An Analysis of the Functioning of Types of Discourse in Selected Works by Oscar Wilde

Patrick Mooney
English 150


Characters in Oscar Wilde's works share a set of very specific beliefs about language and the degree to which it is related to truth. More specifically, those of Wilde's plays that were first published or performed between 1892 and 1896 and that contain written discourse[1] exhibit a disjunction in social expectations of the manner in which different types of language acts will operate; these distinctions between different types of discourse hold up with remarkable consistency across those works. [2] These consistent divisions between types of language exhibit themselves with particular clarity when the different kinds of discourse are ranked according to their expected relation to truth – that is, when they are ranked according to the degree of truth that social convention expects from each type of discourse.

When the category discourse is divided into component types, it becomes apparent that a much higher degree of truth is expected from written than from oral communication. Instances of written discourse (which, in the plays to be considered, includes journals, bank-books, telegrams, newspaper articles, a novel, and – especially – letters) often occupy peculiar places in Wilde's works. In some cases, the texts themselves constitute a problem that must be resolved; this is true, for instance, of Sir Robert Chiltern's letter to Baron Arnheim in An Ideal Husband and of the letter in Lady Windermere's Fan in which Lady Windermere tells her husband that she is leaving him for Lord Darlington. In other cases, this social expectation of extreme truth is emphasized less, but is still present, and underlies the text in ways that make other dramatic occurrences possible. An incident in The Importance of Being Earnest provides a perfect illustration: when Gwendolen and Cecily show each other their diaries as proof that they are engaged to the same fictitious character, Gwendolyn says, I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train (346). The humor in this statement is predicated upon Gwendolen's implicit assertion that her diary is, in fact, sensational, and that her life must also be sensational by extension. It is only possible for Cecily (and the audience) to make this inference (that is, to understand the statement fully) if she assumes that Gwendolen's diary, a written text, is an accurate representation of her life. This social expectation of truth from written texts, whether it constitutes a problem for characters or simply underlies the action of the plays, is consistent throughout the plays under consideration and, to a large degree, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, although Dorian Gray does not fit quite as neatly into this schema. [3]

Besides the distinction between written and oral discourse, it is possible to further divide the discourse in Wilde's plays (and, to a large extent, in Dorian Gray) into public and private discourse, and to show that, alongside the division of the discursive field into written and oral categories, there is a further division between public and private. This second division is just as important as the first. In each case, private discourse is privileged in its relation to truth over public discourse. (These terms are used in an intuitive sense, but their meaning will be further clarified later in the discussion.) Furthermore, the distinction in truth-value between public and private discourse can be made as neatly as the distinction between oral and written discourse.

Overall, the distinction between types of discourse is important because it significantly illuminates the structure of language-usage in these works. This increased understanding of the manner in which the characters view language, in turn, illuminates the motivations of the characters in these works and the dramatic structure of the works themselves in interesting ways.

Types of Discourse in Wilde's Works: Terminological and Methodological Clarifications

That it is possible to rank the social expectations of truth in different types of discourse in these works can be seen from a close examination of the different types of discourse that occur in these works. The discursive field – the totality of linguistic acts in which the characters in Wilde's works engage – can be divided neatly into sections by categorizing language according to whether it is oral or written and according to whether it is public or private. Once discursive acts have been grouped in this manner, an examination of the social expectations that characters have of these acts will allow a hierarchical ranking of their expected relation to truth.

The terminology used to divide this discursive field requires some explanation. The difference between oral and written discourse is intuitive and, for the most part, clear-cut, and requires no definition. (Those few problems that appear to arise in dividing oral from written discourse in the case of some unusual discursive events will be addressed later in this discussion.) The distinction between public and private requires some examination, however, as these words are somewhat more ambiguous. Public discourse does not here refer exclusively to public speaking or other linguistic acts that are directly and intentionally addressed to a group. The term is used here to refer generally to discourse that is, or might be, accessible to others – conversations that might be overheard, or writings that are structured as accessible to more than one individual. Public discourse also includes linguistic acts that occur without specific effort taken to prevent exposure to others. The division depends essentially on the degree to which a character attempts to ensure that a language act does, in fact, remain private. Examples of public discourse in the works under consideration include newspaper articles, conversations in social settings, and Sir Robert Chiltern's speech to Parliament condemning the Argentine Canal Company's scheme in An Ideal Husband. Private discourse refers to linguistic acts in situations in which one or more characters involved know, or have good reason to assume, that the linguistic acts that constitute the discourse exist solely between those involved, and in which they structure these linguistic acts as unavailable to others.

It is worth emphasizing that the distinction between public and private discourse is not made on the basis of the audience for which a work is intended. Intentionality is, in its relationship to action, a thorny philosophical problem; the distinction between public and private discourse is, instead, based on the way that characters act to restrict the structure of possibilities that Others who are constructed as outsiders to the discourse may have access to it. To express the distinction more explicitly, the division between public and private discourse is formed by the intersection of, on the one hand, the degree of privacy inherent in the situation in which the discourse occurs, and, on the other hand, the degree to which the characters engaged in the linguistic acts constituting the discourse are careful to exclude outsiders from encountering it.

Examples of private discourse in the works under consideration include private conversations (notable are Sir Chiltern's conversations with Lady Chiltern, Mrs. Cheveley, and Lord Goring about his blackmail) and correspondence (such as Chiltern's letter to Baron Arnheim, which reveals a Cabinet secret), the large majority of Dorian Gray's conversations, the report of the Commissioners on the Argentine Canal Company, and Lord Windermere's private bank-book.

Dividing the totality of discursive acts into oral and written, and public and private, categories means that there are four general types of discourse in the texts under consideration: oral-public, oral-private, written-public, and written-private. These four types of discourse can be ranked according to their expected relation to truth, from oral-public, which has the most tenuous connection with truth, to written-private, which is assumed to have a privileged connection to truth. As will be seen, this privileged relation of written-private texts to truth is not, in fact, a privileged access to truth (although many characters in the works are themselves confused on this matter), but rather a social expectation that this particular type of discourse is revelatory of truth in a fundamental way.

The Hierarchical Structure of Discursive Types: Oral Discourse

Of these four discursive types, the smallest social expectation of truth is attached to oral-public discourse: Essentially, no truth is expected from these linguistic acts. This claim is not simply an observation that characters often lie when they engage in this type of discourse (although examples of dishonesty and equivocation abound in the works under consideration), but rather that statements in this category are normally evaluated according to criteria other than truth. For instance, it is often more important that characters preserve polite social niceties than it is that they speak truthfully. Lady Windermere's failure to respond rudely to Mrs. Erlynne in Act II of Lady Windermere's Fan provides an example of a social expectation structuring a character's action. In this case, social convention prevents Lady Windermere from speaking (or acting) in a socially unacceptable way in an oral-public situation despite her strong motive for doing so.

It is also much more important that characters engaged in this type of discourse be witty than that they use language to accurately represent an external state of affairs. This fact underlies most of the conversations in social settings in the works being considered. It is made especially clear by an exchange between Jack and Algernon in Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest:

ALGERNON. All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

JACK. Is that clever?

ALGERNON. It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation in civilised life should be. (Importance 328)

That Algernon considers the phrasing of his epigram more important than its accuracy is apparent in his response to Jack's question: When asked about its value, he addresses the epigram's aesthetic qualities first, then addresses its accuracy almost as an afterthought. Furthermore, Algernon specifically acts to limit the extent to which it is true. The statement's purpose is to entertain, not to be truthful.

In oral-private situations, on the other hand, convention demands a degree of truth from the characters who are communicating, but these characters' expectation of truth is counterbalanced by other social expectations placed on oral discourse in general. As in oral-public discourse, one of the most important of these alternate expectations is the preservation of the social form of politeness. This tension is exhibited in the conversation between Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern in Act II of An Ideal Husband. Goring here speaks of Sir Chiltern's sale of a Cabinet secret as if it were a hypothetical exercise. He is required in this situation to veil the truth in order to satisfy a conflicting set of social expectations: on one hand, honesty to his friend, Lady Chiltern; on the other, an obligation to spare her feelings and to keep her husband's secret.

There is also a tension inherent in the social expectations about the people with whom one may legitimately engage in this type of communication. On one hand, social convention expects that the characters communicating on this level have some degree of prior personal intimacy, which is not an expectation placed on oral-public discourse. (For instance, dandies speak wittily because that is their social role – and dramatic function – qua dandies, even when they are speaking to people with whom they have no extant social ties.) On the other hand, this level of intimacy does not necessarily remain static, but can actually be increased by the discourse whose intimacy it presupposes. The development of Lord Darlington's relationship with Lady Windermere during the course of their two private conversations in Acts I and II of Lady Windermere's Fan provides a representative example. On the surface, these conversations both seem to exhibit characteristics more typical of other types of discourse: The first appears more like an oral-public conversation, while the second seems at first to have the characteristics of a written-private text. A close examination of the actual practices involved in these conversations, however, will show that each belongs firmly in the oral-private category, and exhibits the characteristics appropriate to it. Although Lady Windermere attempts to contextualize the first conversation as a public conversation by telling Parker that she is at home to any one who calls (364), the conversation shares the general characteristics of oral-private discourse: It is truthful to a degree that oral-public communication is not, for instance, and Darlington exhibits a motivational tension between revealing his love for her and preserving requisite social forms. Moreover, the fact that both Lady Windermere and Lord Darlington hesitate in their responses to each other at significant moments in the interaction (Lady Windermere when Parker announces Darlington, Lord Darlington when Lady Windermere asks why he wants her particularly to take him seriously) indicates the presence of this tension that is characteristic of oral-private discourse. In the conversation at the beginning of Act I, Lord Darlington insists to Lady Windermere that the two of them should be great friends (366), a phrase he repeats twice.

This insistence opens up the possibility for Lord Darlington to make a genuine declaration of love in their conversation midway through Act II. The declaration of love in this second conversation appears at first to exhibit the privileged access to truth that will be described as characteristic of written-private discourse. However, Darlington's declaration is not a revelatory linguistic act, as written-private linguistic acts in the works under consideration are, because it actually obscures the idealistic nature of his feelings for Lady Windermere. [4] This development of the level of intimacy between two characters is an example of the tension characteristic of oral-private discourse.

The Hierarchical Structure of Discursive Types: Written-Public Discourse

Written texts shift the expected relation to truth in both public and private discourse so that more truth is expected of each. However, there is still a large gap between the levels of truth expected from these two types of linguistic acts, although the written word is always expected to be closely connected with truth. This is true even in its public form: Much more truth is expected from written-public than from oral-public discourse. As with oral-private discourse, there is often tension involved in this type of linguistic act. Unlike the social tension felt by characters situated between conflicting sets of expectations, however, the tension in written-public language is a dramatic tension created in the perception of the audience. This is exhibited in the way that characters treat newspaper articles, which are the primary example of written-public communication in the works under consideration. Newspaper articles (and other written-public language acts) are always expected to be true, and these texts are often taken as strong supporting proof for a claim. Lord Caversham's deployment of the article about Sir Chiltern's career in order to chastise Lord Goring in Act IV of An Ideal Husband is a perfect example. The difference between what Caversham (and English society as a whole) knows about Sir Chiltern and what the viewer of the play knows about Chiltern, however, creates a dramatic tension for the viewer. Lord Caversham's representation of the article in the Times depicts Chiltern this way:

Most rising of our young statesmen … Brilliant orator. … Unblemished career. … Well-known integrity of character. … Represents what is best in English public life. … Noble contrast to the lax morality so common among foreign politicians. (518; ellipses in original)

There is a tension here between what Goring and the viewer know and what Lord Caversham knows. Ultimately, the newspaper is probably more or less correct in its praise of Chiltern's exercise of statecraft: Given this praise, he has doubtless been, in most matters, a model public servant. However, the article is not informed by his sale of a state secret to Baron Arnheim, an event that would certainly alter its text.

This dramatic tension can be seen even more clearly in the newspaper article describing the inquest after Sibyl Vane's death in Dorian Gray:

INQUEST ON AN ACTRESS.–An inquest was held this morning at the Bell Tavern, Hoxton Road, by Mr. Danby, the District Coroner, on the body of Sibyl Vane, a young actress recently engaged at the Royal Theatre, Holborn. A verdict of death by misadventure was returned. Considerable sympathy was expressed for the mother of the deceased, who was greatly affected during the giving of her own evidence, and that of Dr. Birrell, who had made the post-mortem examination of the deceased. (94)

This newspaper article is, in one sense, true: It portrays an event by accurately explaining certain details relating to it. However, it is not informed by the motivation for Sibyl's suicide, which can be found in the end of her relationship with Dorian (whom the article also does not mention). It accurately presents aspects of a situation, but provides its reader with a distorted, incomplete picture. As with the newspaper article describing Sir Chiltern's career, there is a dramatic tension between what the general public knows about the situation and what a small group of characters (and the viewer) knows about the situation. This partial exhibition of truth under a structure of dramatic tension is characteristic of written-public texts in general.

Written-Private Discourse as Fundamentally Revelatory

Written-private language, finally, is expected to have a fundamental relationship to truth. The social expectation about this type of linguistic act is that these acts are expected to be fundamentally revelatory. [5] The way that characters treat written-private texts demonstrates that these types of linguistic acts are expected to have a basic relationship to truth that is lacking in other types of discourse. Dramatically, these texts are often interpreted as absolute proof of a claim.

Examples of this type of discourse abound in the works under consideration, including Sir Chiltern's letter to Baron Arnheim and Lady Chiltern's letter to Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband, Lord Windermere's private bank-book and Lady Windermere's letter to Lord Windermere informing him that she is leaving him in Lady Windermere's Fan, the report on the Argentine Canal Company in An Ideal Husband, and the letter with which Dorian threatens to blackmail Alan Campbell in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In each of these cases, the contents of the texts are seen as fundamentally truthful – not merely truthful in the sense that they accurately portray an existing state of affairs, as written-public discourse does, but truthful in the more fundamental sense of revealing (etymologically, pulling back a veil from) some aspect of a person's character. Lady Windermere sees her letter to her husband in this light. Arthur has never understood me. When he reads this, he will, she says (Lady Windermere 387). She specifically frames her revelatory discourse to her husband in a written-private form, demonstrating her belief that secrets are most appropriately revealed in this manner. While framing her statement to her husband, she chooses this mode because the subject of the discourse is of a revelatory nature, and she selects the socially appropriate form of expression for this type of communication.

The same is true of the letter with which Dorian threatens to blackmail Alan Campbell. Whatever secret Dorian knows about Alan Campbell, the revelation would be made in a written form. This seems, again, to be an example of the privileged relation to truth that is expected of written discourse, especially written-private discourse. Dorian frames his revelation about Campbell in a format from which absolute and revelatory truth is expected so that he can predispose the person or persons to whom the letter is addressed to grant it the status accorded to this type of discourse. (It is easy to imagine that revealing this secret in another linguistic form would be less damaging to Campbell – the revelation in another form might be perceived simply as gossip, with no real truth to it. In no other form would the linguistic act be as damaging to Campbell and, therefore, the threat to reveal this secret in any other manner would be less threatening to him.)

It is especially noteworthy that Dorian even makes his threat to blackmail Campbell in writing, although he and Dorian are already involved in a private (oral) conversation. This explicit shift in the mode of conversation, though Alan and Dorian are completely alone, is strong evidence that there are certain types of statements (those that are revelatory in the specific etymological sense) that can only be made in this medium. Whatever Campbell's secret may be, it is fundamentally unspeakable – even for the totalizing narrative voice of the novel. This is apparent from the fact that Dorian switches from oral to written discourse in order to write the note to Campbell, then switches back to oral discourse after Campbell has read it (Dorian Gray 125). This switch not only grabs the reader's attention as a shift that would be unusual in everyday life, but also is unique among the works under consideration. Although there are a (very) few situations in these works involving both oral and written discourse, this is the only conversation that changes its form completely from oral to written, or vice-versa, however briefly, in any of the works under consideration. The situations involving both oral and written discourse (at the beginning of Act IV of An Ideal Husband, for instance, when Lord Caversham reads an article about Sir Chiltern's career aloud) bring one form of discourse to bear on another in an attempt to make the discourse have some of the qualities of another form. In other words, the other instances of multiform linguistic interactions attempt to create linguistic situations that bridge a gap between various forms of discourse. In this case, however, the communication changes abruptly from one form to another in order to communicate something (a secret) that is inappropriate in the other form (which is defined, in part, by social expectations that exhibit a tension with the situational and communicative necessity to reveal fundamental truth). In the first discursive mode, that of oral-private discourse, the discussion is about the practical necessities of disposing of a dead body. The conversation briefly switches to the written-private form to become revelatory, then switches back to the oral-private form to discuss practical necessities (125). This abrupt switch from one type of discourse to another, and the almost immediate and equally abrupt switch back, is one of the clearest indications that characters not only expect radically different things from different types of discourse, but also that they are obligated to match the form of a language-act to an appropriate discursive form based on the act's content.

The report on the Argentine Canal Company in An Ideal Husband is similar in type to these two letters: It makes clear something that had been hidden from the general public; it pulls back a veil from the fact that the Company is, as Sir Chiltern puts it, a commonplace Stock Exchange swindle (472). This report is thus revelatory in the specific etymological sense. It is also influential, as Chiltern makes clear to Mrs. Cheveley: The success of the Canal depends […] on the attitude of England, and I am going to lay the report of the Commissioners before the House to-morrow night, he tells her (473). This close link between the text itself and the effect that it will have on English public opinion is further evidence that the text will be seen as fundamentally indicative of the truth. As with Dorian's and Lady Windermere's letters, the written-private report on the Argentine Canal Company not only accurately reflects an external state of affairs but, by virtue of its format, creates an expectation of truth in those people to whom it is accessible. [6]

Clarifications of Problematic Linguistic Events: Multiform Linguistic Events

A very few examples exist in which a linguistic act is converted from one form to another. At first, it may seem that these discourses exist simultaneously in multiple forms, and therefore transcend the linguistic division outlined above. Ultimately, however, these discursive acts fail to obliterate the distinction between oral and written discourse; instead, they tend to decay into two separate linguistic acts, each existing on a separate part of the discursive field. The few examples of a linguistic act crossing between the oral and written sides of the field occur when a written text is read aloud or, conversely, when a statement is written down. Lord Caversham's oral reading of a newspaper article (quoted above) in Act IV of An Ideal Husband provides an example. In this case, the newspaper article exists first as a written document; it is then converted into a piece of spoken language. The reading of the article creates a new linguistic event that is only partially related to the old, written event from which the new event originates, as demonstrated by the ellipses in the text of Caversham's reading. The new linguistic event is only partially based upon – and partially related to – the prior one: Rather, the new, oral event is a distillation, or abstract, of the prior, written event. The events contain some of the same information, but the written text is more complete and has the characteristics of written-public discourse (it is seen as evidentiary by Lord Caversham, who cites to it as support for his evaluation of Sir Chiltern), while the oral text contains only some of the information that the written text contains (it is less accurate, less true) and is not seen as authoritative (none of the characters on stage at the time is likely to take Caversham seriously, especially his son).

An example of a linguistic event crossing in the other direction occurs in an interaction between Cecily and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. In Act II, Cecily is frustrated at one point while copying Algernon's remarks into her diary because, as she says, I don't know how to spell a cough (341) – that is, she cannot convert a common attribute of one type of discourse into the form of another discursive type. The difficulty of recontextualization evidenced both by Caversham's reading aloud and by Cecily's transcription is characteristic of linguistic acts that move from one part of the discursive field to another in the works under consideration: Ultimately, the events do not move between or exist in more than one place at the same time, but rather create new events in another part of the field.

Conclusion: Problematization of Written Discourse

In fact, the revelatory power of written discourse extends further than so far discussed: Written texts not only reveal individual secrets, but also function to group together (by mere metonymic association) characters with questionable or problematic morals. This is most easily seen in a closer examination of written-private discourse, but is characteristic of written-public discourse as well. Ultimately, only individuals with problematic character flaws are ever closely associated with written texts at all.

The letter from Lady Windermere to Lord Windermere and the letter with which Dorian threatens to blackmail Campbell have already been cited as examples of written-private discourse and used to examine some features of this type of linguistic act. In fact, although these instances of this type of discourse are useful introductions to the general features of the way in which written-private language operates, they operate in an atypically simple manner. In these cases, a character makes a (conscious or unconscious) choice to frame the discourse in the written-private manner in order to take advantage of the social presupposition of revelatory truth attached to this type of linguistic act.

A more typical mode of operation for written-private texts can be seen in Sir Robert Chiltern's letter to Baron Arnheim, Lord Windermere's private bank-book, and Lady Chiltern's letter to Lord Goring. This representative type of written-private text operates in a different – and more complex – manner than the letters discussed above, which specifically frame linguistic acts as written-private in order to take advantage of the socio-psychological supposition that written-private texts are revelatory. These more common texts are written and exist on their own for a set of reasons that are, in fact, revelatory, but are later problematized because they are taken as revelatory for reasons different from the reasons for which they were originally written. Lord Windermere's private bank-book is a simple example of this complex disjunction of revelatory meanings. On one level, the text is written in order to keep a record of Lord Windermere's bank balance. It is thus revelatory in the sense in which the word has been used in this discussion – it un-hides a numerical fact that is not accessible to the general public – but this is a rather trivial revelation with which the action of the play is not particularly concerned. (The audience is unlikely to harbor more than minimal curiosity about Windermere's exact bank balance.) On another level, however, the text is revelatory of his relationship with Mrs. Erlynne, which he had kept hidden from his wife, and it is this revelation that the play problematizes.

Lady Chiltern's letter to Lord Goring is similar in structure, although it operates in a different manner. After finding out her husband's secret, Lady Chiltern writes to Lord Goring, saying, I want you. I trust you. I am coming to you. Gertrude (Ideal Husband 502). Here, Lady Chiltern intends only to reveal her need for friendly assistance, which Lord Goring has previously offered to her (490). Mrs. Cheveley, however, (incorrectly) sees the text as revelatory of an affair between Lady Chiltern and Goring. The dramatic problem lies in the false revelation of this supposed affair.

Chiltern's letter to Arnheim is also an excellent (although more complex) example of this disjunction between two revelations made by a single text: He writes it to inform the Baron of a Cabinet secret. This is, of course, a revelatory use of language: The Cabinet secret is something that is veiled, and Chiltern's private letter draws the veil back so that Arnheim, a stock exchange speculator, can have access to and take advantage of private information. The letter is later problematized, however, because it is taken as revelatory of something more fundamental to the action of the play than the stock exchange secret itself. [7] The play is much more dramatically concerned with – is much more about – Sir Chiltern's character as an individual, his ideological beliefs, [8] and his ethical character than it is with the operational minutiae of Cabinet members. For this reason, the letter as revelatory of the character and actions of Sir Robert Chiltern is more important to the thrust of the play than is the letter as revelatory of a stock exchange secret, and it is this aspect of the revelatory nature of the letter that is problematized.

All of the problematic written-private texts, whether they employ the written-private form of language in order to lend credence to themselves or are problematized on the basis of further possible revelations, are problematic in one of two specific ways: They either reveal aspects of an individual that he or she has attempted to keep veiled, or they falsely construct an individual as having characteristics that the text reveals. They are construed as evidence by characters other than the author of the text, are put into situations that the authors did not foresee, and are brought back to haunt a character long after they were written.

It is this social assumption that written-private texts are fundamentally true in the revelatory sense that makes them so useful as tokens in power-struggles between characters. The fact that Chiltern's letter to Baron Arnheim is unquestionably true makes it powerful. In this case, Chiltern's fear that the letter may be made public is based on the possibility that the normal boundaries between discursive types may be ruptured. If publicized, it is not the Cabinet secret itself that would constitute an interesting revelation; what was a revelation at the time the letter was written is now a matter of historical record. The threat posed by the letter at the time of the play's action is the threat of a revelation to the general public of the worst of Sir Chiltern's past actions. It is this potential rupture of the normal division between types of discourse that inspires Chiltern with such dread about the possibility that the letter will be publicized.

In fact, all of these written-private texts are metonymically connected with personal corruption or a character flaw of some sort; this is primarily what they reveal. It is one of the primary reasons these texts are of dramatic significance. Sir Robert Chiltern's letter to Baron Arnheim is portrayed as a reprehensible act in itself by the play. Lady Chiltern's letter to Lord Goring is not itself an ethical infraction, but is written by an individual whose character is problematized by the play. [9] Lord Windermere, who keeps the private bank-book, is dishonest to his wife about his relations with Mrs. Erlynne, although he is not (as she believes throughout the majority of the play) engaged in an affair with her. Mrs. Erlynne, a fallen woman and unscrupulous blackmailer, manipulates the movements of Lady Windermere's letter to her husband throughout the majority of the play.

Written-public discourse is also exclusively associated with individuals who have character flaws. Mrs. Cheveley writes notes back and forth to Chiltern throughout the course of An Ideal Husband. Characters who are essentially trivial are constantly presenting cards and writing written-public letters to each other throughout the works in consideration, in fact. (This category of trivial characters presenting written texts to each other accounts for the vast majority of the writing in A Woman of No Importance, for instance.)

This may seem purely coincidental, but is in fact systematic. Non-problematic characters consistently and conspicuously avoid the written texts in the plays. The most dramatic example is Lord Goring, who serves as a moral anchor in An Ideal Husband. He is associated with only two pieces of writing in the play, and both of these only briefly. He holds Lady Chiltern's letter to him only long enough to read it; throughout the rest of the play, it is metonymically associated more closely with Mrs. Cheveley and with the Chilterns, who have already been shown to be ethically problematic (502). Even more persuasive is his second contact with a piece of writing: On obtaining Sir Chiltern's compromising letter to Baron Arnheim from Mrs. Cheveley, Goring immediately burns it (515). It is destroyed the very moment that he comes into contact with it.

Even more compelling than the examination of Goring's contacts with writing is the development of the character of Dorian Gray, which closely parallels his association with written texts. The beginning of the novel types Dorian as particularly innocent. Both Basil and Lord Henry see him this way. He undergoes a process of moral corruption as the novel goes on, however, and this increasing corruption develops alongside his increasing proclivity for written texts. In the early chapters of the novel, he is never portrayed reading or writing at all. Once he realizes that the picture has disassociated him from the consequences of his actions, however, the novel shows him sending and receiving notes and cards, reading novels, and using a letter to blackmail Alan Campbell. The sweeping arc of his moral decline closely parallels his progress as a consumer and producer of texts.

This association of moral corruption with written texts can be explained by examining the role that written texts play in Wilde's works: They are dramatically useful because they stabilize and provide a record of a person's interior life – they are revelatory in the etymological sense. Those few characters who are not ethically problematized by the play, such as Goring and the early Dorian Gray, represent themselves as they genuinely are. In the early Dorian's case, this is because he is essentially naive; he has nothing to hide. In Goring's case, on the other hand, this is because he genuinely is morally irreproachable; although Goring himself admits to the possibility of performing an action for which he could deserve moral censure, [10] the play in fact depicts no such act during the time in which it is set or his past. In neither case is there a dramatic necessity for a revelatory text: There is no veil to draw back – and no written text to do so – because there is nothing that is veiled, i.e. nomoral internal/external split.

For this reason, neither of these characters is motivated to read or write. The social expectations of the various discursive types do not require that either character produce a written text to advance the plot of their respective stories. Instead, they stand outside the class of those for whom written, and especially written-private, texts have anything to reveal.

End Notes

[1] The word discourse is used very generally in this discussion to mean any act of speech or writing, whether it is intended to be used as a means of communication between characters in a play, to soliloquize, or simply to create a written record.

[2] The plays under consideration are Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Although Salomé was first published during this period, it includes no written texts and, for this reason, falls outside the range of works to be considered in this discussion. The Picture of Dorian Gray also fits well – though not perfectly – into this conceptual structure, as will be discussed later.

[3] Dorian Gray exhibits socio-psychological expectations of the various types of discourse that are very similar to the expectations that will be found in the examination of the plays. For this reason, it provides additional examples of how different types of discourse function. However, Dorian Gray exhibits a blurring of the distinction between the discursive types that will be described as oral-private and written-private discourse, which are radically separate in the plays. This does not mean that there is no difference between these two types of discourse in the novel; in the large majority of cases, oral-public and oral-private discourse have the same characteristics that these types of discourse have in the dramatic works. There are, for instance, occasions in which Dorian engages in oral-private linguistic acts that exhibit a certain revelatory character, which belongs exclusively to written-private discourse in the plays. (This is true, for example, when Dorian reveals to Alan Campbell that he killed Basil Hallward.) Overall, however, the linguistic divisions in Dorian Gray can be drawn almost as neatly as the linguistic distinctions in the plays. Public discourse always operates in the same manner, for instance.

There are two factors to which this (comparatively) minor difference in the operation of discourse in the novel can be attributed. Besides being a slightly earlier work. Dorian Gray is, in fact, a novel, which implies a number of structural differences from a play. In a novel, a narrator directly addresses a reader. In a play, characters directly address each other. Even soliloquies in the dramatic works under consideration are not really direct addresses to the audience, but rather dramatic devices by which a character externalizes something happening internally in a character. This is true, for example, when Lord Goring soliloquizes upon receiving a letter from Lady Chiltern at the beginning of Act III of An Ideal Husband (502). In Dorian Gray, on the other hand, the unifying, novelistic narrative structure often usurps the revelatory power that, in the plays, belongs to texts written by the characters themselves. Whether Dorian tells Campbell that he has murdered Basil Hallward orally or in writing is fundamentally irrelevant, as the revelation has already been made by the narrative voice of the novel and Dorian's confession is a mere iteration of this earlier speech act, which is no longer revelatory. This occasional usurpation of the revelatory power of written texts by the narrative voice itself is the primary reason why the distinction between the two types of private discourse is clouded in Dorian Gray.

[4] In fact, Lord Darlington is a romantic idealist who prefers to admire Lady Windermere from a distance. This is apparent when several pieces of textual evidence are examined. For instance, in his conversation in Act III with Dumby, Lord Windermere, Lord Lorton, and Cecil Graham, Darlington strongly distinguishes between the ideal and the real. His statement [We] are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars (Lady Windermere 396) is most clearly read as a statement contrasting a distant, unreachable Idea (in the Platonic sense) with the banal world of crumpets, the Stock Exchange, carnality, etc. More directly, Lord Darlington makes an explicit statement that shows that he is in love with the Ideal Lady Windermere, and with her virtue, rather than with the breathing, flesh-and-blood incarnation of that ideal, whom he meets in various contexts in his day-to-day life. On page 396, after admitting that he is in love with a married woman (The woman I love is not free), Darlington says, [She] doesn't love me. She is a good woman, a statement linking his love for her directly to her unavailability.

[5] I specifically use the word revelatory in its etymological sense. The word reveal comes from Latin, via Old French and Old English. The Latin revelare is related to velum, veil, and literally means to pull back the veil from something or, by extension, to render it visible, to un-hide it, to make it clear.

[6] The report to Parliament may seem to be a public text, rather than a private one, and therefore to be an exception to the general distinction between public and private discourse. However, this text is essentially private, although the (private and therefore restricted) audience to which it is accessible – Parliament – is quite large. The text is conceived as a written document expressing the conclusions of a group of commissioners and meant for a select audience. As pointed out earlier, the division between public and private is not made on the basis of the audience for which a piece of work is intended, but rather dependent upon the structure of the possibilities that the discourse may be encountered by Others who are essentially outsiders to the discourse. In the case of this particular text, however, it is likely that a government report is structured in such a way that very few outsiders would be both able (i.e. literate, educated, and informed about the events surrounding the report to a sufficient degree) and willing to read and understand the report. Thus, the report is (intentionally or not) structured in such a way as to ensure a great degree of privacy. It is true that Sir Chiltern makes a speech presenting the report's conclusions, and that an article in the Times reports on Chiltern's speech, but these are separate linguistic acts that, once the report has been made, are no longer revelatory: They are simply iterations (in simplified forms, and conforming to the previously discussed characteristics of their new types of discourse) of a linguistic act that has already occurred in the report itself.

[7] After all, the stock exchange secret is, in essence, a plot device that sets up the play's action. If the play can be said to be about stock exchange secrets at all, this is true only on a rather trivial level.

[8] In one sense, the play is about the conversion of Sir Chiltern from an ideological adherent of Baron Arnheim's philosophy of power, his gospel of gold (485), to the essentially Christian ideological position of Lord Goring, which is based on sympathetic understanding and forgiveness of the failings of others, an absolute moral standard, and honesty in important interpersonal relationships – that is to say, at least approximately, those relationships in which one can legitimately engage in oral-private discursive acts.

[9] Like her husband, Lady Chiltern undergoes a conversion to Goring's Weltanschauung during the course of the play. In her case, her de-conversion is from a rigid Puritanism; in his case, the de-conversion is from Arnheim's philosophy of power.

[10] In his conversation with Lady Chiltern in Act II, he denies that anyone is above temptation: Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing (490).


  1. Wilde, Oscar. An Ideal Husband. The Complete Oscar Wilde. Avenel, New Jersey: Crescent Books, 1995.
  2. ---. The Importance of Being Earnest. The Complete Oscar Wilde. Avenel, New Jersey: Crescent Books, 1995.
  3. ---. Lady Windermere's Fan. The Complete Oscar Wilde. Avenel, New Jersey: Crescent Books, 1995.
  4. ---. The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Complete Oscar Wilde. Avenel, New Jersey: Crescent Books, 1995.
  5. ---. A Woman of No Importance. The Complete Oscar Wilde. Avenel, New Jersey: Crescent Books, 1995.