A Life Lived as Art

Throughout his life, Oscar Wilde explored and challenged existing theories of aesthetics.  One of the most fruitful places in which to observe his developing philosophy is in the work produced in 1889 and 1890.  During these years, he published essays that advance a theory of art that is also reflected in his fiction of the same period, particularly the stories that comprise Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.  Reading these essays and stories in tandem can give us much insight into his works: the essays help us see the relationship between life and art in his fiction, and his fiction helps us understand the theories he propounds in his essays.  One theory that influenced Wilde’s ideas was introduced to him as a university student. The idea of “art for art’s sake,” first attributed to French writer Théophile Gautier in 1835, was introduced into English thought in 1873 by art critic Walter Pater.  This dictum was adopted by many writers in the late nineteenth century, largely as a reaction against the prevailing idea that art must serve either an instructive, moral, political, or otherwise utilitarian purpose. Wilde, who met Pater while a student at Magdalen College, absorbed this idea as well as many others, but it was only a beginning for Wilde’s exploration of aesthetic theory. Over his career, Wilde would modify these ideas until he had formed his own unique aestheticism that would tie together art as a product; art as lived experience; and art and life as performances to be appreciated (or not) by his audiences. 

Much of Wilde’s developing philosophy of art can be seen in two essays he published within the same month in 1889.  In “The Decay of Lying,” an imagined Socratic dialogue between two characters named after Wilde’s own sons, Vivian says, “Paradox though it may seem...it is none the less true that Life imitates art far more than Art imitates life” (10).  Vivian repeats this idea throughout the essay, building his case for its acceptance by the other character, Cyril.  His general argument is, as Joseph Bristow puts it, that “the best art hardly copies, through a process of transparent mimesis, the apparently stable bedrock of reality.  Instead, art at its finest is generated from the imagination of the artist and exerts an imaginative hold over its captivated audience” (Bristow 231).  At the end of the essay, Vivian says, “The final revelation is that Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art” (17).  Through Vivian’s argument, Wilde rejects Naturalism’s emphasis on depicting the subject truthfully and objectively that reigned over late-Victorian artistic tastes and argues instead for an aesthetic theory that embraces subjectivity and the self-creating individual.  Reestablishing the importance of the imagination in art allows his satirical genius free play in his writings, and makes space for the use of paradox that he employs to great effect.  It also emphasizes the beauty of art over any utilitarian function.

Wilde does not limit his theory of art to standard artistic products such as paintings and novels.  Instead, he shows the reader how art and life overlap, and how a life can in itself become a work of art, a trope that Wilde will continue to develop throughout his life.  We can see how Wilde explores this idea further in the other essay he published that month.  In “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” in which he discusses the life and artistry of writer, painter, forger, and poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, Wilde praises Wainewright because he “sought to be somebody, rather than to do something.  He recognized that Life itself is an art, and has its modes of style no less than the arts that seek to express it” (3).  As Joseph Bristow and Rebecca Nicole Mitchell point out, Wilde argues that, not only should we not condemn Wainewright’s art because of his criminality, but we “must confront the challenging view that Wainewright’s heinous acts might have been just as artful as his abilities as a writer of fine prose and as a painter of admired portraits” (Bristow and Mitchell 215).  Perhaps viewing Wainewright’s crimes as artistic is an extreme example of the amorality of art that Wilde proposes, but it does make Wilde’s point rather memorably. 

This belief of the artistry of life can be found in Wilde’s fiction as well as in his essays.  In his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which Wilde began writing in 1889, we can see the blurring of the lines of art and life through Dorian’s experiences and the mysterious portrait that has been painted of him.  As Ann Astell points out, the novel “illustrates and tests the principles articulated in the imagined dialogue [of “The Decay of Lying”]” (192).  Throughout the novel, we can see Wilde experimenting with his ideas of art and life and the complex way in which each can be mirrored by the other.  In his Introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Norman Page notes, “In the novel, it may be said that life does not merely imitate art: a life becomes a work of art” (20).  This theme of life becoming art is one that Wilde experiments with in his shorter fiction as well.

In the short stories that Wilde began publishing that same year, and which would eventually be collected as Lord Arthur Savile’s Crimes and Other Stories in 1891, we can detect in each story an exploration of the relationship between life and art.  In “The Sphinx Without a Secret,” we can view Lady Alroy’s actions as attempts to create in her life a role for herself that adds drama to her otherwise humdrum existence.  In “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” we can perhaps see Lord Arthur as a performer enacting the part that he feels he must play.  In “The Model Millionaire,” we experience a blurring of art and reality in the millionaire’s posing as a beggar for art’s sake.  But the most obvious example in this collection of the merging of life and art is found in “The Canterville Ghost.”  In this story, the Ghost of Sir Simon, likely modeled at least in part on Wainewright,[1] is depicted as a performer whose “ghostly visitations are never made in his own character” (O’Connor 332).  Instead, he dresses up in theatrical costumes, playing the roles of various characters such as “Gaunt Gibeon, the Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor” and “Red Ruben, or the Strangled Babe” (link to text).  As Tamás Bényei points out, “the troubles begin with his inability to put on the armour standing in the hall, that is, ‘his own suit.’  The role he is unable to play at this stage is his own, or himself as a role.... [I]n order to make himself perceptible, he needs some theatrical support” (27).  And so the Ghost dons costume after costume as he tries to elicit an appropriately frightened response from the Otises. Unfortunately for the Ghost, he finds that the family does not react as he has hoped.

The pragmatic response of the American Otis family to the Ghost’s appearances has been interpreted by some critics as Wilde’s comment on the role of the audience in artistic performance.  For example, Lydia Reineck Wilburn sees the story as a text where Wilde attempts to “work through problems involving the audience’s power over different phases of the artist’s performance” (41).  The Otises do not appreciate the Ghost’s performances; their mundane worldview has prevented them from understanding the artistry involved in his acts, thus “rendering the Ghost’s artistic efforts ineffectual” (Wilburn 46).  The twins, who mock and torment the Ghost, do not take his roles seriously.  The parents, who offer the Ghost commercial products to cure his cough or quiet his clanking chains, are “in a sense, oafs disrupting a theatrical performance” (Bényei 31).  As Bényei points out, “[O]ffering medicament for his death-rattle...is like offering medicine to an actor while he is performing a stage cough” (31). The Ghost’s new audience clearly does not appreciate his performance. 

One might think that Wilde, with his nonutilitarian theory of art and his disdain for the common sensibility, would not overly concern himself with the reaction of the audience.  But as Wilburn says, “[A]s artist, his role was to perform, thereby delivering aesthetic dictates to his audience and shaping their notions and tastes.  But running counter to his stated directives was the fact that by nature he was very much a public performer, one who depended on the interaction between artist, audience, and artwork” (42).  In the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde hints at the impact of the audience on his work when he says, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (42).  This realization not only relates to the artistic product itself but indicates the individual interpretations of the art by its audience. Wilde believed that our perceptions are dependent upon our previous encounters with art.  As Vivian says in “The Decay of Lying,” “Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.  To look at a thing is very different from seeing a thing.  One does not see anything until one sees its beauty.  Then, and then only, does it come into existence” (12).  Thus, the ability of the spectator to see the beauty in a work of art is of the utmost importance. In a letter Wilde wrote in 1898, he further concedes the audience’s importance: “I have the most terrible of all pleasures, the pleasure of the spectator; a pleasure without which Art would be dead” (Letters 1088).  And, indeed, in “The Canterville Ghost,” the reaction of the Ghost’s “audience” seems to be quite important in the story as well.

     The Ghost of Sir Simon runs through all of his ghastly repertoire in attempting to get the desired reaction form the Otis family.  In the end, the only solution left to him is giving up his acting and finding peace in eternal rest.  He does this by finding a receptive “audience” in fifteen-year-old Virginia.  Virginia, the artist in her family, is the only one with the sensibility required to respond to the Ghost’s story.  Even the Ghost’s rationale for murdering his wife apparently stems from his aesthetic sensibility.  As the Ghost explains to Virginia, “My wife was very plain, never had my ruffs properly starched, and knew nothing about cookery” (link to text).  This statement echoes one in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” where Wilde reports Wainewright as saying, in defense of killing his sister-in-law, “Yes; it was a dreadful thing to do, but she had very thick ankles” (11).  Despite the admission of his crime, Virginia listens sympathetically to the Ghost’s pleas, agrees to “play a part” in his drama, and is mysteriously initiated into his artistry behind secret doors.  When she emerges, she is transformed; no longer the cliché of the young innocent girl, she is now a full-blown character in the story.  She goes on to enact her own roles that include “angel” (as the light illumines her face after she dramatically reveals the Ghost’s secret tragedy), “rewarded lover” (as symbolized by the jeweled casket given her by the Ghost), “grieving widow” (as she sits in the carriage on its way to the gravesite), and finally, as “Duchess with a mysterious secret” (after her marriage to the young Duke).  As Wilburn points out, through her assumption of various roles, Virginia “has become an artist of the self” (53).  The story ends happily, with Virginia’s successful artistry in full flower.

Wilde put a good deal of effort into being an “artist of the self” in real life as well.  In his flamboyant dress and carefully cultivated demeanor, he enacted an artistic performance wherever he went.  When he went on a lecture tour in America in 1882, he played the role he had created for himself brilliantly.  His American audiences were never quite sure if they were witnessing his true behavior or an artistic performance.  As Joseph Bristow says, “Wilde brought about a signal change in the relations between the artist and his audience.  No longer was the artist the producer of culture, he was now an embodiment of it” (Effeminate 32-33).  Norman Page describes Wilde as “a dandy who was later to declare that he had put his genius into his life and his talent into his art” (22).  Much of this resurrected Dandyism was influenced by Pater, who encouraged young men to nurture an increased sensibility to both art and life, instructing them that to “burn always with a hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life” (Pater).  Wilde seems to have taken this suggestion to heart in the various roles he played in public life. 

Just as the Ghost struggled with being taken seriously in his roles, Wilde would struggle with this same issue in his life: both his art and his lifestyle frequently met with criticism or even dismissal (Wilburn 47).  Wilburn points out that one way of reading the Ghost’s desire for final rest is that he has finally recognized “that the mode of performance he loved so much (horrifying the inhabitants of the mansion) no longer has a receptive audience, and thus there is no point in going on with it” (53).  She then equates this realization to Wilde’s own performances, saying, “This possibility would be a dark one for Wilde since, like the Ghost, he too devotes much of his creative energy to shocking (and sometimes horrifying) his audiences” (53).  In his treatment of the Ghost’s plight, we can perhaps see Wilde’s sympathy for the unappreciated artist.  But unlike his ghostly alter-ego, Wilde never surrendered control of his art to an audience (Wilburn 48).  Wilde continued to draw attention to himself throughout his life through his various public performances.  According to friends and onlookers, he didn’t even drop his persona while he was on trial for “gross indecency” in 1895 for violating Britain’s Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 which criminalized all sex acts between men.  After his conviction and imprisonment, Wilde found it difficult to continue writing; outside of his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” he did not publish again after his release from prison.  Some of his friends urged him to write, but his biographer, Richard Ellmann, quotes him as responding, “My life is like a work of art” (541).  Perhaps this was a defensive answer intended to mask his inability to write, but it could also signal the culminating point of his aesthetic philosophy if Wilde in his final days decided that a life lived as art bore more significance than art itself.

- Michelle Shamasneh

Works Cited

Astell, Ann W. “’My Life Is a Work of Art’: Oscar Wilde’s Novelistic and Religious Conversion.” Renascence, vol. 65, no. 3, 2013, pp. 188-205.

Bényei, Tamás.  “Ghosts in the Age of Spectrality: The Irrelevance of Ghosts and Late Victorian Ghost Stories.” The Fantastic of the Fin-de-Siècle, edited by Irena Grubica and Zdenek Beran, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, pp. 17-38.

Bristow, Joseph. Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing after 1885. Columbia UP, 1995.

Bristow, Joseph, and Rebecca Nicole Mitchell. “Wilde, Forgery, and Crime: ‘Pen, Pencil and Poison,’ ‘The Decay of Lying,’ and The Short Fiction.” Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery. Yale UP, 2015, pp. 214-244.

Calloway, Stephen. “Wilde and the Dandyism of the Senses.” The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, edited by Peter Raby, Cambridge UP, 1997, pp. 34-54.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1987.

O’Connor, Maureen. “The Spectre of Genre in ‘The Canterville Ghost.’” Irish Studies Review, vol. 12, no. 3, 2004, pp. 329-338.

Page, Norman. Introduction. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Broadview Press, 2005, pp. 7-35.

Pater, Walter.  Conclusion. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, 6th edition. Gutenberg Project. www.gutenberg.org/2/3/9/2398.

Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, Henry Holt and Company, 2005.

---. “Pen, Pencil and Poison.” Intentions. Wikisource.com.

---. “The Canterville Ghost.” Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

---. “The Decay of Lying.” Intentions.  Bretano’s, 1905.

Wilburn, Lydia Reineck.  “Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’: The Power of an Audience.” Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, vol. 23, no. 1, 1987, pp. 41-55.


[1] In his book Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism, Rodney Shewan suggests two possible influences on Sir Simon’s character: the life of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright and Thomas De Quincey’s essay “Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.”  For the possible influences of Virgil and Dante on the characterization of Sir Simon, see Cristina Cinquini’s article “Virgil and Dante at Canterville Chase,” Wildean: A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies, July 1997, pp. 42-45.