6 essential works by Oscar Wilde everyone should read
2 Dec 2019
2 Dec 2019
A triumph on opening night with the very society it satirises, The Importance of Being Earnest remains one of the greatest stage comedies ever written – its quick repartee proving just as amusing today. A light-hearted farce about Jack and his friend Algernon who have invented alternate identities in the pursuit of pleasure and the objects of their affections who both desperately want to marry a man named Ernest. Through snappy dialogue, clever epigrams and witty wordplay, Wilde mocks the conventions of upper-class Victorian society – in particular, the ideal of ‘earnestness’ – celebrating insouciance and triviality.
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!”
Reflecting the author’s interest in Aestheticism, Wilde’s only novel is a modern-day parable drawn from the Gothic tradition. With lush descriptions and witty dialogue, it follows a narcissistic aristocrat’s descent into debauchery after his wish for ageless beauty comes true – his portrait deteriorates rather than his physical appearance. At the time of publication, the novel was denounced by British critics for its immorality and homoerotic undertones. Used as evidence against Wilde in his 1895 trials for the ‘gross indecency’, it was only recognised as a classic after Wilde’s death.
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it and your soul grows sick with longing for things it has forbidden itself.”
Amongst the great works of Wilde lies a treasure trove of fairy tales in the vein of Hans Christian Anderson; tales that are enchanting but also melancholic. Wilde would tell these fairy tales at the fashionable dinner parties he frequented, eventually writing them down after the birth of his sons. In one of the best-known tales, a Giant bans children from playing in his garden causing it to fall into perpetual winter. It is not until he finds the generosity to share his garden that it can bloom into beauty once more. The Selfish Giant was adapted by Victorian Opera into a charming Youth Opera premiering in 2019, with music by Simon Bruckard.
“I have many beautiful flowers, but the children are the most beautiful flowers of all.”
Originally written in French, Wilde’s notorious one-act tragedy expands the biblical tale of King Herod’s stepdaughter who demands the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter. While maintaining his trademark style and wit, Wilde uses simpler language influenced by Biblical texts and French Symbolist stories. Wilde’s interpretation gives Salome more self-awareness and power casts her in the centre of the action as both victim and tormentor. Banned during rehearsals by Lord Chamberlain for its portrayal of biblical characters, the play was not performed in England until after Wilde’s death. Richard Strauss’ 1905 adaption from a German version of Wilde’s text is the opera which made the composer famous.
“Neither at things, nor at people should one look. Only in mirrors should one look, for mirrors do but show us masks.”
The first story by Wilde to be published is a comical ghost story about an old-fashioned British spectre who meets his match in a family of modern Americans. When the Otis family moves into the house which he has haunted for 300 years, the Canterville spirit tries all his tricks to scare them away but the Americans refuse to be intimidated, even offering the hapless ghost lubricant for his squeaky shackles. Along with using traditional horror tropes to comic effect, Wilde draws much humour from the culture clash between the brash Americans and conservative English. Possibly the most adapted of Wilde’s works, it has been retold in films and musical compositions including a 1944 Hollywood film starring Charles Laughton and 2015 opera by Gordon Getty.
“Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”
In this long introspective letter written to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas while incarcerated in Reading Gaol, Wilde lays his soul bare contemplating love, forgiveness, suffering, faith and art. As he examines his relationship with Douglas and traces his spiritual development in prison, it is Wilde at his most heartfelt and poignant. The letter was never sent but returned to Wilde when he left prison and excerpts were published posthumously in 1905 by his friend and literary executor Robert Ross. It was not until 1962 that the full 50,000-word version was released.
“To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.”