Oscar Wilde’s Radical Wit

On laughter and thought in the famed writer’s essays.

By Neil Bartlett

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Oscar Wilde, c. 1882. Photograph by Napoleon Sarony. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collection.

In 1889, in the course of a magazine article about a then-infamous nineteenth-century poisoner called Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, Oscar Wilde offered up the following thoughts on how one should—and shouldn’t—read history:

I know that there are many historians, or at least writers on historical subjects, who still think it necessary to apply moral judgments to history, and who distribute their praise or blame with the solemn complacency of a successful schoolmaster. This, however, is a foolish habit, and merely shows that the moral instinct can be brought to such a pitch of perfection that it will make its appearance wherever it is not required. Nobody with the true historical sense ever dreams of blaming Nero, or scolding Tiberius, or censuring Caesar Borgia. These personages have become like the puppets of a play. They may fill us with terror, or horror, or wonder, but they do not harm us. They are not in immediate relation to us. We have nothing to fear from them. They have passed into the sphere of art and science, and neither art nor science knows anything of moral approval or disapproval.

Well, now that Wilde has himself become an historical “personage,” should we approve of him, do you think, or disapprove? What kind of relation might he now stand in, in relation to us, so many years after his death? Most importantly, do we still have anything to fear from him?

Of course there was once a time when that last question would have had a very clear answer. In May 1895, which was when Wilde was convicted on the charge of gross indecency with men and sentenced to two years’ hard labor, both society in general and Society in particular would have agreed that the world had a great deal to fear from him. Indeed, the consensus view on Wilde that May was that he was a man who deserved to be punished not just for any particular acts he might have committed but rather for the very fact of his existence—not so much for anything he had done, in other words, as for what he simply was. The Marquess of Queensberry, his nemesis, wasn’t really joking when he purportedly once confronted Wilde in his own house with the words I do not say you are it but you look it, which is just as bad. As far as the press, the judiciary, and large numbers of the public were concerned, Oscar Wilde was a man who quite literally embodied the challenges he presented to the moral, political, and social norms of his culture, and that was why his body had to be locked away out of sight in a prison.

The usual explanation for the extraordinary vilification to which Wilde was subjected during and after his three separate trials that spring was that it arose from the fury of a public who believed they had been thoroughly duped. Up until the moment of his arrest—this narrative argues—most people had no idea at all what kind of man Oscar Wilde really was. He might have been well known as a professional controversialist, one who used deliberately shocking stylings and phrasings in order to court publicity, but as far as his reading and theatergoing public was concerned he was still a charming and erudite married man with a pretty wife and two lovely children. After all, he had three comic melodramas running simultaneously in London’s West End, all of which ended albeit after some marvelously entertaining observations on its many challenges—with the exaltation of marital happiness as an achievable ideal. No wonder then that when the author of these plays was suddenly revealed to be a long-term sexual criminal—and of the very worst kind, for he had strayed across the agreed boundaries of class as well as those of gender—his public was outraged. This same narrative usually then goes on to show how from this nadir of ugly Victorian moralism Wilde has been the beneficiary of a century-long process of social rehabilitation. This rehabilitation has come about (so the story goes) largely because of Wilde’s own unconquerable personal genius, but the process has been very definitely aided and abetted along the way by our own noble and somehow inevitable shedding of Victorian prejudices, until he has now once again become both a major box-office attraction and a cultural icon of the most life-enhancing kind. It is almost as if he has been returned to the celebrity and general esteem of the months immediately before his arrest, with the additional kudos of now being sanctified as an unwitting early martyr on the long march toward sexual liberation.

Well, this narrative has a certain charm, but it withers at the first touch of Wilde’s art. Wilde’s challenges to the status quo of his culture were public, not private. His radical sympathies and strategies, if indeed they were ever hidden, were hidden in plain sight. If his work dazzles, it is with the light reflected from the barely concealed razors embedded in the honey of his language. If it shocks, it does so as often with outrage as with laughter. If it entertains, it only does so in order to lead us into decidedly dangerous territory. Its risks are all consciously taken. To adapt the well-known saying once famously plagiarized by Shakespeare’s Polonius, it is surely bravery that is the soul of this particular wit.


Let’s start with “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” (Wilde is great with his titles, by the way; they always tell you almost everything you need to know.) Surely that’s not the kind of title one expects from the famously witty Mr. Oscar Wilde? Certainly not, if one imagines him to be a West End dramatist primarily concerned with the bon mots of the upper and upper-middle classes. But you’d be wrong to be surprised. Wilde was the contemporary of John Ruskin, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, George Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Peter Kropotkin, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx, and all of his writing—all of it, the journalism, the essays, and the plays—takes as its starting point the assumption that the members of his audience are well aware that they are living in a time of radical challenges to the way British society is both structured and thinks of itself. Even the famously entitled and complacent Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest is au fait enough with socialist and anarchist politics to fear acts of violence in Grosvenor Square (quite legitimately, as it happens, given Central London’s record of civil unrest in the decade before she was created).

Oscar Wilde, c. 1882. Photograph by Napoleon Sarony. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collection.

And now consider not just what the title of the essay is, but the work that it does. It is, of course, a paradox. In all its nineteenth-century variations socialism was a materialistic and rational form of politics—so what could socialism possibly have to do with anything as irrational and immaterial as the Soul? This is of course precisely the question Wilde’s title actively begs, and the main question which the subsequent essay then goes on to explore with considerable vehemence—but look how even before the reader has got started on the text they have already been challenged by Wilde’s opening strategy of throwing down his title like a singularly well-stitched gauntlet. A paradox is a statement which actively implies its own contradiction (for instance, with reference to this particular title, the implied contradiction is Under socialism, man will no longer have or need a Soul). Throughout his work, by giving his paradoxes such sharp-edged and ostentatious form—by making them his hallmark—Wilde is doing much more than entertaining us with a few well-chiseled verbal arabesques; he is making the idea of an implied contradiction active—that is, he is demanding a response to each of his well-considered outrages. Try not mentally answering back to the following sentences, for instance, gathered at random from the essay:

It is finer to take than to beg.


Charity creates a multitude of sins.


The one thing the public dislike is novelty.

Wit, here, is being weaponized. Notice too, as you read, how the essay’s tone switches back and forth from the subtle to the preposterous, and how uncomfortable those shifts of register can make you feel. Some of its assertions will merely make you smile; some will make you wince; some might make you cheer; but the point is, every assertion will challenge you to either believe or disbelieve it, to agree with it or disagree. It will require reaction, even if that reaction is only one of surprised laughter. Or should that be laughing surprise?

Laughter and thought, in Wilde, are always the sign of each other.

Of course, the notion that internal contradiction should be the hallmark of Wilde’s style shouldn’t surprise us. He was, after all, around the time that he wrote this essay (to slice his personal life open along merely a few of its extraordinary axes) a heterosexually married homosexual, an Irishman who was a Londoner, and a media-scrutinized socialite who would eventually be smart enough to invite the Prince of Wales to his West End opening nights yet who also made some of his most significant adult friendships with the working-class and under-class employees of an all-male brothel situated two streets away from the Houses of Parliament. Perhaps the thing about “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” that will surprise a modern reader most—given its title—is that it proposes no political or politicized action of any kind. There is a constant questioning of the morality or even value of property, constant questioning of the justice of the British class system, a constant inversion of accepted class-determined values, and a constant questioning of the idea that marriage ought to be considered the natural or only home of love. But there is not a single word on how any adjustments to these value systems of Wilde’s world (never mind the revolutionary overthrowing of the whole lot of them) might be achieved. Rather than demonstrating a lack, this is precisely what makes Wilde’s contribution to his century’s debates so radical. What Wilde offers—or indeed, actively constructs—is a space of intimate but truly discomforting contact between the reader and his text. The essay is in essence a monologue, a firework display of opinion in the course of which the reader is stunned, offended, charmed—but never offered any evidence or strategy to support the text’s high-toned assertions. The effect—paradoxically, of course—is that Wilde’s particular way of expressing himself turns the monologue into a conversation. It makes response inevitable. The outrageous statements and flights of fancy have the cumulative effect of an acid bath; they strip away all accepted norms of both discourse and value, and then leave the reader—gasping for certainty, bewildered by the heights of possibility to which all these impossibilities have lifted her or him—to make whatever rejoinder they can.

It’s worth pausing here to note that this curiously spiky essay—so apparently insouciant, yet in such deadly earnest about its stated subject matter—was, so far as I know, the first piece of Wilde’s work to be reprinted after he was jailed. On May 30, 1895, just five days after he had been convicted, Arthur Humphreys’ Chiswick Press in London reprinted a truncated version of the essay under the abbreviated and somewhat more reader-friendly title The Soul of Man. This was a private publication of only fifty copies, but its release only five days after Wilde’s conviction was making an extraordinary point. Just at the moment when he was being silenced, somebody was determined that it was Wilde’s voice at its most overtly radical that should continue to be heard in print.

Other early championings of Wilde’s work after his “fall” are equally revealing. In 1898, very shortly after his release from Reading Gaol, Murdoch and Co. (London) released a slim volume under the very un-Wildean title Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life. This was an edited reprint of two letters Wilde had written to the newspapers while imprisoned, letters protesting at the treatment of juvenile prisoners and proposing urgent practical reform of the prison system under which they and he were being punished—again, not at all the sort of thing one might necessarily expect from a commercial West End playwright or a tragic victim of homophobia. In 1905, the very first publication (albeit in a severely bowdlerized and de-queered version) of his heartbroken and heartbreaking prison letter to his beloved Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis, sold 10,000 copies in just a few weeks—and then went on to go through fourteen new editions in the next three years. In the same year, composer Richard Strauss elevated Wilde to the commanding heights of the European avant-garde by using a translation of Wilde’s play Salome (which had been banned in London) as the libretto for his new opera—a work whose premiere Schoenberg, Berg, and Mahler all attended. Also, by that same year (my otherwise undated copy has a pencil note on the flyleaf saying it was purchased in 1904) a collection of Wilde fragments and aphorisms specifically chosen to highlight the subversive and the challenging aspects of his work—a collection which might be considered the very first predecessor of this new anthology, in fact—had been published under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, the alias under which Wilde had traveled in Europe during the two years of exile preceding his death in 1900. By 1905 some of his plays were also back on the touring circuit—British theater has always been quick to put its institutional homophobia to one side when there is good money to be made at the box office—but my point is that we should pay attention to the fact that it was Wilde as an overtly radical writer rather than primarily an agreeable or entertaining one who was so actively being brought back into circulation in these early years. His radicalism, not his charm, was at the core of his reputation.


Excerpted from Neil Bartlett’s introduction to the new anthology In Praise of Disobedience: The Soul of Man Under Socialism and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde. Copyright © 2018 Neil Bartlett. Reprinted with permission of Verso. All rights reserved.