Wilde-ly decadent: the 163rd birthday of an aesthete

Graphic by Riley Guerrero ‘20

Graphic by Riley Guerrero ‘20


In the unusually temperate weather, it’s all too easy to forget that we’re in the midst of October. This month, hot cocoa and pumpkin spice should be warming us up amidst a chilly breeze as we contemplate what lurks in the dead-still of the witching hours. But instead, with the sunny 60-degree days and most of the campus still abuzz late into the night cramming for midterms, it’s time to manufacture some proper Halloween spirit ––  and take a much-needed break from test prep -–– with some candy corn and a good book. As October is also LGBTQ History Month, no author comes to mind more than Oscar Wilde, who celebrated his 163rd birthday on Oct. 16.  

On Oct. 16. 1854, Oscar Wilde was born into a Dublin family of intellectuals and Irish Nationalists and raised on a steady diet of aestheticism, folklore and the literary giants. As he moved on to formal studies, he proved himself an accomplished intellectual in his own right at both Trinity College in Dublin and Oxford University in London. While at Oxford, he dabbled in Freemasonry and Catholicism, and finally became a forerunner of the swelling Aesthetic movement, which, according to the TATE’s website, “championed pure beauty and ‘art for art’s sake’ emphasising the visual and sensual qualities of art and design over practical, moral or narrative considerations.”

After several years spent writing in a diverse array of genres such as poetry, journalism and literary theory, Wilde found his stride as a playwright and author with his 1890 novel, “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” Although poorly received during its time due to its blatant homoeroticism and the hedonism of the titular character, “The Picture of Dorian Grey” has endured for nearly 130 years due to its masterful, aesthetic prose and its compelling characters. Perhaps most of all, the novel has been celebrated for its rich, horrific, dark and strange moral landscape. Focused on the handsome, rich and ultimately amoral Dorian Grey, who plays muse to the painter Basil Hallward and their mutual friend Lord Henry Wotton, the novel is a contemporary, Gothic exploration of the nature of desire between emotionally complex men seeking to find morality in a world of excess, while depicting the beauty and art of the Victorian era. “The Picture of Dorian Grey” –– now widely considered a pillar of Victorian literature –– is the perfect read for any long autumn evening, pairing well with hot tea and the ever-present question of societal morality. 

Although Oscar Wilde wrote several more plays, stories and poems before his death in 1900, “The Picture of Dorian Grey” remained his only novel and perhaps his greatest work, its mark only made greater by the way it came to mirror his own life. Then a middle aged and successful artist, Wilde was introduced to the beautiful, young Lord Alfred Douglas shortly after the publication of “The Picture of Dorian Grey.” The relationship between the two men eventually resulted in Wilde unsuccessfully suing Lord Douglas’s father for criminal libel and the Crown itself prosecuting Wilde for sodomy and gross indecency. 

Wilde was convicted on the charge, and then spent several years in prison and performing hard labor: an act as physically demanding and torturous as it was deeply antithetical to his philosophies of decadence and aesthetic beauty. He died destitute in France in late November of 1900, and it was only in Jan. 2017, that he was awarded a posthumous pardon for his so-called crimes. 

Although this October may not be shaping up to be as dreary or spooky as those of Victorian England, and though Wilde’s birthday has faded into the murky past for this year, it’s never too late to take a break from exams and sit back with a good book. From its haunting prose to its decadent depictions of aristocratic life, “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” plays such as “The Importance of Being Earnest” and  an expansive canon of literary theory and poetry have well outlived their author to become both the literary masterpieces and the guilty pleasures that always merit another reread, particularly at the perfect intersection of LGBTQ History month and the spectral season of the occult.