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Who is Oscar Wilde?

Niki Acker
Updated May 17, 2024
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Oscar Wilde was an Irish author whose works include plays, poetry, short stories, fairy tales, essays, and one novel. He is well known for his wit and his use of paradox in the dialogue of his society comedies. Wilde was also a skilled storyteller, and many people who knew him claimed that his written works only scratched the surface of his creativity. In addition to his literary works, the author is famous for the sensational and tragic trial that ended in a two-year sentence to hard labor for homosexual acts.

Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, was an Irish nationalist and writer under the pen name Speranza. His father, Sir William Wilde, was also a writer and a renowned ear and eye surgeon. Oscar had an elder brother, William, and a younger sister, Isola, whose tragic death from fever at the age of ten deeply affected him.

Oscar was an exceptional student, earning scholarships to Trinity college in Dublin and later to Oxford University. In 1878, he graduated with highest honors in his double major of classical moderations and literae humaniores. The writer returned to Dublin briefly after graduation, but left within a month when his sweetheart, Florence Balcombe, announced her engagement to Bram Stoker. He would remain a resident of London until his self-imposed exile to France in 1897 after the end of his prison sentence.

Wilde published his first book, Poems, in 1881, and the following year, he gave a lecture tour in the United States and Canada. He had made a name for himself while at Oxford as a proponent of aestheticism, or "art for art's sake," a literary and artistic movement that promoted beauty and pleasure above all else, and his lectures expounded on this theme. The tour was extremely popular and extended far beyond its original schedule.

In 1884, Wilde met and married Constance Lloyd. They had two children, Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born the following year. Oscar began his first serious homosexual relationship in 1885 with Robert Ross, who would remain a close and loyal friend throughout the author's life. Ross eventually became his literary executor, and his ashes are interred in Wilde's tomb in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, appeared in book form in 1891 after being serialized in a magazine. The same year, he met Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie, the subject of his great and fatal passion. Douglas had an immense influence on the author's life, and while Wilde's celebrity grew as a result of his wildly popular society comedies, including Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest, his personal life with Bosie became increasingly obsessive and dangerous.

Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was outraged by Wilde's relationship with his son and confronted him repeatedly and violently in public and at the author's own home. In 1895, he left a card at Wilde's club on which he had written, "For Oscar Wilde posing as a Somdomite." Wilde sued him for libel, but the trial soon backfired when the writer perjured himself under cross-examination. The trial was dropped, but Queensberry's defense had compiled evidence regarding Wilde's sexual relations with a string of male prostitutes, and he was consequently arrested for "gross indecency" on 6 April 1895.

After two trials, the first of which failed to reach a verdict, Wilde was convicted to two years hard labor, the maximum sentence. He was imprisoned in Reading Gaol, where he wrote a scathing but moving 50,000-word letter to Bosie, published in its entirety in 1962 as De Profundis. After his release on 19 May 1897, the writer lived in Paris under the name Sebastian Melmoth. He was penniless and his health was destroyed by his time in prison. After his release, he wrote only one poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," about his prison experience. Wilde died at the Hôtel d'Alsace, where he spent his last days, on 30 November 1900 at the age of 46.

Oscar Wilde's plays and fairy tales, as well as The Picture of Dorian Gray, continue to be popular and well loved. His plays are frequently produced, and many of his works have been adapted into films, some multiple times. The writer's life has also been the subject of numerous books and films, notably the 1997 film Wilde, starring Stephen Fry and based on Richard Ellman's acclaimed biography.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "
Discussion Comments
By Engelbert — On May 18, 2011

Ireland seems to have produced a few select literary geniuses over time like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and of course Oscar Wilde. Wilde had a kind of confidence in his writing that he uses for humorous effect. Most people are familiar with works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, but The Ballad of Reading Goal - which reflects on his imprisonment - is heavily sad in tone in contrast to his more lighthearted and wittier plays.

By Sequoia — On May 16, 2011

Oscar Wilde dealt with a lot of themes in his work and is one of those writers like Mark Twain that is endlessly quotable. Also like Mark Twain, he's very renowned for his wit. I think both of these writers had the remarkable ability to boil the truth down to a pithy witticism which both makes you smile and makes you think. I think because of this Wilde not only had an influence on other writers but also on comedy, namely the idea that you could tell the truth through humor.

Niki Acker
Niki Acker
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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