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Reviewed by:
Michael Patrick Gillespie. Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1996. xi + 204 pp.

Highly problematic studies are usually only incomplete or poorly argued, but Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity breaks a fundamental contract between the critic and the reader, for it claims repeatedly to be uniquely generous in its critical approach, but proves to be startlingly [End Page 441] narrow-minded throughout. As someone who believes in the profound worth of pluralism in cultural critique, I was dismayed that this book takes up that banner. It may touch usefully on the ambiguous in Wilde, but it certainly does not evince pluralism in its own readings.

Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity opens with great promise. Its introduction states the work’s overarching premise:

As I hope to show in the following chapters, one can find legitimacy for a range of critical approaches to any of Wilde’s major works. . . . [A]s one formulates a reading—of The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance—given over to a particular ideology (Marxist, for example) factors suggesting alternative responses (new historical, phenomenological, deconstructive, feminist, homoerotic, and any and all combinations) will also inevitably register. The most sophisticated approach to this condition would recognize the reading to which we give preference while acknowledging the alternatives that also obtain. In this fashion, one does not compete in attempts to assert the best interpretation of Wilde’s canon; rather, one endeavors, by attending to the diversity that it accommodates, to draw the greatest amount of pleasure from his works.

Given this claim to sophistication, I anticipated a series of supple and diverse readings, even though the use of the adjective “homoerotic” did make me pause momentarily, as it really has no critical currency or utility. But that misuse of an adjective actually reveals much.

Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity has no tolerance for most of the “ideological” readings catalogued above. The only time gay/queer readings are mentioned are when they are dismissed. Feminist and materialist readings are wholly ignored, as are new historicist readings. These omissions are startling given that the book claims a historicist base: “understanding the pluralistic nature of the cultural context from which Wilde’s canon emerged becomes an essential step to full interpretation of his work.” Certainly the present study falls far short of a “full interpretation.” Its exploration of “the pluralistic nature of [Wilde’s] cultural context” is limited to readings of contemporary reviews of Wilde and quotations from Richard Ellmann’s biography, [End Page 442] ones revealing that most of Wilde’s works were received as thematically ambiguous. This is not an unimportant point from a queer or other “ideological” perspective, but when discovered here, such ambiguity is not used to validate a wide range of readings; instead, it is used as a weapon.

This is a book filled with unnecessary skirmishes, many with Regenia Gagnier’s important and influential work Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Consider the response to the following quotation from Gagnier’s analysis of Salome: “In the work that he felt was his best illustration of art for art’s sake, through the figure of Salome, [Wilde] portrayed sex for sex’s sake, without purpose or production.” The present study retorts, “to say that Wilde portrayed sex (or anything else, for that matter) ‘without purpose or production’ imposes a radically restricted view of the abilities of one of the most artificial (as Wilde uses the term) writers of his age.” Though Gagnier is noting that the “sex” portrayed through Salome is “without purpose or production,” she is not casting aspersions on the portrayal itself; Wilde’s “ability” is simply never in question. Such over-reactions to so-called “radical” readings recur throughout. All generous responses to De Profundis are dismissed; Wilde’s last work is termed “petulant” and “less imaginative” than his previous ones, and summarily branded a “failure.” Such is this study’s “full interpretation” of Wilde’s oeuvre.

Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity is a work of unfulfilled potential, for scattered throughout are passages of credible analysis. Chapter 6...

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