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The Victorian Age (1830- 1901) is named after the reign of Queen Victoria of England (1837-1901). This was an era of great prosperity for Great Britain; the time when the sun never set on the British Empire because of its vast land claims. This time period also saw the increase in disparity between the very wealth and the very poor. Many technological and scientific discoveries (The Industrial Revolution; Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, 1859) led to rapid change in day to day life and philosophy. Social issues of the 19 th century were the foundation of much Victorian literature, namely Charles Dickens who sought to examine the issues of the under classes.
Oscar Wilde came late into this age of literature, and should be examined in light of the “Late Victorian Period” (1870-1901), in which Victorian values were coming into question. On one hand, this was a time of security for the British Empire regarding the economy and life in the British Isles. However, on the other hand, this was a time when much of the Empire’s colonial subjects were revolting, resulting in bloody wars and massacres abroad.
At home, the issue of the rule of Ireland was cause for great debate. And as the Victorian Era began to fade, so did the richness of its stability. The United States emerged as a worthy industrial competitor and the rise of Bismarck’s Germany offered both military and industrial threats.
The tone of literature changed even more in the 1890s. Optimistic tones continued to decline and earlier Victorian views were questioned. Many artists of this age, like Wilde, were driven by the aesthetic movement, which celebrated art for art’s sake. An example of this changing attitude can be seen in the main themes of The Importance of Being Earnest: the absurdity of the aristocracy, and the triviality of marriage. In 1926 in his work The Romantic Nineties, Richard Le Gallienne stated “[Oscar Wilde] made dying Victorianism laugh at itself, and it may be said to have died of the laughter.”
Source: “The Late Period (1870-1901): Decay of Victorian Values.” The Norton Anthology of
English Literature: The Victorian Age. Vol. 2b Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. New York: Norton, 2000 . 1052-1055.