"[Oscar] Wilde's life is one of the saddest in English literature," reported London's Guardian newspaper on 1 December 1900, the day after the exiled poet and playwright died in disgrace in France at the age of 46. "His abilities were sufficient to win him an honoured place as a man of letters, but they struggled in vain against his lack of character."2
This was the verdict leveled against Oscar Wilde in the final years of his life. While London society had applauded his comedic plays and devoured his poems and short stories just a few years earlier, by the time of his death Wilde was considered a moral deviant, whose works were shot through with references to his immoral, anti-Christian lifestyle. The judge who sentenced him to two years hard labor for gross indecency in 1895 said that Wilde's was "the worst case I have ever tried."3 Wilde's crime? A romantic relationship with another man. Wilde's sexuality, and his refusal to express public shame or apology for it, destroyed his career and reputation.
Oscar Wilde described himself as his own worst enemy. At the end of his life he believed that hubris and poor judgment thwarted all that he had worked to achieve in his career. Though Oscar Wilde ended his life in disgrace, we believe he would be tickled to see the enduring legacy of his work. We read The Picture of Dorian Gray and shiver at the chilling description of a soul sold for vanity. We put on performances of The Importance of Being Earnest and laugh with recognition about the follies of relationships. Wilde's biographer Richard Ellmann summarizes what the poet means to us today:
"We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. . . . Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right."4