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Mrs Erlynne, Forms, Functions and Figures of Negation in Oscar Wilde’s Society Comedies

Jacqueline Fromonot
p. 21-36


Negation appears in Wilde’s four society comedies in various ways. Prejudiced high-society members emphatically resist the advent of a mixed, open society, a refusal which is tapped for its dramatic potential. Others, mostly outcasts or adventurers, but also inside outsiders, resent society as it is and bring chaos in this outwardly well-ordered, but basically corrupted and hypocritical cosmos. Their ironical and iconoclastic stances boil down to the polemic negation of values, to arouse laughter but more profoundly to assess their relevance. Negation is thus resorted to with a view to reactivating a consensual subtext, subverting it and questioning its truth value, thus giving more width and scope to these light and apparently superficial comedies.

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1Oscar Wilde’s society comedies, Lady Windermere’s Fan (LWF), A Woman of No Importance (WNI), An Ideal Husband (IH) and The Importance of Being Earnest (IBE) read at first like celebrations of British life, and especially high life. They complacently teem with English-sounding landmarks, like toponyms of wealthy London—Mayfair, Belgravia—and anthroponyms such as “Lord Darlington” and “Lady Bracknell,” all of them redolent of the traditional Anglo-Saxon aristocracy. The plays also emphatically highlight features of the British culture, with direct references to Victoria Station and the Houses of Parliament; they are set in typical decors of salons, conservatories or manicured lawns; finally, they stage social events from large fashionable receptions to small-scale tea parties, with their unforgettable cucumber sandwiches. These elements stand out as part and parcel of Britishness and Eternal England. Furthermore, as is to be expected in the genre chosen by Wilde, the plays conventionally end well. With the prospect of happiness restored or happiness in store, social order which has for a time been challenged prevails again; villains are defeated and erring young men finally seem to turn into replicas of their fathers in a virtually unchanged patriarchal world. For these reasons, Wilde’s comedies can be dismissed as mere entertainment for the higher classes, which at the time made up most of the audience of West End theaters. The playwright seems intent on courting them in his flattering creations, with a view to personal, social, and last but not least, financial recognition in the best circles. Yet, Wilde rejected the very possibility of dependence on and deference to his public; on the opening night of Lady Windermere’s Fan, on 20 February 1892, he sauntered onto the stage to congratulate the audience on “the great success of [their] performance” (Ellmann 346). The provocative reversal of the expected relationship exemplifies Wilde’s “career in counterspeech” (McCormak 98), an expression which may aptly apply to his drama as a whole. Indeed, Wilde’s theatrical project can be defined in terms of opposition and above all negation, whose Latin etymology, negare, clearly links it with refusal. In fact, the playwright mobilizes the clichés and conventions listed above not so much to endorse the Victorian high society as to undermine and disavowingly negate it. He presents it as a prejudiced world, mainly through the creation of characters whose “counter-speeches” and even “counter-actions” strike a discordant note at various levels of the plays, thematic, semantic, and stylistic. Therefore, negation proves itself to be a key concept and contributes to the homogeneity of the corpus, which ranges from the social comedy of A Woman of No Importance, to outright farce, as with The Importance of Being Earnest.

2The focus of Wilde’s attention is the higher strata of society, whose members are repeatedly characterized as class-conscious and highly prejudiced lords and ladies. In the contemporaneous context of the late-Victorian era, which the Duchess of Berwick discards as “dreadful socialistic days” (LWF I, 21), they still emphatically express the rejection of their statutory inferiors and try to resist the on-going advent of a more open, democratic world. Such discrimination is used for dramatic effect as an impediment to marriage in The Importance of Being Earnest, when Lady Bracknell refuses to let her daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax, marry Jack Worthing, on the grounds that he is a foundling and therefore cannot boast worthy relations. As she makes it clear, the place in which he was found—a railway-station cloakroom—“could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognized position in society” (IBE I, 268). His status as a possible illegitimate child makes him objectionable in terms of class but of morality too, the other main reason for banning someone from one’s sphere. That is why Lady Windermere is consistent as a representative of her caste when she stiffly declares as a general line of conduct: “I will have no one in my house about whom there is any scandal” (LWF I, 18). Accordingly, she refuses to yield to her husband’s wish to invite Mrs Erlynne, a woman who is rumored to have “at least a dozen [pasts]” (LWF I, 20). In a deftly-constructed dialogue which is the focus of Act One, Wilde stages her non-compliance, whose expression gets all the more vocal as Lord Windermere’s entreaty grows more pressing. To begin with, she pushes Mrs Erlynne out of her own mental space by declaring that she will not hear anything about the disreputable woman:  “I am not interested in her” (LWF I, 25). Then she resists having Mrs Erlynne’s actual presence in her house by refusing to send her an invitation, declaring “I shall do nothing of the kind” (LWF I, 26). The illocutionary force of this statement rests on the use of the negative word “nothing,” an immediate and unconditional refutation that is hence much stronger than its alternative “not . . . anything,” the negation of an asserted form (Roger and Lapaire 149). She makes no attempt at softening her blows, and shortly after, the negative charge is associated with a hyperbolic form: “Nothing in the whole world would induce me [to write the invitation card]” (LWF I, 26). The exchange finally reaches a climax when Lady Windermere threatens to strike Mrs Erlynne if she appears at her birthday party (LWF I, 27), a means to materialize negation by physical confrontation. In a world where form rules supreme, she however refrains from such a brazen act of violence. During the reception, she barely acknowledges the unwanted lady’s presence and “bows coldly” (LWF II, 33), so that her feelings do find an outlet through body language. This non-verbal act is part of the semiotics of rejection; although it is not as dismissive as a “cut,” which consists in ignoring someone altogether, it remains a sign of hostility, through which the hostess declines any contact and rules out the possibility of a conversation. In short, Lady Windermere subscribes fully and blindly to the social dictates according to which the disreputable Mrs Erlynne is “absolutely inadmissible into society” (LWF I, 20). The use of the preposition “into” shows that society is represented in terms of actual space, with inclusion and exclusion as ruling principles. They are dramatically enacted in Wilde’s recurrent references to parties into which one is admitted or not, as the case may be. The importance of this axiology is clear in such statements as “She wants to get back into society” (LWF I, 25); “Do you think she will ever get into this damned thing called Society?” (LWF II, 32) or “But it is very difficult to get into society?” (WNI III, 116). This configuration is completed by reverse occurrences, requiring the use of “out of,” as in “to be out of [society] is simply a tragedy” (WNI III, 116), or “I live so much out of the world” (WNI I, 105).

3Confronted with the invasion of unwanted people, the ruthless Duchess of Berwick declares her confidence in Lady Windermere’s discriminatory practices: “Of course [your party]’s going to be select” (LWF I, 18). All these efforts, however, are to no avail and sound like a denial of reality—resulting from self-persuasion and wishful thinking. Indeed, the Wildean world has already become dangerously “mixed,” an adjective that repeatedly points to the coexistence of incompatible types of people, making homogeneity impossible. Mrs Cheveley teasingly remarks that “Society has become dreadfully mixed” (IH II, 196), while Lady Markby implicitly evokes mercernary marriages, resenting the fact that “Families are so mixed nowadays” (IH I, 157). The choice of the present perfect “has become” in the first statement, combined with the use of “nowadays” in the second, both evoke the outcome of a process and a break with a former state of things. Lady Markby obviously longs for exclusiveness, and her resistance to merge immediately results in a desire to purge: “Our society is terribly overpopulated. Someone should arrange a proper scheme of assisted emigration” (IH II, 195–96). In these matters, women seem to be the more vocal, for in accord with the Victorian tradition, they are the ones in charge of organizing social events; however, men like Lord Caversham chime in to deplore that social barriers have broken down: “[London Society] has gone to the dogs, a lot of damned nobodies talking about nothing” (IH I, 162). These “nobodies,” who do not have names worth mentioning, are designated through a negative noun to be denied any relevance or even existence, although the very mention of their presence on the London scene paradoxically endows them with one. This threatening process emphasizes Wilde’s vision of the decline and fall of a once privileged class whose discriminatory practices can no longer endure.

4Ineffective though they may be, the persistent patterns of rejection in words or deeds read as desperate attempts at self-reassertion for the privileged. Wilde, however, creates very few possibilities for them to do so. Organizing receptions and attending them can be a way of reactivating a sense of belonging, and yet their success is questioned, when Lady Basildon complains that they make no sense to her any more: “Never know why I go. Never know why I go anywhere” (IH I, 153). The anaphora throws into dramatic relief the negative adverb, whose initial position is linked with the disappearance of the grammatical subject of the first verb. This conspicuous dissolution of the subject transcribes the difficulty for the caste to claim any exclusive identity or way of life. On the other hand, the higher classes still exult in domination and rejection of their servants, and the Duchess of Berwick boasts that she fired her enticing maid to discipline her husband: “I caught him winking at my maid, a most pretty, respectable girl. I dismissed her at once without a character” (LWF I, 22). Through this act of blatant unfairness, she exerts her sadistic tendencies to exclude, a requirement in her class for self-definition. As is to be expected indeed, the domestics are usually denied a will of their own; because of their inferior rank and status, their sole concern must be to “do [their] best to give satisfaction” (IBE I, 273). Parker, for instance, is but an agent who performs his duties mechanically at Lord and Lady Windermere’s. His role is confined to the regulation of entrances and exits, as the stage directions underline, with “Enter Parker” and “Exit Parker” repeated six times each in the first act. Such practice is of course not the privilege of aristocrats, since an untitled dandy, Algernon Moncrieff, obviously enjoys the same prerogative. The exemplary Lane is made to repeat “Yes, sir” endlessly all through the first act of The Importance of Being Earnest, an iterative display of formal assent. When he does risk a personal statement, he is countered and silenced: “I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane” (IBE I, 254).

5Wilde’s refusal to sympathize with these wealthy classes shows in his recourse to comic and satiric devices at their expense. His mocking irony rings in Mr Hopper’s declaration that “They are not so exclusive in London as they are in Sydney” (LWF II, 30). Such gross exaggeration in the son of an Australian tinned-food seller, the very embodiment of the upstart, forces the West End audiences to laugh—and above all laugh at themselves. Likewise, representatives of the aristocracy are deprived of any dignity, and the typical treatment of Lady Bracknell is worth careful scrutiny in this respect. She may be characterized as formidable and impressively “august,” owing to the author’s choice of her Christian name “Augusta,” yet she remains sheer laughing-stock and in truth inspires little awe. The hallmark of her character is the discrepancy between her pompous style and the silly content of some of her utterances, as when she objects to Jack’s marrying Gwendolen:

You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel. (IBE I, 269)

6The beginning of the speech is meant to be decorously grandiloquent. A delaying effect results from the presence of long, bulky phrases like “You can hardly imagine” or “would dream of,” combined with the elaborate hypotactic syntax, and further complicated by the insertion of a parenthetical aside between two dashes, in an attempt to inflate discourse. However, the stilted formality is finally deflated by the bathos “to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel”. With this punch line, the sentence sinks rather than soars. This process regards not only content, but form as well, because of the downward melodic curve, the apodosis of the speech. In addition, the jarring collocations strike a comical note and make the refusal a nonsensical one. Like some Horatian satirist, Wilde also casts a critical, yet detached and amused glance at the vices of Victorian high society. He lays bare its prevailing hypocrisy by exposing respectability as mere pretense, using choice mouthpieces, Lord Illingworth, for example, who asserts that virtue is assuredly not what entitles people to be admitted into the exclusive circles: “To get into the best society, nowadays, one has either to feed people, amuse people, or shock people—that is all” (WNI III, 116). The playwright also denounces Mammonism—in a style which is sometimes reminiscent of William Makepeace Thackeray. Indeed, in this turn-of-the-century vanity fair, money is “the most marvellous of all gospels, the gospel of gold” (IH II, 183), and accordingly even the old nobility do not scorn newly acquired wealth when they are the recipients. Because she pursues his fortune, the Duchess of Berwick will not ban Mr Hopper from her circle and even forwards her daughter’s union with him. Her compliment to her future son-in-law, “We know your value” (LWF II, 30), is meant to be highly ambivalent, for it refers both to his moral and financial worth, the latter being a decisive factor in the marriage market of the notoriously venal London Season. Likewise, Wilde’s negativism is at its highest in An Ideal Husband, a play whose eponymous hero, a much-praised, reputedly spotless politician, was once unable to resist the opportunity of becoming rich and powerful by selling a state secret (IH II, 183–84). Confronted with his own shameful past, Chiltern refuses to acknowledge guilt: “I did not sell myself for money. I bought success at a great price” (IH II, 182). Through this metalinguistic negation, he denies the validity of the crude common expression before rephrasing it in more acceptable terms with a remedial euphemism.

7However, Wilde’s purpose is to endow some characters with enough power and independence to be able to disagree with some aspects of their surrounding world. The playwright draws a typology of these dissenters, among which the most obvious group includes outsiders, who contravene the dictates of morality and conventionality. The adventuress Mrs Cheveley, for instance, is a British woman who lives abroad, and proves dishonest—as the play moves forward she is indicted by Lady Chiltern and finally exposed by Lord Goring. It follows that for geographical and moral reasons, she is in the British society, but not of it. She will stop at nothing; entirely unscrupulous, she plans to earn easy money through speculation and blackmail; likewise, she does not feel bound by any sense of decency and breaks away from decorum to enjoy freedom of speech, making a point of defamiliarizing reality by reducing actions and people to what they actually—and unsavouringly—are. For instance, she derisively denies Bible-reading at house-parties any grandeur by deflating the ritual to “the family skeleton . . . always reading family prayers” (IH I, 166). The bold outsider offers irreverent insights into usually unquestioned British traditions. Likewise, when Robert Chiltern tries to minimize the scope of his dishonest act by referring to it as mere “speculation” (IH I, 169), she corrects him bluntly by asserting emphatically: “It was a swindle, Sir Robert. Let us call things by their proper name” (IH I, 169). The word “swindle” is made to sound even more dysphemic as it is juxtaposed to the aristocratic marker “Sir,” evoking worth and virtue. In trumpeting the so-called “ideal husband”’s corruption, Mrs Cheveley upsets the balance of a system which idealizes and idolizes him.

8Sharing some of her characteristics as an outcast but for quite the opposite reasons, the worthy Mrs Arbuthnot, a “woman of no importance,” is an unmarried mother. By Victorian standards, she has lost her honour and by Wilde’s decision, she is capable of paying little attention to society’s empty forms and norms. This is, at any rate, how her appearing unannounced at Lady Hunstanton’s can be interpreted, when she explains, somewhat apologetically though, that she dispensed with the usual contorsions of high life: “I came straight in from the terrace, Lady Hunstanton, just as I was” (WNI I, 103). The scorn for intricate protocol is expressed in her choice of the adjective “straight”. It underlines Mrs Arbuthnot’s wish to be taken precisely “just as she is,” devoid of artifice. This contempt of hollow formality reaches its climax in the last act, when she opposes what society expects from her in her specific situation, and turns Lord Illingworth down. At first, she resorts to the “Not at home” code (WNI IV, 138), the standard way to regulate visits and express unavailability. However, on learning the identity of the caller, this impersonal answer becomes a plain refusal, where full intersubjectivity is involved: “Show me the card. [Takes card from salver and looks at it]. Say I will not see him” (WNI IV, 138). Mrs Arbuthnot, onomastically predestined to oppose and refuse, with “but” and “not” in her name, will hear of no compromise. Likewise, she deliberately ignores Lord Illingworth’s calling Gerald “Our son” (WNI II, 111) and persistently calls him “my son,” a way of refusing to acknowledge his own paternity and questioning his supremacy. In addition, she resists her former lover’s wish to enjoy Gerald’s company and make his fortune, thus depriving him of his paternal rights. Lastly, by refusing his marriage offer and striking him with a glove, she decisively turns him out of her world (WNI IV, 143), and hence renounces the possibility of ever being anything but a fallen woman and a misfit, for dignity comes at no lesser price in a corrupt society.

9However, the distinction between outsiders and insiders is not always so clear-cut. Some Wildean dissenters are so to speak “inside outsiders,” members of the best circles who nonetheless offer but nominal submission to social mores, and often make a point of distancing themselves from the world they live in and thrive on. This complex category includes such characters as Lord Darlington (LWF), Lord Illingworth (WNI), Lord Goring (IH), Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing (IBE), whose characterization owes much to the playwright’s biography. Wilde’s Oxford education and public fame allowed him to fit in the system; he was courted for his qualities as a successful wit and writer and appeared in the best salons. Yet he knew he did not fully belong in the British society, owing to his Irish origins, at least, which enabled him to cast a detached look on the London scene. Similarly, two of his heroes, Jack and Algernon, seem quite at home in their privileged world, though up to a point they most certainly remain out of it. Resenting the stifling expectations of their class, they manage to invent all sorts of excuses for not being fully available, such as imaginary relations or acquaintances in need of their assistance. Jack shuns his responsibilities in order to take care of an inexistent dissolute brother (IBE I, 259), while Algernon’s pretext of helping an invalid friend enables him to turn down unwelcome invitations like Lady Bracknell’s: “If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s tonight, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week” (IBE I, 259). They refuse the role assigned to them but prove reluctant to break off openly. In an effort to construct and maintain a public persona, both men refrain from disclosing their stratagems; they even subvert the Victorian ideal of virtue, by pretending they selflessly care for others. Their dissent is meant to stay secret, whereas some aristocratic characters, who are just as well-integrated in the British society in terms of wealth and manners, run counter to its values in a conspicuous way. They challenge institutions like marriage by making a point of staying single, like Lord Illingworth, the philanderer who tries to steal a kiss from Hester and cynically explains to Gerald that love and married life are quite contradictory: “One should be always in love. That is the reason why one should never marry” (WNI III, 117). Lord Goring, for his part, resists as best he can the social pressure to get a wife; in other words, he is unwilling to reproduce the patriarchal society he lives in. He expresses disrespect for the paterfamilias: “Fathers should be neither seen nor heard. That is the only proper basis for family life” (IH IV, 226). Non-conformity on a variety of levels leads Lord Illingworth to withdraw his assent from contemporary patterns of thought, including the ideal of self-improvement: “I don’t intend to grow perfect at all” (WNI III, 120). Furthermore, most of these characters have gained a reputation for idleness, which challenges the dominant Puritan work ethic, still operative in the higher classes. Hyperbolic formulations give strength to the composition of the misfits, and so it is said of Lord Goring: “He leads such an idle life” (IH I, 154), a statement confirmed by Chiltern, who calls him “the idlest man in London” (IH I, 160). The same goes for Illingworth: “He does—well, he does nothing” (WNI II, 105). These characters refuse negotium, which is, as the Latin etymology indicates, the negation of otium. Hence, they negate a negation—or rather resist renunciation of a life given to pleasure. Their determination to do nothing never results in an empty existence, for they busy themselves with a great many activities, as Mabel Chiltern explains to Lord Goring’s father, Lord Caversham:

Why, [Lord Goring] rides in the Row at ten o’clock in the morning, goes to the Opera three times a week, changes his clothes at least five times a day, and dines out every night of the season. You don’t call that an idle life, do you? (IH I, 154)

10In spite of this description of a hectic social life, characterized by numerous action verbs (“rides,” “changes” and “dines”), nothing here is deemed productive by Victorian standards, through which all this is disqualified as unworthy. What with their interest in dress, decoration and food, these dandiacal figures conspicuously consume without producing, an attitude translated into theatrical terms. The audience watches the extremely well-dressed Lord Goring “taking out [his] old button” and carefully “putting in [a new one]” (IH III, 205), then “looking at himself in the glass” (IH III, 206), while lecturing his servant about fashion and manners. Another case in point is Algernon Moncrieff, who lives in luxury too; his apartment is magnificent, judging by the “luxuriously and artistically furnished” morning-room (IBE I, 253) in which the first act is set. In addition, he gobbles one by one the sandwiches prepared for his aunt and even seems a compulsive eater, for Jack quips: “Eating as usual, I see, Algy!” (IBE I, 254–55). He clearly stands out as a parasite. Lastly, most of these characters loathe the possibility of exercising or exerting themselves; Lord Illingworth declares in terms which might be reminiscent of Dorian’s Faustian pact in Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, but soon become bathetic and parodic: “To win back my youth, Gerald, there is nothing I wouldn’t do—except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community” (WNI III, 114). Negation of physical effort—which in this case goes along with the resistance to any involvement in public affairs—is meant to be staged and shown, and the actors’ body language conveys the idea of passiveness too. Lord Illingworth is “lolling on a sofa” (WNI III, 114); as to Lord Goring, he is “lounging in an armchair” in the Chilterns’ morning house (IH II, 180). This reclining position is a refusal to sit upright,—the expected decorous attitude in society; it illustrates the reluctance to choose a clear-cut stance and symbolizes what these outside insiders do with their lives.

11Non-conformity, however, is a guarantee to be in the right. Cecil Graham declares: “Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong” (LWF III, 53). One may even go as far as saying that a dissenter’s identity is grounded in disagreement and even contrariness, so truly that as soon as Lord Goring is engaged, he proves unable to differ any longer. His last statement, “Yes, father, I prefer it domestic” (IH IV, 243), sounds like total capitulation, for it amounts to agreeing with Lord Caversham—something which seldom happens in the course of the play—and accepting to be confined to a house and its responsibilities, as a dutiful husband, in accordance with what the etymology of “husband” (house/bound) suggests. From this act of compliance onwards, the once-impertinent, colourful Lord Goring dissolves as a character; he is no longer heard, and the others speak for him as if he were no longer present (IH IV, 243). If assent results in a self-effacing attitude, conversely, dissent is the way to self-assertion, a process which develops in the last scene of A Woman of No Importance, especially when Mrs Arbuthnot resists Lord Illingworth’s suggestions with such statements as “No proposition of yours interests me” (WNI IV, 139). Her choice to position the negative quantifier initially expresses her determination not to compromise, and from then on she grows in stature. Self-affirmation is also emphasized by the repetition of the title of the play—with a major variation, though. While Illingworth refers to his former mistress as “No one. No one in particular. A woman of no importance” (WNI I, 94), dismissively annihilating her with three negative markers, Mrs Arbuthnot finally calls him “No one. No one in particular. A man of no importance” (WNI IV, 143). Thanks to her resistance and resilience, she has become a woman of importance, no matter what society held to be in her best interest. Likewise, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Mrs Erlynne’s abnegation, which literally implies a movement towards (ab-) negation (negare), enables her to gain a saint-like status through self-sacrifice, when she saves her daughter’s reputation by jeopardizing her own. Even manipulative characters like Mrs Cheveley are cathartic agents. By enlightening Gertrude Chiltern as to her husband’s—and her own—imperfections, she initiates a process of purgation for the couple, and thus Gertrude can declare: “For both of us a new life is beginning” (IH IV, 244). From this viewpoint, negation results in affirmation, and in certain cases even regeneration.

12In these comedies of manners, based on brilliant dialogues and verbal jousts, negation is therefore endowed with an actantial force. It is omnipresent in language, and a poetics of negation lends its shape to the whole corpus. To begin with, the very utterance of “no” can be dramatic in itself, for there is something dismissive and maybe supercilious about it, as is noted by Otto Jespersen, who analyses the sound symbolism at work in the formation of negative words derived from the Latin language (Jespersen 335). This holds even more true in English, since the negative adverb “no” involves a diphthong and hence a lengthening effect. In a play, a simple “no” can therefore sound powerful indeed, especially when it is the only word uttered, as is the case with Mrs Arbuthnot, who answers Lord Illingworth’s questions (WNI IV, 141–42). Using this self-contained, monolithic reply regardless of the phatic function amounts to refusing the furtherance of the conversation and destabilizing the co-utterer turned adversary. As a matter of fact, most Widlean dissenters relish the use of forms negating received notions. For instance, the practice of hunting, at first described as “English country gentleman galloping after a fox” (WNI I, 87), is then rephrased and reduced to “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable” (WNI I, 87). Here, Illingworth lashes his harmful wit by forming categories through substantivized adjectives with a privative prefix, which contributes to building a coherent system of negativity. It is enhanced by the refusal of scalar negation, which precludes all possible shades of meaning. Following Lord Illingworth’s precepts “Moderation is a fatal thing . . . . Nothing succeeds like excess” (WNI III, 121), the Wildean dissenters even choose to reinforce negation with various rhetorical devices. Hyperbolic forms recur, in such assertions as “There is nothing like . . .” (WNI III, 114), “There is nothing in the world . . .” (LWF III, 54) or “There is nothing in the whole world . . .” (LWF III, 53). In the same way, ample use is made of restrictive patterns like “Nothing . . . but . . .” (WNI III, 116), or “Nothing . . . so much as . . .” (IBE I, 259). These forms offer the extra advantage of starting with the disruptive negative pronoun, which mimetically seems to indicate that opinions develop from a tabula rasa. Likewise, negative statements are given more weight thanks to intensifiers, as in “Examinations are of no value whatsoever” (WNI III, 114). Here, “whatsoever” is redundantly connected to the quantifier “no,” which suffices to negate in an assertive way. Furthermore, this extra word enables the speaker to round up the sentence rhythmically, providing the listeners with a sense of closure that makes the idea sound quite definite.

13Constant negation targets social habits or institutions—as a matter of fact, all kinds of serious topics, like the “examinations” quoted above—but it treats them lightly, for the playwright seeks comic effect through provocation. Wilde’s wit and humour prove brilliant when it comes to the reversal of well-known phrases, clichés and aphorisms, a practice that an audience will find delightfully shocking. Mrs Cheveley, for instance, alludes to the “seven deadly virtues” (IH I, 170), an obvious parody of the Bible’s “seven deadly sins” which rests on the substitution of a word for its antonym on the paradigmatic axis, in the same way as Algernon’s “Divorces are made in Heaven” (IBE I, 255) is an inversion of “Marriages are made in Heaven”. It is worth noting that these two semantically negative statements do not express the contrary of the well-known idioms, but rather their contradiction, for they are “modal negations” (Ducrot and Todorov 395), which impertinently disprove what is usually widely accepted, here the dominant religious paradigm. This ironical and iconoclastic strategy results in the polemic negation of values, through which positive statements are negated through the simple—sometimes over-systematic and simplistic—reversal of polarities. Indeed, the two remarks “Fathers have so much to learn from their sons nowadays” (IH II, 199), challenging the wisdom of the aged, and “In married life three is company and two is none” (IBE I, 260), rejecting faithfulness, rest on the mechanical commuting of two constituents within a sentence. The syntagmatic axis is kept intact, however, for a visible substrate is necessary to recall the original statement from which the new one stems. Wilde’s aphorisms often develop into puzzling paradoxes, which stand out as negations of their monstrously transformed counterparts (Pham-Thanh 198). They sometimes grow nonsensical, an extreme case used by Wilde to preclude any seriousness, as when Cecil Graham wonders: “Have you been twice married and once divorced, or twice divorced and once married?” (LWF II, 32). Exchanging the places of the two frequency adjuncts leads to an absurdity, due to the tension between matter and manner. The effect is nonetheless belied by the perfectly rational syntax in terms of parallelism and symmetry, which also produces a comic effect. The rhetorical avoirdupois of such utterances is based on language, and does not require a detailed, well-argued content to unsettle the interlocutor—and the audience. Their illocutionary force is such that Lady Hunstanton, for instance, has trouble objecting, and exclaims after hearing one of Illingworth’s witticisms: “Ah! That quite does for me. I haven’t a word to say” (WNI III, 118). One may wonder, for that matter, if most of these statements really call for a reply. Although they have a positive role in terms of characterization and creation of an atmosphere, they hardly foster interaction or contribute to the unravelling of the story; they even stall action and may negate the convention of plot. They could just be considered as mots d’auteur, mainly one-liners and therefore easily remembered and readily quotable by the spectators, who are likely to use them again with no reference to their origins, in order to arrest and provoke someone in their turn—a process somewhat reminiscent of the writer’s habits, for as his grandson Merlin Holland pointed out, Wilde was “never one to lose the opportunity of recycling a well-turned phrase” (Holland 3). Quotations and self-quotations can circulate freely among textual and actual worlds, a process relevant to Wilde’s aestheticism, for it implicitly negates the bounderies between art and life. The dissenters’ one-liners are successful precisely because they are stripped to the bare minimum, so much so that they are never meant to be expanded upon or explained away. Such is the case when Lord Darlington paradoxically claims that “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it” (LWF I, 19). He proves reluctant to comment upon it, arguing that “to be intelligible is to be found out,” before hastily taking his leave with an abrupt “Good-bye” (LWF I, 19). Such an aesthetics of terseness and fragmentation seems to display a Nietzschean tendency to refuse the coherent building of a massive, all-embracing theory, and in Wilde’s plays, it contributes to the general impression of inconsequential and amusing chatter.

14This perpetual provocation is light in treatment indeed, which does not signify that all the ideas and concepts toyed with are shallow, for speakers do things with words, in John Austin’s phraseology. Through them, all the perlocutory energy of Wilde’s wit is directed towards promoting a radical perspectivism and hence a post-modern sense of skepticism. Moreover, negation is not only conceived of as an instrument of mass destruction; it may be endowed with a pedagogical, even heuristic value which can be felt in this particular stychomitic exchange between Jack and Algernon:

Jack: . . . That, my dear Algie, is the whole truth pure and simple.
Algernon: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. (IBE I, 259)

15Beyond the witty repartee, whose aim seems at first sight to destabilize the interlocutor by giving the lie to his idea, there is a more profound meaning, broad in scope and balanced in emphasis. Here, Algernon refuses to subscribe to a ready-to-think approach of the world that is shaped by standard idioms in language which tends to create standardized patterns of thought. According to tradition, truth is conceived of as one and indivisible; consequently it is opposed to lying and its myriad aspects, or its “cent mille figures,” in Michel de Montaigne’s suggestive phrasing (Montaigne 36). By contradicting Jack’s statement, Algernon refuses to take this axiom for granted and delves into accepted notions for fresh meaning. Negation highlights the dangers of being formated by language and the categories of the dominant culture it shapes. Then, dissenters are no nihilists, all the more so as the negative forms they use inevitably conjure up the opposite meaning, the corresponding assertion. Indeed, although a positive statement rarely recalls a negative one, a negative statement evokes the initial positive; hence its “polyphony” and the creation of a “crystallized dialogue” between what is negated and posited at the same time (Ducrot 50). In practical terms, putting forward idleness is bound to remind everyone of the dominant Puritan ethics; and although Mrs Erlynne’s cautionary exclamation “Manners before morals!” (LWF IV, 62) is the reversal of “morals before manners” and the refusal of convention, it is nonetheless an echo of the well-known maxim. Therefore, if negation can be used with a view to subverting widely-accepted values, it also ambiguously—and paradoxically—reactivates them and secures their persistence.

16It may indeed be relevant to define the corpus under scrutiny as underpinned by a tension between negative indictment and assertive celebration—a paradox which would certainly have been to the author’s taste, and in accord with his claim that “A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true” (Wilde 893). This final retraction of “The Truth of Masks,” somewhat reminiscent of the palinode, promotes inconsistency and deliberately flouts the principle of non-contradiction, which should be the norm in art—and definitely is in Oscar Wilde’s society comedies.

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Works by Oscar Wilde

Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893), A Woman of No Importance (1894), An Ideal Husband (1899) and The Importance of Being Ernest (1899), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1980.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1985.

“The Truth of Masks” (1885), in Intentions. Collected Works of Oscar Wilde. Ware, Wordsworth, 1997, p. 875–893.

Critical Essays on Oscar Wilde’s Works

Ellmann Richard, Oscar Wilde (1987), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1988, 632 p.

Holland Merlin, “Biography and the Art of Lying,” in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, edited by Pater Raby, Cambridge UP, 1997, p. 3–17.

McCormack Jerusha, “Wilde’s Fiction(s),” in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, edited by Pater Raby, Cambridge UP, 1997, p. 96–117.

Pham-thanh Gilbert, “L’Art du paradoxe wildien: transgression, inversion ou subversion?” in Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens no59, Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2004, p. 191–200.

Theoretical Texts

Ducrot Oswald, Les Mots du discours, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1980.

Ducrot Oswald, Todorov Tzvetan, “Temps et modalité dans la langue,” in Dictionnaire encyclopédique des sciences du langage, Paris, Seuil, 1972, p. 389–397.

Jespersen Otto, “Negation,” in The Philosophy of Grammar (1924), Chicago UP, 1992, p. 322–337.

Lapaire Jean-Rémi, Rotge Wilfrid, “Any,” in Linguistique et grammaire de l’anglais, Presses universitaires du Mirail, 1991, p. 133–149.

Montaigne Michel de, “Des Menteurs,” in Les Essais (1595), Paris, Club français du livre, 1952, p. 33–38.

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Jacqueline Fromonot, « Mrs Erlynne, Forms, Functions and Figures of Negation in Oscar Wilde’s Society Comedies », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 21-36.

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Jacqueline Fromonot, « Mrs Erlynne, Forms, Functions and Figures of Negation in Oscar Wilde’s Society Comedies », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 21 juin 2016, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.2714

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Jacqueline Fromonot

Université Paris-VIII.
Jacqueline FROMONOT is Senior Lecturer at the University of Paris VIII in Saint-Denis. She wrote a PhD thesis on deception in Victorian fiction. Her interests include stylistics and narratology applied to the study of 19th century novels, and she has published articles on W.M. Thackeray, A. Trollope and C. Dickens. She is an active member of the Société de Stylistique Anglaise (SSA) and the Société Française d’Études Victoriennes et Édouardiennes (SFEVE).

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