Use of Double Life in the Works of Oscar Wilde

September 5, 2021 by Essay Writer

Oscar Wilde is a well known poet and playwright who in his work often attempted to challenge or subvert the social conventions which were prevalent in the Victorian Era. In Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings and his play, titled The Importance of Being Earnest, he uses the idea of a “double-life” which he engraines into certain characters in his works to exemplify ways that society was confining identity during the nineteenth century. Oscar Wilde challenged and brought highlight to these social accords by developing roles of his characters in which they were forced to live a life of multiple dimensions in order to enable the expression of their “true” self, all while simultaneously adapting a facade that permitted them to be accepted amongst the strict ideals relevant to the author’s time.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray we see this concept of living a double life in Wilde’s protagonist, the beautiful and ideal Dorian. An artist named Basil Howard paints an exceptional portrait of the young Dorian Gray, which Dorian says he will trade his soul if he were able to remain as youthful as he was while the painting would bear the effects of his aging. Once Dorian realizes that this portrait will in fact do this, he begins to live a rather immoral and reckless life because he is still able to fit into public society while he hides his dark painting away. Oscar Wilde here is drawing attention to the Victorian idea that a man who looks reputable, actually is (which we know is not always the case). When Basil learns of the young man’s sinful actions that were happening earlier in the novel, Dorian chooses to kill him in fear that his actual self would be exposed, one that does not fit into the image of an ideal man of the Victorian Era. This double identity that Dorian Gray had created and lived in shows both a freeing and restraining toll on him. On one end of the spectrum, the painting gave him the ability to avoid the fearfulness that would be brought if his human-self were to bear the consequences of his actions and match his ugliness of his soul. However, the portrait also haunts him by acting as a constant reminder of his hidden immoralities. In the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorians double life is exposed after he attempts to rid of his past and guilt by destroying the picture. This was ultimately the characters end as well, when his peers found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was. (Wilde 210)

This doubling development in the protagonist shows the shame in response to the confinement of Dorian’s soul and emphasises the dueling reflection between what is kept or shown in a private or public life. Shown in Dorian’s character, it is evident that Victorian men feared not being accepted into society – and this acceptance was more important than morality, and Wilde exposes this awful ideal through his use of double life in his novel.

Another relevant stipulation in the social conventions of the Victorian Era was that the meaning of self worthiness was influenced by the opinion of the opposite sex. Women looked for ideal sutors based on their lifestyle that fit into society – wealth, faith, morality, manliness, ability to provide for a family, etc. This “idealistic husband” image also constrained men to a separate personal and public life and can be seen in Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. In this story, Wilde tells the tale of two men (Algernon and Jack (“Earnest”)) who are idolized by two women (Cecily and Gwendolyn) because they seem to be paragons of the Victorian ideals. However, his characters present this side of themselves while also maintaining another life away from their society to escape the coercion of their actual selves. Wilde taunts the structure of male-female relationships by simplicating the female mind when writes about Gwendolyn’s reasoning of wanting to be with Jack:

My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Earnest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Earnest, I knew I was destined to love you. (Wilde Act 1)

Gwendolyn’s ignorance of who this man actually is besides having a name she fantasizes about, corners Jack into continuing this role, even as he later hints that he is not who she believes him to be. Both parties manipulate one another into the Victorian ideals, emphasizing insensibility of women and the deceitfulness that a man must shove his second identity into in order to uphold the consummation of an ideal and “happy” relationship, which is absurd.

Due to the stipulation that “fitting in” to the crowd of the Victorian Era was a top priority to men and women alike, the act of living a double life was necessary in order to appease the society in which they lived. An individual could not be accepted for who they actually were if they did not fit the mold, and because of this they were forced to act immorally to cover up their differences. The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest show how Oscar Wilde uses the convention of doubling to form connections between his characters in his writings to challenge the farcical ideals of the nineteenth century.


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