Oscar Wilde. From the Victorian Period to Aestheticism and his Greatest Plays

A Summary in Keywords for Preparing Oral Exams and Presentations

Abstract, 1998

18 Pages

Angelika Felser (Author)



Oscar Wilde

Victorian period



Wilde´s conception of Criticism in The Critic as Artist I

The Relationship between Art and Nature in the Decay of Lying


The Picture of Dorian Gray

Human Nature in Lady Windermere´s Fan

The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

full name: Oscar Fingal O´Flahertie Wills Wilde

was born in Dublin in 1854

at the age of 20 he went to Oxford to study at Magdalen College

at Oxford he was deeply influenced by

Walter Pater and John Ruskin who were convinced of the fact that the full life was possible only through a devotion of art

John Ruskin: held that art should lead to a moral and spiritual elevation

Walter Pater: exercized a more significant + last influence on Wilde

in The Renaissance he found strange beauty in evil

urged that life should be lived as completely and fully as possible

in 1879 Wilde moved to London where he became a famous figure

here he was an apostle of the doctrine of aetheticism preaching to the Victorians (obsessed by duty) that the pusuit of joy and beauty was the chief purpose of life

a self-styled aethete in the characteristic attitude of the intense young man gazing at lilies or admiring the beauty of blue china

was caricatured in Punch, the British humour magazine-

received an invitation to go on a year-long lecture tour in the USA + Canada

giving lectures in the costume of the aethete Brunthorne (the poet in Gilbert´s and Sullivance´s opera Patience - although poets such as Dante Gabrie Rosetti or Algernon Swinburne- both associated with the new aethetic movement- were more likely caricatured in it- ) - in knee breeches, velvet jacket and a sunflower or a lily in his buttonhole

in 1884 married Constance Lloyd

in 1886 had his first known homosexual contact with Robert Cross

- later from 1891 with Lord Alfred Douglas- the product of homosexuality was a series of fairy tales written between 1886 and 1889

The Happy Prince and other tales

criticism: 1889 The Decay of Lying

1890 The Critic as Artist

his only novel 1890 The Picture of Dorian Gray

social commedy 1892 Lady Windermere´s fan

1893 A woman of no importance

1894 The importance of Being Earnest - staged in 1895

1895 An ideal husband

1891 met Lord Alfred Douglass + formed an association with him

his father - the Marquess of Queensberry - started a campaign of scandal against Wilde

Wilde stated to take action against Q., however, at the trial, Wilde´s homosexual activities were exposed - resulat: Queensberry was acquitted + Wilde placed under arrest of 2 years imprisonment with hard labour

(De Profundis)

after his release, he assumed the name Sebastian Melmoth + left for Paris where he died 3 years later in 1900.

Most popular spokesman in the 19th century advocating the doctrine of aetheticism which insisted that

art should be concerned with art for art´s sake - not with politics, religion, science, bourgeois morality or other intentions

„all art is quite useless“ - a view denying any Utilitarian function of art

Victorian period

beginning is dated in 1830 or alternatively

1832 (passage of the first reform Bill)

1837 accession of Queen Victoria

it ends with the death of Victoria in 1901.

Year 1870 is used to distinguish the early Victorian period from the late Victorian period

writing reflected contemporary social-economic-religious-intellectual issues such as

the industrial revolution + its effects on the economic and social structure (rapid urbanization, massive poverty- growing class tensions, feminist movement for equal status + rights)

the frequently derogatory connotations of the term „Victorian“ in our times- sexual priggishness , narrow-mindedness- are indeed based on attitudes and values expressed by many members of V. middle class

poets: Robert Browning - Elizabeth Barret Browning [Sonnets from the Portuguese] - Mathew Arnold

essayists: John Ruskin [Modern Painters, ...]- Mathew Arnold - Walter Pater - collection of essays (Studies in the History of the Renaissance 1873)

novelists: Charles Dickens - Bronte sisters - Thomas Hardy- Wilkie Collins

within the Victorian era 2 literary movements are distinguished:

Pre-Raphaelites - Aetheticism - Decadence

Pre-Raphaelites: in 1848 a group of artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti William Holman Hunt organized „Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood“; their aim: to replace the reigning style of painting by a return to the style of Italian painting before the time of Rafael (15th century) and the High Italian Renaissance;

ideals of these painters were taken over by a literary movement which included Rossetti, William Morris, Algernon Swinburne


the aethetic movement was a phenomenon during the latter 19th century

movement stood in contrast to the prevailing thinking of society that any art had an aim, i.e. to teach moral values.

Criticises mannerism of Victorian society and can be considered to be a genuine search for beauty as an attempt to escape from reality

movement had its chief headquarters in France

The French writers developed the view that

art is self-sufficient and has no use or any moral aim outside its own being

the end of a work of art is to be beautiful (-its formal perfection).

The phrase characteristic of Aetheticism: l´art pour l´art - in English: art for art’s sake

the historical roots of aetheticism are proposed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Critic of aethetic judgement (1790)

an aethete is to contemplate a work of art from a disinterested point of view says an object „pleases for its own sake“ without reference to reality or the ends of utility or morality

in France Gautier´s Preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835) is often quoted as one of the earliest examples of a new aethetic point of view; his ideas inspired Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire (who again is the leading representative of Symbolism)

views of French Aetheticism were introduced into Victorian England by Walter Pater (conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) he pleads for love of art for its own sake) - Wilde calls it „he very flower of decadence“ influenced (Swinbourne, later Lionel Johnson), Oscar Wilde.

Wilde: expresses these ideas in his essays → Decay of Lying (1889) and Critic as Artist (1890) which form the theoretic concept of his writing

The concept of a poem or a novel as an end in itself whose values are intrinsic (immanent) has influenced the writings of William Butler Yeats ( ), T. E. Hulme (advocated the hard, dry image“ in his theories of imagism and who influenced Ezra Pound), T. S. Eliot (The waste Land - a central text of modernism)

aethetic point of view: art -instead of life - says life is a work of art

the outstanding example of the aethete´s withdrawel from life is Huysman´s A Rebours (1884) where the hero Des Esseintes seeks to create an entirely artificial life

Wilde´s flippant dictum:

„The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered“


in the latter 19th century in France (Baudelaire - Les Fleurs du Mal) some proponents of the doctrines of aetheticism developed into a movement called „decadence“

This movement reached its height in the last two decades of the century -> fin de siècle (which connotes the prevailing ennui - Salomé: bored looks for sensation and sexual fulfillment)

the central idea of this movement was the view that

art is totally opposed to nature - in the sense of biological nature and

norms of morality + sexual behavior (Dorian, Salomé)

movement advocates sexual experimentations and a deliberate inversion of conventional, moral, social and artistic mores norms and mores

(Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley)


the artificial

the autonomy of art

need for sensationalism, melodrama

egocentricity - narcissistic cult of one´s self

the bizarre

superior outsider position of the artist vis-à-vis society

aethetic art: soul is pure <-> decadent art: soul is evil, derives pleasure from evil

dandy is the embodiment of aethetic ideal that one should be as artificial as possible.

Outward appearance important as regarded himself as a decorative artist whose material is his own body; Brummel: tried to please people with his person as artists try to please people with their works.


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Oscar Wilde. From the Victorian Period to Aestheticism and his Greatest Plays
A Summary in Keywords for Preparing Oral Exams and Presentations
University of Münster
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Angelika Felser (Author), 1998, Oscar Wilde. From the Victorian Period to Aestheticism and his Greatest Plays, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/335910


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