Oscar Wilde: A Victorian Sage in a Modern Age

Haythem Bastawy

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    Oscar Wilde has been widely viewed as a main figure in the English avant-garde movement. In his Bible of modernism, Peter Gay classifies Wilde as ‘a major figure in modernism as it was reaching toward its height’.1 Sos Eltis, in addition, regards Wilde as the author of a ‘manifesto for modernism’, and goes as far as labelling Wilde, in her series of lectures on his work, as a ‘midwife to modernism’.2 Furthermore, S. I. Salamensky defines Wilde, in her The Modern Art of Influence, as ‘the first modern man’ and ‘one of the central founders of the modern literary and dramatic traditions’.3 It seems that Wilde’s oeuvre and public persona have caused an intended misconstruing of his traditional themes and ideas. Drawing on Kant, Michel Foucault defines modernity ‘rather as an attitude than as a period of history’, which in his terms is a ‘way of thinking and feeling; a way, too, of acting and behaving that marks a relation of belonging and marks itself’ as an ‘ethos’.4 He goes on to define this ‘ethos’ as mainly ‘a break with tradition’.5 Based on Foucault’s definition of modernity as such an ethos, I will argue that Wilde was not the modernist author he is widely perceived to be, but a conventional Victorian sage who cleverly adopted, and tailored, the fashion of his age to deliver his thoroughly traditional teachings. The essay is split into five sections. The first deals with Wilde’s creation of his dandy self and the influences of Thomas Carlyle, Matthew Arnold and Christ over him; the second section examines John Ruskin’s influence over Wilde’s theory of art, and Wilde’s self -perception; the third section continues to examine the influence of the Victorian sages on Wilde by exploring his criticism of modernity in some of his works; finally, the fourth and fifth sections deal with Wilde’s views on the roles of the sexes and his homosexuality respectively, and weigh these views, through further analysis of his works, against the argument of his modernity.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)114-133
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


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