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Dandiacal Conversation in Oscar Wilde’s Comedies of Manners: Conventions, Conversions and Reconfigurations of Phallogocentrism

Gilbert Pham-Thanh
p. 37-52


Wilde’s comedies of manners stage dandies enjoying relative freedom in the parlours, ballrooms and reception halls where the scenes usually take place. From a marginal position, the characters progressively conquer centerstage. They are not only accepted but sought after, as ultra-refined figures of conventional gentlemanliness and masters of ceremonies of sorts.
Their presentability is matched by their power to convince whoever engages in controversies with them. Their strong reliance on rhetoric ensures their supremacy in polite conversation, even if their intellectual and cultural edge does a lot to secure their domination. What is more, their mastery of codes and norms enables them to destabilize the semantics of the age, a gesture which can be equated to a reconfiguration of Victorian patriarchy and even a dismissal of Victorian grand narratives.

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1In the panorama of the 1880s, Oscar Wilde stands as a reputed conversationalist who would fascinate his audience by the mere music of his voice and the sheer cadence of his words. This celebrated socialite claims that he might best be remembered in reference to his lifestyle, as his literary production only bears half the mark of his genius: “I have put my genius into my life—I have put only my talent into my works” (Gide 12). This shows how comfortable he felt on the public scene of late Victorian London, and his exchange of punch-lines with James McNeill Whistler qualifies as verbal fencing rather than linguistic boxing. Moreover, Wilde remains this tireless teller who could congenially light up parties of every description.

2And yet, the Wildean canon is very much alive to the present time, both in edition and staging, not to mention film adaptation or else academic critique. If the light, entertaining side of his literary works should not be underestimated, the personality of the “somdomite”—in the felicitously erroneous phrasing of Lord Queensberry (Holland 103) which mimetically underlines the problematic nature of the complex Anglo-Irish dandy—shaped them in depth and markedly echo, word and dramatize a masculinity crisis with far-reaching consequences.

3Freely inspired by Masculinities Studies, this paper accordingly discusses the parts of dandies in the four comedies of manners—Lady Windermere’s Fan (LWF), A Woman of No Importance (WNI), An Ideal Husband (IH) and The Importance of Being Earnest (IBE). Their status evolves from a relatively marginal position to the center of the stage and plot, as evidenced in the heterosexual love story conventionally underwriting these comedies. From the sexless Cecil Graham and Lord Darlington, the discarded lover, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, to George Illingworth, the arch villain who is denied marriage with the mother of his own son in A Woman of No Importance, then Arthur Goring, who finally marries but has to share centre stage with eponymous Robert Chiltern, a meritocratic politician, in An Ideal Husband, then highly eligible Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, who exclusively appropriate the love potential in The Importance of Being Earnest (the Prism-Chasuble relationship remains anecdotal), characterization indicates a progressive promotion of the fashionable figures. As a site of compression, these brilliant speakers articulate the tensions—possibly the contradictions—inherent in Wilde’s vision of masculinity. It follows that the unitary appellation of “dandy” should not overshadow the diversity of situations and profiles, though none of them ever appears on stage unnoticed or leaves unremembered—in the androcentric society described, they invariably set up a spectacle within the play, sometimes disruptively making a show of themselves. Indeed, their performance does not always interpret as a dismissive protest against the world as it is.

4Wilde’s approach to masculinity even demonstrates such conservatism as to seem reactionary to the present critic. This is no surprise since his dandies classically rank as accomplished embodiments of the British gentleman. Hence, the choice for his smart clique to cast actual aristocrats, Lords Darlington (LWF), Goring (IH) or Illingworth (WNI), who posit gender and class domination in a static appropriation of the stage and dynamic intrusion in the dialogue turned into a platform for elitist androcentrism. They have inherited more than a title or the means to cut a colourful figure in society, and literally signify masculine upper-class superiority. As expected in a play, it is mainly through verbal communication that they advertize their capacity to organize a cosmos, secure presentability and achieve representativity. So it is from a slightly supercilious standpoint in keeping with their social and existential posture that these coxcombs charm the assistance, hence Arthur Goring’s preference for wit over humour, in a sweeping judgment on Mrs Cheveley and women alike: “Well, she wore far too much rouge last night, and not quite enough clothes. That is always a sign of despair in a woman” (IH II, 499). His condescending to entertain others stages his will to demonstrate his authority, which is then exerted in a minor key, through generic formulations postulating quasi omniscience. This central position of master of ceremony can be tedious, and Jack resents it: “When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring” (IBE I, 548). However, the conversation makes it clear that he can be quite pleasant and fulfill his social chores, in this case the duty to visit and manage his country estate without neglecting social life there. Consequently, even if the dandy acts in a somewhat haughty way, he offers high society a zealous and serviceable representative. His speech strategically expands, while his body is tactically shaped by the dominant discourse, in a pose of perfect self-composure. Both combine to erect a symbolic pedestal on which he stands, a monument to his sex and group, while conversation grants the occasion for this social ritual of male empowerment. Claiming to incarnate what is best, and so to have direct knowledge of what counts, serves as a legitimization for holding a position in the world. In this respect, Lord Goring really designates himself and upper class males at large, when he sententiously refers to every man, almost a universal category: “A man’s life is of more value than a woman’s. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions. . . . It is upon lines of intellect that a man’s life progresses” (IH IV, 539). In consequence, though fashionables look submerged by their passion for clothes and appearances, their interests reach further than sartorial matters, as arch-dandiacal Algernon’s remark indicates: “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated” (IBE II, 573). This drops a hint at his intellectual abilities and the superiority of public school or Oxbridge education.

5Naturally, the dandy masters the sociolect of the ruling classes and Algernon’s allusion to his own speech can thus be considered a generic one: “It is perfectly phrased. And quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be” (IBE I, 560). An equation is thus obliquely made between his way of life and a truly civilized existence. However, the construction of identity also calls for the rejection of the Other, in assertions often fraught with class prejudice—so Cecil runs down “middle-class education” (LWF III, 399), while Lord Darlington praises Lady Windermere’s parties for being “very select” (LWF I, 371) and Algernon looks down on “the lower orders” (IBE I, 548). A grand narrative is spelled out by dutiful heirs, answering the requisites of their social habitat and promoting their culture through conversation. Thus, Lord Illingworth conveniently takes on the part of a mentor and voices the golden rules of his caste to subjugate young Gerald Arbuthnot. In particular, he insists on the importance of learning who is who, in a patriarchal society where identity is rooted in family and status: “You should study the Peerage, Gerald. It is the one book a young man about town should know thoroughly” (WNI III, 447). As hierarchy can hardly overlook genders, he bluntly posits female inferiority in a statement well-suited to his personal characterization and social background, claiming that “women represent the triumph of matter over mind” (WNI III, 447). The implicit meaning of this ironical proposition must be checked against the phallogocentric background, which prioritizes mind over matter, and organizes discrimination in everyday dealings as well as in almighty language. By handling this symbol of power, Illingworth asserts and exerts domination, so that his discourse primarily serves ideological ends.

6As expected, the Wildean fashionable fits in harmoniously with his contemporaries, as he offers the choric echo of what should be said, when one can keep and be good company. Conversation interprets as communion. The institutional praise of such a religious authority as Archdeacon Daubeny is consequently both legitimate and significant: “Lord Illingworth has been most entertaining. I have never enjoyed myself more” (WNI II, 439). In other words, the conventional dimension of the dandy’s utterances reinforces his degree of acceptability for the other members of the Establishment, who are narcissistically all too glad to see and hear what they hold to be true, right and pleasant. Such a social mixer may stir the company’s enthusiasm but will never shake their convictions. He tightens the communal bond and is complicit in maintaining the social status quo, so that conversing with him becomes an act of appropriation and a gesture of self-assertion for the happy few, who in return designate him as a perfect center of refinement by circling around him. He fascinates them by balancing knowledge and style so as to be an unchallenged social success and a sure reference. Were circumstances different, the dandy would be disqualified as an expert bore or a fashionable drag, two archetypal figures of masculine inadequacy. This Victorian male ideal is treated like a hero, possibly an idol, and will assert himself as an authoritative, somewhat authoritarian leading figure of patriarchy.

7Still, knowledge breeds responsibility, and the dandy is no exception, in a society attached to order to the point of fixation. In particular, he is instrumental in the statement and resolution of ethical cruxes, as suits a man of consequence. The ethos he builds allows him to emerge as a guide and a moral agent in several occasions. He then speaks rightful words and indicates the way to redemption, in conversations where chaos first sets in, entailing intense negotiation, before order is finally made to prevail. A case in point is Lord Darlington, who lectures Lady Windermere on the necessity to blame her husband for his supposed indiscretion with Mrs Erlynne, in fact the young woman’s mother. Exploring the semantic field of deception helps him make his point:

You would feel that he was lying to you every moment of the day. You would feel that the look in his eyes was false, his voice false, his touch false, his passion false. . . . You would have to be to him the mask of his real life, the cloak to hide his secret. (LWF II, 385)

8He uses an iterative pattern demonstrating that he is conversant with moral categories and can reliably assess situations in ethical terms: “Wrong? What is wrong? It’s wrong for a man to abandon his wife for a shameless woman. It is wrong for a wife to remain with a man who so dishonours her” (LWF II, 386). This moralizing stance occasions purple patches in the plays, where the Law is uttered in definitive words, in a very high key. Arthur Goring, for instance, condemns his friend in a rhetorical question, to express shock, condemnation and bafflement: “Robert, how could you have sold yourself for money?” (IH II, 495). Elsewhere, he piles up high-flown words and formal ternary rhythm in order to solemnly condemn his former love, Mrs Cheveley, who intends to hurt the Chiltern couple: “You mustn’t do that. It would be vile, horrible, infamous” (IH III, 525). Even Jack and Algernon object to each other’s marriage on similar grounds, withholding their “consent” in view of the supposedly depraved ways of the suitor (IBE I, 549; III, 590). The dandy liberally draws from the lexical field of decency, in particular—as the previous example suggests—to police sexuality. In fact, he secures the rightful union of compatible individuals within the normative structure of institutional marriage. In this perspective, his speech remains underwritten by the arch-discourse of patriarchy, while dealing with individual situations definitely is prescriptive of general behaviour and response.

9Such conversational configuration dramatically posits the moral rectitude of classes whose supremacy finds its legitimacy just there. Reform or retribution of a stray fellow man exemplifies their power to legislate and amend. However, the natural flow of dandiacal speech never ventures long into the arid semantics of hard morals and in his address to Jack, Algernon makes sure to end his request for justification with a witticism: “Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable” (IBE I, 551). So diplomacy and playfulness outweigh prophetic posturing, as the dandy personifies control and his speech enacts his deft handling both of content and form, as well as both of himself and others. Within the courtly tradition of lounge small talk, this expert in sartorial matters is true to his function since he utters the strictest moral lessons while making sure that the pill is adequately coated.

10If the Wildean dandy reflects high Victorianism at its best, his conservative speech at times meets resistance, so that conversation offers him an occasion to exert his power to lean on reluctant interlocutors. More importantly, even when his ideas are iconoclastic, the specific regimen of his speech still carries typical phallocentric will for power. Thus, his conversational strategies of domination can leave the assembly clueless, possibly even speechless, and most of all docile, as with Lady Hunstanton’s clear appreciation of the situation: “I don’t understand a word, Lord Illingworth. But I have no doubt it is all quite true” (WNI III, 451). It is then in order that Mr Kelvil, a Member of Parliament and representative of the people’s common sense, should be defeated by Lord Illingworth, who triumphantly ends their confrontation by asserting elitist exclusiveness: “We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilized body” (WNI I, 423). Once more, the Wildean exquisite is given the final word and his victory is stressed by the subsequent turn in the conversation when Lady Caroline repeatedly asks Kelvil details about his wife and children, in a plodding exchange of sheer triteness. In contrast, it becomes increasingly apparent that the smart set do not only dress well, for the swells also prove smart as polemical debaters. In other words, they may not always proffer the best logic but usually produce better rhetoric, on a highly competitive scene. Coming up with the proper line of argumentation partakes of the struggle for supremacy and each witticism reads as the dandy’s attempt to go unanswered and end a discussion. Accordingly, Cecil can disparagingly talk of Lord Augustus’s flame and shake off criticism with a well-poised retort based on ternary rhythm, seeking support and closure in formal perfection: “Now, Tuppy, you’ve lost your figure and you’ve lost your character. Don’t lose your temper; you have only got one” (LWF III 397). Even if the final remark on having only one temper is hardly convincing, it theatrically stretches the sentence and adds a derisive finishing touch to secure the comic effect. Regardless of the exchange of ideas, the ruling conversational principle aims at the definitive settlement of an issue to win the day. Aggressiveness has left the battlefield and heroism is found in the drawing-room, exhibiting manly virtues in the mastery of language, as the site where reputation is gained and lost by hook or by crook. It then partakes of a plot of selection, in which the smart wits can be neither outsmarted nor outwitted without losing face and credit. Conversation opposes contestants who rival for ascendancy, and when Lord Caversham and Lord Goring (IH), father and son, discuss topics such as who and when to marry, the young dandy systematically demonstrates his superiority. This is appropriate, since Lord Caversham’s wish to see his offspring a respectable, adult husband, implicitly calls for an emancipatory determination in his son to disobey him and emerge as a full-fledged individual, which is just what he does. In conversation, Wildean fashionables overcome opposition, thanks to their power of conviction, and symbolically come of age in the process. Brute aggressiveness will not do, however, so that witty nonchalance completes their characterization to answer the need to represent and establish order, for they should under no circumstances leave a wreck of a stage behind them. In consequence, it is in discussions that peaceful resolutions are found, wrongs redressed and evil is discarded, notably when the dandy proves instrumental in ousting unpalatable characters from the stage, plot and verbal exchange, be it Mrs Cheveley (IH), Mrs Erlynne (LWF), Mr Kelvil (WNI) or Lady Bracknell (IBE), who progressively recede in the background of irrelevance.

11Since dandies are endowed with an extra-ordinary gift of glib, the specific rhetoric they use scarcely meets the standard modes of reasoning and should receive closer examination. In fact, Wilde dandiacally condemns current lines of thought for their middle-class, cloddish rationality and their supposedly rigorous, scientific logic of argumentation. In his view, they usually uncover what is pointless or fraught with conventional prejudice. In consequence, the dandy opts for an aristocratic regime of expression, taking for granted what it really posits. Intuition and an innate sense of truth operate by semantic short-circuits, so that Algernon, for instance, can claim that “The truth is rarely pure and never simple” (IBE I, 551) without expanding on the notion. Confronted with apparently authoritative statements, people tend to cave in and whenever their minds start boggling, they opt for the easy way out by agreeing. From a different perspective, the dandiacal mode of exposition reveals that in Wildean conversation, the real stake is the conquest and securing of power. In such a configuration, the excavation of fact is not foregrounded whereas conviction is transmuted into a polemological art.

12The war path is paved with the group’s inhibition, due to their fear that their ignorance might be exposed. Replying to the previous assertion that truth is never simple requires not only psychological courage but philosophical expertise, and most people shy away in front of the challenge. The dandy also banks on common gullibility and the panic attached to potential blundering. In other words, he can prosper in conversation thanks to his personal talents as much as the audience’s flaws, since they shun admission that they do not understand his ideas. At times, Wilde’s propositions seem cryptic and contorted—probably on purpose—as is the case with Algernon’s sally: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his” (IBE I, 560). The first part is perfectly intelligible, and a commonplace, whereas the ending introduces a conceptual bogland where no-one dares to venture, even if most of the meaning is plain patriarchal orthodoxy, indicating that men do not grow into mothers. Still, the exquisites’ conversations generally become the occasion for monologues of revelation, and communication is barred by the dissymmetry of the exchange. Indeed, their discourse does most of the convincing since it is forced upon the assistance as an exposition of facts. The speaker’s overbearing tone might sometimes be subdued, but it unmistakably bears the stamp of a masculine form of symbolic domination. Furthermore, the process comes as another proof that authority in patriarchy is best appreciated in excess, and the very impossibility to answer the dandy guarantees his satisfaction and empowerment.

13Typically, the Wildean fashionable gives expression to his mind and mood through dense, monolithic utterances. Their structure mimetically seems to encapsulate well-rounded fragments of universal truth in self-legitimizing completion, making exterior and ulterior intervention basically impossible. Indeed, conversations teem with aphorisms and epigrams such as “The future belongs to the dandy,” which is stringed with “It is the exquisites who are going to rule” (WNI III, 446). Lapidary impersonal utterances, generic terms and intransitive verbal forms rhetorically combine for effect, though they disregard the hic et nunc of highly individualized and inter-subjective dialogue. Self-contained forms of perfect phrasing are best suited to the expression of definitive, normative axioms, for instance about the care of the self and the fact that “Youth is an art” (IH IV, 530). These short formalizations carrying intense meaning might be semantically warped, but they rank the search for subjective meaning over adherence to common significance, causing discomfort in the more conventional hearers.

14Striving to convince his audience, the Wildean dandy juggles with all sorts of figures of speech, creating effects and luring the audience into agreement. This approach to conversation results from their common faith in the equation of form and content, with the resulting assumption that what is craftily worded is well thought-out and therefore true. Language is not only beautified but reaches a higher level of expressiveness, which is conducive to intensified meaning. Fashioning shock images which do not forsake the mind but find support in the audience’s emotional response, efficiently works to impose a point of view, as exemplified by Dumby’s portrayal of Mrs Erlynne: “Looks like an édition de luxe of a wicked French novel, meant especially for the English market” (LWF II, 384). As for the use of figurative language, it causes or exploits tensions inherent in the linguistic system and its organic tendency to expand in every direction to signify afresh. Moreover, the originality of the verbal combination answers coxcombical requirements, since aesthetics remains the basis for semantic constructions. The dandy’s idiom highlights the plasticity of language and its capacity to be rejuvenated—a proposition which translates into social terms as the proof that the patriarchal system remains open to innovation. Consequently, conversation stages characters who fall prey to the dandy’s rhetorical creativity, based on the full discursive possibilities to express, entertain and convince.

15Wildean paradoxes develop such a regime of speech. These pleasant forms are laden with thought and after-thought, and rely on an aesthetics of shock effect, thus on emotion, to convince. For example, in an attempt to prepare Lady Windermere to run away with him, Lord Darlington admits to being a weak character by insisting first on his strong will: “I can resist everything except temptation” (LWF I, 370). However, the playful verbalization deceptively overlooks the definition of the words in use and their implication, introducing the idea that yielding to temptation is not unthinkable. Most of all, paradoxes blur usual categories and traditional developments, dodging rebuttal thanks to their refreshing influence, a rhetorical asset and a stimulus to conversation.

16This trope is used to shake up a social milieu deeply rooted in tradition and conservatism, which finds support in the very institutional figure of Lord Caversham, who significantly objects: “That is a paradox, sir. I hate paradoxes” (IH III, 516). Then, convincing others and vindicating conservatism appear to be no longer central, even if the exquisite’s verbal self-assertiveness still qualifies in a phallogocentric perspective.

17In the corpus, paradoxes unsurprisingly run parallel to public opinion, or more precisely develop alongside, at a distance, or in the margins, so that eccentric dandies are apt to make ample use of them, as hinted at in Cecil’s declaration: “whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong” (LWF III, 398). This time, conversation dramatizes the dandy’s resistance to commonplaces and common sense, which tend to word ideology to the detriment of self-expression. Because it demonstrates complexity of character, uttering a paradox interprets as an auctorial promotion and an ontological aura. Consequently, it indicates a point of compression on the stage, where language and personality reach a high level of existential intensity. In contrast, the rest of the cast sound trite and hollow, as exemplified in the introduction of Miss Prism, who draws a life of perfect dullness for Cecily: “Your German grammar is on the table. Pray open it at page fifteen. We will repeat yesterday’s lesson” (IBE II, 564). Insistence on repetition, bookishness and seriousness serves as a foil to linguistic gems like paradoxes, which are even more dramatic in contrast to this self-satisfied display of prosaic parlance by ordinary people. And yet, even if paradoxes phrase singular propositions, they also incorporate common opinion, as an underlying stratum giving half its semantic energy to the construction of meaning. So when Lord Illingworth says that “Moderation is a fatal thing” (WNI III, 451), the listeners first think they stand on familiar grounds and recognize the commonplace according to which excess is a fatal thing and moderation a token of longevity, but this statement is contaminated by the idea that a long life of mortification and frustration is not worth living. They are encouraged to validate this intellectual bravado, for it demonstrates wit and a sense for the unexpected, with a titillating semantic surprise which eroticizes dialogue. Conversation is then transposed inside one single utterance with paradoxes, even if they are biased and give credit to the unorthodox position, finally neutralizing the received idea from which they originate. It becomes more openly polemic as it no longer aims to reproduce a master discourse, but rather shifts paradigms. Similarly, paradoxes are seen to subvert mainstream culture from within. Thanks to this Trojan horse strategy, the iconoclastic mind gains access to the public stage by reverting to an acknowledged phrasing, when the unlikely finds expression in the very middle of a linguistic locus of conformity and acceptability. This ironically summons convention for criticism, as the best paradoxes reconfigure truisms, which are instantly recognizable.

18The fact that the attack is a verbal one, and takes on specific verbal forms, may indicate that it targets the ideological use of language itself. It is indeed the Law of the Father that is enunciated in the systemic commonplaces of the master discourse. Dandiacal conversation does use words and grammar, but sometimes in such an innovative way that it inaugurates a new lingo altogether, subverting and transgressing social order. Language is bent to service any sort of need, and paradoxes are fitted into a warlike counter-attack against the patriarchs. Lord Goring, for instance, consistently piles up paradoxes to assert his supremacy in wording the new Tables of the Law, with a servile servant attending to the ritualistic empowerment of the true lord:

Lord Goring: You see, Phipps, fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear.
Phipps: Yes, my lord.
Lord Goring: Just as vulgarity is simply the conduct of other people.
Phipps: Yes, my lord.
Lord Goring: And falsehoods the truths of other people.
Phipps: Yes, my lord.
Lord Goring: Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.
Phipps: Yes, my lord.
Lord Goring: To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance, Phipps.
Phipps: Yes, my lord. (IH III, 513)

19These propositions promote a deep sense of relativism which almost writes out the notions they explore. Basically, the paradox posits a meaning totally unheard of while it explodes common views, that is, in the last resort, the fatherly organization of the universe as stated in language. Conversations act as anti-conservative reconfigurations of logocentrism understood as an instrument of patriarchy. And yet, sexism still prospers since power is simply shifted to the young talented males, and the previous quotation leaves man at the center both as object and subject. Wilde tilts the balance by staging inefficient old fogies who cut grotesque figures and are readily dismissed by the fashionables’ devastating sallies. Augustus Lorton—a Lord—even states his own inadequacy as a figure of power and responsibility, referring to Mrs Erlynne: “Knows perfectly well what a demmed fool I am—knows it as well as I do myself” (LWF III, 397). As for younger coxcombs, they seize every occasion to show disrespect to their elders, at times in a most sadistic way. Thus, Lord Goring’s provocative behaviour to his father Lord Caversham is emblematically stretched all through the play. As expected, the dandy ridicules the old man, changing perspectives to invalidate a discourse promoting decency, seriousness, or useful activity:

Lord Caversham: You seem to me to be living entirely for pleasure.
Lord Goring: What else is there to live for, father? (IH I, 480)

20Irony can be felt in Goring’s insistence to call Lord Caversham “father” while obliterating the patriarchal system. This symbolic parricide is carried out on a light, witty mode, though, which induces the audience to side with the undutiful son. The will to terminate these once-powerful fathers echoes in Wilde’s decision to introduce orphaned dandies, like Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff (IBE) or Lord Illingworth (WNI). In any case, some casual and dismissive remarks indicate that fathers are held in very low esteem, and the curtain falls on a scene of social reconfiguration, where authority changes hands and young dandies often vocally assert their predominance.

21As hinted, the most striking example of protest against the patriarchs may not come from the deliberate aggression of the fathers who are chanced upon. It is in some cases logocentrism which is deconstructed, for instance when valid syntactic arrangements fail to achieve semantic relevance—a fact to which Jack and Algernon allude:

Jack: . . . You never talk anything but nonsense.
Algernon: Nobody ever does. (IBE I, 563)

22In this drawing-room comedy, the higher orders’ pretention to represent and guarantee order is exposed, and the recurrent use of the term “absurd” structures the play, pointing to its thematic importance and preparing for its stylistic expansion through characterization, plot and dialogue. Wildean dandies do speak nonsense; however, occurrences vary in relevance and scope. At one end of the spectrum, Lord Alfred’s paradox about what cigarettes he can afford, rather gratuitously reverses expectations: “They are awfully expensive. I can only afford them when I’m in debt” (WNI I, 425). The strategy seems to backfire, as Wilde is caught blindly groping for semantic nuggets. More interestingly, for then it cannot only be a rhetorical, insignificant tic, dandies can utter balderdash that was never supposed to mean anything in the first place, as evidenced by this dialogue:

Cecil Graham: By the way, Tuppy, which is it? Have you been twice married and once divorced, or twice divorced and once married? I say you’ve been twice divorced and once married. It seems so much more probable.

Lord Augustus: I have a very bad memory. I really don’t remember which. (LWF II, 382)

23This introduces the audience to a poetic world of playful manipulation, which still answers standard syntax but indicates the speaker’s reticence to identify himself by appropriating the system inherited from the father. This is obliquely shown by Lord Goring’s remark, after he gave Lady Chiltern a lesson, in a tone of stilted seriousness characteristic of his self-righteous parent: “I hardly know myself” (IH II, 503). True enough, the fathers control society almost completely and every grammatical utterance tends to express a righteous meaning, that is one that conforms to the Father’s dictates; yet, the dandies introduce alternative existential spheres, repeatedly swerving from the straight and narrow path of patriarchy. Then, they resist the strict moral order that polices the individual and frustratingly represses desire in him. Lord Darlington, for example, unashamedly regrets not being more of a rake, as he subverts the notion of failure by resorting to it in an incongruous context: “As a wicked man I am a complete failure” (LWF I, 370). Algernon words a similar credo: “My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree” (IBE II, 572). The plural form gloatingly emphasizes his supposed misconduct, reconfiguring the traditional conception of gentlemanliness as a capacity to curb instinct and urges. In consequence, the symbolic order of the fathers is further destabilized and their authority collapses as the dandy steps on the ruins of patriarchy.

24Admittedly, Wilde was a father of two and so participated in this system of basic perpetuation through generation, with deep ramifications in society. Still, his works bear the mark of a counter-discourse which tends to invalidate heteronormativity, even though it proceeds underhand to remain acceptable on the public scene of late Victorian London, after the Picture of Dorian Gray scandal. In particular, conversation offers countless opportunities to question the conservative approach to gender definition and runs against the attempt by the upper classes to duplicate themselves through the centrifugal institution of marriage.

25Centripetal narcissism, on the other hand, pictures a dandy caught in his own reflection and refusing to contribute to the elaboration of patriarchy. Props like mirrors play a part in this pattern, sartorial elaborateness fits in too, and the dandy’s self-engrossed discourse caps it all. Repartees, witticisms and well-balanced phrasing transmute language into a self-serving image for the speaker. Lord Illingworth’s address to Gerald Arbuthnot is no exception, in which the tribute to Gerald’s youth turns into a scene of intellectual narcissism: “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, 445). Cecil explicitly links this self-centeredness to the rejection of his family, and implicitly connects the condemnation of the family institution to self-identification—with a special mention for the father and his moral system:

I like people to ask me how I am. It shows a widespread interest in my health. Now, tonight I am not at all well. Been dining with my people. Wonder why it is one’s people are always tedious? My father would talk morality after dinner. I told him he was old enough to know better.
(LWF II, 381)

26Conversations create settings for the dandy to pose or utter propositions which sometimes only incidentally bear on the general topic—and at times sound not a little outlandish, since they answer needs postulated on another scene than everyday small talk. His discourse tends to break away from its context of enunciation, flouting the ideology of communication by refusing to contribute to the cohesion of the group.

27In Wilde’s world, men do spend time together, only anecdotally referring to the fair sex in homosocial scenes, typical of the British way of life. Discussions turn to manly topics: politics, money, culture in general, in an overall context congruent with the lifestyle of clubmen, old boys, hunters and politicians alike—not to mention less virile matters introduced by the dandies, fashion and the like:

Gerald: I should like to wear nice things awfully, but I have always been told that a man should not think so much about his clothes.

Lord Illingworth: People nowadays are so absolutely superficial that they don’t understand the philosophy of the superficial. By the way, Gerald, you should learn how to tie your tie better. Sentiment is all very well for the buttonhole. But the essential thing for a necktie is style. A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life. (WNI III, 447)

28In any case, the heterosexual scenario recedes in the background, as if it were only a pretext to let boys be boys amid boys, as illustrated when a whole gang of men stroll from a ballroom to a club before they end up in Lord Darlington’s apartment, talking the night away (LWF III, 396). They all strive to be noticed and appreciated by their fellows. Such a perspective hints at an even more radical approach to masculinity based on a consideration of Wilde’s trials and subsequent condemnation for gross indecency. From this perspective, homosocial conversations come very close to homoerotic gathering, and it only takes a little twist in stage direction to orient meaning. Of course, the all-male casts have become standard productions for The Importance of Being Earnest, and film adaptations with gay icon Rupert Everett for An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest probably impact meaning, too (Pham-Thanh 139–41). Moreover, contrary to typically masculine action and agency, discourse, dress, manners and attitudes cohere into a network of sophisticated effeminacy, before the Wildean scandal encourages a reading in terms of sexual orientation.

29This emphatic mixing of gendered markers indicates that gender is constructed and does not obey biological determination. Then, the dandy’s performance on stage hints at the performative nature of identity in individuals who are iteratively led to act out their gendered identities, but can redirect them by changing the script at will, for instance by embracing generalized Bunburyism. As it has been seen, Wilde conceives of identity as an artifact, like youth, and of appearance or age as a construction, and the corpus reminds the audience that gender is but a discourse. Grand narratives do operate in the plays, but a counter-discourse shows they are sensitive to all sorts of intervention. This is why dandies become activists who denounce the alienation inherent in identity politics. Proponents of evolution rather than revolution, they also lead to emancipation by dramatically displaying the artificiality of their appearance and posture in society, where they remain visible, audible and understandable—their eccentricity can still fit into drawing-room conversation and yet give a complex spin to norms of identity and gender. However, Wilde apparently does not forsake the logic of androcentrism, as he embarrassingly distributes the central parts to males, who significantly may be what he thinks he is, or what the world thinks him or what he would like to be in other ages, perhaps—in accord with the playwright’s own analysis of the leading male characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

30Still, this conclusion should be put in perspective, as Wildean women too will make quite a show of themselves. In addition, the audience cannot help but feel sympathy or admiration for some of them, who can jar even more with social expectations or conventional representation. Such is the case with Mrs Erlynne (LWF), Mrs Allonby (WNI), Mrs Cheveley (IH), Cecily Cardew, Gwendolen Fairfax—and possibly Lady Bracknell herself (IBE), thanks to Wilde’s artistic handling of situations and dialogue with a view to gender reshuffling.

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Works by Oscar Wilde

Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893).

An Ideal Husband (1895), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

Collected Works of Oscar Wilde, Ware, Wordsworth Editions, 1997, 954 p.

Works on Oscar Wilde

Gide André, Oscar Wilde: In Memoriam (1903), Paris, Mercure de France, 1989, 75 p.

Holland Vyvyan, Oscar Wilde and His World, London, Thames & Hudson, 1966, 144 p.

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

Pham-Thanh Gilbert, «Corps et corpus théâtral wildiens: redondance, ruptures et reconfigurations», Coup de théâtre, no23, 2009, p. 131–142.

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Gilbert Pham-Thanh, « Dandiacal Conversation in Oscar Wilde’s Comedies of Manners: Conventions, Conversions and Reconfigurations of Phallogocentrism »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 72 Automne | 2010, 37-52.

Référence électronique

Gilbert Pham-Thanh, « Dandiacal Conversation in Oscar Wilde’s Comedies of Manners: Conventions, Conversions and Reconfigurations of Phallogocentrism »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 72 Automne | 2010, mis en ligne le 21 juin 2016, consulté le 24 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Gilbert Pham-Thanh

Université Paris-Nord.
Gilbert PHAM-THANH is maître de conférences at Paris XIII University. He defended a thesis entitled Du dandysme en Angleterre au XIXe siècle et de ses répercussions en France, and is currently exploring new aspects of dandyism, manners, elegance, aestheticism and masculinities studies in XIXth century fiction. He is also a member of Société Française d’Études Victoriennes et Édouardiennes.

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