Oscar Wilde’sWildelyParadoxical Language Play
by Don L. F. Nilsenand Alleen Pace Nilsen
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
If eccentricity is a sign of a superior intelligence, then Oscar Wilde has a very high I.Q.“His heavy features betrayed his delight in the almost alarmed reaction of the masses to his outlandish, but always elegant, attire.”His frivolity was ever apparent, and asHeskethPearson said, “good nature seemed to exude from him, pleasure to radiate from him, happiness to enfold him” (Nicholls 55, 60).Max Beerbohm characterized Wilde as follows: “The grand, lascivious, hulking figure in morning coat and pumps, the gaily festooned balloon of a man, displaying touches of mauve and ‘decadent’ yellow, riding above the common swell, blithely throwing overboard the ballast of convention” (Nicolls55).RogerHenklecontends that it is from Beerbohm’s caricatures of Wilde that much of his image has preserved to this day (Henkle297).
Oscar Wilde’s Deliveryand His Language Play
Oscar Wilde’s formidable height and frame, and his attire added greatly to the impact. But his sentences were also carefully constructed to play words and phrases against each other.Wilde wrote in a genre which some critics have dubbed “satire of manners,” and other critics have called “aesthetic satires.”Wilde “paradoxically makes virtue a vice anddesanctifiessociety’s accepted standards, eliminating society’s mediating role; consequently, the individual is left free to develop and to adhere to his own or her own standards” (Robinson 1200).
Oscar Wilde’sParadoxical Language Play
Oscar Wilde said, “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different” (Nicholls vii).James Whistler had an “enduring animosity” of Wilde because of Wilde’s “superiority as a man, a talker, and a wit,” so that “no one else had a dog’s chance against Oscar when he cared to exert himself” (Pearson 196).The best moments in Wilde’s comic plays occur when people talk about “important” things in totally inappropriate ways, as when Lord ArthurSavileapproaches HerrWinckelkopfsearching for an explosive clock, andWinckelkopfassumes that Lord Arthur is planning revenge against the police.He protests, “I am afraid I cannot do anything for you. The English detectives are really our best friends, and I have always found that by relying on their stupidity, we can do exactly what we like” (Henkle307).
Frivolity was the keynote to Wilde’s wit. What other people dealt with seriously, Wilde dealt with humorously, and what they dismissed as trivial, Wilde treated with great gravity.His favorite method of ridiculing conventional standards was to present a proverb or a cliché with only a word or two changed, thus adding a newepiphenalaspect of truth to the saying.He did this for many different aspects of society:
ANY SUBJECT: At one point, Wilde boasted that he could talk wittily on any subject. Hearing this boast, someone suggested that he talk wittily about the Queen, but Wilde smiled and said, “The Queen is not a subject.”Oscar Wilde’s epigrams wittily gave insights into a wide range of social subjects:BIAS: “It is only about the things that do not interest one that one can give an unbiased opinion; that is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is always valueless.”CAFÉ ROYAL CIRCLE: “He hasn’t a single redeeming vice.”CYNICISM: A cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
CIVILIZATION: “People should not mistake the means of civilization for the end. The steam engine and the telephone depend entirely for their value on the use to which they are put.”ENGLAND: “The English have a miraculous power of turning wine into water.”FRIENDSHIP: “Robert gave Harry a terrible black eye, or Harry gave him one; I forgot which, but I know they were greatfriends .”RELIGION: “Prayer must never be answered; if it is, itceasesto be prayer and becomes correspondence.” When Arthur Balfour asked him about his religious beliefs he responded, “Well, you know, my dear Arthur, I don’t think I have any. I am an Irish Protestant.”SCIENCE: “Science can never grapple with the irrational”SELFISHNESS: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not interfering with them.”
SINAND CRIME: “I can resist everything except temptation,” “A community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrences of crime,” “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others,” and “Society produces rogues, and education makes one rogue cleverer thananother.”SOCIAL EXPECTATIONS: “Work is the curse of the drinking class,”“It is only by not paying one’s bills that one can hope to live in the memory of the commercial classes,” and “Consistency is the last refuge of theunimaginative.”VIRTUE: “Don’t be led astray into the paths of virtue.”YOUTH: “It is a kind of genius to be twenty-one. To win back my youth, there is nothing I would not do—nothing…except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community,” “The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young,” “The soul is born old, but grows young. That is the comedy of life. The body is born young, and grows old. That is life’s tragedy” (Nicholls 53, 58; Pearson 101, 170-172, 176-178; Robinson 1201).
The Picture of Dorian Gray(1891)
Oscar Wilde loved paradoxes because they suited his peculiar duality of attitude.The Picture of Dorian Graydemonstrates Wilde’s schizoid nature by dealing with the dual-image of thedopplegänger.Wilde’s paradoxes can be seen not only in the contrast of Dorian Gray with the picture of Dorian Gray, but can also be seen in many otherepiphenalparadoxes Wilde presents as epigrams:
LadyWindemerenever repents of her immoral lifestyle; yet she is never punished for it.It is Wilde’s style to know what is expected and to do the opposite.Most Victorian plays would have this character regret her actions and become a moral and repentant woman.But that is not LadyWindemere’sstyle, and she says to her husband:
“I suppose,Windemere, you would like me to retire into a convent, or become a hospital nurse, or something of that kind, as people do in silly modern novels.That is stupid of you, Arthur; in real life we don’t do such things—not as long as we have any good looks left, at any rate.No—what consoles one nowadays is not repentance, but pleasure. Repentance is quite out of date” (Act IV).
The Importance of Being Earnest(1895)
The Importance of Being Earnestfollows Oscar Wilde’s belief that “we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously and the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality” (Worth 154).LADY BRACKNELL: Do you smoke?JACK: Yes, I must admit I smoke.LADY BRACKNELL: I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind…. I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?
JACK: I know nothing, LadyBracknell.LADY BRACKNELL: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone:LadyBracknellcontinues, “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence inGrovesnorSquare.” (Act I)
The Importance of Being Earnestis a play about names. JackWorthinginvents the name of Ernest so that he will have a justification for being anything but earnest.At the very end of the play, JackWorthingfinds out that Ernest is his real name and that in giving himself the name of Ernest, he has not lied at all.So Jack (Ernest) apologizes. “Gwendolyn, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” (Abel 14).
What Jack says to Gwendolyn is both ironic and paradoxical. What Cecily says to Algernon is also both ironic and paradoxical.Cecily accepts Algernon’s evil past, saying, “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”
In an article entitled “Wrong and Right: The Art of Comedy,” Lionel Abel contrasts two types of humor that have been studied by French critics:l’espritjuste, which is “wit through truth, through hitting the mark dead center,” andl’espritfauxwhich is “wit through error, wit through missing the mark” (Abel 12-13). This last kind of humor is what Wilde uses most, and can be seen in the following dialogue:LADY BRACKNELL: It is very strange. This Mr.Bunburyseems to suffer from curiously bad health.ALGERNON: Yes; poorBunburyis a sad invalid.LADY BRACKNELL: I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that this Mr.Bunburymade up his mind whether he was going to live or not. Thisshilly-shallyingwith the question is absurd. It shows a very ill-balanced intellect and a lack of decision that is quite lamentable.
Oscar Wilde is an ironic and paradoxical author.“There is the continual rivalry of paganism and Christianity, of the gospel of hedonism and the gospel of suffering.There is the contrast between his aesthetic clowning—which he himself admitted to be little more than posture—and the valuable critical theories expressed in his lectures and essays, and carried out in his own writing.There is the contrast between the delightful but often superficial nonsense that occupied so much of his conversation and drama, and the deep thinking on artistic, philosophical and social subjects that supported his outward brilliance.
There is the contrast between the social snob, with his attitude of apparent flippancy towards the poor, and the social critic, whose ideas on political justice and attacks on existing relationships in society were of a truly subversive nature.And there is the contrast between the playboy whose antics brought about with a strange inevitability the crisis of Wilde’s downfall, and his self-conscious ‘prophet’ who emerged chastened from prison, only to be replaced again by the temporarily suppressed playboy of the last days in Paris.” (Woodcock 12)
Conclusion: Wilde was much more popularon the continent than in England
There are reasons that Oscar Wilde’s wit was more appreciated on the continent than in England.First, “his style had a certain lush ornateness, a lack of English restraint, which has always been more appreciated abroad than in Britain.”Second, “In the German public, already used to the nihilism of writers likeNietzche, Wilde’s destructive epigrams must have found an appreciative audience.” (Woodcock 235)
One Final Shot by Oscar Wilde
On one occasion,Wildewatched a performance ofThe Importance of Being Earnest, and afterwards he went back stage and called the company together.Thecompany was afraid that they would be given a tongue lashing, but instead, he stood before them, elaborately attired in browns, fawns, and tans, and said,“My dear, delightful company. I have just watched your performance and I wanted you to know that it reminds me of a play I once wrote” (Nicholls 164).
Oscar Wilde’s Satire