Literary Criticism in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”


“ The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” is a piece written by Oscar Wilde, told in his classic charismatic, half-witty-half-serious style. My first thought was that it was quite tough to pin a genre down on this work; one minute it seemed to be a fable, the next it seemed to be an example of literary criticism and basically how NOT to evaluate a source. Wilde skillfully injected paradox and wit into literary speculation, to the point where even the criticism of the characters that we feel as readers became unstable. As discussed in class, it became clear that many of us wanted the “Willie Hughes Theory” to be true, because it seemed to “fit” so nicely with our thinking. However, this was exactly what Wilde was telling us not to do; he exemplified this through the characters Erskine and the narrator, who are made to look somewhat idiotic in their quest to discover the validity of the theory. This is made clear through the characters’ erroneous methods of searching for truth: they started out with a very firm belief and only accepted evidence that fit in with that belief, discarding the rest. The narrator seems to realize this eventually, commenting: “But the proofs, the links – where were they?  Alas!  I could not find them.  It seemed to me that I was always on the brink of absolute verification, but that I could never really attain to it”. The narrator understands that the “Willie Hughes Theory” is no more than just a theory, and that he will just make himself crazy if he continues to search for evidence; he will still never be sure, and Shakespeare himself would probably be annoyed if someone was overthinking his work and trying to pinpoint the source of his affection. However, both Erskine and Cyril are not so lucky; they both die still harboring their obsessions with W.H.  In any case, this story still remains to be both a lively tale and an important lesson; it’s obviously a reflection of Wilde’s own beliefs and may possibly allude to a particular period in his own life. -MG


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Filed under Week 9 Reviews: Wilde's "Portrait of Mr. W.H," Mallarmé’s “The Windows" and "The Azure”

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