I recently attended a memorial service for a lifelong friend. One of the speakers stated in a remembrance that a person dies three times; he dies physically, he dies again when he is memorialized then buried, and he dies a third death when nobody on Earth remembers him or mentions his name again.
It has been well over a century since Oscar Wilde’s death, yet his name keeps popping up in enough cultural references to the point that it seems every educated person today knows this renowned playwright by name and famous works, which include The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. Appreciation of Wilde’s writing has not faded with the passage of decades, and neither has the interest in the man who was capable of taking eloquent self expression to a level only reached by the brilliant.
Who was Oscar Wilde?
So who was Oscar Wilde? He was a well-raised and well-educated Irishman, who married a well-raised and well-educated woman, with whom he had two sons. This sounds like a picture for a stable life, yet his life was anything but. During his young adult life at Oxford, he had been surrounded by a certain group of aristocrats who recognized his remarkable talent and put him on a pedestal. This elevated position gave Wilde access to all happenings in society, wherein both he and his writing thrived, and then thrived some more.
Predictably, Wilde became comfortable with this position in society, and thus began to openly reveal his homosexual nature. Because of his associations at Oxford, one may assume that he had no particular qualms about “sexual perversion,” since that characteristic was shown to be a “‘Jacobs Ladder’ to most forms of success” in London at the time (Harris, 2012). He freely flaunted his homosexuality and eventually became attracted to the younger Lord Alfred Douglas, called “Bosie.” Bosie returned Wilde’s affection and a romance ensued. However, during its course, Wilde allowed himself to be drawn into the middle of a personal struggle between Bosie and his father, John, the Marquess of Queensberry.
Family conflict a no man’s land for outsiders
Common sense says that a family’s conflict is a no man’s land for outsiders, and Wilde knew that as well as anyone. However, passion, anger, and of course an abundance of family wealth and peerage makes for tantalizing drama, and he stayed in, rather than out of it. Quote Wilde (1890, ch 1) ,
I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.
Well, Oscar Wilde certainly made a formidable enemy out of Queensberry, who was a man with the resources to do much damage. He had Wilde tried for his homosexuality, a crime in 19th century England, for which Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Wilde’s superior talent excused his gay behavior in aristocratic circles, but when no longer able to exercise or display his talent, the society pedestal on which he stood high came crashing down.
Oscar Wilde in prison
Wilde was sent away to prison where he was treated as more of an animal than a human. When a fellow prisoner had the gall to whisper into Wilde’s ear that his writings were admired, he could not help but exclaim his gratitude out loud, which resulted in a horrible beating since speaking was prohibited.
While enduring his hardships, Wilde found out who his real friends were and they were certainly not the aristocracy of England. After two years of meaningless, soul-crushing labor, he came out a broken man. The ugliness of life had caught up with Oscar Wilde, and he just could not summon up the ability to write as he could before. The flourish with which he wrote the ironies and insights of society was forever gone.
Although Wilde’s wife continued to send money to him until his death three years after release from prison, she otherwise abandoned him with their sons, changing their surnames from Wilde to Holland to further dissociate themselves from the scandalous man. Oscar Wilde would never be the same, and the rest of mankind was deprived of any future masterpieces he may have produced.
As expected, Lord Alfred Douglas eventually received his inheritance and was able to move on in a comfortable style. Oscar Wilde, the man in the middle between his lover and his lover’s father, was ostracized, left behind and forgotten. It seems to be one of life’s truths that the one who willingly walks into a minefield between two warring parties is the one who ends up getting punished, while the two opposing parties hold themselves unaccountable for that person’s fate. Lord Alfred Douglas and his father cared nothing about what their actions did to Wilde’s life, but the playwright himself made the choice to get involved, and actively perpetuate the drama, a fact that he himself recognized and for which he took responsibility (Wilde, 1913):
I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. I am quite ready to say so. I am trying to say so, though they may not think it at the present moment. This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.
It is interesting to note that in later years, Queensberry’s great niece took it personally that her family had ruined Oscar Wilde. Her feelings of family guilt were so strong that she made prisoner rehabilitation her life’s mission.
Oscar Wilde’s legacy
Oscar Wilde’s legacy survives to this day when people read his works, watch movies about him, talk about him, and wish that he had written more masterpieces. Queensberry and his son, Lord Alfred Douglas? Who were they? Nobody today has heard of them or knows anything about them with the sole exception of what they did to the genius of wit in Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde is still talked about, so he hasn’t died that third death. Most likely, he never will.
Harris, F. (1916). Oscar Wilde, His life and confessions. Wikisource. Retrieved from https://en.wikisource.org/w/index.php
Wilde, O. (1890). The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Wilde, O. (1913). De Profundis. Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/921/921-h/921-h.htm