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There is no doubt that Oscar Wilde is one of the writers who provided literature with a great number of paradoxes. Some of the most well-known paradoxes include his words about the fogs in London that appear due to the impressionist painters and that, in his opinion, the sunsets serve an imitation of Turner’s pictures and one more, quite a shocking one, that Japanese people do not exist. However, it is important to say that all these paradoxes contain a certain percent of truth in their initial meaning. Oscar Wilde taught to see that every good paradox is a truth that is seen round a corner and each paradox contains a self-conscious wisdom.
An interesting fact is that Oscar Wilde’s humor and interpretation turn out to be quite different in his prose and verse (Greenblatt, 2006). It is possible to state that, compared to his prose, Oscar Wilde is extremely serious in verses, and the use of humor is not typical for these works of literature.
Oscar Wilde’s plays are full of humor and satire. His play "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a great example to prove this fact. Oscar Wilde’s "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a play about upper class wealthy citizens. They are concerned with trivial things. One of the characters is Algernon Moncreiff. He is "speaking of the Science of Life” but in fact it is a complete nonsense and then all of a sudden he asks, "Have you got the cucumber sandwiches?" (Beckson, 1974). While having a conversation with Jack Worthig, Algernon asks him why he is not in the town, because it is such an elite place to be in. Jack responds that when a person is in town, he amuses himself, but when he is in the country, he amuses other people. They speak in a complicated way but still understand each other. Both of them have invented imaginative characters - Ernest and Bunberry. Jack says his name is not good enough to suit both living in the town and the country. However, Jack and Algemon lie a lot and the only thing they take seriously is their own pleasure.
The plot itself works to create the humorous atmosphere. Jack wants to marry Gwendolen, but her mother, aunt of Algernon, does not allow this because Jack does not live up to the "list of eligible young men" (Nilsen, 1997). In Shropshire, Algernon (Ernest) proposes to Cecily when he finds out that “they have been engaged for the last three months". Gwendolen comes to the Shropshire too and has a conversation with Cecily. At first they seem to get along but, after Ernest Worthing is mentioned, the argument begins. They think they are engaged to the same man until Jack and Algemon arrive to the country house and it appears that Emest is the name of none of them.
The character of Lady Bracknell, a very controlling mother, represents the whole class of society mothers. No arguments are allowed with her. Gwendolen has to do what she is told. Lady Bracknell as a woman and a mother is very concerned with social status and reputation of being elite. She claims that her daughter has been given the highest level of upbringing. The society can no way get to know that Gwendolen is engaged to a man left in a handbag in the station.
Lady Bracknell’s daughter must have everything best. She is supposed to marry a wealthy gentleman with the standards of superiority. The engagement for marriage must not be too long. An opportunity of getting to know each other's character before marriage is not appropriate for her, and she is pretty sure that her comments are always needed. Oscar Wilde mocks the obsession over the money and social status of Lady Bracknell who is always over-interested in people’s status. She asks Jack Worthing if Cecily is wealthy. As soon as she hears that there is a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the funds of Cecily, Lady Bracknell gets interested in the girl with “solid qualities" as she calls her referring to solid money.
Wilde uses play of words (puns). Reversing popular sayings, he mocks the marriage and life of aristocracy. The plot reverses expectations; it is based on ridiculous snobbery and co-incidences (Nilsen, 1998). The stylistic device of humor is represented in the following quotes: "Produce your explanation and pray make it improbable." which reverses the common phrase 'Produce your explanation and pray make it probable.' (Sale, 2003); "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." from 'The truth is pure and simple'. ; "It is simple washing one's own clean linen in public." that comes from 'It is simple washing one's dirty linen in public' (Nilsen & Nilsen, 2000).
In “The Importance of Being Earnest” the pun is not only a play of words. The pun is in the title - The earnest/Ernest controversies the notions of respectability and duty in Victorian age. Gwendolen is going to marry Ernest, but she does not even care if he actually possesses earnestness. Jack is a symbol of the Victorian hypocrisy. The paradox is that in the end he becomes both “earnest” and “Ernest”.
Lady Bracknell’s character is making a complicated pun as well. She had never heard of a person whose origin was a Terminus. The railway station stands for Jack’s identity and it actually is his “origin”. In England, the first stop is called “the origin” and the last stop is known as the “terminus” (Miendelssonhn, 2007). There is a lot of puns such as “line” and “connection” referring to ancestry or travel. Wilde is satirizing Lady Bracknell’s snobbery. She cannot even distinguish between a stop on a railway line and an origin - a family line. The puns added extra meaning to the characters’ lines.
There is a lot of jokes about death in “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Lady Bracknell talks about death. Once she says that Lady Harbury looks younger after her husband’s death. She assumes that someone’s death is an inconvenience for others. In Act III, she gets to know that Bunbury has died suddenly but his physicians had predicted this. Lady Bracknell calls it “acting under proper medical advice” (Miendelssonhn, 2007). There is also an opinion in the play that death is something that can teach a moral lesson. Jack and Algernon discuss how to “kill” Jack’s imaginary brother. The death jokes give the play a layer of dark humor and express the idea that life is a work of art. Death is taken as something that is under control of every person, and it is a final decision that can be made in terms of shaping and coloring one’s life.
Food and scenes serve almost always as sources of conflict in the play. In Act II, Gwendolen and Cecily are arguing about who is actually engaged to Ernest Worthing. Cecily offered her sugar and cake to Gwendolen, who said immediately that sugar is “not fashionable any more” and “Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays” (Foster, 2001). Cecily fills Gwendolen’s tea with sugar and puts cake on her plate in response (Gillespie, 1996). The jokes about food are a sort of low comedy and also can be a stand-in for sex, for example, when Jack is eating the bread and butter with too much pleasure, and Algernon says that he behaves as though he is already married. Food might stand for other appetites.
It will be unfair to take into consideration only Mr. Wilde's witty side. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that his is one of the most outstanding intellects in England. He caused a sensation 15 years ago by his remarkable poems. Though he has written less poetry since then, and his volume of poems of 1881 was just reprinted in 1892. But what makes him stand out from contemporary authors is his prose. The easier it gets to write poetry, the more difficult it becomes to write an original prose. Both his poetry and prose are extremely sensuous. It is hard to name a contemporary prose-style author that would have such an imagination and such a feeling for words. Wilde’s prose is sensual and reserved at the same time. It combines beauty and deep thought. A treatise on aesthetic can be based on his prose because the author's taste is absolute. He never praises a bad work and never blows a chance to praise a really good work giving the right reason for saying it is worth. His passage on Browning shows him at his best as a critic.
Wilde’s prose has much in common with his verses and can be characterized by such a feature as an extreme sensuousness. Moreover, it is known that Oscar Wilde’s prose was often criticized and there is an opinion that it happened due to the representation of his prose as “too gorgeous and too perfume-laden” (Greenblatt, 2006). On the example of two works such as “The Critic as Artist” and “Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray” it is possible to make a conclusion that Oscar Wilde’s prose manages to combine a luxuriant imagination, great virility, and an amazing ease of motion. All these features make him a significant writer among his contemporaries. Wilde’s prose-style contains less humor, but a lot of sense and important ideas that makes it unique.
For instance, the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” contains features of Gothic horror, satire, and tragedy. It satirizes the Victorian age and upper-class aristocrats. It mocks the obsession with gossips, parties, and fake interest in the arts. Their money is either inherited or made due to the underclass. Lord Fermor, who owns Midlands collieries, justifies coal-mining operations because it gives him money on wood for his fireplace. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” ridicules the aristocrats for judging people by their appearances. Their looks, money, and social status are over the substance. Lord Kelso despises his son-in-law who is a lowly subaltern in the military. Wotton and Hallward admire Dorian Gray for his beauty. Even despite Dorian’s immoral behavior and lies, he still moves in the upper-class circles due to his money and looks.
In “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Wilde formulates the idea of aestheticized sensuality. Later on, he reflects on his self-identifying in De Profundis. The biographer Richard Ellmann analyzes the similarities between Dorian Gray's character and Wilde's life. He takes Dorian Gray as a hidden embodiment of Wilde's homosexuality. The biographer states that "Wilde put into the book a negative version of what he had been brooding about for fourteen years and, under a veil, what he had been doing sexually for four" (Beckson, 1974).
Oscar Wilde has created a reputation of a poser: "The first duty in life is to assume a pose; what the second duty is no one yet has found out" (Foster, 2001). “De Profundis” is the result of years of preparation and using the strategies of disguise and displacement (Foster, 2001). The arguments about Dorian Gray were reinforced by the early stories contributed to the complex persona of the author - newspaper and magazine articles, photos, and the Punch caricatures. The homoerotic implication of Wilde's posing deflected the attacks of those who had a hunch about what was actually going on. It led to Lord Queensberry's calling Wilde a "posing Sodomite" (Foster, 2001).
The provocation expressed in his texts and public statements and his relationships with Alfred drove Queensberry into action. He was supported by all Englishmen. His solicitors were going to use his prose as "primary evidence for the defense against “Wilde's libel charge" (Foster, 2001). But “The Picture of Dorian Gray” still remained a rather controversial work even despite the fact that his reputation as a playwright was growing every day.
Some critics characterize Wilde’s prose as “sensuous and restrained, plastic and ornate” (Foster, 2001). In such a way Wilde’s taste is perceived as an aesthetic one and it is also possible to notice that he never praises works of a poor level and he always manages to emphasize those works that are worth it. Wilde is definitely a great critic and he is a very educated and broad-minded person. These features help him both to write and evaluate literary works. Besides, Wilde always proves his point of view with exact reasons and examples thus sounding reasonable and persuasive.
Oscar Wilde is definitely a significant personality in literature and the number of works devoted to his plays and poems prove it. Wilde has a large collection of literal works of various genres including poems, prose, plays, and amazing verses. Oscar Wilde is one of the most outstanding intellects in England. He managed to use humor in order to emphasize the issue that worried him concerning society, personality, and some other aspects. Oscar Wilde is definitely a genius writer and he managed to successfully implement wit and satire in his works. In my opinion, there is no need to explain the use of numerous paradoxes and jokes in Wilde’s works as it is possible to notice his talent and a great artist at once. The use of humor in Wilde's plays is more typical than the use of humor in his non-fictional prose. Oscar Wilde applied intellectual humor written to be read and not performed.