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Throughout his career Oscar Wilde battled his contemporaries' tendency to look at literary works through the lens of the author. He held that the practice of reading for the author misses the point of why we should turn to literature in the first place, and that it runs into a number of ethical, methodological, and metaphysical problems. Here I reconstruct Wilde's position from his various pronouncements in his essays, reviews, letters, and fiction, and argue that the ideal that emerges of letting the work speak for itself should still be taken seriously by philosophers and scholars of literature.


That Oscar Wilde was a central figure for aestheticism needs no arguing; that he should be taken seriously as an aesthetician is perhaps a less obvious matter. While much of his work concerns itself with the traditional purview of aesthetics (art, beauty, appreciation, criticism) as a philosophical discipline, commentators have rarely granted his writings that attention to ideas qua ideas that marks off a philosophical interest in a writer's oeuvre from other types of analysis (literary criticism, source hunting, cultural history, etc.). A number of attempts to tackle Wilde's pronouncements in a broadly philosophical fashion have been made through the decades.1 Most recent scholarship, however, has regarded Wilde as mainly, if not only, interesting in a sociohistorical key, and this is reflected in its most common lines of inquiry: how Wilde's life and works interacted with contemporary and later cultural paradigms of sexuality, Irishness, and class, and how they were affected by the contemporary publishing market. [End Page 49]

In this essay, by contrast, I take Wilde seriously as a philosopher of literature. Since this approach is not a popular one with this writer, a preliminary consideration of the objections to it seems to be in order. The two main arguments are neatly encapsulated by two responses to the most recent book-length study adopting it consistently, Julia Prewitt Brown's Cosmopolitan Criticism.2 Reviewing the book for Victorian Studies, Lawrence Danson charges that the author has not "prove[d] to everyone's satisfaction that Wilde's thinking amounts to a philosophy, or that it is any the worse because it is not."3 Danson's worry is that Wilde's well-known offhandedness about such essential components of the philosophical language game as seriousness and consistency ("I throw probability out of the window for the sake of a phrase, and the chance of an epigram makes me desert truth," as he himself put it4) means that his views are not coherent enough for philosophical analysis. The second objection is raised by Regenia Gagnier, writing for English Literature in Transition. Contesting Brown's decision to situate Wilde in a rarefied, high-cultural environment and to focus on ideas to the detriment of contexts, she queries: "Now that we know what we do about the concrete socio-cultural environments of a Kant or a Kierkegaard, can we really, as Brown would like, go back to philosophical aesthetics as pure idea?"5

Gagnier's historicist objection is easier to answer, so I shall address it first: philosophical analysis moves at a different level of abstraction from historical scholarship; roughly put, it addresses concepts rather than facts. Thus, to address literary and philosophical works as philosophy ("as pure idea," in Gagnier's rather captious formulation) rather than as documents in social history in no wise implies either denying that ideas spring from social contexts or (to revisit an anathema of the Cambridge school of intellectual history) "presum[ing] that there persists in ideas a stability of meaning and a continuity of coherence";6 it is, quite simply, a different procedure, one that entails articulating abstract content in its own terms, but not making any assumption about either the genesis or the stability of such content. Danson's comment gives one more pause, in that his objection is not to the philosophical approach per se but to its appropriateness to this writer. Prima facie, this seems plausible. It is undoubtedly true that Wilde contradicted himself a great deal; it is also true that the temptation to conjure up an illusory consistency by ignoring or downplaying those features of the subject that do not fit one's argument is a pitfall that besets all kinds of expository prose, but perhaps especially one as invested in the ideal of coherence as philosophy. That said, if one acknowledges that unsystematicity and contradictoriness [End Page 50] are key formal features of Wilde's essentially Socratic way to aesthetics, wherein "form itself is used as a creative medium more so than as an instructional one"7 and concepts are intended to provoke further thought rather than close down discussion, then a philosophical approach to his writings becomes less a matter of giving a definitive interpretation of their conceptual content than of exploring the full range of suggestions that they offer, which is wide indeed.8 To read Wilde's characters airily quipping about philosophical issues usually treated in a solemn tone leaves one with a sense of intellectual adventure. Wilde-as-philosopher is blithely willing to needle the systematizing pretensions of us academics, and to look at the world afresh. To follow him in this endeavor seems to me an attractive prospect.

Wilde touched on many subjects pertaining to philosophical aesthetics in his career. Here, for reasons of space, I shall limit myself to examining his engagement with one of these: the theory of the author. Whether, how, and to what extent our understanding of a work of literature should be inflected by what we know about its author is an issue that has received a great deal of attention in both literary studies and the philosophy of art over the decades, but I believe that to engage with the nineteenth-century debates in which Wilde participated can afford us a fresh lens through which to view it. My overall argument is that Wilde fairly consistently called into question one of the dominant tenets of his age's literary culture, "authorialism": the idea that for the purposes of criticism the author and the work form a continuum. In contrast to the dominant opinion of his time, in many of his pronouncements Wilde suggests that as far as our understanding of literature is concerned, "the opinions, the character, the achievements of the man [read: author] matter very little."9 Elsewhere I have made the historical case that Wilde is part of a broader movement toward the articulation of an embryonic formalism in late-nineteenth-century literary culture, but my main purpose in this article is to catalogue Wilde's ideas on the subject, clarify their import, and assess whether they can still speak to us.


More is at stake in saying that a literary work has an author than the obvious point that it has been conceived and/or executed by somebody. Theories and practices as diverse as the expressive theory of poetry that dominated Romantic poetics, philosophical intentionalism, biographers' speculations about how works arise from lives, and poets' continual [End Page 51] concern to project a certain image of themselves all come under that heading. Whatever the specificities, however, to speak of literary works in terms of their authors ("I appreciate Wordsworth's spirituality"; "it's just like Dickens to tack on that happy ending") always implies that the fact that the work has been made by a particular person is somehow relevant to our understanding of it: that something of importance has been inscribed in it by virtue of its having been authored by that particular person. To the extent that a literary reading takes this quality as relevant to one's understanding of the work itself; to the extent, that is, that the category of the "author" transcends a mere recognition of the work's empirical origin in a person's mind and begins to engender interpretive consequences that could not have been drawn from the work's textual features alone: to that extent, I call that reading "authorialist."

Despite the significant methodological and ethical divisions within it, authorialist criticism's ontological presupposition that literary works are entities partly constituted by their authorship creates a family resemblance between the otherwise very different schools of thought I have mentioned. This type of criticism tends to feature the following:

  1. 1. Inference. Works may be read through the writer's biographical data, the writer's states of mind may be inferred from his or her works, etc.

  2. 2. Disambiguation. Works tend to be viewed as utterances, in the sense of containing something definite that is said, implied, or allowed to slip through, and the meaning of which it is the critic's job to articulate, through and against any ambiguities at the textual level.

  3. 3. Selection. This is what Foucault famously calls the "principle of thrift within the proliferation of meaning."10 Recourse to the figure of the author, that is, tends to prune away those interpretations that are not felt to be compatible to one's idea of what its author must have meant.

I shall return to these points briefly at the end of this essay; for the moment, I want to register that, whatever its rights and wrongs, authorialism was the dominant orientation in nineteenth-century literary culture. Among the most influential critics in Wilde's time was Edward Dowden, who in his Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art justifies his "endeavour to pass through the creation of the artist to the mind of the creator" by means of an argument invoking conversation as an ideal for the critic: when we consider the man behind the work, "we are no longer surrounded by a mere world of thoughts and imaginations which, in an almost selfish way, we labour to appreciate and possess. We are in company with a man; and a sense of real human sympathy and [End Page 52] fellowship rises within us."11 For Dowden, criticism consists in recovering the author's intended meanings and in inferring his or her mental states while writing. At about the same time in France, Positivist critics such as Hippolyte Taine and Emile Hennequin theorized that the effect of race, moment, and milieu on the author entirely determined the characteristics of the literary work. These critics formed a somewhat uneasy alliance with the older generation of biographical criticism epitomized by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve: but while they disagreed on the importance of individuality, they agreed that the literary work is a sign that points to a man.12 Add in the flourishing of critical biographies and literary histories on both sides of the Channel—for instance the English Men of Letters series edited by John Morley—and the result is a critical climate dominated by the idea that the author and the work form a continuum whose intricacies it is the critic's job to unravel.

Wilde inscribed himself in a tradition of stances against author-based readings that was itself quite varied, if still subdominant at that historical point. One idea in this tradition, whose roots can be traced back to Kant's notion of the artwork's "purposiveness without purpose," was that the purpose of criticism was to analyze the product and not to look at the producer. One prominent form that this argument took in the nineteenth century was Matthew Arnold's dictum that one should strive to see the object "as in itself it really is."13 As aestheticism evolved, most of its proponents were recognizably committed to arguing against relying on the author for critical purposes; they did so by insisting on what the job of the critic is not: not to praise or condemn the author, not to care about the mere soil out of which the flowers of poetry grew, and so on. The only proper occupation for the critic was to examine the objet d'art in its own sublime autotelicity. A corollary to this point was the idea that if readers see meanings (immoral or not, as the case may be) in a literary work, those meanings are not ascribable to the author's deliberate volition. This was the cornerstone of the defense in several prominent "literary" trials against controversial works such as The Flowers of Evil, Madame Bovary, and of course against Wilde himself. "The affirmation of evil," wrote the French critic Frédéric Dulamon in his justification of Baudelaire, "is not a criminal approval of it."14 Finally, while the case against adopting intention as a normative category was first fully articulated by later theorists such as William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, and the injunction to activate all possible responses to a work of literature by considering it as a free-floating "text" owes much to Roland Barthes, a number of nineteenth-century sources move [End Page 53] toward a conception of the text as verbal artifact that does not necessarily represent the author's states of mind. This was, for example, the key idea in Algernon Charles Swinburne's angry intervention against his critics in his essay "Notes on Poems and Reviews": "no utterance of enjoyment or despair, belief or unbelief, can properly be assumed as the assertion of its author's personal feeling or faith."15


These were the main available lines of argument against author-based readings at the time. In what follows I aim to show that Wilde produced a number of innovative variations on these arguments as he broached the subject at various points of his career, starting from his period as a professional book reviewer in the 1880s. One such argument is the idea that "art . . . is a matter of result, not of theory, and if the fruit is pleasant, we should not quarrel about the tree."16 For Wilde, the artwork is the product of a process, but what ultimately counts is the product, not the process. This idea was fundamentally opposed to the dominant critical school's relentless quest for the author's intentions, feelings, and personal vicissitudes as the keys to the work; in the course of his reviewing Wilde often complained against what he saw as a fundamental misconception on this point by contemporary critics and biographers. The aim of biography, as he saw it, is not to give us vulgar facts about authors: "The real events of Coleridge's life are not his gig excursions and his walking tours, they are his thoughts, dreams and passions. . . . The goings-out and comings-in of a man . . . are but idle things to chronicle if that which in the man is immortal be left unrecorded."17 Whereas the significance of the life of, say, a politician lies in the factual realm, to approach the biography of an artist as a collection of facts is to miss the really important parts of a creative individual's life.

Wilde's position hinges on a distinction between, on the one hand, the spiritual qualities of artists, i.e., those creative features of their psyche (in Wilde's language, their "soul") that make them worthy of having their life recorded in the first place, and on the other, those humdrum events which occur in any life but have nothing intrinsically noteworthy in them. Perhaps the most striking of his dicta is contained in a little-known letter that he sent to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 on the subject of the word "tuberose." Against a contributor who had invoked the Latin etymology of the word to argue that the word had three syllables, not two, Wilde produced the following retort: [End Page 54]

I am deeply distressed to hear that tuberose is so called from its being a "lumpy flower." It is not at all lumpy, and, even if it were, no poet should be heartless enough to say so. Henceforth there really must be two derivations for every word, one for the poet and one for the scientist. And in the present case the poet will dwell on the tiny trumpets of ivory into which the white flower breaks, and leave to the man of science horrid allusions to its supposed lumpiness and indiscreet revelations of its private life below ground.

(Letters, pp. 255–56)

Wilde's contradistinction between the banality of the living "man" and the distinction of the creating "artist" who also happens to be a man was an innovative argument against the dominant critical tradition. Perhaps the clearest articulation of his views on this distinction is to be found in his review of a biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti that had put much emphasis on what Wilde regarded as trivial facts: "Better after all that we only knew a painter through his vision and a poet through his song, than that the image of a great man should be marred and made mean to us by the clumsy geniality of good intentions. A true artist . . . reveals himself so perfectly in his work, that unless a biographer has something more valuable to give us than idle anecdotes and unmeaning tales, his labour is misspent and his industry misdirected" (CW6, p. 147). The ideal of enacting a conversation with an author through the latter's work is reversed in a way that prefigures Wimsatt and Beardsley's contention that if an artist succeeds in realizing his intention in an artwork, then recourse to the notion of the author to elucidate the work is superfluous.18


Another aspect of the theory of the author, one that concerns biography rather than intention, is the subject of Wilde's "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.," a novella with long essayistic parts that details the protagonists' search for the key to Shakespeare's sonnets, which, they decide, lies in the identity of the "fair youth," whom they identify with one William Hughes (a "Mr. W.H." is said to be the "onlie begetter" of the Sonnets in the opening page of the first edition). This hypothesis leads them to elaborate speculations about events in the lives of "Mr. W.H." and Shakespeare that went unrecorded, and in particular about a portrait that turns out to be a forgery produced by one of the characters in order to lend substance to the theory. One may be tempted to think [End Page 55] that this is the Dowden/Sainte-Beuve method with a vengeance, in that a principle of coherence is found outside the work's textual features and then applied to it, with the great critical gain of discovering the identity of the youth for whom Shakespeare wrote not only his sonnets but also his plays. But this first impression is belied by how the story actually progresses. The protagonists are forced to forge materials to prove their points, striving for a certainty that never materializes; the "Willie Hughes" theory remains but a tantalizing speculation. At the end of the story, after a number of permutations, the narrator concludes on the ambiguous note that "sometimes, when I look at [the forged portrait], I think that there is really a great deal to be said for the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare's Sonnets."19 Shakespearean scholars have remained unconvinced, and the theory has not received much airtime since.

The story, however, does not aim to convince but to seduce. What it dramatizes is rather the temptation exerted by the wish to find a biographical explanation, its allure for the characters ("I felt as if I had my hand on Shakespeare's heart, and was counting each separate throb and pulse of passion" [Stories, p. 171]), and its ultimate hopelessness. As Lewis J. Poteet cogently puts it, "The point of the allegation about Willie Hughes is not that it is true (it is in fact probably false, as the narrator learns) but that it is a piece of creative criticism that acts as a catalyst to insight. Like all biographical readings of literature, it is ultimately unprovable."20 The point at which the story comes closest to articulating a moral is when the narrator makes an aside that sounds a note very close to the one heard in Wilde's reviews: "All art being to a certain degree a mode of acting, an attempt to realise one's own personality on some imaginative plane out of reach of the trammelling accidents and limitations of real life, to censure an artist for a forgery was to confuse an ethical with an aesthetical problem" (Stories, p. 145). For aesthetics, the "accidents and limitations" of real life are inessential; what really counts is the artist's (or the critic's) imaginative life, which draws its value precisely from the fact that it is not real.

We may or may not wish to follow him here, according to whether we choose to prioritize the "result" or the "process." What we should not expect is for any biographical material to provide us with the ultimate truth about the works. Ultimately, "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." is the alluring mise-en-scène of a fundamentally positivistic critical procedure, which hopes to bestow unity and coherence on a literary work that seems to lack it by having recourse to an empirically verifiable principle of [End Page 56] coherence, only to end up enmeshed in a net of fanaticism, falsehood, reciprocal influence—in short, of grounded and irrational human will to power, whose ultimate effect is to make criticism even more arbitrary than before.


The intriguingly named Intentions is Wilde's most sustained incursion into the genre of expository prose, and most critics' efforts to articulate Wilde's philosophical stances have accordingly focused on this work, especially his dialogues "The Decay of Lying" and "The Critic as Artist." The last paragraph of the essay "The Truth of Masks," in which the presupposed unity of the critic's utterance is radically called into question, is often mentioned: "Not that I agree with everything I have said in this essay. There is much with which I entirely disagree. The essay simply represents an artistic standpoint, and in aesthetic criticism attitude is everything" (CW4, p. 228). Here as elsewhere, Wilde is concerned with showing that "man" can be, as he puts it in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a "complex, multiform creature" whose modes of intellectual engagement with the world need not be univocal, easily recoverable, or indeed coherent to be stimulating.

Some of the suggestions put forward by Vivian, the main speaker in "The Decay of Lying," aim more explicitly at destabilizing the authorial voice. At one point Vivian theorizes that all utterances in a play are to be understood as a pure expression of the relative characters, with the author never stepping up to deliver his own opinions: thus, Hamlet's "art holding the mirror up to Nature" speech "is merely a dramatic utterance, and no more represents Shakespeare's real views upon art than the speeches of Iago represent his real views upon morals" (CW4, p. 89). At several points in the dialogue the dominant idea is that art moves at such a high spiritual level that empirical circumstances such as authorship do not carry much weight in understanding it. Against criticism's quest for the ultimate wellsprings of the work of art in society and its effects on the artist, Vivian rejoins: "Art never expresses anything but itself. It has an independent life, just as Thought has, and develops purely on its own lines. It is not necessarily realistic in an age of realism, nor spiritual in an age of faith. So far from being the creation of its time, it is usually in opposition to it, and the only history that it preserves for us is the history of its own progress" (CW4, p. 102). [End Page 57]

A related line of argument is introduced when Vivian declares that "the highest art rejects the burden of the human spirit and gains more from a new medium or a fresh material than she does from any enthusiasm for art, or from any lofty passion, or from any great awakening of the human consciousness" (CW4, pp. 96–97). Vivian has moved a long way from Romantic theory, and his stances are indeed closer to the modernist notion of art as craftsmanship. As Wilde was later to put it, more trenchantly, in "De Profundis," "In art, good intentions are not of the smallest value. All bad art is the result of good intentions."21

The main difference between the position defended here and twentieth-century formalisms is that Wilde is unwilling to articulate a forthright denial of the relevance of the author for literary criticism, but is rather concerned with limiting its sphere of application. His target is the criticism of his day, with its established ways of making sense of literary works, foremost among them work-to-author inference. "All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does. A great poet sings because he chooses to sing" (CW4, p. 143). The passage calls into question the practice of inference between author and work, because for the practice to succeed one needs a deterministic account of creative production, and Wilde would have none of that. As Epifanio San Juan argues, for Wilde "the artist achieves universality when he, desiring to comprehend his age, abstracts himself from it."22

So, the author's personality remains important for Wilde, but the relationship between the author and the work is neither straightforwardly expressive nor deterministic. Nor can it be accounted for by means of a too-straightforward intentionalism, as is conveyed by this passage in "The Critic as Artist," uttered by the main speaker, Gilbert: "The highest kind of criticism treats the work of art simply as a starting point for a new creation. It does not confine itself—let us at least suppose so for the moment—to discovering the real intention of the artist and accepting that as final. And in this it is right, for the meaning of any beautiful created thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it, as it was in his soul who wrought it" (CW4, p. 157). Here the anti-intentionalism edges over into a fully-fledged impressionism, but unlike the more extreme, twentieth-century versions of "reader-response theory," the starting point for the reader's flights of fancy remains the "created thing," i.e., the artwork. Similarly, "people sometimes say that actors give us their own Hamlets, not Shakespeare's. . . . In point of fact, there is no such thing as Shakespeare's Hamlet" (CW4, pp. 165–66). [End Page 58] Even if Shakespeare were alive, there would be no point in consulting him on how to represent his plays. The words he wrote would still be all that is relevant for readers, actors, producers, and viewers. Against Dowden's idea that the critic's task is to discover the writer's "secret" or overarching motive, and that by reading a work we should seek a contact with a man, Gilbert indirectly retorts that criticism (not art) is "the only civilized form of autobiography" (CW4, p. 154), adding that criticism is "in essence purely subjective, and seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another" (CW4, pp. 155–56).

Wilde's preferred critical protocol and his ideas about the theory of the author did not coincide entirely. The Romantic legacy was strong in him, and he remained invested in the idea of expressiveness, as is clear in this passage from "The Soul of Man under Socialism": "From the point of view of subject, a healthy work of art is one the choice of whose subject is conditioned by the temperament of the artist and comes directly out of it. In fine, a healthy work of art is one that has both perfection and personality" (CW4, p. 133). However, Wilde remained adamant that the critic's job is not that of reaching a definitive interpretation of this work, whether by invoking "personality," intention, or any determinants acting on the author. According to Gilbert, the aim of criticism is as follows: "The critic . . . will look upon Art as a goddess whose mystery it is his province to intensify, and whose majesty his privilege to make more marvellous in the eyes of men" (CW4, p. 164).

Further on, the same character lays out his peculiar views on the nature of the creative process:

Those great figures of English drama that seem to us to possess an existence of their own, apart from the poets who shaped and fashioned them, are, in their ultimate analysis, simply the poets themselves, not as they thought they were but as they thought they were not; and by such thinking came in strange manner, though but for a moment, really so to be. For out of ourselves we can never pass, nor can there be in creation what in the creator was not. Nay, I would say that the more objective a creation appears to be, the more subjective it really is. . . . Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

(CW4, pp. 184–85)

These ideas cannot easily be reconciled to any of the prevalent positions of the time, or perhaps to one another. The distinction between the mere man and the masked artist is once again asserted; its consequence here seems to be that the relationship between the author and [End Page 59] the work is removed to an unreachable spiritual plane. Gilbert does not assert that the author has nothing to do with creation, but he does say that the relationship need not be within reach. One is struck by the similarity of this passage to Wilde's famous letter about the relationship between himself and each of the three main characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "[The book] contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry what the world thinks me; Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages perhaps" (Letters, p. 585). These passages can be read in a number of ways, ranging from an assertion of what George Stavros calls "an extreme ontological idealism,"23 to a twist on the Romantic theory of expression, to a prescient foretaste of the postmodernist concern with the performativity of identity, and it is not clear that they argue for any one position cogently. The pars destruens, however, is clear enough: although the nature of creation is deeply subjective, the nature of the process is complex, mediated, or otherwise unpredictable, so that the dominant practice of inferring data from text to writer and vice versa is arbitrary and simplistic.


In the context of contemporary criticism and Wilde's reactions to it, some of the familiar pronouncements in the 1891 preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray reveal a new range of resonances. Although Wilde asserted elsewhere that the "name one gives to one's work, poem or picture . . . is the last survival of the Greek Chorus. It is the only part of one's work in which the artist speaks directly in his own person" (Letters, p. 856), the preface is obviously meant as a guide to interpretation. While the immediate target were the journalists who had attacked Wilde for allegedly promoting immoral practices through his work, the theoretical stakes were broader. For Wilde to say that the artist "is the creator of beautiful things"24 meant to shift the interest away from the origin of the artwork in the creator's mind to the work itself—a presciently modernist and indeed New Critical move, as becomes clear when one compares it with Cleanth Brooks's remarkably similar assertion in his 1947 book The Well Wrought Urn that "the poet is a maker, not a communicator. He explores, consolidates and 'forms' the total experience that is the poem."25 In a related vein, to assert that "to reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim" (CW3, p. 167), alongside the assertion that criticism (rather than art) is a form of autobiography, was a swipe not only against Positivist scientism but also against all other methods [End Page 60] aimed at recovering the author's feelings, intentions, or biographical data from a literary work. Finally, for Wilde to declare "No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style" or "No artist desires to prove anything" (CW3, p. 167) amounted to a jab not only at didactic writers but also at those critics who assumed that the author must have meant to send the world a definite message through his work. The preface is, in short, a stylish plea to read for the work, not for the author.


As is well known, these ideas did not deter the likes of Edward Carson, the head of the Marquess of Queensberry's legal team at Wilde's trials, from attempting to prove that the composition and publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray proved that the author was a homosexual, or at least that he endorsed homosexuality. In so doing he presupposed the validity of the dominant critical protocol of the time.

The first plea of justification for the marquess stated that Wilde had published an "immoral and obscene book," "designed and intended by . . . Wilde and understood by the readers thereof to describe the relations intimacies and passions of certain persons of sodomitical and unnatural tastes habits and practices."26 One can note the doubleness of the claim, which partly refers to the author's intention and partly conjectures about readers' reactions (one can also note the assumption that the depiction of something on the part of an author implies his/her endorsement of it). Sir Edward Clarke, the head of Wilde's legal team, shifted the terms, aiming to disprove that the book was "guilty of describing and encouraging sodomitical practices" (Trials, p. 40; emphasis added). Clarke, who had consulted with Wilde, held (treading the same ground as Baudelaire's defenders in 1857) that the mere description of, or allusion to, a criminal act was not enough to suspect the author of having committed or encouraged the same crime, but that the work had to express an explicit endorsement. He proceeded to argue that this was not the case because the book may have hinted at, but in no way encouraged, the offense.

Carson then cross-examined Wilde on the subject of the novel, referring to the author's own words to the Scots Observer: "What Dorian Gray's sins are, no one knows. He who finds them has brought them" (Trials, p. 78). Carson suggested that the "real" meaning of the novel, beyond its ambiguities, could plausibly be read as "sodomy," and that [End Page 61] the author's intention had been to convey just that: "Then, you left it open to be inferred, that the sins of Dorian Gray, some of them, may have been sodomy?" (p. 78). Wilde had a relatively easy time replying that readers could give their own interpretation to an issue that in the book was left ambiguous, but that he took no responsibility for "what misinterpretation of my work the ignorant, the illiterate, the foolish may put on it" (p. 81).

The testimony began to go badly for Wilde when Carson drew the court's attention to the fact that certain passages in the 1890 magazine version had been altered, or, as he put it, "purged," when the novel was edited for publication as a book in 1891: all the changes, he stressed, had in common the tendency to tone down possible homoerotic implications. The author, then, was conscious of the plausibility of such an interpretation and had changed the passages accordingly in order to conceal his aim. Wilde answered that indeed it had been pointed out to him that one of these passages "was liable to misconstruction" (Trials, p. 79). Carson got Wilde to admit that the passage in its original form could "convey the impression that the sin of Dorian Gray was sodomy" (p. 79), and therefore (in Carson's interpretation) that the author had altered it so as not to make the "real" meaning of the novel too obvious.

So, for the marquess's prosecution, as for many critics both Victorian and modern, interpretation was a matter of unearthing (or constructing) just the posited coherence between "life" and "work" that Wilde had called into question in much of his work. All ambiguities had to be resolved with reference to the author, whether through the category of intention or that of biography. It would take the institutionalization of formalist tenets at the hands of T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, and others in the 1920s for Wilde's ideas to become accepted critical currency in the Anglophone world—before being contested again in the 1970s, in one further twist of intellectual history whose ramifications are still making themselves felt in many literature departments.


Since I have proposed taking Wilde seriously as a philosopher of literature, let me conclude in philosophical fashion by attempting to articulate the nature of his overall contribution to the theory of the author. Five main arguments can be extrapolated from the various pronouncements gathered above: [End Page 62]

  1. 1. The teleological argument. The aim of criticism is to help us realize the goodness of the works of art with which it deals. Insofar as any notion pertaining to the author can heighten our understanding and appreciation of the work, use may be made of it; if the critic moves on to investigate the author as a person, criticism has overstepped its proper mark.

  2. 2. The argument of realized intention. Criticism should be concerned with the work first and foremost; so, if the artist manages to realize his or her intention in such a way that it is brought across in the work, then we do not need to know what the intention was; if the intention is not realized in the work, it is likewise not the critic's concern.

  3. 3. The argument of the arbitrariness of biographical speculation. Whether or not art arises deterministically out of its context, we can never know enough about a person's circumstances to be able to posit a one-to-one correspondence between the external events of the artist's existence and the elements of which the work consists.

  4. 4. The mimesis argument. Literature is a staging of ideas, feelings, events, whose relation to the author's own ideas, feelings, and circumstances is variable; therefore, we cannot assume that the author speaks for himself or herself through the mouths of any of his or her characters.

  5. 5. The argument of the nature of artistic creation. The artist is a self-conscious maker of things, not an expresser of emotions or an endorser of opinions; so we should not assume that the artist is either trying to say something definite or pouring aspects of his or her personality or individual circumstances onto the page.

If all this sounds suspiciously like the formalism of Beardsley, Wimsatt, and Brooks, it is because Wilde anticipated many of its tenets. As I have shown throughout the article, some of these arguments are made explicitly in his essays and letters, while others are implied in the plots of his fiction. I am aware that especially in the latter case my procedure of extrapolating neat positions out of an oeuvre as playful and varied as this writer's is somewhat arbitrary. Nonetheless, I hope I have made the case that Wilde's views on this matter are actually fairly consistent. Some of his ideas introduce innovative elements in the lines of argument put forward by the other thinkers of his time who wished to sever or at least loosen the knot between the author and the work, and several of these innovations of Wilde's prefigure twentieth-century theories.

Can Wilde's ideas still speak to us? To answer this question let me take a broader view of literary interpretation by recalling my account of authorialism in section 2. Authorialist criticism, I argued, is characterized by its implementation of procedures of inference, disambiguation, [End Page 63] and selection of interpretations. What all these procedures have in common is their reductionism: that is, they presuppose that the complexities of any work can and should be reduced into coherence by an externally imposed principle. Wilde's denial of their legitimacy amounts to a suggestion that literature should be allowed to determine its own meanings, or leave them undetermined, without being trammeled by external factors; simply put, that we should read the work for what it is. The dominant orientations in today's literary studies, although they do not normally invoke the category of the author explicitly, are deeply invested in reductionist procedures: it can be argued that "criticism" as practiced in the present day could not exist without such procedures, in that they allow the critic to construct a thesis by reducing the potentially amorphous rhetorical economy of literary works to a predetermined principle, usually historical in nature. One can also argue there is an inherent bias toward coherence in all criticism (to which this essay is by definition not immune), which always leads us to select certain elements and overlook others, with only a veneer of professional scruple to curb our desire to ignore all the elements that do not fit in our "take" on whatever phenomenon, literary or otherwise, we are investigating. At any rate, if we consider the recent renewal of a scholarly interest in literary form as a reaction against the relentlessly disambiguating tendencies of new historicism, we can conclude that a growing number of critics seem to agree that something valuable is left out when we allow extrinsic considerations (whether authorial, historical, or theoretical) to limit our assessment of a complex cultural artifact such as a literary work. For those who agree with this final point, Wilde articulates a compelling case for what has been lost, and what could be regained by persevering in the reversal of the trend.

Andrea Selleri
University of Warwick


1. Besides those I touch on: George Woodcock, The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (New York: Macmillan, 1950); Wendell Harris, "Arnold, Pater, Wilde, and the Object as in Themselves They See It," Studies in English Literature 1 (1971): 733–47; Bruce Bashford, "Oscar Wilde and Subjectivist Criticism," English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 21 (1978): 218–34; Ian Small, "Semiotics and Oscar Wilde's Account of Art," British Journal of Aesthetics 25 (1985): 50–56; Guy Willoughby, "Oscar Wilde and Poststructuralism," Philosophy and Literature 13 (1989): 316–24; Philip E. Smith II and Michael S. Helfand, eds., Oscar Wilde's [End Page 64] Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); Lawrence Danson, Wilde's Intentions: The Artist in His Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997); Peter Lamarque, "The Uselessness of Art," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 68 (2010): 205–14.

2. Julia Prewitt Brown, Cosmopolitan Criticism: Oscar Wilde's Philosophy of Art (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997).

3. Lawrence Danson, "Review of Cosmopolitan Criticism," Victorian Studies 42 (1998): 185–87 (187).

4. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), p. 478; hereafter abbreviated Letters.

5. Regenia Gagnier, "Review of Cosmopolitan Criticism," English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 41 (1998): 472–75 (473).

6. John Patrick Diggins, "Arthur O. Lovejoy and the Challenge of Intellectual History," Journal of the History of Ideas 67 (January 2006): 181–208 (184).

7. Edward E. Watson, "Wilde's Iconoclastic Classicism: The Critic as Artist," English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 27 (1988): 225–35 (226).

8. On this point, see also Herbert Sussmann, "Criticism as Art: Form in Oscar Wilde's Critical Writings," Studies in Philology 70 (1973): 108–21.

9. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 4, Criticism: Historical Criticism, "Intentions," "The Soul of Man," ed. Josephine M. Guy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 125; hereafter abbreviated CW4.

10. Michel Foucault, "Qu'est-ce qu'un auteur ?" Dits et écrits 1954–1988, 4 vol., ed. Daniel Defert and François Ewald (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), p. 811n (my translation).

11. Edward Dowden, Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875; repr., London: Kegan Paul, 1901), p. 5.

12. For an overview, see Roger Fayolle, La Critique littéraire (Paris: A. Colin, 1964), or Jean-Thomas Nordmann, Taine et la critique scientifique (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1992).

13. Matthew Arnold, "The Functions of Criticism at the Present Time," The National Review 1 (1864): 230.

14. Charles Baudelaire, Œuvres completes, ed. Claude Pichois, vol. 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), pp. 1189–90 (my translation).

15. Algernon Charles Swinburne, "Poems and Ballads" and "Atalanta in Calydon," ed. Kenneth Haynes (1866; repr., London: Penguin, 2000), p. 404.

16. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 7, Journalism Part II, ed. John Stokes and Mark W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 24; hereafter abbreviated CW7.

17. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 6, Journalism Part I, ed. John Stokes and Mark W. Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 136; hereafter abbreviated CW6. [End Page 65]

18. William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley, "The Intentional Fallacy," Sewanee Review 54 (1946): 468–88.

19. Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, ed. Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Methuen, 1911), p. 196; hereafter abbreviated Stories.

20. Lewis J. Poteet, "Romantic Aesthetics in Oscar Wilde's 'Mr. W.H.'," Studies in Short Fiction 7 (1970): 458–64 (460).

21. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 2, "'De Profundis'; Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis," ed. Ian Small (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 133.

22. Epifanio San Juan, The Art of Oscar Wilde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 84.

23. George Stavros, "Oscar Wilde on the Romantics," English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 20 (1977): 35–45 (37).

24. Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 3, "The Picture of Dorian Gray": The 1890 and 1891 Texts, ed. Joseph Bristow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 167; hereafter abbreviated CW3.

25. Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1947), pp. 74–75.

26. Merlin Holland, Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde (London: Fourth Estate, 2003), p. 290; hereafter abbreviated Trials. [End Page 66]

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