Writing by Katie O'Connor. Artwork from Upsplash.
We all have our favorite morally gray characters. The ones you can’t think about too much so as not to ruin the love you have for them, or the respect you have for yourself. But what happens when these characters turn up in our realities? When do their vices, their flaws, the things that make them so appealing on paper or onscreen become a threat to you? And at what point does the public, for the good of society, turn its back on them if at all?
Well, to answer such a loaded question requires a lot more context. Who is said person? What is said vice? What society are we living in? So let’s rewind a bit. Imagine it’s the late 19th century, the prime of Victorian England. An Irish playwright has taken the world by storm, not only through his provocative writing, but through his just as provocative personality. His name? Oscar Wilde.
Wilde had made a name for himself far before he was known as a writer. But how could this be? Witty, sarcastic, and extravagant, Wilde lived up to his name during a time when said characteristics were considered improper for gentlemen of high society. And yet, he was an incredibly prominent figure of such a society. He could be observed strolling through London with his signature floppy hair, luxurious breeches, and a green carnation sported in his vest-pocket (a possible nod to the code of Queer Parisians). Whispers of his effeminate style made their rounds, but remained just that; whispers.
But eventually these whispers grew in volume and reached many more ears. As Wilde’s works became increasingly popular, the scrutiny of said works only grew. And even stuffy Victorians were finding difficulty in denying the homoerotic undertones of such a novel as The Picture of Dorian Gray (no matter how much they insisted that Basil’s affection, and obsession with Dorian was that of a really good friend). Even Wilde’s satires, such as The Importance of Being Earnest, whose focus aimed to ridicule the hypocrisy of Victorian ideals concerning love and class, dealt with themes of leading a double life, and pretending to be someone you’re not. This didn’t bode well for Wilde, often seen surrounded by attractive young men, and who traveled everywhere not with his wife, but with his closest friend, Lord Alfred Douglas.
And Wilde hardly tried to quell any rumors. They’d been circulating for years, and had done little harm to his reputation or career. This changed however, when the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, publicly accused Wilde of luring Douglas to partake in homosexual activities. Wilde, outraged by such a public slandering of his name, took Douglas’ father to court and attempted to sue. However, after a number of trials, Wilde was ultimately found guilty of homosexuality, and was sentenced to two years of hard labor (practially a death sentence). Wilde’s fall from grace was as quick as it was tragic. The very same crowd who had stood and cheered for him at the foot of a stage only months before now hung about the courthouse readying not their applause, but their spit. And now we’re left wondering, how could a well-known rumor take down such a figure as Oscar Wilde?
There’s no denying that Wilde’s social circle was that of the elite. His writings could hardly be championed as ‘punching up’, and fell more along the lines of ‘punching the guy next to you at afternoon tea’. Aristocrats lined up for his plays and laughed at his mocking jokes, maybe because some of them were stupid and the point flew right over their heads, but more likely because they saw Wilde as a means to enhance their own social capital. And so it’s no surprise (in fact it feels like something that could have been written by Wilde himself), that once newspapers exposed Wilde’s affairs, most, if not all of his high society friends who had been aware of his queerness for years, acted scandalized and turned away from Wilde. The public hardly doubted his guilt. In terms of social capital, he was worthless. One might even say that Wilde represented a negative return on investment. Many aristocrats sacrificed their time, money, and dignity trying to win Wilde over so as to reap the benefits of a connection with such a commendable member of society. And right in front of their eyes, such a lofty investment seemed to be flushed down the drain. It was they who were the victims of such a scandal and betrayal, not the vulgar and lying Wilde, and most definitely not the young sex workers publicly humiliated amidst the trial.
So does the fall of Wilde purely come down to class? To the hypocrisy he dedicated his life to writing about? Yes and no. Homophobia was rampant throughout Victorian England, and there were a good many people who were truly disgusted by homosexuality. But these people did not hold enough power, or yet exercise it in order to take down Wilde years before. If their disgust in Wilde’s actions held any weight, it was lighter than the entertainment his works brought them, or the prestige his presence gave them. Wilde’s viewed today as a victim of a homophobic society, and this isn’t untrue. If Wilde was pursuing extra-marital affairs and prostitutional relations with younger women instead of men, this would hardly bring about his ruin. But Wilde’s downfall ultimately came about because of exploitation. Wilde was treated not as a person, but as capital, and was exploited by his own social circle because of it. Wilde himself abused his own social and financial power in his sexual exploitation of young men, and even underage boys.
In admitting that Wilde was both a victim and a perpetrator of many vices, we admit that we share something in common with the Victorians. Both me and your everyday leech-collector can observe the dark shadows that loom behind Wilde’s golden talent. This talent has continued to shine and be celebrated throughout literary and cultural circles for over a century. Such shadows have moved, or to put it simply, vices have changed. And so for many today, we struggle to find a place for Wilde’s gray figure amongst a rainbow history.