Wilde v. Dickens and More!

Oscar Wilde famously said

“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

He obviously did not hold the work of Dickens in high regard. But why not?

I think the most direct way of explaining is to point out that the fiction of Dickens is fixated on certain eternal,  humanistic values, mainly disdaining the injustices perpetrated by uncaring villains against the weak and defenseless. Not just ugly characters like Uriah Heap but also abusers like Ralph Nickleby.   It was the fixation that bothered Wilde as it seemed stuck in Victorian morality. Those types of villains did not really exist. Real life villains were more likely to be persons who were unaware of the hurt they cause in the first place. Not uncaring, but unseeing.

Wilde thought that art could do better, and he first published “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine 1890 t ogive it a try. A longer book form came out in 1891. BTW, Gide’s L’Immoralist” would not come out for another decade in 1902. Wilde gives evil an attractive side. And you see this theme in Wilde’s work rather frequently. Doing wrong is the right thing to do or at least it must be overlooked in light of other considerations.  Villains are not taken so seriously as the questing for better flow.

Which brings me to my point. We use stories to help us break free, or get unstuck from, certain aspects of reality.  But we can find ourselves equally stuck in the values imposed by the fiction that we read. We get unstuck to find ourselves stuck again. Wilde thought that Dickens had that effect.

Wilde struggles to stay unstuck. Did he manage it? At least one must concede that he made getting unstuck a priority. In that sense, he was a precursor of the 20th-century mainstream artistic obsession with breaking rules to achieve more freedom of artistic expression.  And by now, we have spent100 years trying to get unstuck.

Are we there yet? I think that at least we realize that we are our own jailers. Getting unstuck is an interior dialogue with one’s self that must be translated into action. Wilde fell down here. His stories are often short on plot. Gide did better. Camus took things further in E’tranger. The ultimate act of getting unstuck was a meaningless murder. BTW, Gide had already plotted this in “The Vatican Cellars”.

But all of the action of this sort amounts to gestures. Action, not to add value, but solely to express something.  One begins to believe almost that meaningful action is impossible. So it seemed to an angry man like Richard Wright.  But is it really so? Or does it just appear that way when we are culturally attuned to being so self-absorbed?

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3 thoughts on “Wilde v. Dickens and More!”

  1. And I suppose we should all laugh when the swallow dies in The Happy Prince. Perhaps it was not Dickens’s Victorianism, but Wilde’s professional jealousy. Thinking of that great Monty Python routine of Wilde vs Shaw!

  2. Who knows. Ellman wrote quite a bit about the “decadence” movement that Wilde was part of,. His take — and I follow his thinking in this post — was that the decadence was used as a tool to break free of Victorian sentimentality in art and literature. What could be more sentimental than the death of Little Nell?

  3. BTW, one further aspect Dickens wrote in a realistic style. And that style was the norm in the 19th century. Wilde wanted to break free of realism and his plays do so. His rather harsh attack on poor Little Nell can be seen from this angle. She was all too realistic.

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