Wilde, Marriage and Aestheticism

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An essay expounding upon Wilde's unique literary style, his satirical commentary on the social mores of his era and the prevalence of the revised dandy figure in his plays.

Submitted: December 28, 2011

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Submitted: December 28, 2011

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Wilde, Marriage, and Aestheticism

 

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“An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” show Wilde’s unique style to best advantage; his sardonic parody of the social mores of the nineteenth century upper class, and the hallmark wit, paradoxes and epigrams of his foppish dandies. His peculiar worship of the new-fangled philosophy of aestheticism and his revision of the dandy permeate his plays. His plays, ironic, witty and radical for their time, challenge our faith in the conventional archetype of the “ideal” man, woman or life. Wilde seemed to delight in ridiculing the strict conventions, presenting paradoxes and rejecting many of the aristocracy’s absurd moral formulae.

One well-known example of his contempt for society’s inflexibility surrounding long-established customs was his disapproval of the institution of marriage. It appears that it was not simply the idea of marriage itself which the dramatist baulked; theoretically, the founding of a faithful union between man and woman is not objectionable. However, in the “Ideal Husband”, the “ideal” marriage between Lady Chatterley and her husband, the eminent Sir Robert Chatterley, is built upon the possession of property, riches and Sir Robert’s distinction as an illustrious politician of the Conservative Party.  This seemingly superlative model of matrimony had its basis in the superficial and not upon the stable pillars of truth or unconditional love; Sir Robert’s fraudulent purchase of shares in return for the disclosure of confidential state documents was the origin of his wealth, extraordinary public life and enviable marriage. When the unscrupulous Mrs Cheveley threatens to divulge the transgression he committed in his youth and impeach his honourable good name, it becomes evident that what society often sees as the paradigm may be built upon something corrupt and ignoble.

Wilde may have repudiated marriage because of how artificial and dishonest such unions could really be. On the other hand, he may have disliked marriage because it forced man and woman to conform to an unattainable and self-destructive ideal; it compelled both to renounce the act of lying, which the dramatist deemed to be an art.Perjure stimulated the imagination and motivated man to imitate art as a means of initiating change or progress. According to Wilde, the art of deception was crucial for our development; if we did not hone and refine our capacity to fabricate, life could not imitate art in the same way. We would not be engineering or modelling our lives in accordance with art, which involves the act of fashioning and creating. According to Wilde’s aesthetic perspective, once “the art of lying” deteriorates, our minds resort to a “morbid and unhealthy faculty of truth-telling.”

In the Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell voices the prejudiced, irrational platitudes of her time as regards rules of behaviour, the damaging effects of too much education, and conservative beliefs relating to marriage and social status. In many of Wilde’s plays, marriage reflects Victorian society’s preoccupation with pedigree, social status, financial assets and respectability. It is portrayed as a matter of business which is primarily orchestrated by third parties, while the respective participants in the union do not seem to have much authority over the transaction. In the Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell is domineering to the point of tyrannical, declaring that “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.”

In his other plays, Wilde satirises the aristocracy’s excessive preoccupation with shallow and inconsequential matters, as well as the over-emphasis placed upon a man’s property and financial status when determining his “eligibility” as a potential husband.  Another satirical device employed by Wilde is the absurd manner in which this eligibility is assessed. Lady Bracknell, the bigoted matriarch of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, believes that idleness in a man is admirable and deems the habit of smoking “an occupation” of sorts.

Wilde’s dandy figure is an important symbol of the idle and often hedonistic life led by the defiant aesthete. Wilde portrays an idle aristocracy whose bon vivant lifestyles and philosophies are characteristic of aestheticism, a movement espoused in the late nineteenth century by Walter Pater. The fundamental ideology behind aestheticism is that life imitates art instead of art imitating life. To put this basic principle into a modern context, aestheticism was the belief that art was superior to life, as life depends upon art for a means of creative expression and transcendent beauty. An aesthete believed in the autonomy of art and its essential relationship with beauty and not reality; to the most dedicated aesthetes, life itself became the primary art form.

In the Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon epitomizes Wilde’s aestheticism. His mode of discourse revolves around paradox, the witty epigram, hyperbole and clever inversions of well known parables, such as “Divorces are made in heaven”. He is a self-dramatized, hedonistic example of the wealthy aesthete, whose dandiacal lifestyle was not unlike that of Oscar Wilde’s and his own modus vivendi. Within the context of an autonomous art form, which embraces superficiality over what is real, and refutes the strict Victorian morality of the time, Algernon is not guilty of “laziness”. He is rather the product of years of careful cultivation. According to Wilde, all art was useless; art should not serve a social or political purpose, and it is within the context of the beauty of this aesthetic “uselessness”, that we should judge Algernon.

In “An Ideal Husband”, Wilde’s dandy, Lord Goring, has been earmarked by other critics as a “radical revision” of those seen in his other works, most notably the character of Algernon Moncrieff.  In the case of both characters, Wilde disguises their moral probity by sleeking them over with surface superficialities, such as ostentatious garb, wit and apparent impassivity.  By the end of “An Ideal Husband”, Lord Goring emerges as a principled, truthful bachelor who, despite his perpetual idleness, values truth, honour and sacrifices; unlike the ostensible “ideal” presumed of Sir Robert Chatterley, Lord Goring seems almost paradoxically the morally incorruptible one. Lord Goring is distinct from Algernon Moncrieff in that he does not dabble in the art of deception (or “Bunburying”) to the same extent, or indulge in the same level of self-gratifying eroticism.

It is obvious that the world of Wilde’s plays were fraught with constraints, governed by layers of restrictions which dictated how one could behave in the presence of the other sex, as well as the ritualistic proprieties which had to be honoured publically. Wilde depicts the huge emphasis placed upon marriage as a means of preserving pedigree, and the importance of marrying a respectable partner. Sadly, he expounds on the unpleasant implications of deviating from the rules laid down by the upper classes, and the frustration felt by the aesthetes, whose hedonistic lifestyles afforded them a means of evading their social and cultural obligations.

 

 


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