The Wildean dandy is content with philosophic contemplation. He is afraid of the power that an individual — any individual — is potentially capable of exercising over him. He does not involve himself in the worries of his friends, for worry signals suffering, and the Wildean dandy will do everything possible to avoid suffering. He blocks off any realization that might pain him. He is afraid of his own unacknowledged desires. He is afraid to live the kind of life that so fascinates him. His wit is just one of his means of defence. It is a way of evading the obligation to respond to the demands and individuality of another person.

Our subject is comedy, and it is time to explain why I see a relation between Wilde's fascination with a young Dionysos-Apollo and his kind of comedy. Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this is to take three examples, one from the novel, and two from the plays:

(1) When Sir Thomas says to Lord Henry "I assure you there is no nonsense about the Americans," the latter answers: "How dreadful ! I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect." (40)

(2) In Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), Lord Darlington is eulogizing the woman he loves:

LORD DARLINGTON: This woman has purity and innocence. She has everything we men have lost.

CECIL GRAHAM: My dear fellow, what on earth should we men do going about with purity and innocence ? A carefully thought-out buttonhole is much more effective.

DUMBY: She doesn't really love you then ?

LORD DARLINGTON: No, she does not !

DUMBY: I congratulate you, my dear fellow. In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worse; the last is a real tragedy! [Complete Works, 417]

(3) In The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Miss Prism is cautioning Cecily:

MISS PRISM: I highly disapprove of Mr Ernest Worthing. He is a thoroughly bad young man.

CECILY: I fear he must be. It is the only explanation I can find of his strange attractiveness.

MISS PRISM (rising): Cecily, let me entreat of you not to be led away by whatever superficial qualities this unfortunate young man may possess.

CECILY: Ah ! Believe me, dear Miss Prism, it is only the superficial qualities that last. Man's deeper nature is soon found out. [Complete Works, 356]

One notes that all the speakers have the same kind of humour, and that each of these exchanges has a similar mechanism. In the first example, Lord Henry simply overrides Lord Thomas's opinion. In the second, neither of Lord Darlington's friends shows any interest in the point he is trying to make. In the third, Cecily does not acknowledge Miss Prism's genuine concern. The characters are not even trying to understand one another. The second speaker is picking up a word or phrase employed by the first, and is capping it with an exhibition of his or her cleverness. In each case, the wit overrides the first speaker's intention and meaning. By ignoring this, the second speaker prevents the possibility of an exchange of views.

Wilde's humour is extravagant and paradoxical. It rests on the second speaker's presuming that he or she understands something "better" than the original speaker. His characters escape the obligations of relationship by pronouncing witticisms from imaginary Olympian heights. Dorian Gray prays not to have to suffer the ordinary hurts of life. The essence of Bunburyism is that it allows Jack to escape from reality and indulge in a fantasy-life as Ernest. Wilde's wits all exhibit the same basic attitude as Dorian Gray — and attitude which implies the speaker's identification with an archetypal "god-image."

An archetypal theory of wit stands on the relation it can establish between a particular archetypal image and a comic principle. I have endeavoured to show that the Wildean dandy is an archetypal image, and thus represents a principle which can manifest itself in anyone and at any time. There are moments when we all indulge in a humour similar to Wilde's. The Wildean dandy pursues a particular kind of repartee. But in spite of the possible brilliance of such repartee, there is nothing funny about either the mechanism underlying it, or its implications. It signals an inability to accept the ordinary processes and obligations of life; a conscious fear of aging associated with an unconscious callousness towards the other's individuality and his or her demands. It stems from the author's fear of his own unacknowledged desires. Its principle is evasion. And it rests on Wilde's identification with an archetypal dandy invested with the attributes of both Dionysos and Apollo.


The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. G.B.Foreman. Second edition. London: Collins, 1966.

Last modified 2000