In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Oscar Wilde

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Collections of Critical Essays
  • Selections and Individual Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Reception and Reference
  • Aestheticism
  • Ireland
  • Journalism
  • Trials
  • Religion

Victorian Literature Oscar Wilde
Anne Varty
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0152


Oscar Wilde spoke with a unique voice throughout his short professional life, during which he became the foremost wit of the era and speaker for Aestheticism, Decadence, and the avant-garde of the 1890s. Born in Dublin in 1854, he moved to Oxford in 1874 where he completed his training as a classicist before settling in London in 1877; he was imprisoned in Reading Gaol for “acts of gross indecency” in 1895, and he died in Paris in 1900. His literary achievements are among the most remarkable and enduring of the Victorian era, and he advanced every literary form he engaged with, from his early work in poetry, journalism, essays and Platonic dialogues, genre fiction, to his astonishing commercial success with Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and the farcical hilarity of The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Yet his work fell out of circulation following the disgrace of his conviction; despite the efforts by his literary executor, Robert Ross, to revive Wilde’s reputation with a complete edition of his works in 1908, it was not until the postwar period that Hesketh Pearson’s pioneering biography relaunched Wilde’s literary credibility. Since that time Wilde’s works, as well as his life, have been subjects of intense critical scrutiny and global cultural acclaim. As an Irish writer working in England, as one criminalized by his sexuality, as preeminent wit, prose stylist, and dramatist, Wilde placed himself in dynamic opposition to the prevailing mores of his day. His work has given rise to a formidable legacy of constantly evolving critical attention. There are four works indispensable for the committed researcher: the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde in the Oxford English Texts edition (Small 2000), the biography by Ellmann 1987, The Complete Letters (Holland and Hart-Davis 2000, cited under Letters), and The Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (Mason 1914, cited under Bibliographies).

General Overviews

A number of single-author studies offer overviews of Wilde’s literary career and cultural context. Each one is inflected by the particular critical focus of the author, among which Gagnier 1987, who emphasizes the material culture that conditioned Wilde’s development of his career as a professional writer: Sloan 2003 focuses on the cultural and thematic energy of Wilde’s work, and Varty 1998 demonstrates the philosophical cohesion of his corpus; these stand out as the most enduring, accessible, and scholarly.

  • Gagnier, Regenia. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. London: Scolar, 1987.

    Taking a broadly chronological approach, this is an important scholarly investigation of the historical, material, and professional conditions in which Wilde’s work developed. It opens with an examination of Wilde’s inheritance of the Dandy role from its European traditions. It explores what his perspective as a cultural outsider allows him to see, and how his insights may be compromised by his position as a professional writer in the marketplace.

  • Guy, Josephine M., and Ian Small. Oscar Wilde’s Profession. Writing and the Culture Industry in the Late Nineteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198187288.001.0001

    An important assessment of the material terms of Wilde’s career as a professional writer: argues that in living by his craft, his work was subject to conditioning power relations with his publishers and theater managers and was therefore less radical and less diverse than may at first appear.

  • Guy, Josephine, and Ian Small. Studying Oscar Wilde: History, Criticism, and Myth. Greensboro, NC: ELT Press, 2006.

    An accessible, scholarly, and carefully structured overview of Wilde’s work, focusing on his most popular texts. With clear explanations of different historical phases of textual production and interpretation, including the texts of his unfinished plays and scenarios as an appendix.

  • Knox, Melissa. Oscar Wilde: A Long and Lovely Suicide. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

    A controversial and thorough psychoanalytic interpretation of Wilde’s life and works.

  • Kohl, Norbert. Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel. Translated by David Henry Wilson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    A detailed analysis of Wilde’s works, following the chronology of their publication. Each major text is placed in the 19th-century traditions of its genre to enable full discussion of how Wilde both advances and conforms with literary tradition.

  • Price, Jody. “A Map with Utopia”: Oscar Wilde’s Theory for Social Transformation. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

    An overview of Wilde’s transgressive social theories as they shape his work, from the early poetry to his last prison writings.

  • Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    An accessible general overview of Wilde’s major works, arranged by genre and emphasizing the achievement of his drama.

  • Sammells, Neil. Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde. Longman, UK: Harlow, 2000.

    A sustained and insightful argument that analyzes Wilde’s work through an evaluation of his aesthetic emphasis on style. Draws stimulating connections with radical artists of the late 20th century such as Quentin Tarantino.

  • Sloan, John. Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Opening with an account of Wilde’s life and work, this is a study of the major contexts and themes of his work such as his antipathy toward realism; engagements with philosophy and religion; gender roles of his life, work, and contemporary culture; and his immersion in the literary market of his day. It concludes with a useful bibliography of criticism and web resources.

  • Varty, Anne. A Preface to Oscar Wilde. Longman, UK: Harlow, 1998.

    Draws out the philosophical consistency of Wilde’s work by demonstrating his sustained engagement with Pater’s Aestheticism. This is an accessible, scholarly analysis of Wilde’s works that proceeds chronologically by genre, opening with a biographical timeline and concluding with an annotated list of Wilde’s professional circles and bibliography of criticism.

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