Oscar Wilde's Writing Style

A discussion of Wilde's distinct  style of writing.

              Oscar Wilde had often spoken of his belief that, in artistic matters, style outweighed sincerity or substance.  As such, in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his attention was therefore paid to form and the nuances of wording in his novel.  If the novel was an “essay on decorative art”, it was also a piece of decorative art composed of carefully selected phrases.  In fact, Wilde was so determined to have perfection in his works, when he was asked to write a story of a hundred thousand beautiful words, he complained that “there are not one hundred thousand beautiful words in the English language.”

             Oscar Wilde had a phenomenal ability to incorporate aspects of both fantasy and realism into his works.  Through thoughtful imagery and realistic dialect, he successfully merged two contradicting genres into a fascinatingly morbid tale.  Wilde also exceled in his use of imagery.  He vividly described people and situations with many types of literary devices though his favorite and therefore most frequented, is morbid imagery.  He commanded an astonishing mastery of the art of morbidity, describing in unusual detail images of corpses and blood and a murder that would rival anything in modern cinema. “He [Dorian] rushed at him [Basil], and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again.  There was a stifled groan, and the horrible sound on someone choking with blood.  Three times the outstretched arms shot up convulsively, waving grotesque stiff-fingered hands in the air.  He stabbed him twice more, but the man did not move.  Something began to trickle on the floor.  He waited for a moment, still pressing the head down.  He could hear nothing, but the drip, drip on the threadbare carpet”  (Wilde pg. 126).  This passage describes in haunting detail a gruesome murder and paints a terrifying picture in even the most unimaginative mind.    . 

            However, most readers are divided in their response to a style and atmosphere which early reviewers found deeply distasteful.  Richard Ellman wrote of ‘a certain gaminess’ about Wilde’s favorite poem ‘Charmides’ (Elmann, p.135), and the phrase could also pertain to The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

            Another style that is prevalent in Oscar Wilde’s novel, is the presence of dialogue rather than action.  He prefers his characters to engage in casual conversation in a sitting room much more often than actual action.  Through his writing, Wilde seems to be striving to stimulate the visual and musical arts through language primarily.

                Whether descriptive or dialogic, Wilde’s writing in the novel is characterized by the use of paradox (a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth).  It is his favorite stylistic device.  In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil, Dorian, and Lord Henry-- the latter being called “Prince Paradox” by his friends-- trade paradoxes constantly.  Contemporary reviewers were quick to identify the technique and belittle it, or argue that it only played on ‘the convertibility of terms.’   However his style was soon accepted by the vast majority of British reviewers.  Writing in the Free Review (June 1, 1895), literary critic, Ernest Newman hailed Wilde’s style saying, “To hear one of Mr. Wilde’s paradoxes by itself is to be startled; to read them in their proper context is to recognize the great fact on which I have already insisted, that a paradox is a truth seen round a corner.  There is not one of his paradoxes that does not argue our straightly and squarely, and we rise from the perusal of them with a self-conscious wisdom that we had not before.”

            Another style familiar to Oscar Wilde is his incredible talent for morbidity and evil.  He had an astonishing grasp on the reality of human nature and the darkness that resides in everyone’s soul.  Unlike most writers of his time, Wilde was particularly in tune with the darker side of things.  He recognized the lust for immortality that is built into every human being and exemplified it in his novel.  Dorian’s greed for eternal youth results in the deterioration of his soul as seen in his portrait.  He had an insight into evil that few authors of his time period could claim and he mastered this insight and put it into writing with incredible ease. 

            Few authors have successfully written with a skill to rival that of Oscar Wilde’s.  Though Stephen King mastered morbidity, he fails to grasp the eloquence and rhetoric of Wilde’s style.  Likewise, the eloquence of text can be closely matched by an author such as Charles Dickens, but Dickens cannot be closely compared to Wilde in his sense of imagery.  Wilde had the whole package and no writer, even to this day, has been able to mimic his distinct, and slightly disturbing, writing style.