Oscar Wilde and dandyism - Maxicours

Oscar Wilde and dandyism

Objectifs
  • Découvrir un aspect de la thématique la mise en scène de soi
  • Approfondir ses connaissances sur la vie et l'œuvre d'Oscar Wilde
Points clés
  • Oscar Wilde, poète et dramaturge irlandais, vécut dans la seconde moitié du 19me siècle, à l'époque des dandys.
  • Les dandys adoptent un mode de vie en rupture avec les conventions sociales. Ils recherchent l'esthétisme et l'épanouissement sensuel. Cela se traduit dans leurs vêtements et leur manière de parler et leur révolte contre la morale bourgeoise.
  • Les personnages de ses pièces incarnent différents types de dandys. On peut retrouver en eux certaines facettes de leur auteur lui-même.
  • Son œuvre la plus célèbre est aussi son seul roman : Le Portrait de Dorian Gray.
  • Les dandys choquaient la population, autant que les personnages de Wilde, jugés immoraux, choquaient les critiques littéraires.
1. Introduction

Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright whose major works are The Picture of Dorian Gray –the only novel he wrote– and The Importance of Being Earnest. Born in 1854 he died in 1900 of cerebral meningitis. One of the major facts of his life took place from 1895 to 1897 when he was convicted for homosexuality and imprisoned at Newgate. But we must remember him as a man who was in the margins of conventional society, who loved aesthetics and who dressed and spoke well, a dandy.

What is dandyism?

The term dandyism refers to a British cultural movement of the late nineteenth century. It was a doctrine of elegance, finesse, and originality which was primarily concerned with language, sophisticated manners, and dress. This way of life was driven by a determination to stand out from the stereotype of the ordinary bourgeois man, and its aim was to rise above social conventions and the common way of thinking.

2. Dandyism in Wilde's Works

Oscar Wilde developed the notion of dandyism in his works by creating characters who were narcissistic, who revolted against society and its moral, who were in pursuit of modernism and for whom aesthetics was a very important value.

Of course, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a masterpiece of rebellion and aestheticism where beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life, but other works show characters that incarnate these notions and look like Oscar Wilde himself.

For example, Lord Darlington in The Lady Windermere's Fan and Lord Illingworth in A Woman of No Importance are decadents who revolt against society.
Consider what Lord Darlington says in the play:

Oh, nowadays so many conceited people go about Society pretending to be good, that I think it shows rather a sweet and modest disposition to pretend to be bad. Besides, there is this to be said. If you pretend to be good, the world takes you very seriously. If you pretend to be bad, it doesn’t. Such is the astounding stupidity of optimism.

Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband is narcissistic too, and like Wilde he is conscious about real life and its imperfections. He depicted the Victorian society as hypocrite and conceited.

Jack and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest seek pleasure in an imaginary life which looks very much like the fantastic life of eternal beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

As a result, according to Wilde there are many types of dandies in his comedies.

As for their way of dressing, it is worth noting that all revere fashion with perfect attire, the most important being the necktie and the buttonhole which in those days were necessary for any man of society. The buttonhole was made of natural flowers, and was changed two or three times during the evening!

3. Was Wilde a Dandy?

In the 1870s Oscar Wilde was a long haired aesthete who loved art and beautiful things. The image he had of himself mattered a lot if we have a look at the pose he took and the clothes he used to wear on photographs.

When he started his career, Oscar Wilde was better known for his spoken words, not the written ones. He used aphorisms and epigrams so exquisitely that the fashionable society of London invited him to their table. We can find most of his aphorisms in letters or conversations with other artists (Gide, Shaw...) and of course in his plays.

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Oscar Wilde

But in Victorian England aesthetes were mocked because they shocked the population but Wilde did not care about what people thought and The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890, was condemned by critics as immoral because some young men were described as immoral or homosexual! It is clear that Basil Hallward, the painter of Dorian’s portrait is in love with his subject. This period corresponds to the moment when Wilde rejected his youthful aesthete’s pose in favor of a more contemporary expression of dandyism. He cut his long locks and dressed more respectably, no more velvet jackets but frock coats instead. This change may have come from the fact that he was now a father. From then on, he decided to dissect society and denounce its follies.

Like Basil he was a homosexual. In 1895 he was even convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons.”

4. Conclusion

Oscar Wilde was regarded as a singular character in Victorian England. He was known as an aesthete then as a dandy fascinated by the cult of beauty. He was also a moral rebel who did not lack courage to express his feelings. He was so fascinated by beauty that his last words on his deathbed were:

This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.

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