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  • Wilde’s “Faiths”
  • John G. Peters
Jarlath Killeen. The Faiths of Oscar Wilde: Catholicism, Folklore and Ireland. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005 xi + 228 pp. $69.95

The introduction to The Faiths of Oscar Wilde is clearly written and not only provides a helpful overview of the book in its entirety but also briefly forecasts what is to appear in each chapter and summarizes the arguments presented. It lays out the direction of the book and surveys the critical conversation into which Killeen is attempting to enter.

Killeen argues that although Wilde's relationship to his Irish background and to Catholicism have been considered in the past, they have been separated when the two should be considered together. In the first chapter, Killeen says that Wilde's Catholicism is more of an interest in an Irish folk-Catholicism than in a Continental or English Catholicism. Killeen also discusses the perception of Catholicism by the British as a sexually scandalous institution. Wilde's early poem "Requiescat" and his late poem "The Sphinx" both reveal strong Catholic influences and issues. Furthermore Irish folk-Catholicism embodied orthodoxy but also secrecy and subversion, and Wilde was particularly attracted to it as a result.

In the second chapter, Killeen suggests that while English Protestantism during the nineteenth century was transformed by the Higher Criticism and scientific discoveries that led to demand for rational and empirical explanations for biblical events and theological doctrine, Catholicism remained largely unaffected by this movement and maintained its focus on the necessity of faith over reason and empiricism in religious thinking. In fact, it was just this mystical quality for which the Protestants had criticized Catholicism. Killeen goes on to note how the Oxford Platonists had attempted to fuse Christianity and Platonism in an effort to return authority to the scriptures, which had been reduced as a result of science and the Higher Criticism. Wilde's "The Portrait of Mr. W. H." is an attempt to apply the ideas of Oxford Platonists to the question of the identity of W. H.; it is a rejection of the necessity of empirical or rational evidence for the existence of "Willie Hughes" and instead an insistence on the sole necessity of a belief in the theory. Killeen then turns his attention to Wilde's Salomé. Salomé [End Page 224] can be associated with Catholicism and Iokanaan with Protestantism, particularly the evangelical Protestantism of the nineteenth century. Killeen also links Salomé to Ireland, contending that the association of Ireland and Catholicism with paganism and aberrant sexual behavior was common among Protestants of the time.

Chapter three takes up The Picture of Dorian Gray. Killen contrasts Catholicism with materialism, contending that Wilde privileges the former as Killeen sees Lord Henry Wotton representing the materialist perspective, which the novel rejects. The transformation of Dorian's portrait is representative of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and points to the problem of attempting to transform Irish folklore from a living entity into a saleable commodity. Chapter four considers Wilde's political views, particularly as they appear in "The Soul of Man under Socialism"; such terms as "anarchist" and "socialist" were, in Killeen's view, very fluid at the time and Wilde was not necessarily in complete control of the implications implicit in them. Killeen also makes a connection between anarchism and socialism and certain aspects of Christianity, especially of Catholicism. In particular, he says that the issue of property is at the core of Wilde's views; he saw property as leading to a kind of slavery of sorts, both for those who worked the land and for those who owned it. Property is linked to the problems of Ireland, owning and working the land being the crux of the issue of British rule over Ireland.

Chapter five considers The Importance of Being Earnest, positing that Dr. Chasuble represents the ritualist movement in the Anglican Church during the nineteenth century and that the idea of ritualism runs throughout the action of the play. In so doing, Killeen appropriates the methodology of queer studies to show the subversive aspects of the play—not the sexual but rather the play's spiritual aspects. Wilde articulates Catholic doctrines that undermine conventional English...


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pp. 224-226
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Will Be Archived 2021
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