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Free Study Guide: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde - Free BookNotes

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST: FREE BOOKNOTES

Oscar Wilde - BIOGRAPHY

Oscar O'Flahertie Fingal Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. He was born into an interesting and somewhat eccentric family, which would prove to be a very appropriate backdrop for the man Wilde would become. His mother, Lady Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde (1820-96), was a journalist and poet. She published revolutionary poetry under the pseudonym “Speranza”; Lady Jane gained attention as a poetess in 1846 when her work appeared in the Irish newspaper The Nation.


Oscar Wilde - Free Study Guide: The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde was an accomplished physician who specialized in diseases of the eyes and ears. He published two books by age twenty-eight and was named medical advisor to the Irish Census of 1841. This was ground-breaking for the time, as no other nation had a collection of such extensive data. William was appointed the Assistant Commissioner for the next three censuses; in 1864 he was knighted for his diligent work. The same year of his knighting, Sir William was the center of a large scandal when a former patient, Mary Travers, told the local papers that she had been chloroformed and raped.

Sir William also did gooks works for the city. In 1844, he founded and financed St. Mark's Ophthalmic Hospital. Before his marriage Sir William fathered three illegitimate children, all for whom he cared financially: Henry Wilson in 1838, Emily in 1847, and Mary in 1849. The girls were raised by William’s brother and died in a fire when there were only in their early twenties. Oscar was the second child of his parents (brother William Charles Kingsbury was born in 1852). His mother also bore a daughter, Isola Emily Francesca, in 1857. Tragically, she died of fever at age ten. For the rest of his life, Oscar was profoundly affected by her death and for the rest of his life, kept a lock of Isola’s hair.

Oscar excelled in academic life. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, where he majored in classical studies. He then went to Oxford on an academic scholarship. At Oxford, Wilde was greatly inspired by John Ruskin and Walter Pater who influenced Oscar with their aesthetic theories. At Oxford, Wilde continued to be a celebrated scholar, winning the Newdigate prize for his poem Ravenna and "First In Greats."

Upon graduation, Wilde moved to London and published (in 1881) his first collection of poetry, Poems. This fist volume was satirized in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, Patience. During this time Wilde also established himself as an advocate of the philosophical movement aestheticism, “art for art’s sake.” Wilde was known as a flamboyant character-usually seen wearing velvet knee britches and a green carnation in his button hole.

In 1882 he was propelled by accumulation debt to embark on a one hundred and forty lecture tour in the United States, during which he met Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Walt Whitman. He returned from America and lived in Paris for a short while before continuing his lecture tour in Britain and Ireland.

In May of 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, a rich, intelligent, Irishwoman. She was well-educated and somewhat shy. They had two sons: Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886. Wilde took a job editing Woman's World magazine. He stayed at this position for only two years (1887-1889), until he left and focused his efforts whole-heartedly on his own work. Wilde published The Happy Prince And Other Tales in 1888 and The House Of Pomegranates in 1892, which were based on Irish folklore. In 1890 Wilde met success with his play Dorian Gray, which he was later able to convert into a masterpiece novel. His accomplishments continued with plays: Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), Salome (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

In sharp contrast to his public achievements, were his private tragedies. In 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, “Bosie.” Bosie was an aspiring poet and undergraduate student at Oxford. Wilde and Bosie began a sexual relationship, which was not well hidden. In 1895 Bosie’s father, the marquis of Queensbury, accused Wilde of being a homosexual. Wilde sued for libel. While Wilde withdrew from the original case, Bosie’s father collected vast evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality. Wilde was arrested and sentenced to two years of hard labor for this “crime.”

Wilde left prison a dejected man. He moved from England, where his wife had divorced him and he was bankrupted, to France. He produced two more works: The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) and De Profundis (1905), which were much more somber than his earlier pieces.


On November 30, 1900 Oscar Wilde died of meningitis in a Paris hotel room. Five years earlier (the year of his arrest), Wilde wrote the play The Importance of Being Ernest, in which character Ernest Worthing’s death occurs in a Paris hotel room. Oscar Wilde once stated what he considered to be the drama of his life: “"It's that I have put my genius into my life; all I've put into my works is my talent."

Sources: “Oscar Wilde’s Biography” http: //cmgww.com/historic/wilde/index.html

“Oscar Wilde” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. Vol. 2b Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. New York: Norton, 2000. 1747-1749


LITERARY / HISTORICAL INFORMATION

The Victorian Age (1830- 1901) is named after the reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901). This was an era of great prosperity for Great Britain; the time when the sun never set on the British Empire because of its vast land claims. This time period also saw the increase in disparity between the very wealth and the very poor. Many technological and scientific discoveries (The Industrial Revolution; Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, 1859) led to rapid change in day to day life and philosophy. Social issues of the 19th century were the foundation of much Victorian literature, namely Charles Dickens who sought to examine the issues of the under classes.

Oscar Wilde came late into this age of literature, and should be examined in light of the “Late Victorian Period” (1870-1901), in which Victorian values were coming into question. On one hand, this was a time of security for the British Empire regarding the economy and life in the British Isles. However, on the other hand, this was a time when much of the Empire’s colonial subjects were revolting, resulting in bloody wars and massacres abroad.

At home, the issue of the rule of Ireland was cause for great debate. And as the Victorian Era began to fade, so did the richness of its stability. The United States emerged as a worthy industrial competitor and the rise of Bismarck’s Germany offered both military and industrial threats.

The tone of literature changed even more in the 1890s. Optimistic tones continued to decline and earlier Victorian views were questioned. Many artists of this age, like Wilde, were driven by the aesthetic movement, which celebrated art for art’s sake. An example of this changing attitude can be seen in the main themes of The Importance of Being Earnest: the absurdity of the aristocracy, and the triviality of marriage. In 1926 in his work The Romantic Nineties, Richard Le Gallienne stated “[Oscar Wilde] made dying Victorianism laugh at itself, and it may be said to have died of the laughter.”

Source: “The Late Period (1870-1901): Decay of Victorian Values.” The Norton Anthology of

English Literature: The Victorian Age. Vol. 2b Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. New York: Norton, 2000 . 1052-1055.


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