's extraordinary intelligence and his enormous interest in intellectual questions (54). Moreover, he praises the artistic quality of Wilde's literary works, especially "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (230) and The Importance of Being Earnest (320). However, Harris's book is somewhat spoilt by his love for sensationalism. For example, he depicts the trials in exaggerated terms as a crusade of "an uneducated middle class and a barbarian aristocracy" (152) against Wilde, in which he portrays himself as Wilde's pathetic saviour ("If he could be saved, I was determined to save him", 267). This, together with the fact that most of book is written in dialogue form with quotation marks, makes it to a large extent an unreliable work.

Harris's biography contains George Bernard Shaw's appendix "My Memories of Oscar Wilde". Shaw coincides with the rest of Wilde's critics in stressing his "wonderful gift as a raconteur" (331), and he points out that Wilde was a great writer of society comedies because "the criticism of moral and manners viva voce was his real forte"(336). Nonetheless, Shaw contributes to encourage the mythical belief that Wilde should not be taken seriously as a writer, summing up his final estimate of Wilde thus: "Well, Oscar was not sober, not honest, not industrious" (341).

By the second decade of the twentieth century Wilde's literary reputation started to be gradually restored: Wilde's plays became again performed, and a body of serious scholarship about Wilde was in the process of being formed. The first scholarly studies of Wilde were Arthur Ransome's Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study (1912)[21], an essay on Wilde in Holbrook Jackson's famous book The Eighteen Nineties (1913; rpt. 1950), and Arthur Symons's A Study of Oscar Wilde (1930). These critics intended to offer a critical examination of Wilde's works, using his personality as the key to understand them:

The studies of Ransome (1912) and Jackson (1913) were considerably successful in their respective attempts to enhance Wilde's reputation as a literary writer. Ransome (1912) emphasises "the critical attitude" that Wilde adopted in his works against his so-called "dilettantism" (229-230), and Jackson (1913) contributes to destroy the myth of Wilde's insincerity, arguing convincingly that "his intellectual playfulness destroyed popular faith in his sincerity, and the British people have still to learn that one can be serious in one's play with ideas" (76).

However, these authors tend to dwell unnecessarily on the spectacular aspects of Wilde's life, which shows that the common disposition to increase the importance Wilde's personality over the literary value of his writings was still dominant at this time: Ransome inserts multiple details of Wilde's eccentric personality in his critical account of Wilde's works and he dedicates a whole chapter to the sensational events that took place during Wilde's trials, because in his view "much of the life of Wilde is so bound up with his work as to be incapable of separate treatment" (25). Likewise, Jackson thought that "it may never be quite possible to separate such man from such work" (80). Consequently he devotes the initial part of his essay to discuss "the singularity of Oscar Wilde" (71), and towards the end of it he comments that "he [Wilde] had no purpose in life save play" (86), concluding that Wilde "was the playboy of the Nineties" (86).

Arthur Symons's A Study of Oscar Wilde (1930) was the scholarly work that most clearly contributed to encourage the biographical interest in Wilde rather than the critical attention to his writings. Symons's work consists in a series of revised fragments of his previous reviews and articles on Wilde, and it is heavily permeated with personal comments that endorse the popular beliefs about Wilde's posing ("without being an artist, he maintained the attitude of an artist", 47) and about the superiority of his personality over his literary production ("a personality certainly more interesting than any of his works", 88). Symons's book contributed significantly to perpetuate the myth of Wilde, mainly because it discouraged many critics from attempting a serious study of Wilde's works.

The lifting of the taboo on the subject of homosexuality in the 1930s and 1940s resulted in a shift in the biographically-oriented studies of Wilde. At that time there was a growing tendency in academic circles to apply Freudian psychoanalysis into literary studies, and there were critics of Wilde that adopted a Freudian approach in order to analyse how his homosexuality manifested itself in his works. This marked a significant step towards the slow process of relocation of critical attention from the personality of Wilde to his writings. The most notable studies in this field were those of Léon Lemmonier (1938) and Robert Merle (1948):

Lemmonier (1938) sets out to prove that Wilde's feeling of guilt about his homosexuality was a leitmotif that manifested itself progressively throughout all his literary writings. Lemmonier initially sees that Wilde's "sense of sin" appeared for the first time in some his early poems and in Salome (31). Afterwards he comments how Wilde's increasing remorse about his homosexual desires was further developed in his prose — particularly in The Picture of Dorian Gray (100). Finally, Lemmonier observes that the expression of Wilde's guilty feelings reaches its culmination in the comedies, where, according to him, Wilde recurs to the theme of the discovery of secret as a conscious attempt to release himself from the pressure of keeping his homosexuality hidden (201).

More interestingly, Merle (1948) suggests that Wilde maintained a double position with respect to his homosexuality in his works. On the one hand, Wilde expressed his satisfaction at his "perversion" (478) in his writings by employing an ornamented style and imaginative contents that allowed him to escape from the social and artistic norms of the Victorians, from whom he sexually differed (245). However, on the other hand, Wilde also felt tormented by his homosexuality. According to Merle, Wilde's use of certain recurrent topics in his writings such as sin, revelation of secrets, pardon, narcissism (a Freudian pattern associated it with homosexuality) are to be regarded as different means by which Wilde intended to expiate his guilt over it (487-490).

The main problem with the studies that dealt with the presence of Wilde's homosexuality in his literary production is that they offered a reductive view of Wilde: Wilde the aberrant figure had given way to Wilde the pathological case. Nevertheless, Lemmonier's and Merle's scholarly works must be above all considered for their positive effect in encouraging the revaluation of Wilde's literary achievements, because they helped to demonstrate that in spite of the popular assumption about the lack of intrinsic value of Wilde's writings, these were in themselves worthy of critical attention.

The gradual discovery of Wilde's literary achievements did not only propel the increasing reorientation of the critical studies of Wilde towards his works; it also affected the general tone of the subsequent biographies about Wilde, which started to be intended to document Wilde's life as well as to provide a critical account of his writings. The most relevant biographies were those by Brasol (1938), Pearson (1956 [1948]), and Woodcock (1989 [1949]), which played a significant role at their time in the revaluation of Wilde's life and writings:

The biography of Brasol (1938) was the first scholarly study devoted to Wilde's life. Brasol excludes from his biography the typical anecdotes that abounded in the previous biographies about Wilde, and he includes some unpublished letters written by Wilde in order to sustain his work on sound evidence. Moreover, he insists that Wilde's popular image of "London dandy" was a mask to hide his strong sense of social engagement (176). However, Brasol's obvious bias against Wilde's homosexuality makes his work full of expressions such as "his brilliant intellect [...] polluted with sexual obsessions of the saddest kind" (143) or references to "his perverted intellect" (189), which mar Brasol's aspirations to neutrality. In addition to this, there are some passages in this study that reveal that Brasol is heavily influenced by the existing mystification of Wilde. For example, he explains Wilde's apparently contradictory nature as a "a strange antithesis" that resulted from "a schizophrenic split" in Wilde's soul (101), and more significantly, he finishes his biography according to the traditional view that interprets Wilde's life in terms of a melodramatic tragedy: "Such was the end of the earthly drama of Oscar Wilde, whose genius, surviving his dust, continues to live and shine among the immortals of all lands and ages" (322).

The biographical work of Pearson (1948) was the best study of Wilde's life at the time it was written and for many decades it was regarded as the definitive biography about Wilde till the appearance of Ellmann's (1987). Pearson uses primary sources for all the events that he narrates, and he avoids the melodramatic tinges that coloured the other biographies about Wilde. In fact, Pearson protests against this tendency, remarking that "far too much attention had been paid to his tragic story" (2). With respect to Wilde's homosexuality, Pearson does not dwell on it from a sensational or moral perspective; on the contrary, he offers a balanced account of it because he rightly considers that "it is not as interesting as some people have tried to make out" (3). Therefore, Pearson's biography became an effective instrument to attempt destroy the myth of Wilde, or rather, to see it in its proper light. Furthermore, Pearson went great lengths in order to stress the serious image of Wilde as a literary writer, placing a particular emphasis on the individuality of Wilde's art against the typical accusations of plagiarism (145) and expanding Brasol's recognition of the social conscience that underlies Wilde's works (159).

The study of Woodcock (1949) is not exactly a biographical work about Wilde, but it was written as a critical companion to Pearson's biography with the aim of providing a careful exploration of the most controversial aspects of Wilde's life and writings. Woodcock uses a "dialectical method" (3) in order to explain the apparent contradictions in his life and works, and he establishes a series of contrasts (“aesthetic clown” vs. “creative critic”, “social snob” vs. “social critic”, “playboy” vs. “self-conscious prophet”, 7) that he later examines in his book. Woodcock attempts to reconcile the seemingly contradictory aspects of Wilde, which he considers to be "quite compatible" (200): he understands Wilde's aesthetic eccentricities in clothing and behaviour as the logical consequences of his open defiance of social conventions (108-109), and he believes that this trait of Wilde's personality matches with the social criticism exposed in his individual works, which he considers to be the practical application of his own social and political credo (146-176). All this leads him to conclude that the key to solve Wilde's apparent contradictions can be found in "the doctrines of philosophical anarchism and responsible individualism of which Wilde was an advocate" (88). Woodcock was the first critic who approached Wilde's life and works from the perspective of Wilde's social and political concerns, and his study contributed to enhance the image of Wilde as a serious writer.

These biographical books were later overshadowed by Ellmann (1987), who gave a new emphasis to many important aspects of Wilde's life — particularly his facet as self-publicist (78, 130, 195, 202) — and offered an impressive amount of additional information about it due to the findings in Wildean scholarship and the availability of hitherto unpublished material (i.e. Hart-Davis's editions of Wilde's correspondence). It must be acknowledged that Ellmann’s biography contained a series of errors and shortcomings, many of which were subsequently corrected by Schroeder, who included more than a thousand annotations in his book, Additions and Corrections to Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde (second edition, revised and enlarged, 2002 [1989]). However, in spite of its inaccuracies and omissions, Ellmann’s biographical study is still the most significant and influential account of Wilde’s life that we have to date[22]. According to Beckson (2003: 435), “Ellmann remains, as most scholars concede, the starting-point for new biographies on Wilde”.

During the forties and the fifties the gradual shift of focus from Wilde to his works continued with the emergence of comparative studies. The initial works in this field had followed a source-hunting approach: Fehr (1918) carried out a point-for-point analysis of the French and the English influences that he could find in Wilde's poetry, and Hartley (1935) attempted to discover the French influences that were present in all of Wilde's works. These studies served to indicate that Wilde was learned in contemporary literature, but they had a negative effect on Wilde's literary reputation, because they tended to revive the old cliché that Wilde was a plagiarist, which resulted in the dismissal of his works as imitations. Thus, Fehr (1918) concluded that:

Bei keinem anderen Dichter wird man weniger als bei ihm der Versuchung widerstehen können, das Wort Plagiat in den Mund zu nehmen. [...] Wilde ist ein geschickter Nachempfinder der verschiedensten Stilarten (1918: VIII-IX).

Nevertheless, some years later, critics widened the scope of comparative studies and they set out to elucidate the origins of the aesthetic and philosophical views present in Wilde's writings among different literary traditions. Among these works, the most significant ones are those of Roditi (1986 [1947]) and Ojala (1954).

Roditi (1986) offers remarkable insights into Wilde's work, and he strives to revaluate Wilde as writer and thinker, because he considers him to rate as equal to Coleridge and Arnold (5). In Roditi's own words, his purpose is "to indicate the central position that Wilde's works and ideas occupy in the thought and art of his age and in the shift [...] to what we now call modernism" (5). Roditi establishes connections between the contents and the style of Wilde's poetry and short prose with the main literary movements of the nineteenth century — the Parnasians, the Symbolists, the late English Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites. He also sees Wilde as "heir to dandyism" (25), and praises The Picture of Dorian Gray for illustrating the ethics of this philosophical doctrine (83-84). Finally, Roditi regards Wilde as a precursor because he points out that the witty and paradoxical dialogues of Wilde's comedies have influenced modern novelists like Ronald Firbank and Evelyn Waugh (198).

Ojala (1954) devotes his study of Wilde to show "how far aestheticism underlies his personality, penetrates his philosophy, determines his art, and gives his style its colour and cadence" (12). Ojala classifies the main influences upon Wilde as "formative" and "sympathetic" (106). By "formative influences" he means the aesthetic socialism of Morris and Ruskin and later the aesthetic individualism of Pater, which marked the progressive development of Wilde's aesthetic philosophy in his early writings (74ff). Ojala explains how this process culminated in Intentions, where according to him "Wilde's thought reaches its prime" (105). By "sympathetic influences" Ojala means Gautier, Baudelaire, Flaubert, and Renan, from whom Wilde took certain definite ideas to complement his aestheticism as expounded in his later writings (107ff). Ojala's detailed work is a noticeable instance of the seriousness which started to predominate in the critical examination of Wilde's writings and that would be characteristic in future studies. His findings are not especially significant, but at least he contributes a serious approach to the previously ill-treated subject of Wilde's relation with aestheticism.

The change of critical focus from Wilde's personality to his writings that had been progressively adopted by the critics was completed during the 1960s and the 1970s with the emergence of a series of work-oriented studies in Wilde. Critics were determined to offer an objective account of Wilde's literary achievements in order to establish his reputation as a writer on neutral grounds, and they focused exclusively on Wilde's writings to prevent that subjective judgments about his personality interfered with their critical interpretation of his works. During these two decades the critics of Wilde applied textual analysis in their examination of his writings, and the results of their studies marked the origins of the serious reconsideration of Wilde and his works. Many monographs and essays were devoted to carry out individual analysis of Wilde's critical and literary writings. The following studies are among the most insightful of these scholarly accounts of Wilde's works:

San Juan (1967) was the first critic who used text analysis in order to interpret the totality of Wilde's work. At the opening of his study, San Juan expresses his dissatisfaction with the present situation of Wildean research. The interest of his complaint lies in the fact that it epitomises the general feeling of uneasiness that was growing among contemporary scholars of Wilde:

Almost all the critical evaluations of his achievement, except for highly specialized papers on sources and influences, vitiate themselves in accepting biased popular judgments of the writer's personality [...] to the extent that we scarcely know why Wilde still occupies a position of some importance in literary and intellectual history (3).

San Juan's thesis is that the reason for Wilde's long-lasting relevance in academic circles is that he is a more serious writer than it has been popularly believed, and he dedicates his study to scrutinise Wilde's individual writings in order to prove it (17). The analysis of the poems is particularly insightful, because he traces the stylistic and thematic development of Wilde's poetry from his early imitative poems to The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and thus he sees the lack originality of Wilde's initial poetry not as a sign of plagiarism but as a consequence of Wilde's hesitating beginnings as a poet (46). Moreover, he interestingly points out that the topics that appear in Wilde's poems are "remarkable broad in scope and betray a seriously inquiring mind" (23). San Juan's analysis of The Picture of Dorian Gray is also illuminating, because in contrast to previous critics, he studies Wilde's handling of time and space in the novel (51-60). As regards Wilde's literary criticism, San Juan doubts Wilde's originality (74), but at least he acknowledges that Wilde was always seriously committed to his aesthetic principles (100). Finally, San Juan examines in detail the structure and the content of the comedies and he stresses the social criticism in them, arguing that they served Wilde to "articulate, in ironic modes, his condemnation of the follies of ‘decadent’ society in the late nineteenth century" (138).

Ericksen (1977) was a critic who set out to analyse Wilde's work in its entirety in order to convey "a powerful sense of the importance of Oscar Wilde's place in English literary history" (8). In the introductory chapter, Ericksen echoes San Juan's protest against the tendency in the critical accounts of Wilde to focus on the personality of Wilde and overlook his writings (7), and he also adds an insightful comment directed to destroy the mythical image of Wilde the outsider:

A parallel weakness [...] has been the tendency to see both Oscar Wilde and his works as historical and literary anomalies rather than products of the shaping influences of the nineteenth century. Too often Wilde is considered narrowly as an artist set apart. [...] The truth, of course, is that Wilde is very much a part of his age (7).

Ericksen believes that Wilde's works are written with a seriousness of purpose which has not been fully recognised yet, and his study intends to solve this situation by means of a "critical/analytical assessment of individual works" (8). The value of Ericksen's critical account of Wilde's writings lies in that it offers penetrating insights into certain important aspects of them. Hence, Ericksen insists that those who dismiss Wilde's criticism as "superficial, inconsistent, contradictory, and even insincere" (73) commit the error of remaining in the surface of these writings without realising that "beneath that surface lay Wilde's central critical beliefs" (75). Moreover, Ericksen is one of the first critics to note that, the contradiction between the Preface and the body of The Picture of Dorian Gray is simply apparent and that the novel possesses "philosophical consistency" (96). With respect to Wilde's comedies, he supports the growing belief in the strong sense of social criticism inherent in them, comparing Wilde to Ibsen and Shaw in his rebellion against the Philistines of the Victorian Age (135).

There were some of these critics who devoted their studies to analyse Wilde's works from fresh perspectives that were intended to provide correctives to specific aspects of the traditional image of Wilde:

Cohen (1978) sets out to analyse Wilde's writings in order to portray Wilde as a moralist. Cohen aims to undermine the traditional idea of Wilde the immoral writer because he thinks that, contrary to what is generally believed, morality is "Wilde's constant preoccupation, orders and give meaning to his internal world" (11). In his analysis of Wilde's works, Cohen focuses on the development of Wilde's "conflict between Old and New Testament moral perspectives — between vengeful judgment that damns the transgressor eternally, and the Christian law of love, with its offer of forgiveness" (11). Cohen establishes three stages in this process: the first phase is represented by Wilde's stories, which "broaden the scope of his moral awareness" (13); the second phase is constituted by the critical essays and The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Wilde "does not clearly and consistently maintain a single moral position" (116); finally, the third phase corresponds to Wilde's comedies, in which Christian mercy wins over the Old Testament's vindictiveness (181).

It may be convincingly argued that Cohen does not try to revaluate Wilde's literary achievements but that he limits himself to carry out a critical scrutiny of them which is limited from a moral perspective. However, Cohen's study is significant because it presents a new aspect of Wilde that corrects a popular idea associated to the legend about him, and this serves to improve our knowledge of Wilde as well as to achieve a better understanding of his writings.

Nassaar (1974) analyses Wilde's major works with the aim of showing that a careful study of them "provide[s] the key by which the decadent movement may be understood" (xi). Nassaar considers demonism to be the most significant aspect of nineteenth century decadence, and he asserts that it was Wilde who "elevated the demonic to the status of a religion and tried to terminate the nineteenth century with a religion of evil, an unholy worship of beauty" (xii). Nassaar's thesis is that Wilde's first homosexual experience in 1886 made him conscious of his "demonic impulse" and that as a result of it the presence of "a demon universe" started to grow in his works (xiii). In his critical examination of Wilde's narrative, Nassaar suggests that the governing principle of his fairy tales is the "fall from the world of innocence and subsequent attainment of a higher innocence" (20) and he concludes that The Picture of Dorian Gray is an attempt to demonstrate that the celebration of the evil of the soul is "beautiful" in art but "an inescapable nightmare" in life (71-72). With respect to Wilde's dramatic works, Nassaar thinks that they are deep explorations of demonism until An Ideal Husband, where Wilde returns to the pattern of fairy tales (123).

The main interest of Nassaar's approach lies in the fact that he differs from previous critics in his treatment of Wilde's homosexuality: Nassaar does not offer the stereotypical vision of Wilde as a pathological curiosity; on the contrary, he contributes to destroy this popular image about Wilde, because he uses his homosexuality as a means to show the important place of Wilde's writings in the development of decadent movement. In this sense Nassaar's study anticipates the direction that has been lately followed by the critics of gender studies and queer theory, who have focused on Wilde the homosexual with the objective of revaluating his literary figure from this perspective.

As it can be observed, the critical accounts of the 1970s prepared the way for an imminent revaluation of Wilde in academic studies, which is the subject of discussion of the following section.

1. 3. New Directions in Wilde Research and Objective of my Study

Since the 1980s there has been a radical change in the nature of the critical works about Wilde. This has been the consequence of the progressive demythologizing of Wilde thanks in large part to the new findings revealed by the examination of his Commonplace Book and Notebook at Oxford (Smith, Philip and Helfand, eds., 1979), the books in his private library (Wright, 2009) and the extensive array of his personal and professional letters, manuscripts and typescripts (Hart-Davis, ed., 1962, 1979, 1985; Holland and Hart-Davis, eds., 2000; Bristow, ed., 2013) as well as to the assessment of Wilde’s broad cultural and literary impact on a number of European writers (Evagelista, ed., 2010; Pascual Aransáez, 2007); however, the most decisive factor for the present situation in Wildean scholarship has been the emergence of new areas of research within literature studies[23] that have converted Wilde into the focus of attention in several of their accounts. In this section I shall examine how these critical perspectives upon Wilde have contributed to reassess his literary reputation and I shall attempt to outline the way in which my study can serve to complement their discoveries.

Gender criticism and queer theory have played a major role in the enhancement of Wilde as a central figure in literary history. They explore the construction of sexuality in the network of power relations, and many critics working within this tradition have drawn their attention to Wilde in order to explain the intricate connections between sexual practices and sexual ideology. These works below are among the most significant contributions to Wildean research from the field of gay studies and queer theory:

Cohen (1993) argues that Wilde's trials confirmed him as "the paradigmatic example for an emerging public definition of a new "type" of male sexual actor: "the homosexual"" (2). He attempts to demonstrate that the trials of Wilde were a crucial event in order to negotiate publicly the modern distinction between "heterosexual" and "homosexual", and consequently he analyses the newspaper accounts of Wilde's trials in order to see how they represented it. He finds that the press reports never stated explicitly what it was that Wilde was accused of, but they managed to present Wilde's homosexuality by portraying him as the antithesis of what was considered to be as proper middle-class male behaviour. Cohen believes that "this positioning serve[d] to construct Wilde as the embodiment of a threatening ‘difference’"(172), and that these journalistic representations of Wilde's homosexuality mirrored a series of social/sexual discourses that had been constructed throughout the nineteenth century.

Dollimore (1991) proposes that Wilde's awareness of his homosexual identity led him to adopt a dissident stance to bourgeois values, and he sets out to examine how this is reflected in Wilde's works. The starting-point of his study is that:

Wilde's experience of deviant desire [...] leads him not to escape the repressive ordering of society, but to a re-inscription within it, and an inversion of the binaries upon which that ordering depends; desire, and the transgressive aesthetic which it fashions, reacts against, disrupts, and displaces from within (14).

Dollimore contends that Wilde's writings are characterised by a subversive inversion, which he describes by means of binary oppositions such as "persona/role" versus "essential self", "insincerity" versus "sincerity", "style/artifice" versus "authenticity", "narcissism" versus "maturity" (15-17). Therefore, those aspects of Wilde's personality that were traditionally accounted for in terms of his alleged inconsistent nature are seen by Dollimore as the result of Wilde's desire to propound an alternative (homosexual) system through the transgression of the categories of the dominant culture.

However, it must be noted that the identification of Wilde with a "transgressive aesthetic" is not exclusive of gay studies. Eagleton (1995) presents a version of it in terms of cultural theory: he sees Wilde as an emigré who manipulated the conventions of English stage to violate the bourgeois moralism of the English with their own weapons (331-341), asserting that Wilde’s relationship with the English establishment parallels Anglo-Irish relations[24]: “the turbulent marriage of Wilde and Britannia [...] writes theatrically large the traditionally fraught relation between the two nations” (124).

Sedgwick (1994) studies the relationship between a homosexual consciousness and aestheticism in general, but she is particularly interested on the figure of Oscar Wilde. In contrast to Dollimore, she interestingly suggests that those who identify Wilde as a modern homosexual or gay with a sexual ideology should bear in mind that, even though the word 'homosexual' enter the language towards the end of the nineteenth century, the emphasis on the antithesis between homosexuals and heterosexuals is a product of the twentieth century and as such it was unknown to Wilde. Sedgwick undertakes the analysis of Wilde's works from a homosexual perspective, but she understands Wilde's homosexuality in terms of the classic model of sexual love between males. According to Sedgwick, "Wilde's own Eros was most closely tuned to the note of the [Classical, Dorian, philhellenic] pederastic love" (55).

Like Sedgwick, Sinfield (1994) believes that finding in every aspect of Wilde's life and works instances of Wilde's conscious assertion of his homosexual identity is a consequence of our contemporary vision of his homosexuality. Sinfield contends that:

The question, then, is: how did he get away with it? — going around looking and talking the way he did, and putting such characters on the stage. And the answer must be: they didn't see queerness in the way we have come to see it. Our interpretation is retroactive; in fact, Wilde and his writings look queer because our stereotypical notion of male homosexuality derives from Wilde, and our ideas about him (vii).

Following Cohen, Sinfield argues that many of our ideas about the homosexual difference that seems to have inevitably marked Wilde's thinking and his writings derive from the image of him that was produced during the Queensberry trial in the media and that has been supported during decades. According to Sinfield, after the trials Wilde was perceived not simply as a “homosexual” and “the principal twentieth-century stereotype entered our cultures: [...] the queer” (3). In order to explain the process by which this vision of Wilde's homosexuality has been gradually constructed, Sinfield explores how the changes in the term "effeminacy", which has been inextricably associated with Wilde, have ran parallel to the construction of Wilde's homosexual image. Sinfield starts his analysis some decades before Wilde's trials, and he observes that at that time "the aesthete was regarded as effeminate — but not [...] distinctively homosexual" (90). He continues his research up to Wilde's conviction, which he describes as the moment when society began to see in dandified posing a clue to recognise a homosexual (124). Sinfield's study goes forward into twentieth-century gay and queer culture, which leads him to conclude that it was precisely due to Wilde's case that "between 1900 and 1960, a dandified manner afforded by far the most plausible queer identity" (125).

McKenna (2005 [2003]) writes a biography on Oscar Wilde with the aim of telling “the story of his emotional and sexual life” (xi). McKenna sets out to interpret Wilde’s life and writings from the perspective his sexuality and asserts that Wilde’s dilemma between concealing his true sexual identity and the temptation to declare it publicly in a way that would defy Victorian moralism pervades all his works. McKenna provides an exhaustive account of Wilde’s sexual behaviour which is mainly documented with recently discovered or previously ignored letters and diaries from Wilde’s male friends and he offers new insights into Wilde’s work which help us to gain a deeper understanding of them. Nonetheless, his claim that “all Oscar’s work [...] is immensely and complexly autobiographical” (128) is reductionist in the light of Wildean criticism, and his assumption that Wilde “strove to bring about the legal and social emancipation of gay men” (xi) and became a “political activist” of what his set knew as ‘the Cause’ (199) is largely far-fetched.

The main problem that I see in the critical representations provided by gender criticism and queer theory is that, as it has been shown above, the tendency to offer an image of Wilde as a homosexual deeply concerned with modern questions of sexual identity may erroneously lead us to mythologize Wilde as a champion of gay rights and distort the examination of his works. However, the value of the contribution of gender studies and queer theory to the serious analysis of Wilde should not be diminished: these critical accounts have been the first ones to indicate that there are interesting social and cultural aspects underlying Wilde's writings.

The significant changes which have taken place within the practice of literary theory in the two last decades have resulted in a revaluation of Wilde's aesthetics from the perspective of twentieth-century literary criticism. Here I shall comment on the works of those critics that have focused their critical interest on Wilde's notion of creative subjectivity because they are particularly interesting for the purposes of my study:

Ellmann (1966) is the first critic to note that "Wilde laid the basis for many critical positions which are still debated in much the same terms, and which we like to attribute to more ponderous names" (2). Ellmann analyses Wilde's literary theory, paying a special attention to Wilde's formulation of creative subjectivity. He observes that Wilde showed an evident interest in the creative faculties of the receiver of a work from his early writings till his mature works (4-5) and he also remarks that impression "became a favourite word in Wilde" (5). However, he does not explore the philosophy of art behind these elements of Wilde's literary theory.

Longxi (1988) undertakes the analysis of Wilde's literary criticism with a more ambitious aim than Ellmann's. According to Longxi, the objective of this essay is "to examine some responses to Oscar Wilde as a critic and some significant revaluations of his critical theory in the perspective of contemporary criticism" (87). Longxi centres his attention on the critical reception of Wilde's notion of creative subjectivity, which he considers to be the most controversial aspect of Wilde's theory (88) and he defines it as a serious attempt "to open the text of an artistic work and its inexhaustible meaning rather than close it once and for all with a seal of authority" (101). In his study Longxi notes how Wilde's ideas of higher creativity in criticism, which were initially rejected by critics such as Wellek or Krieger, have been lately revived by recent theories of contemporary literary criticism, namely, "Rezeptionsästhetik, and reader-response criticism" (89). This leads him to protest against those critics who condemn Wilde's creative subjectivity "without proper attention to Wilde's ideas and expositions" (90) and to argue that this notion of creative subjectivity that is sophisticatedly developed in diverse ways in these recent theories can be traced in its origins into Wilde's critical writings (96).

Willoughby (1989) also relates Wilde's literary criticism with the recent tendencies in contemporary criticism. The novelty of his study lies in the peculiarity of its principal claim: he argues that Wilde's theory of reception sets an example for a mode of perception towards which contemporary theories should be directed (323). First of all, Willoughby describes how Wilde's theory encourages the diversity of meanings of a work and endeavours to achieve a "fitful synthesis" in order to realise the unity of the work of art. Later, he asserts that "Wilde's claims for the reception of art are a clue to our reception of self" (322), and he proposes that Wilde's "attempt to maintain a dynamic, porous, yet ultimately reconciliatory approach" (323) must be followed by contemporary critics in order to account "for that indefinable sense of selfhood we feel in spite of Derrida's infinite deferral of the logos, Foucault's collapse of the subject, Kristeva's attack on the chauvinism of oneness" (321).

These studies are very useful because they indicate that Wilde's aesthetics anticipates concepts that have been further elaborated in contemporary literary criticism; however, they only deal with this subject in a general way without attempting to compare Wilde's critical views with any specific movement in particular.

Bashford (1977, 1978) tries to "delineate the basic components and structure of Wilde's subjectivist critical theory" (1978: 225). From the beginning, he refers to Wilde's theory of criticism as "subjectivist" because Wilde believes that a work of art must be always understood in relation to the individual who perceives or creates it (1978: 218) and he converts it into the centre of his analysis. Before Bashford’s works, Wilde's subjectivism had been either avoided or quickly dismissed by Wildean critics in the fear it diminished the significance of their findings. Bashford is the first critic who treats this element seriously and he reaches insightful conclusions that help to correct the traditional prejudices associated to Wilde's subjectivism:

First, Bashford asserts that there is an important difference between Wilde and many subjectivists in that "Wilde does not believe that individuals are naturally unique" (220). He rightly points out that for Wilde it is not in the essence but in the accidentals that one shows oneself as an individual, and that we must strive to create our identities. Second, he notes that Wilde asks the receiver of art to be open to the influences of a work in order to be stimulated into forming his personal interpretation of it (233).

Moreover, Bashford proposes that Wilde's subjectivist critical theory should be considered in relation to contemporary theories that stress the figure of the reader as an individual (186), although he does not develop his suggestion any further nor does he analyse the effects that Wilde's version of subjectivism have in his understanding of the conception of the reader.

Brown (1999) complements the reassessment of Wilde's literary criticism with an innovative account that is intended to discover the morality that underlies Wilde's critical writings. According to this author:

... It is clear that [...] his animadversions against "morality" refer to the puritan and philistine moralities of the period. Wilde asserted the centrality of the aesthetic imagination, but not as something divorced from moral and spiritual life. His claim that aesthetics is "higher" than ethics [...] is based on definitions of both terms that understand the aesthetic to transform, rather than transcend, the ethical" (xvi).

Brown's initial hypothesis is that "Wilde was never an absolute aesthete" (60-61) and considers Wilde's criticism to be an "ethical aesthetic" intended to show that "the experience of art is the only viable means in the contemporary world of countering the commercial spirit" (51). Brown analyses Wilde's development of his theory of art in three stages:

First, she argues that already in his American lectures Wilde started to show a concern for the social function of art (43ff). She notes how Wilde did not conform himself with the Pre-Raphaelites' blind adoration of beauty but was interested in discovering how beauty could contribute to the improvement of life. Second, she focuses on Wilde's early reviews and articles (60ff), and here she finds that Wilde was in the process of elaborating an aestheticism that attempted to bring art criticism and social criticism into relation. Third, she concentrates on the study of Intentions, where Wilde put forth his developed version of aestheticism (70ff). Brown describes Wilde's position in Intentions in terms of the performance of a trapeze artist, in which "the trapeze artist and the moral reformer are operating in tandem" (71); in her view, Wilde delights in exaggerations and paradoxes in order to distract the reader's attention from the moral of these critical essays, and thus he manages to transmit it implicitly to the "artistically receptive spectator" (82) without betraying his artistic principles that assert the primacy of art.

In my opinion, Brown's study is particularly valuable because it shows how Wilde's preoccupation with morality is reflected in the philosophy of art which he expounded in his critical works.

All these studies above have fruitfully researched Wilde's emphasis on the figure and role of the receiver of a work of art in his critical theory. However, they ignore the practical side of Wilde's interest in the consumer of art, which is manifested in Wilde's attitude towards his fin-de-siècle audience in his life as well as in his creative works. This subject has been the object of analysis of recent literary and theatrical historians, whose studies have also contributed to the revaluation of Wilde and his writings.

In the last decades the discipline of literary history has been transformed by the findings of cultural critics, who have emphasised that the rise of a mass consumerist culture in Britain at the turn of the nineteenth century produced a revolutionary change in the relationships between the power of the media and bourgeois ideology in Victorian society. For example, Richards (1999) and Wicke (1988) have described respectively the origins of commodity culture and the evolution of the advertising industry during the second half of the nineteenth century:

Richards (1999) situates the beginning of commodity culture with the Great Exhibition of 1851, which he sees as the event that fashioned "a new kind of being, the consumer, and a new strain of ideology, consumerism" (5). He considers commodity culture to be the confirmation of the increasing power of the middle classes, and describes it as "sign of an abundance achieved by middle-class means, sanctioned by middle-class representatives, and aimed at a middle-class end: the continuing extension and ultimate consolidation of the capitalist system in England" (5). Richards indicates that the advertising industry was an instrumental vehicle for the expansion of commodity culture (5-7), and he studies how both commodity culture and advertising soon transformed all facets of social life and Victorian England (15) in general without referring specifically to literature.

Wicke (1988) analyses how "the intertwining of literature and advertising enmeshes two interdependent discourses, neither of which can be fully read without reference to the other" (1-2). This author argues that by the 1880s advertising was in a "transitional phase" (15), in which the mutual interrelation between literature and advertising reached its highest peak (54), and she considers Wilde as the literary author who epitomises that period. In Wicke's own words:

A locus classicus for the confluence of advertising and literature in this period is the bizarre intersection of discourses built up around the figure of Oscar Wilde (83).

Focusing on Wilde’s American tour, Wicke asserts that there was "a virtual Oscar Wilde epidemic" (83) among American advertisers during the decade of the 1880s and argues that the factors which were determinant for this situation were mainly two: on the one hand, advertising still relied at that time on literature as its model of representation; on the other, Wilde had become a literary celebrity in the United States after the parodies of Patience and the popularity of his lecture tour. Then she goes on to discuss how advertisers created a highly artificial representation of Wilde which they attached to their goods "to create an ambience, an aura that aesthetically unfold[ed] around the act of purchase" (85).

The research in the discipline of cultural history has led literary historians to explore how the advent of a mass consumerist culture affected the place of literature and the careers of literary authors. A few critics have started to examine how British aestheticism responded to the mass market, which has allowed to locate Wilde in relation to the modern marketplace. The following studies are among the most outstanding contributions from this new perspective:

Freedman (1990) analyses the complicated relationship between aestheticism and commodity culture in the last decades of the nineteenth century. At the opening of his study, Freedman asserts that:

"British aestheticism" [...] might most profitably be viewed not simply as a literary or artistic tendency or movement, but rather as an intricately articulated arena in which new definitions of the aesthetic in its relation to the social were negotiated and renegotiated (xii).

Afterwards Freedman goes on to explain that the traditional view of British aestheticism as the enactment of the doctrine of l'art pour l'art is incomplete because it ignores that the aesthetic movement in England must be understood in its "complex entanglement with the development of a cultural apparatus at once thoroughly professionalized and commodified" (xix). Freedman's thesis is that the opposition of the aesthetes to the treatment of art as a commodity, which was characteristic in the mass market, ironically led them to be the artificers of its commodification; according to him, the aesthetes' claim that art belonged to an autonomous high culture whose knowledge could only be imparted by them convert them into the traders of a reified commodity. As Freedman sees it, "that the notion of the aesthete as professional strikes us as anomalous may actually be the surest sign of its success" (xix). However, Freedman does not imply that the aesthetes were simply concerned with making their way in the market economy. Rather, he contends that aestheticism "never fully abandoned either his social commitment or his understanding of the political obligations of the artist" (12)[25].

Freedman proposes to illustrate his arguments with an examination of the figure of Oscar Wilde, because he considers that "Wilde's remarkable powers of self-publicization remind us of the close affinities between aestheticism and the institutions of a newly forming mass culture" (50). In his analysis Freedman observes that Wilde's contribution to the expansion of aestheticism in the modern marketplace was particularly noticeable in that he managed to make a large number of readers familiar with the characteristically aesthetic ideals (i.e. the imaginative treatment of themes and style in fiction) by means of his works (51). He sees Wilde as a professional kind of artist, because in spite of his claims of being an isolated artist he successfully worked towards achieving social recognition and financial triumph (54). However, Freedman is quick to point out that Wilde's social and economic advances did not prevent him from carry out a persistent criticism of society: he indicates that Wilde remained strongly critical of Victorian society in his personal life (12), and that he developed a "immanent critique" of the social institutions of that time (63), which "was all the more effective because it was predominantly comic in nature" (71).

Since Freedman's study focuses on the relationship between fin-de-siècle aestheticism and commercial culture within a social context, it is interesting to read it in conjunction with Dewsnap's "Negotiations with the Market: “Fin-de-Siècle” Aestheticism and Commodity Culture" (1997), which is a doctoral dissertation that shifts its emphasis onto the literary response of aesthetic literature to the new mass market:

Dewsnap initially discusses those changes in the marketplace that affected the literary careers of what he denominates "high culture" writers, among whom he includes Oscar Wilde. He points out that at the turn of the nineteenth century commodity culture already possessed a sophisticated network for the production and distribution of fiction (9), and he explains that this evolution had been possible due to technical advances in the system of communication, changes in the standard of living — increasingly urban population, purchasing power, the rise of literacy —, and to the growing consolidation of advertising (11-17). In addition, newspapers and magazines had become affordable to middle and working class readers (13) and books had begun to circulate in railway bookstalls (15), which had contributed to increase readership enormously. According to Dewsnap, this growth of commodity culture had important consequences for literary authors, because their books and their images started to be publicised as commodities addressed to a massive non-literary audience and publishers did not accept those works which did not conform to the tastes of these less-educated readers (16). Dewsnap contends that in this situation some "high culture" authors like Wilde decided to reinvent their professional role in order to avoid being excluded from the modern marketplace (24), and he devotes the rest of his study to analyse how they use their works to negotiate their relationship with the marketplace.

As far as the concrete study of Wilde is concerned, Dewsnap presents an innovative account because he attempts to offer an analysis of Wilde's writings that brings together the "commercial" side and the "literary" side of his personality, which traditionally has been treated separately (195). Dewsnap explores the ways in which the commercial side of Wilde can be traced into two of his literary works: "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" and The Picture of Dorian Gray. In his examination of these writings, Dewsnap argues that in the former Wilde imaginatively reproduces the different ways in which commercial press constructs meaning (226ff), and that in the latter he creates a world that is intended to resemble the newspaper accounts of his own (231ff). These findings lead Dewsnap to conclude that "Wilde's fictional writings [...] deliberately invoke the discourses of commodity culture and publicity by which literature and authors were commodified, especially the discourses surrounding authorial persona and celebrity" (196).

Dewsnap's doctoral dissertation is very useful because it gives evident signs of Wilde's concern with the reception of his works in the mass market of his time. However, the difficulty with this study is that Dewsnap seems to assume that the commercial nature of Wilde is only reflected in the explicit narrative content of his writings, and this hypothesis is valid for certain works of Wilde — like the ones he analysed or the society comedies, but it is not applicable to Wilde's poems or the rest of his fiction and plays. Moreover, Dewsnap focuses exclusively on the presence of the commercial in Wilde's works and he does not comment on the potential social criticism that underlies the references to it, which can lead to the erroneous conclusion that Wilde's aim was to conform to the expectations that the consumerist society had about him instead of manifesting an implicit critique of it.

Following a similar line of research[26], Guy and Small (2000) explore Wilde’s professional ability to “keep up with rapidly changing market conditions” by means of his “apparent flitting from one genre to another” (45). These authors research carefully Wilde’s complex struggle with the demands of the culture industry in order to achieve his dual objective of literary recognition and commercial popularity during his career; however, they portray an image of Wilde as an “opportunist” (225) whose desire for financial success led him to choose invariably monetary motives over literary concerns whenever there was a potential conflict between them. According to them, since Wilde wrote “specifically for money”, he accepted “the even more rigid constraints which writing for popular taste entailed” (26) and therefore he adopted “a form of ‘conservatism’ where he was content to work” (222).

Gagnier (1987) has provided one of the most influential accounts of Wilde's relationship with commercial culture. The novelty of her research lies in that she discusses Wilde's writings from the point of view of the audiences that consumed it. In the introduction to her study, she argues that Wilde's work "can be understood only by reference to his audiences" (3) and proposes to analyse it "from the point of view of consumption, or of the different publics that, in different ways, consumed it" (7). Gagnier first examines The Picture of Dorian Gray, which she considers to be a product of Wilde's double tactics to address two different audiences: members of the homosexual community, who could regard it favourably for its veiled connections with their literature (61); and journalists, who could not confirm his suspicions about Wilde's homosexuality due to the novel's lack of explicitness concerning Dorian's sinful activities. In her analysis of Wilde's drama, Gagnier detects that Wilde uses the same double technique to direct his plays to two distinct audiences: the members of the upper class, who relish the images on the stage (106); and the middle-class reviewers, who saw in Wilde's portrayal of High society an attempt of ingratiating himself with the theatre-going public (107). Gagnier also discusses "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", which she sees as a work written for an audience of prisoners[27] (140), and De Profundis, about which she remarks that: "it has a special significance, for it is the only work he wrote without an audience. If there had not been an Alfred Douglas, Wilde would have had to invent one"[28] (180).

Gagnier's concentration on the audience for whom Wilde wrote initiates an interesting line of research which I have followed in my study. The most valuable insight of Gagnier's account is that it alerts us to Wilde's subtle manipulation of his audience. However, I differ with Gagnier's strict classification of certain audiences for specific works, and I follow the other literary historians above in that I believe that this multiplicity of audiences must be finally understood within the terms of an inclusive commodity culture.

These conclusions of literary historians about Wilde's attitude towards his audience can be complemented with the research carried out in the discipline of theatre history. The findings of cultural critics have encouraged recent theatre historians to analyse dramatic works within the social and theatrical contexts in which they were produced. Consequently, a few critics have started to examine Wilde's comedies in relation to the consumerist society for whom they were written, which has led to the reassessment of Wilde as a dramatist. These are some of the most insightful works in this field of study:

Stokes (1994) points out that the conditions of late Victorian theatre allowed "an interplay between performance, audience, and outside world" (171) that Wilde managed to exploit for his professional purposes. He argues that from the beginning of his career Wilde's principal strategy to make the Victorians associate his name with great theatrical occasions was to attend the grand premières of select West End theatres, where he strove to make himself felt by means of his dandiacal behaviour and his witty conversation (172). As a result, the audience enjoyed themselves immensely with the presence of Wilde in these events, and the journalists started to include him with those of the fashionable members of society in their accounts of theatrical productions. Stokes interestingly concludes that this initial success within the auditorium was crucial for paving the way to his subsequent dramatic triumph, because "it encouraged his audiences to see and hear him on stage, speaking through the characters of his plays" (172-173).

Bristow (1994) proposes that Wilde's use of modishness has a social function, arguing that "these dramas constantly thrill the audience with their spectacular displays of wealth enjoyed by these generally idle characters, only to reveal how greyly monotonous their everyday lives truly are" (53). Bristow states that the female characters in Wilde's plays lead dowdyish lives, but that the fashionable dresses and the luxurious environments surrounding them endow them with a "dandiacal" flavour which is meant to show the audience how they "could and should look at Society" (54). As regards the masculine characters in Wilde's plays, Bristow focuses his attention on the figure of the dandy, to whom he describes as "the man of fashion himself" (68), and he discusses how the dandy's subversion of Victorian codes of dress serves to illustrate the relationship between social power and physical appearances (68-69).

Kaplan and Stowell (1995) study Wilde in the frame of the complicated relationship between theatre, fashion, and society in the late nineteenth century. At the introduction of their account they state that at that time the most fashionable West End theatres had become an important part of the London Season and that they created "a voyeuristic triangle between stage, stalls, and gallery" (2). Kaplan and Stowell contend that it was within this context that Wilde "reinvented" society comedy because he incorporated stage conventions and commodities of the consumerist culture into his plays (12). Kaplan (1997) examines Wilde's plays from a similar perspective in an essay that encompasses the reactions to the plays on the part of the different sectors of the audiences. In this respect, Kaplan concludes that:

Audiences in the stalls and boxes [were] both flattered and vexed by the antics of their on-stage doubles, while viewers in the upper galleries enjoyed the additional spectacle of fashionable Society catching its likeness in Wilde's cunningly set mirrors (252).

So far I have analysed the diverse ways in which the new disciplines within the area of English studies (gender criticism, contemporary literary theory, literary and theatre history) have reassessed the literary figure of Wilde and his works. These recent critical perspectives establish new directions in the study on Wilde which have been scarcely explored yet, and it is within this innovative line of research that I have inserted the present analysis of Wilde's works.

In this study I shall attempt to examine the implications of the conception of the reader that Wilde elaborates in his critical writings and applies into his creative works. As we have already observed, recent critics of Wilde's aesthetics limit themselves to acknowledge the importance of the notion of creative subjectivity in Wilde's literary theory and to relate it loosely with the stress on the individuality of the reader which exists in contemporary literary criticism in general.

The first objective of my study is to demonstrate that Wilde's formulation of creative subjectivity affects his understanding of the reader because he encourages him to cooperate actively in the construction of meaning, and that as a result in his creative writings he develops a series of literary strategies to encourage the dynamic participation of the reader in the production of their meaning.

My study also attempts to supply a solid theoretical basis for the claims of gender critics and literary and theatre historians about Wilde's implicit critique of social and moral mores of the Victorians. In these critical accounts Wilde has been portrayed as a cunning manipulator who both attracts as well as criticises his audience by means of his works, but they have not based their findings about Wilde's indirect critique of society on a careful exploration of his literary texts themselves but on the traditional interpretation of the irony and satire which are ever-present in them.

Thus, the second objective of my analysis of the role of the reader in Wilde's narrative and dramatic works is to provide textual evidence that Wilde assigns an active participation to the reader in the construction of meaning in order to make him discover by himself the defects of Victorian society, so that he can gain self-awareness and attempt to amend them.

The results that recent critics obtain in their respective studies of Wilde's works coincide in emphasising Wilde's interest in all the aspects concerning the interaction with the audience: the studies of Wilde's criticism have provided theoretical evidence for Wilde's preoccupation with the role of the receiver of a work of art; literary and theatre historians have explored the practical implications of his relationship with the audience of his narrative and dramatic works.

However, these studies have hitherto been taken individually, which I think that has diminished the importance of their achievements. In my study I have intended to integrate the application of the findings of all these categories and develop its aesthetic and social implications further, because I consider that they are mutually complementary in order to prove the validity of an approach to Wilde's works which examines the position he maintains in them with respect to the audience.

The corpus of the present study is composed in the first place by Oscar Wilde's critical essays, whose study serves to highlight the importance of the reader's role in Wilde's aesthetics. The examination of the ideas in these critical writings precedes the textual analysis of the creative works which form the corpus itself properly speaking, but they are themselves also part of the body of Wilde's works chosen for my study. These works are "The Rise of Historical Criticism" (1879), "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" (1891), a collection of critical essays entitled Intentions (1891), and the critical story "The Portrait of Mr. W. H" (1889, 1923).

The corpus is formed by the totality of Wilde's short fiction, his only novel and his society comedies. The short fiction consists of four collections: The volume of short stories entitled Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1891); and two volumes of tales, namely The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891). The novel Wilde wrote is The Picture of Dorian Gray. The society comedies are Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

These works have been arranged chronologically for their study in order to show how Wilde gradually developed a remarkable ability to combine more sophisticated techniques that encourage the reader's active role with the progressive incorporation of elements that made his works successful among the public without betraying his artistic principles.

Apart from following a chronological order, the textual analysis of these works is divided up into chapters devoted to specific literary genres. This is intended to examine Wilde's technical advances within an overall structure which serves to emphasise the coherence of his literary evolution as well as to provide a consistent pattern for the organization of my study. The chapters are introduced with a section which offers a first approach to the works to be commented in the chapter. The rest of the chapter is devoted to the analysis of the strategies used in order to call upon the reader's active role in the construction of meaning. All these chapters are interspersed with the critical opinions that Wildean scholars have expressed on the topics discussed in order to widen the perspectives of my study.

2. METHODOLOGICAL DISCUSSION

2. 1. The Concept of the Reader within Reader-response Theory

In the last decades there has been a progressive orientation in the different trends of contemporary literary theory (psychoanalysis, structuralism, poststructuralism) towards acknowledging the role of the reader in the act of reading. Nevertheless, there has also emerged a broad movement called reader-oriented criticism which especially centres upon the status of the reader's self and the reading process[29]. Reader-oriented criticism asserts the centrality of the reader in the act of reading, arguing that the reader plays a crucial role in the elaboration of literary meaning. There are two basic critical tendencies in reader-oriented criticism: "Reader-response Theory", which is largely American in origin and gathers a number of approaches that study the reader's response to the text, and "Reception Theory", which refers to a cohesive group from the German school of Constance that focuses on the reader's constitutive role in the construction of the text's meaning.

In this section I shall comment on the diverse perspectives to the issue of the reader which have arisen within "Reader-response Theory". "Reader-response Theory" appeared during the 1970s and the 1980s in the United States, and it constituted a reaction against New Criticism[30] and other varieties of formalism that assumed that the text was an autonomous entity and avoided the reader in their desire to objectify the study of the literary work of art.

However, I think that before carrying out the discussion of the proposals of reader-response critics is necessary to discuss briefly the critical stance adopted by the proponents of New Criticism towards the reader. The reason for this is not simply to provide an account of the background against which reader-oriented criticism aroused in the United States; rather, my objective is to show that the New Critics' recurrence to the subject of the reader in their writings — even if it is to dismiss it — revealed an apparent anxiety of these critics about the figure of the reader which indicated that it could not be easily dismissed and thus obliquely served to confirm its significance. In this sense, I agree totally with Freund's opinion that:

... It is the strikingly indecisive marginalization of the reader which makes the New Critical phase so pertinent to our story for, notwithstanding theoretical manifestos to the contrary, an overwhelming but suppressed or rarely acknowledged concern with the reader was at the heart of the New Critical project (1987: 41-42).

I. A. Richards, who was one of the precursors of the New Critical doctrine, openly combined his belief in the autonomy of the text with a serious interest in the reader's response. Richards (1924) tried to establish a theoretical basis for the study of literary works, for which he developed an innovative kind of critical discourse that was intended to provide a precise description of how the elements of form and meaning were organized into the text. Richards believed that a literary work was primarily a mode of communication like any other, and he was not concerned with the text itself but with what and how it communicated to the mind of the reader. According to Richards:

... We continually talk as though things possess certain qualities, when what we ought to say is that they cause effects in us of one kind or another; the fallacy of 'projecting' the effect and making it a quality of its cause tends to recur (20-21).

Richards (1929) asserted that every literary text was always a coherent signifying system with a definite meaning which could be communicated to the reader, and he attempted to formulate a theory of interpretation that could explain the reader how to apprehend the correct meaning of a work and how to make an appropriate aesthetic judgment about it. Hence Richards set out to analyse the responses of his students to a series of unidentified poems, which in turn allowed him to deduce his theoretical principles on an empirical basis. These were the results of his study:

Richards found out that the chief difficulties for readers could be summarised under ten heads (13-18): not understanding the plain sense of the poem; not perceiving the sensuous properties of the poem; failing to note the imagery in poetic reading; allowing the intrusion of "mnemonic irrelevances" in interpretation; being caught in the trap of "Stock Responses"; being sentimental in the response to the poem; being inhibited in the response of the poem; allowing doctrinal beliefs to affect the response to the poem; to expect technical consistency from a poet; to bring "general critical preconceptions" about the value and nature upon poetry. In addition to this, Richards indicated that the original impediment of all reading is "the problem of making out the meaning" (180), and he contended that there were four types or aspects of meaning (181-183): Sense (i.e. what the speaker says), Feeling (i.e. the speaker's attitude towards what he is talking about), Tone (the speaker's attitude to his listener) and Intention, by which he refers the speaker's purpose.

As it can be inferred from these assumptions, Richards centred his critical attention on the predominant place of the reader in the study of literature, but he implicitly assumed that the reader's task was to be controlled by the text. At the end of his book, Richards acknowledged that the reader's personal situation "inevitably (and within limits rightly) affect[ed] his reading" (239), but he openly stated that the text "control[led] and order[ed] such feelings" (239), and that reader's experience of reading "must respect the liberty and autonomy of the poem" (240).

Richards's work had a fundamental effect upon New Critics, who incorporated Richards's methodology of an objective "close reading" into their own critical apparatus. However, Richard's proposal to take the reader instead of the text as the object of analysis found a strong opposition among the members of the New Critical movement, who consciously discarded those elements of his theory that emphasised the relevance of the reader's response for the study of a literary text. One of the founders of New Criticism was John Crowe Ransom, who established as the principal maxim of the New Critical doctrine that "criticism must become more scientific, or precise and systematic" (1951: 455). This meant that the critic should focus exclusively on the literary text in order to examine its texture and structure. In Ransome's own words:

The first law to be prescribed to criticism, if we may assume such authority, is that it shall be objective, shall cite the nature of the object rather than its effects upon the subject (462).

At this point it is interesting to observe that even though all the proponents of New Criticism shared the belief that the reader should be excluded from the study of literature, they did not coincide in holding the same kind of arguments against it. I believe that the existence of divergences among New Critics on the motives for the banishment of the reader is in itself noteworthy, because it seems to betray certain instability in the New Critical position on the reader that may contribute to lessen the force of their claims for its avoidance from literary studies:

Ransome argued that the reader's reaction towards the text could not be the object of study for literary critics because such a concern was a denial of "the autonomy of the work itself as existing for its own sake" (463) and it misleadingly implied that works of art existed as part of the artist's designs upon the public (463). On the other hand, Wimsatt and Beardsley, whose essay "The Affective Fallacy" (1996 [1949]) became the most influential manifesto against the interpretation in terms of the text's effects upon the reader, based their rejection of the reader on different grounds:

The Affective Fallacy is confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does), a special case of epistemological scepticism [...]. It begins by trying to derive the standard of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome of either Fallacy, the Intentional or the Affective, is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear (345).

In the passage above, Wimsatt and Beardsley made clear that their reason to do away with the figure of the reader is to prevent that the critical interest in the reader may bring about the lack of interest in the literary text itself as an object of analysis. Wimsatt and Beardsley never denied that the reader is a constitutive entity in the literary act; as a matter of fact, later in this essay they complained of the impossibility of ascertaining the reader's reaction towards a literary text, which seems to indicate that their dismissal of the reader was forced by circumstances rather than desired:

The report of some readers, on the other hand, that a poem or story induces in them vivid images, intense feelings, or heightened consciousness, is neither anything which can be refuted nor anything which it is possible for the objective critic to take into account. The purely affective report is either too physiological or it is too vague (353).

Cleanth Brooks (1997) was another major exponent of the New Critical principles, and, as the rest of the New Critics already mentioned, he excluded the reader from the analysis of the work of art. Nonetheless, Brooks straightforwardly admitted that to sever the literary work from the readers "may seem drastic and therefore disastrous" (27) because "literature is written to be read" and "literary works are merely potential until they are read" (27). Brooks stressed that literary criticism was "a description and an evaluation" of a work" (26) and that the literary critic was "concerned primarily with the work itself" (27). However, curiously enough he recurred to the notion of "ideal reader" in order to explain the critic's task of interpreting a literary work, which is an evident indication of the New Critics' difficulty to eliminate absolutely the figure of the reader from their theoretical discussions:

... The formalist critic assumes an ideal reader: that is, instead of focusing on the varying spectrum of possible readings, he attempts to find a central point of reference from which he can focus upon the structure of the poem or novel. [...] There is no ideal reader, of course, and I suppose that the practising critic can never be too often reminded of the gap between his reading and the 'true' reading of the poem. But for the purpose of focusing upon the poem rather than upon his own reactions, it is a defensible strategy (28).

It may be concluded that the fact that the New Critical efforts to remove the category of the reader proved to be a failure brought about to a certain extent the counter effect of what New Critics had intended; after all, the New Critics' unsuccessful attempts to make the reader disappear completely from literary criticism indirectly worked towards reinforcing the assumption that the reader was a fundamental element for the analysis of literary works, which was the basis of the emerging Reader-response Theory.

"Reader-response theory" is the umbrella term which is used to refer to the form of reader-oriented criticism that originated in the United States. Reader-response criticism does not denote any specific theory; as Holub notes, reader-response theorists "are not participating in any critical movement, and they are apparently responding with their methods to quite different predecessors and circumstances" (1989: xiii). However, all these critics concentrate upon the same area of investigation: the reader and the process of reading. Reader-response theorists coincide in that their focus of critical interest is the response of a reader to a text, although they approach this subject from a variety of theoretical orientations, most notably structuralism, psychoanalysis, hermeneutics, and poststructuralism. It is important to note that the change of attitude towards the reader which characterises reader-oriented criticism is accompanied by a qualitative change in the approach to this category, because the concern of the reader-oriented critics is not with the emotional effects of the poem upon the reader (i.e. affective response), which constituted the principal object of the New Critical attack to the reader[31],but with the mental operations carried out by the reader when reading a literary text (i.e. cognitive response).

2. 1. 1. The Reader as an Element of the Text

Literary structuralism attempts to discover the system of rules that govern literary texts in order to found a general science of literature. Consequently structuralists have focused specifically on the text, and they have traditionally showed little interest in the figure of the reader. However, the preoccupation with the inner functions of the text has surprisingly led to a growing critical attention on the reader's activity of reading among a number of these theorists who have argued that the analysis of the role of the reader in the reading process can help us to comprehend the underlying conventions by which a literary text works.

Tzvetan Todorov (1980) starts his account warning that, even though the reading experience is taken for granted "yet nothing is more unknown" (67). He considers that the major difficulty in the study of reading is that it "is so hard to observe" (77), and he suggests that the most convenient way to analyse reading is to regard it as a "work of construction" (78). Todorov claims that there are various types of reading, and he proposes to explore the reading of representative texts because in his view "only this type unfolds as a construction" (67). His initial assumption is that "what exists first and foremost is the text itself, and nothing but the text" (67) and that the approach to it from the perspective of the reader's construction "allows us to understand thoroughly how the so-called representative text functions" (68).

Todorov describes the first step in the task of reading as a phase during which the reader filters the information he receives from the text in order to "construct an imaginary universe" (72). After the reader has constructed the events of the story, he begins what Todorov calls "the task of reinterpretation" (75): it consists in composing the characters' personalities as well as the novel's internal system of ideas and values. In the process of reinterpretation the reader is constrained both by the text ("the author need but take a few moments to teach us how to interpret the events he evokes", 75-76) and by the cultural context ("the commonplaces of a society", 76).

It is evident that Todorov views the reader merely as a textual instrument to unlock the text's meaning — in his own words, "a text always contains within itself directions for its own consumption" (77). However, his incipient interest in the position of the reader is significant because it shows how the gradual turn to the reader within contemporary critical theory starts to develop within a formalist position.

It is also within a formalist context that Walker Gibson (1983) conceives the first specific name in order to refer to the reader of a literary text: the "mock reader". Gibson introduces the distinction between the "real reader" and the "mock reader" by making a comparison with the well-known separation between the author and the speaker of a literary work. He justifies the basis for the analogy thus: on the one hand, the "real author" is to a large extent "distracting and mysterious, lost in history" and in a similar way the "real reader" is also "lost in today's history, [and] is no less mysterious and sometimes as irrelevant" (1); on the other hand, the speaker of a sonnet is "controlled and definable" (1), and the same happens to the reader when he becomes immersed in the reading of a literary work (1). Gibson defines the "mock reader" in the following way:

... There is the fictitious reader — I shall call him the "mock reader" — whose mask and costume the individual takes on in order to experience the language. The mock reader is an artefact, controlled, simplified, abstracted out of the chaos of day-to-day sensation (2).

This description of the mock reader reveals that Gibson is still working within the formalistic assumption that the text is the centre of literary analysis, because the real reader must adopt the role which the text asks him to play during the reading process.

Gibson states that each literary work requires from its readers that they identify with a specific mock reader (4), and he contends that the reader needs to acquire literary training if is to make fuller use of his position as a mock reader and thus understand the meaning of the text. As Gibson sees it:

The realization on the part of a student that he is as many people as he reads many books and responds to their language worlds is the beginning of literary sophistication in the best sense. One crucial objective of the teacher, I take it, is simply the enlargement of his "mock" possibilities (5).

Finally Gibson asserts that it is possible to establish value discriminations among mock readers, and he argues that this possibility is in turn an effective means in order to determine the literary value of a work. Hence Gibson explains that there may be tolerable and intolerable mock readers (6), and he indicates that every time the reader finds the latter it will be evident that he is reading a bad book: "a bad book, then, is a book in whose mock reader we discover a person we refuse to become, a mask we refuse to put on, a role we will not play" (5). Gibson believes that what is more complicated is to find the standard to judge the value of mock readers, which he considers to be closely associated with the system of social values of each reader ("in the end our appeals for decisions of value are toward sanctions of society in a very real world indeed"). This is a particularly interesting aspect of the theory, because it reveals the moral intention underlying it: "for the student, the problem of what mock reader [...] is proper for him to accept [...] involves the whole overwhelming problem of learning to read and learning to act" (6). In other words, Gibson's notion of mock reader is intended to make the reader gain literary awareness as well as self-discernment.

It must be observed that although Gibson regards the mock reader as an element in the narrative whose activities are subordinated to the text, he shifts his critical interest from the text towards the reader, and, most importantly, he introduces the idea that the effects that a text produces upon the reader and the operations he performs during reading deserve attention within literary analysis.

In a line similar to Gibson's[32], Wayne Booth (1991) makes a distinction between the actual flesh-and-blood reader, who "should use his mind, his critical intelligence, as well as his emotions" (38) and his invented notion of "implied reader", who is a self created in the work with whose beliefs the former is called upon to agree (137-138). Hence Booth proposes an active role for the actual reader in the reading process, but only insofar as he subordinates his activities to the control of the text. The concept of the implied reader must be placed within the larger framework of Booth's theory of criticism in order to be able to understand it:

Booth attempts to discover the rhetorical resources which allow the author to impose his fiction upon the reader (xiii), and therefore he pays a particular attention to the relationship between the authorial intention and the reader's response during the process of reading. According to Booth the author creates in each work an image of himself ("implied author") who stands as "an ideal, literary, created version of the real man" (74-75) and "every stroke implying his second self will help to mould the reader into the kind of person suited to appreciate such a character and the book he is writing" (89). In this manner, he suggests that the author creates his own reader, to whom he calls "implied reader". The task of the actual reader is to submit himself to it in order to grasp the meaning of the literary text: "... the reader must suspend to some extent his own disbeliefs; he must be receptive, open, ready to receive the clues" (112).

Nevertheless, it must be noted that in later years Booth has gradually moved away from his initial ideas about the reader in order to stress the reader's creative role in the process of reading, as it can be observed in his afterword to the second edition of this book:

... I now would underline the inherently, inescapably creative role we play in every act of reading. Recent "reader-critics" are quite right in insisting that the actual reader must "make" whatever story gets made, including, of course, its teller (420).

Gerald Prince (1983) provides another instance of insertion of the reader within the textual system of a literary work with his elaboration of the notion of "narratee"[33], to whom he defines as a fictive construction to whom the narrator addresses (7). However Prince also devotes an essay (1980) specifically to the interaction between the actual reader and the text, and I shall focus on it because it is particularly useful in order to highlight his conception of the reader. The title of this essay — "Notes on the Text as Reader" — is clearly illustrative of Prince's formalistic position with respect to the reader, to whom he later describes as "an agent capable of extracting meaning from a text" (225). Nevertheless, he openly recognises that the reader must be taken into account as an essential constituent in literary criticism in his definition of reading as "an interaction between the text and the reader" (225) and above all in his claim that "if the activity of reading (and its results) depends on the text being read, it also depends on the reader" (227).

Prince explains the potential consequences derived from the fact that reading is not independent from the reader in the following way:

... his [the reader's] physiological, psychological, and sociological conditioning, his predispositions, feelings, and needs may vary greatly and so may his reading: his knowledge, his interests, and his aims determine to a certain extent the conventions, assumptions, and presuppositions he takes to underlie the text, the kinds of connections he is particularly interested in making, the questions he chooses to ask, and the answers he brings to them (229-230).

Nonetheless, he asserts that in any case the text always directs and constrains the reader's activities by means of "reading interludes" (226, 234) in order to avoid "an indefinitely large number of possible readings" (230). Reading interludes, which are "a distinctive type of what is often designated as commentary" (235), have multiple functions: they indicate how to read the narrative and they stress the important passages to grasp the meaning of the text (237). However, as Prince makes clear, the primary objective of reading interludes is to "affect decisively any given reader's reading, and response" (238-239).

Prince's attention to the fact the reader's reactions can affect the process of reading anticipates in origin the ideas which are later developed by recent reader-oriented critics about the way individual reader can participate in the production of the meaning of a literary text. Still Prince is far from yielding any privileged status to the reader, who in practice continues to count as one more component among the others which the text possesses.

2. 1. 2. The Reader as a Decoder of Textual Meaning

In contrast to previous critics, Christine Brooke-Rose (1980) complements the concept of the reader as an element inserted in the text — which she calls "encoded reader" (121) — with the notion of an actual reader who actively cooperates with the former in order to work out the meaning of the literary text (127).

Firstly, Brooke-Rose establishes three categories in her study, namely, "texts in which a code is overdetermined, texts in which it is underdetermined, and texts in which is nondetermined or so haphazardly determined as to be in effect nondetermined" (122-123). Secondly, she sets out to examine how to each of these categories corresponds a specific kind of encoded reader and consequently they also demand a different reaction on the part of the actual reader:

Brooke-Rose asserts that when a code is overdetermined, the reader is "overencoded" (123), which means that he is encoded in an overdetermined manner for the sake of over clarity (127). But, as she warns, "some underdetermination is necessary for it [the work] to retain its hold over us" (131), and this provokes the actual reader to enter into action. Thus Brooke-Rose contends that the overdetermination in some codes "shifts the actual reader's interpretative power onto other codes" (128).

Later she claims that when a code is underdetermined, the encoded reader is asked to collaborate actively in overdetermination (134) but the aim of this overencoded reader is to confuse the actual reader (138). Then there is again a tension between overdetermination and underdetermination (141), which prompts the actual reader to participate in order to solve the puzzlement which results from this situation (142).

Finally, Brooke-Rose explains that the category of non-determined codes occurs "with texts in which the balance of overdetermination and underdetermination is apparently [...] not respected or structured [...] with no other reason than the author's whim" (144-145). In this case either all codes are overdetermined or underdetermined, and as a consequence of this lack of organised meta-textual tension there is no encoded reader. According to her, this leads to a chaotic situation:

... The actual reader then takes over, with his feelings and ideology, his period-bound enthusiasms and limitations, his fashionable prejudices and his moral alienation (145).

Therefore Brooke-Rose allows the actual reader to participate in the reading process, but the freedom with which she seems to bestow his activities is only illusory; after all, the actual reader's movements are guided by the encoded reader, which is ultimately an implicit way of reaffirming the text's control over the reader.

Michael Riffaterre (1977) pays a specific attention to the reader's response to literary texts. He defines the literary phenomenon as "the relationship between text and reader" (147), and he tries to explore this "ideal complementarity", which he considers that has been unduly neglected (147). Riffaterre emphasises that "no work is a work of art if it does not command the response of a public" (154), and he insists that the "effectiveness" of a literary text should be measured in terms of "the degree of its perceptibility" on the part of the reader: "the more it attracts his attention [...], the more of a monument it is [...], and therefore the more literary" (154-155).

Riffaterre also asserts that the literary meaning of a text does not exist independently of the reader's relation to it, and there is a moment in this essay when he claims that "the impact felt by the reader is all that counts" (160). However, his position is not as radical as this last statement could initially lead us to think. In fact, Riffaterre never abandons the formalistic assumption that the meaning lies in the language of the text: according to him, the response of the reader "must be such a response as can be explained only by the formal characteristics of the text" (154)".

It is true that it is to Riffaterre's credit that he was the first structuralist who recognised that the traditional structuralist study of the grammar of the text was incomplete because it did not include the study of the effects upon the reader. Riffaterre (1983) claims that "the narrow, rigorous methods of the esprit de géométrie could never catch the subtle, indefinable je ne sais quoi that poetry is supposed to be made of" (36) and he contends that "the segmentation of a poem must therefore be based on [the reader's] responses" (37). Moreover, Riffaterre propounds the construction of a methodological construct called "superreader" — which does not reappear in his later works — as an attempt to elaborate a theory of reading that can explain "what establishes contact between poetry and reader" (36):

This tool of analysis, this "superreader" in no way distorts the special act of communication under study: it simply explores that act more thoroughly by performing it over and over again. It has the enormous advantage of following exactly the normal reading process, of perceiving the poem as its linguistic shape dictates, along the sentence, starting at the beginning [...] it has the advantage of screening pertinent structures and only pertinent structures (88-89).

Nevertheless, Riffaterre's proposal of literary analysis is still grounded in formalistic roots: in spite of insisting on the relevance of the reader's response for the study of a literary work, Riffaterre makes use of an ideal personification of actual readers, and in addition he asserts that it is necessary to "empty the response from its content" lest the subjectivity of the reader may distort "the whole act of communication" between the poem and the reader with elements exterior to it (37). Consequently Riffaterre anticipates the idea that it is necessary to analyse closely the activities performed by the reader during the process of reading, although he is only interested in them in so far as they are the means to decode the text's meaning.

2. 1. 3. The Reader as a Co-producer of Meaning

The influence of semiotics on literature criticism allows to broaden its scope, because it posits the necessity to go beneath the linguistic system of rules of a text in order to discover more abstract structures of meaning that are shared with society and culture. From the perspective of the present dissertation, the most important contribution of semiotics to the study of literature is that it stresses the active participation of the reader in the interpretation of signs.

The semiotician Umberto Eco (1977) attempts to construct a theory of general semiotics which may explain any kind of semiotic function from a perspective of underlying systems interrelated by one or more codes (25), and he devotes a special attention to what he terms the "aesthetic text" in the formulation of his semiotic project. For Eco there are there are various reasons to include the aesthetic text within the field of study of semiotics, and they can be roughly summarised thus: first, the aesthetic text represents a manipulation of expression that results in a completely idiosyncratic and original semiotic function (416); second, the aesthetic text can change our vision of the world, and semiotics studies the correspondences between propositions and the states of the world (434). According to Eco, the aesthetic text possesses an inner system of mutual relationships that connects multiple messages and controls their deviations by means of a rule called "aesthetic idiolect", which makes them functional (429-430). The task of the reader is to recognise the idiolect of a work in order to interpret it, but there are always aspects that the reader — and even the author — cannot identify (432). Thus, Eco proposes an innovative concept of the interpretation of an aesthetic text as a process which can be further developed through several readings but remains infinite.

Another important aspect of Eco's work is his notable interest in the reader's role in the interpretive process, which becomes one of his most relevant objects of analysis in his later writings. Eco claims that the receiver of a text establishes a dialectic between fidelity and freedom with the text: on the one hand, he can try to extract the rules of the author from the disconnected data he obtains during his aesthetic experience and thus to interpret the text in terms of the author's codes; on the other hand, he can choose to bring new interpretive possibilities (435). Thus, Eco goes one step beyond previous critics and confers to the reader a more active role than had been previously granted to him. It must be observed that in Eco's theory the reader's activity is still regulated by the contextual organization of the text and he must collaborate to fill the semantic vacancies in a responsible way (436). However, he is one of the first critics to introduce the crucial idea that the reader plays a creative role in the interpretation of a text.

Eco (1979) had already expounded his theoretical assumptions about the plurality of the text and the reader's free interpretive choices, although at that time he had not studied these topics within a semiotic framework yet. In that account Eco insists that the work of art is essentially ambiguous and that as a result it depends of the active role of its consumer (34). Eco refers to the ambiguity of a work as "openness", and he divides them into "open texts" —those prone to elicit multiple responses — and "closed texts" — those susceptible of a specific interpretation (37). However, he adds that in any case every work is inevitably "open" to an inexhaustible proliferation of inner relations that the reader must discover (98), and that each reader understands the work from his own personal perspective, which implies that any work is open to an infinite number of potential readings (105). As we shall see, Eco has lately retracted (1981, 1997, 1998) from the radical position he presents here on the reader's extreme freedom in interpretation; nevertheless, it remains clearly indicative of the strong desire he already had in those early years to relocate the figure of the reader into a prominent place in literary criticism.

After these studies Eco's concern with the role of the reader increases to the extent that he devotes a whole book to attempt to provide a semiotic model that describes the processes by which the reader cooperates in the interpretive task. Eco (1981) firmly believes that the reader is an active constituent in the interpretive activity and that consequently he belongs to the generative framework of the text. This is the reason why he argues that it is necessary to include the cooperation of the reader as an element that forms part of the structural analysis of a text (16). Eco's main thesis is that each author organises in his work a textual strategy which presupposes a series of competences on the part of the reader (knowledge of the language, knowledge of literary patterns). Hence, the author constructs his own "Model Reader" (80), which Eco defines as a "textually established set of felicity conditions" that must be fulfilled for the potential content of a text to be totally actualized (89).

Then Eco explains that the role of the actual reader consists in filling the gaps which characterise the literary text by using those competences that are required from him, which means that the cooperative movements which he performs are thus predetermined by the text (73-75). As a result, the text allows the actual reader a certain degree of freedom in his interpretive task and he contributes to the production of the text, even if his activities in order to fill in the blank spaces of a text are not as free as they may seem because they are already forecasted by the organisation of the text (76-81).

In his later writings Eco (1997, 1998) has maintained a similar attitude as regards the limits of the reader's free choices in interpretation. Eco (1997: 33-34; 1998: 18-19) states that in the last thirty years critics — among whom he includes himself in one of his works (see Eco, 1979) — have overemphasised the reader's freedom in interpretation. Eco maintains that the problem of the absolute autonomy of the author's text in literary criticism cannot be solved with a tendency that favours an excessively free interpretive activity on the part of the reader, and he contends that what is needed is to keep an oscillatory balance between the reader's initiative and the fidelity to the text. Eco proposes (1997: 63; 1998: 32) that the alternative solution to escape the dilemma of the author's intention and the interpreter's intention is to speak of the "intention of the text". Eco argues in favour of the intention of the text over the other possibilities because he finds that the text is the only place where to get hold on between the "mysterious history of a textual production" and the uncontrollable drift of its future readings" (1997: 103).

Eco refers to his experience as a novelist in order to clarify his position: he explains that a creative text must present a contradictory plurality of conclusions, so that the reader can freely choose his own interpretation. This leads Eco to claim that every creative work is an "open text" (1997: 160). Nevertheless, he adds that even though a text can have an infinite number of interpretations, only those which can be validated in terms of the coherence of the text are acceptable (1997: 78, 161; 1998: 41). Therefore, Eco believes that the reader is not the unique creator of the meaning of a text, but he acknowledges that the reader collaborates actively in its production.

Jonathan Culler also approaches the issues of the reader and the reading process from a semiotic stance, although he initially elaborated his theory in traditional structuralist terms. Hence, Culler (1975) calls for a structuralist poetics that investigates the activity of reading with the objective to "understand the conventions which make literature possible" (viii). He maintains that the analysis of the reader's response to a text can allow us to discover "the interpretive operations on which literature itself is based" (viii), arguing that:

The reader of literature has acquired, through his encounters with literary works, implicit mastery of various semiotic conventions which enable him to read series of sentences as poems or novels endowed with shape and meaning (viii).

Consequently, the reader becomes the central subject of inquiry of this theorist's critical project. Culler starts from the assumption that linguistics is the most adequate model in order to organise a poetics (ix), and he applies the Chomskian notion of "competence" into the study of literature by drawing an analogy between the speaker of a language and the reader of literature: just like the speaker of a language can understand a sentence because he possesses an internalised grammar of that language (113), the reader of literature can understand a literary text because — apart from his knowledge of the language in which it is written — he has "internalized the 'grammar' of literature" (114), which "permit[s] him to convert linguistic sentenced into literary structures and meanings" (114). Culler defines 'literary competence' as "a set of conventions for reading literary texts" (118), although he observes that these conventions do not belong to readers themselves but are "the constituents of the institution of literature" (117). This is explained by Culler in the following terms:

The conventions of poetry, the logic of symbols, the operations for the production of poetic effects, are not simply the property of readers but the basis of literary forms. However, for a variety of reasons it is easier to study them as the operations performed by readers than as the institutional context taken for granted by authors. The statements authors make about the process of composition are notoriously problematic, and there are few ways of determining what they are taking for granted, whereas the meanings readers give to literary works and the effects they experience are much more open to observation (118).

From a Cullerian point of view, a reader's interpretations of a literary text are not "the result of subjective associations" (116), because his account implies that "they are public and can be discussed and justified with respect to the conventions of reading poetry" (116). As a result, Culler decides to ignore "what actual readers happen to do" (123) and he posits the concept of an "ideal reader", which he defines as "a theoretical construct" (124) that is able to "read and interpret works in ways which we consider acceptable, in accordance with the institution of literature" (125).

[...]


[1] Oscar Wilde was continuously satirised during his literary career and after his downfall. Wilde started to be mocked as early as 1880 in George du Maurier's cartoons for the Punch, and from that moment onwards the lampoons upon him were constant. The satirical attacks did not diminish when his reputation as a playwright had been firmly established thanks to the enormous success of his society comedies. An evident proof of it is that Lady Windermere's Fan was parodied shortly after its production in a play with the title The Poet and the Puppets: A Travestie Suggested by "Lady Windermere's Fan", written by Charles Brookfield with the collaboration of the actor Charles Hawtrey. During his final years and after his death even Wilde's friends such as Max Beerbohm and Ada Leverson satirised the person of Wilde and his works.

For a fuller account of the parodies and satires on Wilde, see Beckson (1998b: 257-259) and for an extensive analysis of the fictional representations of Wilde in Victorian literature, see Kingston (2007).

[2] Patience contributed to spread the well-known story that Wilde "walked down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in his medieval hand". When Wilde was later asked about it by an American journalist, he answered that: "To have done it was nothing, but to make people think one had done it was a triumph" (New York World, 8 January, 1882). Wilde's reply is particularly illustrative of Wilde's delight in taking part in the creation of his own legend.

[3] Wilde never protested against the satiric imitation that Patience made of him. On the contrary, as soon as he was told about it, he wrote a letter to George Grossmith, who was the character that played Bunthorne, in order to ask him to reserve a box for him. Wilde seemed to be delighted at the prospect of this operetta, and he said to Grossmith that: "With Gilbert and Sullivan I am sure we will have something better than the dull farce of The Colonel. I am looking forward to being greatly amused" (ML, 35). Nonetheless, Wilde's apparent complacency must be considered part of his overall design to achieve fame by all costs. As Ellmann (1987: 131) points out, "notoriety is fame's wicked twin: Wilde was prepared to court one in the hope that the other would favour him too". Once he reached the peak of his success, he revenged himself of the ridiculed poked at him in Patience by inserting a satirical remark against it in a stage direction of The Importance of Being Earnest: "Jack and Algernon whistle some dreadful popular air from a British Opera" (CW, 405).

[4] Vera, or the Nihilists is a play about the political and social difficulties existing in Russia as a result of the Nihilists' conspirations to murder the Tsar. The play was to be premiered in London on 17th December 1881, but in November the rehearsals were suddenly cancelled before they had started. Eight months ago the Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated in March and the new Tsarina was the sister of the Princess of Wales, and The World (30th November, 1881) reported that Wilde had decided to postpone the opening of his drama "considering the present state of political feeling in England".In general, the most relevant Wildean critics (Pearson, 1956: 54; Ericksen, 1977: 119; Bird, 1977: 11; Ellmann, 1987: 146; Raby, 1988: 12; Kohl, 1989: 35; Eltis, 1996: 28) have unanimously accepted this reason for Wilde's withdrawal of his play. The exception to these critics is George Rowell, who argues that after eight months the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II was not such a recent event and that the play had never received a license from the Lord Chamberlain to be performed. According to him, "the pretext for the postponement may have been the play's political content, but the real reason was surely the lack of funds to put it on" (in Beckson 1998b: 397).

[5] For a schedule of Wilde's lectures in America and Canada, see Beckson (1998b: 191) and Ellmann (1987: 178-181), who includes the cities where Wilde stopped but did not lecture. For a specific account of the Canadian tour, see O’Brien (1982).

A comprehensive and accurate record of Wilde's interviews in the United States and Canada can be found in Hofer and Scharnhorst (2013).

[6] Carte had organized Wilde's lecture tour with the intention of capitalizing on the success of Patience. However, Wilde took the opportunity of his American tour to denounce openly the image of aestheticism that this operetta offered. This is why Wilde said in his lecture "The English Renaissance of Art": You have listened to Patience for a hundred nights and you have heard me only for one. It will make, no doubt, the satire more piquant by knowing something about the subject of it, but you must not judge of aestheticism by the satire of Mr Gilbert (Jackson, 1991: 17). And later he added: You have heard, I think, a few of you, of two flowers connected with the aesthetic movement in England, and said (I assure you, erroneously) to be the food of some aesthetic young men. Well, let me tell you that the reason we love the lily and the sunflower, in spite of what Mr Gilbert may tell you, is not for any vegetable fashion at all. It is because these two lovely flowers are in England the most naturally adopted for decorative art... (Jackson, 1991: 27).

[7] Recently, Shannon (2011), Morris (2012) and Castle (2013) have drawn attention to Wilde’s efforts to construct his public image and advertise it by means of modern self-promotion strategies during his American lecture tour, which reinforces the idea here previously presented.

[8] This passage is taken from a lecture entitled "Art and the Handicraftsman", which is composed by fragments that seem to belong to the original manuscripts of "The English Renaissance of Art" and "The Decorative Arts". For a summary of the difficulties found with the edited texts of Wilde's American lectures, see Kohl (1989: 71-72).

[9] Wilde wrote an article entitled "The American Man", which was published in the Court and Society Review on 13th April 1887. This article resembles these lectures in that it consists of satirical remarks upon the Americans which are full of wit. But the Americans continued to be the targets of Wilde's satire in his creative works. "The Canterville Ghost" relied on the satire of the American way of life and thinking for one of the sources of its humour. Moreover, satirical comments on American mentality reappear briefly in The Picture of Dorian Gray (chapter 3: 36-37; 41-42), and they develop into a particularly significant element in Wilde's play entitled A Woman of No Importance, where one of the principal characters — an American young woman called Hester Worsley — is the embodiment of the prejudices of American puritan society.

[10] Wilde suggested to the Cassell directors to change the name of the magazine from The Lady's World to The Woman's World. In a letter to Wemyss Reid, who was the general manager of Cassell's publishing firm, Wilde argued that: The present name of the magazine has a certain taint of vulgarity about it that will always militate against the success of the new issue, and is also extremely misleading. It is quite applicable to the magazine in its present state; it will not be applicable to a magazine that aims at being the organ of women of intellect, culture, and position (L, 203). Although initially Wilde's suggestion met the publishers' resistance, they finally acceded to Wilde's desires. Consequently, the first issue under Wilde's editorship, which appeared in November 1887, was named The Woman's World.

[11] For an introduction to the issue of anonymity in Victorian journalism, see chapter six in Stokes (1989: 145-166).

[12] However, some years later "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." would be part of the evidence used by the prosecutor Edward Carson to prove Wilde's homosexuality in the first of his trials (Hyde, 1962: 113).

[13] "The Truth of Masks" differs so much from the other critical essays included in Intentions both in tone and subject-matter that it does not seem to stem from the same author as "Pen, Pencil, and Poison", "The Decay of Lying", and "The Critic as Artist", and therefore it may strike one as surprising that Wilde collected them all in the same volume. In fact, Wilde later ordered to replace it with 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' in the French translation of Intentions (see L, 294-295). The reason why Wilde included "The Truth of Masks" in the English version of Intentions was to be able to achieve the minimum length required for the publication of the book. He knew that its inclusion was problematic, but his shrewd ingenuity helped him find an intelligent solution. He added a few stylistic corrections, invented this paradoxical title and the subtitle "A Note on Illusion" and, most importantly, appended the following conclusion: Not that I agree with everything that I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything (CW, 1173).

[14] Wilde commented on these years of his life in De Profundis, where he said: "I thought life was going to be a brilliant comedy" (CW, 998).

[15] In 1898 Wilde wrote to his friend Robert Ross, who had become Wilde's literary executor after his imprisonment, the following: "The Duchess is unfit for publication — the only one of my works that comes under that category" (L, 757).

[16] Salome was presumably banned on account of a traditional rule against the representation of biblical characters that was in operation since the time of Reformation, but it seems that the sexual perversion represented in Salome may have been another important reason for banning the play, because Lord Chamberlain Pigott asserted that Salome was "half Biblical, half pornographic" (quoted in Powell, 1990: 33). Except William Archer, the rest of English newspaper critics were unanimous in their support of Lord Chamberlain's decision, which gave them a new excuse for their indefatigable attacks on Wilde's works. Wilde's expression of his indignation to the ban of Salome was excessively disproportionate — he even threatened to become a French citizen — but he was right in his complaint that the English papers were "trying in every way to harm Salome, though they have not read it" (L, 319). It was obvious that Press's reaction to Wilde's play was part of their crusade against him. As Bird (1977: 63-64) remarks, the result was that "the public tended to assume that Salome had been proscribed on grounds of indecency, and a black shadow was cast over his reputation". In 1896 Salome was premiered in Paris by Aurélien Lugné-Poe at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre.

[17] For the most accurate and complete account of the trials to date, see Holland (2003).

[18] The only objection against the removal of Wilde's name from theatre handbills was raised by the playwright Sydney Grundy, who convincingly argued: "If a man is not to be credited with what he has done well, by what right is he punished for what he has done ill?" (Goodman, 1995: 87). Grundy's protest was reported in an anonymous article which appeared in The Illustrated Police News on 27th April 1895, whose author concluded that "to retain the benefit of the dramatist's work and to suppress his name is mere moral humbug" (Goodman, 1995: 87).

[19] Gay (1992), who has devoted a two-volume study to the subject of sexuality in Victorian England, argues that it was not simply Wilde's homosexuality but above all his boastful defiance of Victorian moral values which was crucial for his conviction (II: 191-194). According to Gay, in the last decades of the nineteenth century most of the bourgeois preferred to ignore the existence of homosexuality, as if silence over it were the best means to protect their social stability. As a result, homosexuals were safe as long as they kept up appearances and pretended that rumours about them — if any — were false. Gay contends that due to Wilde's public reaction to the Marquess of Queensberry's hint at his homosexuality and to the display of his characteristic contemptuous attitude towards the established norms during his trials society felt forced to take notice of Wilde's conduct, and they decided to abuse him and send him to prison in order to revenge upon him.

[20] As far as Wilde's opinion is concerned, he thought that the real reason for his imprisonment had been his attempt to jail the Marquess of Queensberry. In De Profundis, Wilde told Lord Alfred Douglas: Remember how and why I am here, at this very moment. Do you think I am here on account of my relations with the witnesses on my trial? My relations, real or supposed, with people of that kind were matters of no interest to either the Government or Society. They knew nothing of them, and cared less. I am here for having tried to put your father into prison (DP, 1008).

[21] Ransome's book has become particularly well-known because Lord Alfred Douglas brought an unsuccessful libel action against Ransome on account of it in 1913, which demonstrates that Wilde's scandal was still too close in time to obtain impartial data about him.

[22] For a collection of essays evaluating Ellmann’s biography on Wilde at the twentieth anniversary of its publication, see Mendelssohn (2007).

[23] Ian Small (1993, 2000) provides a survey of the critical works on Wilde written since 1970, recording the reinterpretations of Wilde’s writings in the context of major trends in contemporary literary theory.

[24] Eagleton points out that Wilde’s attitude was “ambiguous”, adding that he made “too good a job of turning himself into an English gentleman” (18) when it suited his interests. In contrast, recent critics such as Sammells (1991), Coakley (1984), Kiberd (1995) and McCormack (1998) examine Wilde’s works in the context of cultural nationalism and argue that he was seriously attached to his Irish identity, which has generated interesting insights into Wilde and his writings.

[25] Among other critics, Adorno (1997) sustains similar claims about aestheticism. As regards the aesthetes' commodification of art, he asserts that l'art pour l'art concept of beauty "deceives about the commodity world by setting it aside; this qualifies it as a commodity" (237) and later he adds: Wilde, d'Annunzio, and Maeterlinck [...] served as preludes to the culture industry. Progressive subjective differentiation, the heightening and expansion of the sphere of aesthetic stimuli, made these stimuli manipulable; they were able to be produced for the cultural marketplace [...] to this extend the watchword l'art pour l'art was the mask of its opposite (239). With respect to the social commitment of the aesthetic movement, Adorno acknowledges it and argues that "art becomes social by its opposition to society, and it occupies this position only as autonomous art [...] nothing social in art is immediately social, not even when this is its aim" (225, 226).

[26] Recently, Sloan ((2003) and Fortunato (2007) have also focused on Wilde in relation to consumerist culture at the turn of the nineteenth century in England and their contributions have strengthened the conclusions reached earlier in the present study. They argue that Wilde managed to commodify his persona and his works in order to sell them in the mass market without sacrificing neither his aesthetics nor his views against Victorian moral values and social attitudes in his writings.

[27] I think that rather than being a work written for an audience of prisoners, The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem in which Wilde includes himself among them in order to become their mouthpiece of their feelings towards the bitter experiences of prison in front of a non-prisoner audience. The clearest proof of it is that Wilde himself insisted on having it published in a newspaper, so that it reached a wider audience (L, 661). For a textual analysis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol from the perspective I am proposing here, see Pascual Aransáez (2000a).

[28] I argue that Gagnier's assertion that Wilde wrote De Profundis in the absence of an audience except for Lord Alfred Douglas is not exactly accurate. I believe that Wilde wrote it with a future audience in mind, because his instructions to his literary executor with respect to this letter make it evident that Wilde composed it as a document that would serve to explain his conduct towards the Queensberrys to the world. Still in prison Wilde asked Ross to make a copy of De Profundis before sending it to Douglas, arguing thus: Well, if you are my literary executor you must be in possession of the only document that really gives any explanation of my extraordinary behaviour with regard to Queensberry and Alfred Douglas [...] Some day the truth will have to be known: not necessarily in my lifetime or in Douglas's: but I am not prepared to sit in the grotesque pillory they put me into, for all time: for the simple reason that I inherited from my father and my mother a name of high distinction in literature and art, and I cannot, for eternity, allow that name to be the shield and catspaw of the Queensberrys (L, 512).

[29] However, it must be noted that the preoccupation with the reader is as old as the study of the text. For a historical perspective on the critical interest in reader's response in literary theory, see Tompkins (1983: 201-232) and Selden (1996: 186-221).

[30] It is necessary to bear in mind that, as Rabinowitz points out, "this hostility to New Criticism [...] is common to most other contemporary theorists as well" (1995: 375). A case in point in Susan Sontag's "Against Interpretation" (1982: 3-14), which illustrates the antagonistic attitude which was adopted against later New Criticism. Thus, what characterises reader-oriented criticism is not simply its opposition to the New Critical doctrine but more importantly its defence of the prominence of the role of the reader in the process of reading against its exclusion on the part of the New Critics.

[31] Stanley Fish, who is the major exponent of American Reader-response theory, answers Wimsatt and Beardsley's charge of "affective fallacy" in the following terms: ... in the category of response I include not only "tears, prickles," and "other psychological symptoms" but all the precise mental operations involved in reading, including the formulation of complete thoughts, the performing (and regretting) of acts of judgment, the following and making of logical sequences (1980: 42-43).

[32] The similarity between Booth and Gibson with regard to their conceptions of the reader and the reading process is explicitly pinpointed by Booth himself in his book (1991). Hence, Booth comments that Gibson's work (1983) is "an excellent essay" (1991: 138), and after praising it he goes on to make use of Gibson's notion of "mock reader" in order to illustrate some of his own practical examples (138-139).

[33] As Prince (1983: 24) himself acknowledges in this essay, the notion of narratee had already been formulated by Gérard Genette in Figures III (1972).

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Details

Title
The Role of the Reader in Oscar Wilde's Works
Subtitle
A Study Commemorating the 160th Anniversary of Oscar Wilde's Birth
Grade
summa cum laude (Grade 1)
Author
Year
2002
Pages
367
Catalog Number
V273874
ISBN (eBook)
9783656657569
ISBN (Book)
9783656657552
File size
2135 KB
Language
English
Notes
Doctor in English Philology "summa cum laude". As a result of the fresh new insight into Oscar Wilde's dual nature - the "commercial" and the "literary" sides of this author - and the analysis of the complex interplay between them in his works which are provided in the present book, Dr. Cristina Pascual Aransáez has subsequently been interviewed on a national radio programme as well as in two national newspapers in order to comment on the findings of her research.
Tags
role, reader, oscar, wilde, works, study, commemorating, anniversary, birth
Quote paper
PhD Cristina Pascual Aransáez (Author), 2002, The Role of the Reader in Oscar Wilde's Works, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/273874

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