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Towards an Ethical Aestheticism: Christianity, Christhood and Martyrdom in the Fiction of Oscar Wilde

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posted on 2021-12-08, 18:01 authored by Pope-Mayell, Shey

Oscar Wilde is part of our world. With his dandyish witticisms and decadent demeanour, he continues to serve as a model of subversive grace, an aesthetic beacon drawing his readers towards a lighthouse of beauty, even more than a century after his death. Few would suspect that Wilde’s work should offer any ethical guidance, given the tendency of fin-de-siècle aestheticism to place artistic beauty above ethical concerns. It is the purpose of this thesis to argue otherwise.  The aim of this thesis is twofold. First, it intends to show that Wilde’s fiction, from his early fairy stories to his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is connected by a common interest in Christian ethics. Second, and more ambitiously, it intends to disprove the notion that aestheticism and ethics are irreconcilable. Throughout his work, Wilde develops an image of an aesthetic Jesus Christ, a martyr of beauty. Wilde dedicates much of his fictional oeuvre to illustrating this vision of Christ, usually through martyrdom and the relinquishment of selfhood. In doing so, this thesis argues that he connects artistic beauty with Christian ethics, synthesising an ethical aestheticism, only achievable through self-sacrifice in service of love – the aesthetic ideal.   This kind of aesthetic martyrdom is present throughout Wilde’s fiction, the most commonly cited examples coming from two of his early fairy stories, “The Happy Prince” and “The Nightingale and the Rose” respectively. In these stories, the titular characters work to realise the vision of the aesthetic Christ – what this thesis calls his ‘aesthetic ideal’ – and achieve a higher appreciation of beauty, both bodily and immaterial. Christianity, this thesis finally argues, is the basis for Wilde’s ethical aestheticism and it is Christian ethics that Wilde uses to orientate his readers towards aesthetic Christhood, not with the cold, judging hand of a Victorian preacher but the warm, caring shoulder-pat of an aesthetic father-figure.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

English Literature

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Ferrall, Charles