Wilde Paradoxes

Oscar Wilde’s
Wildely Paradoxical Language Play
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
If eccentricity is a sign of a superior intelligence, then Oscar Wilde has a very high
“His heavy features betrayed his delight in the almost alarmed reaction of the
masses to his outlandish, but always elegant, attire.”
His frivolity was ever apparent, and as Hesketh Pearson said, “good nature seemed
to exude from him, pleasure to radiate from him, happiness to enfold him” (Nicholls
55, 60).
Max Beerbohm characterized Wilde as follows: “The grand, lascivious, hulking figure
in morning coat and pumps, the gaily festooned balloon of a man, displaying touches
of mauve and ‘decadent’ yellow, riding above the common swell, blithely throwing
overboard the ballast of convention” (Nicolls 55).
Roger Henkle contends that it is from Beerbohm’s caricatures of Wilde that much of
his image has preserved to this day (Henkle 297).
Oscar Wilde’s Delivery
and His Language Play
Oscar Wilde’s formidable height and frame, and his attire
added greatly to the impact. But his sentences were also
carefully constructed to play words and phrases against each
Wilde wrote in a genre which some critics have dubbed
“satire of manners,” and other critics have called “aesthetic
Wilde “paradoxically makes virtue a vice and desanctifies
society’s accepted standards, eliminating society’s mediating
role; consequently, the individual is left free to develop and
to adhere to his own or her own standards” (Robinson 1200).
Oscar Wilde’s
Paradoxical Language Play
Oscar Wilde said, “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If
the caveman had known how to laugh, history would have been different” (Nicholls
James Whistler had an “enduring animosity” of Wilde because of Wilde’s
“superiority as a man, a talker, and a wit,” so that “no one else had a dog’s chance
against Oscar when he cared to exert himself” (Pearson 196).
The best moments in Wilde’s comic plays occur when people talk about “important”
things in totally inappropriate ways, as when Lord Arthur Savile approaches Herr
Winckelkopf searching for an explosive clock, and Winckelkopf assumes that Lord
Arthur is planning revenge against the police.
He protests, “I am afraid I cannot do anything for you. The English detectives are
really our best friends, and I have always found that by relying on their stupidity, we
can do exactly what we like” (Henkle 307).
Frivolity was the keynote to Wilde’s wit. What
other people dealt with seriously, Wilde dealt with
humorously, and what they dismissed as trivial,
Wilde treated with great gravity.
His favorite method of ridiculing conventional
standards was to present a proverb or a cliché with
only a word or two changed, thus adding a new
epiphenal aspect of truth to the saying.
He did this for many different aspects of society:
ANY SUBJECT: At one point, Wilde boasted that he could talk
wittily on any subject. Hearing this boast, someone
suggested that he talk wittily about the Queen, but Wilde
smiled and said, “The Queen is not a subject.”
Oscar Wilde’s epigrams wittily gave insights into a wide range
of social subjects:
BIAS: “It is only about the things that do not interest one
that one can give an unbiased opinion; that is no doubt the
reason why an unbiased opinion is always valueless.”
CAFÉ ROYAL CIRCLE: “He hasn’t a single redeeming vice.”
CYNICISM: A cynic is “a man who knows the price of
everything and the value of nothing.”
CIVILIZATION: “People should not mistake the means of civilization for the end. The
steam engine and the telephone depend entirely for their value on the use to which
they are put.”
ENGLAND: “The English have a miraculous power of turning wine into water.”
FRIENDSHIP: “Robert gave Harry a terrible black eye, or Harry gave him one; I forgot
which, but I know they were great friends .”
RELIGION: “Prayer must never be answered; if it is, it ceases to be prayer and
becomes correspondence.” When Arthur Balfour asked him about his religious
beliefs he responded, “Well, you know, my dear Arthur, I don’t think I have any. I am
an Irish Protestant.”
SCIENCE: “Science can never grapple with the irrational”
SELFISHNESS: “Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live
as one wishes to live. And unselfishness is letting other people’s lives alone, not
interfering with them.”
SIN AND CRIME: “I can resist everything except temptation,” “A community
is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment
than it is by the occasional occurrences of crime,” “Wickedness is a myth
invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of
others,” and “Society produces rogues, and education makes one rogue
cleverer than another.”
SOCIAL EXPECTATIONS: “Work is the curse of the drinking class,” “It is only
by not paying one’s bills that one can hope to live in the memory of the
commercial classes,” and “Consistency is the last refuge of the
VIRTUE: “Don’t be led astray into the paths of virtue.”
YOUTH: “It is a kind of genius to be twenty-one. To win back my youth,
there is nothing I would not do—nothing…except take exercise, get up early,
or be a useful member of the community,” “The tragedy of old age is not
that one is old, but that one is young,” “The soul is born old, but grows
young. That is the comedy of life. The body is born young, and grows old.
That is life’s tragedy” (Nicholls 53, 58; Pearson 101, 170-172, 176-178;
Robinson 1201).
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
Oscar Wilde loved paradoxes because they suited
his peculiar duality of attitude. The Picture of
Dorian Gray demonstrates Wilde’s schizoid nature
by dealing with the dual-image of the
Wilde’s paradoxes can be seen not only in the
contrast of Dorian Gray with the picture of Dorian
Gray, but can also be seen in many other
epiphenal paradoxes Wilde presents as epigrams:
Lady Windemere’s Fan (1892)
Lady Windemere never repents of her immoral lifestyle;
yet she is never punished for it.
It is Wilde’s style to know what is expected and to do
the opposite.
Most Victorian plays would have this character regret
her actions and become a moral and repentant woman.
But that is not Lady Windemere’s style, and she says to
her husband:
“I suppose, Windemere, you would like me to
retire into a convent, or become a hospital nurse,
or something of that kind, as people do in silly
modern novels.
That is stupid of you, Arthur; in real life we don’t
do such things—not as long as we have any good
looks left, at any rate.
No—what consoles one nowadays is not
repentance, but pleasure. Repentance is quite out
of date” (Act IV).
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
The Importance of Being Earnest follows Oscar Wilde’s belief
that “we should treat all the trivial things of life very
seriously and the serious things of life with sincere and
studied triviality” (Worth 154).
LADY BRACKNELL: Do you smoke?
JACK: Yes, I must admit I smoke.
LADY BRACKNELL: I am glad to hear it. A man should always
have an occupation of some kind…. I have always been of
the opinion that a man who desires to get married should
know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?
JACK: I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.
LADY BRACKNELL: I am pleased to hear it. I do not
approve of anything that tampers with natural
ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit;
touch it and the bloom is gone:
Lady Bracknell continues, “The whole theory of
modern education is radically unsound.
Fortunately in England, at any rate, education
produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would
prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and
probably lead to acts of violence in Grovesnor
Square.” (Act I)
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play about
names. Jack Worthing invents the name of Ernest
so that he will have a justification for being
anything but earnest.
At the very end of the play, Jack Worthing finds
out that Ernest is his real name and that in giving
himself the name of Ernest, he has not lied at all.
So Jack (Ernest) apologizes. “Gwendolyn, it is a
terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that
all his life he has been speaking nothing but the
truth. Can you forgive me?” (Abel 14).
What Jack says to Gwendolyn is both ironic and
paradoxical. What Cecily says to Algernon is
also both ironic and paradoxical.
Cecily accepts Algernon’s evil past, saying, “I
hope you have not been leading a double life,
pretending to be wicked and being really good
all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”
In an article entitled “Wrong and Right: The Art of Comedy,” Lionel
Abel contrasts two types of humor that have been studied by French
critics: l’esprit juste, which is “wit through truth, through hitting the
mark dead center,” and l’esprit faux which is “wit through error, wit
through missing the mark” (Abel 12-13). This last kind of humor is
what Wilde uses most, and can be seen in the following dialogue:
LADY BRACKNELL: It is very strange. This Mr. Bunbury seems to
suffer from curiously bad health.
ALGERNON: Yes; poor Bunbury is a sad invalid.
LADY BRACKNELL: I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time
that this Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live
or not. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd. It shows a
very ill-balanced intellect and a lack of decision that is quite
Oscar Wilde is an ironic and paradoxical author.
“There is the continual rivalry of paganism and Christianity,
of the gospel of hedonism and the gospel of suffering.
There is the contrast between his aesthetic clowning—which
he himself admitted to be little more than posture—and the
valuable critical theories expressed in his lectures and
essays, and carried out in his own writing.
There is the contrast between the delightful but often
superficial nonsense that occupied so much of his
conversation and drama, and the deep thinking on artistic,
philosophical and social subjects that supported his outward
There is the contrast between the social snob, with
his attitude of apparent flippancy towards the
poor, and the social critic, whose ideas on political
justice and attacks on existing relationships in
society were of a truly subversive nature.
And there is the contrast between the playboy
whose antics brought about with a strange
inevitability the crisis of Wilde’s downfall, and his
self-conscious ‘prophet’ who emerged chastened
from prison, only to be replaced again by the
temporarily suppressed playboy of the last days in
Paris.” (Woodcock 12)
Conclusion: Wilde was much more popular
on the continent than in England
There are reasons that Oscar Wilde’s wit was more
appreciated on the continent than in England.
First, “his style had a certain lush ornateness, a
lack of English restraint, which has always been
more appreciated abroad than in Britain.”
Second, “In the German public, already used to
the nihilism of writers like Nietzche, Wilde’s
destructive epigrams must have found an
appreciative audience.” (Woodcock 235)
One Final Shot by Oscar Wilde
On one occasion, Wilde watched a performance of The
Importance of Being Earnest, and afterwards he went back
stage and called the company together.
The company was afraid that they would be given a tongue
lashing, but instead, he stood before them, elaborately attired
in browns, fawns, and tans, and said,
“My dear, delightful company. I have just watched your
performance and I wanted you to know that it reminds me of a
play I once wrote” (Nicholls 164).
Oscar Wilde’s Satire
Oscar Wilde’s Satire:

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