Narrative ethical judgments and character design in selected works of Oscar Wilde. A figurative style

Start - End 
2014 - 2018 (ongoing)
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Research Period 
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English literature



On his account of ‘human complexity’ and ‘relativity of ethical judgments’ Wilde writes in The Soul of Man, “[p]ersonality is a very mysterious thing. A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law, and yet be worthless. He may break the law, and yet be fine. He may be bad, without ever doing anything bad” (242). In this statement, Wilde’s argument is that the evidence for one’s affirmation or disaffirmation of the established ethical borders of the society is only one’s visible deeds, whereas the invisible hidden deeds and thoughts can always remain unperceived throughout one’s life. That is why Lord Henry Wotton, the famous talker of The Picture of Dorian Gray, frequently maintains that the “most horrible crimes of the world take place in one’s mind” (cite). Such inaccessibility to the truth results in the relativity of perception and therefore untrustworthiness of ethical judgments- no matter if they are made by intimate small communities like family and friends or society and the legal system that is responsible to monitor the maintenance of the ethical standards of the society[1]. Despite their variety in genre, setting, and atmosphere, the argument of the present study is that The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salome, and The Importance of Being Ernest unanimously aim at depicting this philosophy and invalidating ethical judgments. Although there is a magnitude of thematic discussions on the manifestation of Wilde’s philosophy of truth with its sub-topics such as ethics and aesthetics, morality, hypocrisy, dual lives and Victorian middle-class virtue in his works, how such philosophy is projected in the development of his fictional characters has been largely neglected.

The hypothesis of the present research project is that the above-mentioned philosophy has urged Wilde to establish a “style”- a term growingly associated with him- in the development of many of his fictional characters. To back this argument, I will first adopt a rhetorical approach to explore the underlying pattern of his fictional characters as the narrative progresses, in a selected corpus to be able to establish a coherent style of characterization, referred to as the authorial design by James Phelan. Second, I will benefit from Phelan’s theses on narrative progression and ethical judgments to discuss how this particular character development manipulates the audience’s ethical judgments of these fictional characters in the narrative progression. In particular, the findings of the present research contribute to the Wildean studies by decoding Wilde’s rhetorical techniques in characterization. In large, these findings can contribute to the recent mainstream of scholarly debates on fictional characters’ pivotal role in narrative by highlighting the significance of authorial design as a mediator between fictional characters, narrative world, and the audience. 

Key Words: Oscar Wilde, Narrative ethical judgments, characterization, metonymic mapping, narrative progression, Victorian middle-class virtue, decadence


[1] In the present research, my assumption is that not only society but also legal system concerns over the preservation of ethics due to the fact I am discussing ethics in the late Victorian era whose courts are responsible for the punishment of “sin” as well as “crime”. For instance, despite the fact that “gross indecency” is more a sin than a crime, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor for this at the court.



Phd Student(s)