A deep current of pessimism underlined English literature in the last three decades of the 19th century. The most apparent causes of this pessimism were the influence of science and the influence of the German philosopher Schopenhauer. Artists considered art as a substitute of the conventional, moral and religious values in which they no longer believed. The only morality to be recognized by the artist was the creation of beautiful works. The only purpose of art was beauty, in fact “Art for art’s sake” was the motto of Aestheticism; they also rejected all the moral bases extraneous to nature and the essence of art.
Oscar Wilde was able to express the crisis in the late Victorian age. He was the major representative of the aesthetic movement, which considered art more than important than life as a reaction to the ugliness and the materialism of industrialization, but also as a protest against the falsity and the prudery of the Victorian age. He was born into a novel, well educated family: his father was a surgeon and his mother was considered a minor poetess. He himself received a first rate education, first at Trinity College in Dublin and then at Oxford. He followed the teaching of two famous professors, Ruskin and Pater, whose theories about art will become the bases of his Aestheticism. He married Constance Lloyd, they had two sons he always loved deeply and for whom he wrote his famous short stories, “The Canterbury ghost”, “The happy prince” and “Other stories”.
In 1890 he published his novel “The picture of Dorian Gray”, whose Preface became the manifesto of the English Aesthetic movement. The book was a scandal since it considered “Art for art’s sake” without any moral intent. Wilde was criticized for his work, but it made him famous and his literary prestige increased in the following years, thanks to his “society plays” that brought him fame and money from 1892 to 1895. The common characteristic of Wilde’s plays was a satirical attitude and a criticism towards the terrible seriousness of the Victoria society.
“The importance of being Bill Earnest” is his most famous play; in it all the elements are well balanced. The play is brilliant and satirical; Wilde used a language full of nonsense and paradoxes. The plot develops around absurd situations and misunderstandings that turn out to be very funny and, eventually, everything is resolved to everybody’s satisfaction.
Despite the fame and success, Wilde was accused and tried because of his homosexual relationship with Lord Douglas. He was arrested and after an unpleasant trial he was sentenced to two years hard labor. During his imprisonment he wrote the “De profundis” a kind of polemical self-defense. When he was released from prison, he had been completely forgotten. He moved then to Paris, a lonely and broken man, where he died alone in a small hotel room.
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY: the story has analogues with folk and fairy tales of a person whose life is dependent on a magic object, but Wilde managed to put into it the fullest literary statement of his aesthetic doctrine: for Dorian, the pursuit of pleasure and beauty was the true purpose of life. This novel also contains an element of mystery that is essential to its success. The end of the novel is in line with classic horror and crime stories. The novel seems to have no moral basis; Dorian Gray leads the kind of hedonistic life that disregards moral considerations and even ordinary human feelings (his dedication to pleasure causes the death of three people). However, the end of the story is moral, and seems to suggest that there is a price to be paid for a life of pleasure.
Dorian Gray, a young man of outstanding beauty, is sought after by the best London society. Everybody loved him and wants to be in his companion; Lord Henry Wotton introduces him to the philosophy of a new Hedonism, a life of pleasure founded on Youth and Beauty. The artist Basil Hallward paints a portrait of Dorian that wonderfully captures the young man’s extraordinary charms. Dorian, impressed by the perfection of his own beauty, wishes never to grow old and his wish is granted: his dissolute and immoral life (he causes the suicide of his fiancé and murders Basil) leaves no sign on his face but disfigures the painting. Disgusted by the portrait, Dorian tries to destroy it but, as soon as he does it, he dies. After his death, the portrait resumes its perfect beauty, while the signs of age and physical corruption appear on Dorian’s body.