Note: This month I’m juggling travel and assignments, so this blog might be looking a little neglected. To make up for it, here’s a short piece I wrote on Wilde’s prose-poem “The Doer of Good”. I’ll be back in the New Year with lots of great things lined up, so happy holidays everyone! -Cian
According to Declan Kiberd, “the Wildean moment is that at which all opposites are transcended” (Inventing Ireland 41), and, in the prose-poem “The Doer of Good”, this collapse of antitheses is revealed as fundamental to Wilde’s critique of Victorian social norms. Wilde’s critique is grounded in an understanding that Victorian selfhood is founded on differentiation between self and other, and, as Kiberd argues, that this “manic Victorian urge to antithesis, an antithesis not only between all things English and Irish but also between male and female, master and servant, good and evil, and so on” (Inventing Ireland 38) belies the fact that “the Victorian Englishman continued to attribute to the Irish all those emotions and impulses that his strict code had led him to deny himself” (“London Exiles” 374). As per Wilde’s claim that Victorian rule over Ireland was characterised by “a stupidity that is aggravated by good intentions” (Inventing Ireland 37), “The Doer of Good” casts the sanctimonious Victorian as a would-be Christ figure confounded by the realisation that his “healing” of the afflicted has led them not down the straight and narrow path of his design, but rather to a bacchanalian celebration of their newfound life. This carnivalesque public undermines the sanctified “myth of an unspoilt peasantry”, which, as Kiberd points out, was “a convenient means of emotional absolution from guilt in a society for which natural instinct was often tantamount to a vice” (Inventing Ireland 43).
In the same fashion, the figure of the virtuous female, with “the fair face of an idol”, reclaims her sexual autonomy through her assertion that, if sins can be forgiven, then hedonistic pursuit of pleasure is the natural path to choose. The virgin’s lust equals that of he who lusts after her, and this revelation dissolves strict behavioural divisions between the sexes imposed by Victorian society, an unnatural separation which Wilde viewed with “profound scorn” (Inventing Ireland 39). And while the poem is clearly couched in explicitly Christian terms, Wilde’s critique does not simply address a divide between Protestantism and Catholicism, but rather the broader notion of “the elect and the damned”, an affront to Wilde’s “radical autonomy of the self” which had taken equal hold in secular Freudian and Marxist lines of thought (Inventing Ireland 40).
Instead, through “the art of elegant inversion” (Inventing Ireland 35), damnation for Wilde consists of a society which can only exist through a perpetual denial of its natural selfhood, where, like the Christ of “The Doer of Good”, “the only real fool is the conventionally ‘sincere’ man who fails to see that he, too, is wearing a mask, the mask of sincerity” (Inventing Ireland 38).
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. Harvard UP, 1995.
— “The London Exiles: Wilde and Shaw”. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, vol. 2, edited by Seamus Deane, Field Day Publications, 1990, pp. 372-76.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Doer of Good”. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, HarperCollins, 2003, pp. 900-01.