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Wilde, Oscar

Entry updated 13 February 2023. Tagged: Author, Theatre.


(1854-1900) Irish journalist, playwright, poet and author, mostly in UK from 1874; noted for the witty epigrams which characterize much of his writing. Among his most enduring works are his social comedy plays, such as Lady Windermere's Fan (first performed 20 February 1892; 1893) and especially The Importance of Being Earnest (first performed 14 February 1895; 1898). Of primary genre interest is his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (July 1890 Lippincott's Monthly; exp 1891), in which the titular character (possibly based on John Gray, whom see) essentially sells his soul so that his passing years and sinful behaviour leave their imprint on his portrait while he remains youthful and innocent in appearance. The book version was expanded and revised, with some references to homosexuality excised and six chapters added. It is a Horror novel which combines the subject matter of Gothic literature with the style of the French Decadent movement. Like Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), it deals with the dualistic nature of the human personality and the separation of its good and evil aspects (see Doppelgangers). Screen adaptations include the film The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) directed by Albert Lewin, awarded a Retro Hugo in 1996. Wilde's leanings toward the Gothic may have been influenced by the fact that Charles Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), was his mother's uncle by marriage; after his 1895-1897 UK imprisonment for "gross indecency" (homosexuality), Wilde entered poverty-stricken exile in France under the name Sebastian Melmoth.

Wilde also wrote a number of shorter works which occasionally contain elements of Fantasy or horror. His first published fiction, "The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance" (23 February-2 March 1887 The Court and Society Review), several times filmed, is a comedy about Americans who take possession of a British ancestral home complete with a ghost, which they fail to believe in. "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" (11-25 May 1887 The Court and Society Review) is a dark comedy about a British peer who tries to fulfil the prophecy that he will commit a murder. "The Fisherman and His Soul" (in A House of Pomegranates coll 1891) concerns a fisherman who gives up his soul for the love of a mermaid (see Supernatural Creatures). Many of the shorter works, such as "The Happy Prince", "The Nightingale and the Rose" and "The Selfish Giant" (all in The Happy Prince and Other Tales coll 1888) are moralistic fairy tales for adults.

A flamboyant personality and a still-remembered cultural Icon, Wilde was appropriated as a fictional character by many contemporary authors including Joseph Conrad, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James (1843-1916), George Bernard Shaw and Bram Stoker, as documented in Angela Kingston's Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction (2007). Occasional appearances in later fantastic literature include Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark storyline Melmoth (graph 1991), a harrowing portrayal of his last days; Brian Stableford's The Hunger and Ecstasy of Vampires (January-February 1995 Interzone; fixup 1996), placing him in a Club Story setting; and Jeremy Reed's Dorian (1997). A character in Stableford's Architects of Emortality (October 1994 Asimov's as "Les Fleurs du Mal"; exp 1999) models himself on Wilde and adopts his name in a later fin de siècle near the close of the twenty-fifth century. The Music for a ballet adaptation of "The Nightingale and the Rose" is central to Charles Harness's "The Rose" (March 1953 Authentic). Dorian Gray, though not appearing in Alan Moore's original Graphic Novel, joins the titular Superhero team in the much inferior film adaptation The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). Will Self reworked The Picture of Dorian Gray, with the painting becoming a digital Computer image, in Dorian: An Imitation (2002). The author most clearly influenced by Wilde's mannered style and wit is Saki. [LW/DRL]

see also: Peter Ackroyd; Beatrice May Allhusen; Max Beerbohm; E F Benson; Frank Challice Constable; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde

born Dublin, Ireland: 16 October 1854

died Paris: 30 November 1900

works (selected)

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Ward, Lock, and Company, 1890) [comprising the whole fiction content of the July 1890 Lippincott's Monthly Magazine: Ward, Lock publication of this issue precedes its US publication: pb/nonpictorial]
    • The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Ward, Lock, and Company, 1891) [rev of the above with six chapters added: first formal publication in standard book form: illus/Charles Ricketts: hb/nonpictorial]

collections and stories

further reading


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