Ornamental Meaning

Just a quick observation, which I didn’t want to forget: some of Wilde’s most important dramatic points hinge on a small ornament.  Ornament has been on my mind a lot in Wilde’s writing as I wrote about plagiarism as a form of it, but it keeps popping up!

In the “The Truth of Masks,” Wilde argues that design has  critical importance to drama, even in “details” such as colors and styles of dress and of items like Ceasar’s blood-stained cloak, Cordelia’s feather, and Othello’s handkerchief.  He disputes the notion that the plot of the play is separate from the staging of it—the costumes contribute to the aesthetic effect and are just as important, and Shakespeare himself gave these items emphasis in his plays, hinging plot points on them—as some points would invariably be lost or wholly contradicted if, for example, a poor character is dressed in rich clothing.  Gender-switching in Shakespeare abounds, and the only mode of signifying this is at times is through appropriate costume.  Wilde also tackles the debate in historically accurate costuming, and comes down on the side of being accurate to the original period, with a bit of leeway to reach the ideals of the artist.

In reading the essay, it occurred to me that Wilde follows this material-ornamental aesthetic in his own work.  In Lady Windermere’s Fan, the climax of the play comes at moment when Mrs. Erlynne claims Lady Windermere’s fan, and consequently her martial indiscretion as her own.  In An Ideal Husband Lord Goring catches Mrs. Cheveley when he places a stolen bracelet in the shape of a serpent on her arm.  In The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack’s identity hinges on the origination of a hand-bag.  In Salome, not only does Salome turn Jokanaan’s body into an ornament by demanding his head (instead of the precious emerald Herod offers which is treated as somehow equivalent) even treats Jokanaan’s body as if it were an ornament itself, “Thy body was a column of ivory set on a silver socket” (604).  The exception seems to be A Woman of No Importance, in which the moral seems to rely on a rejection of the material, represented by Illingworth, for the immaterial in the form of his mother and her pain.  Handwriting figures in at one point, but I’m not sure that has the same importance as well as thing-ness that the other plays have given to objects.

Do these objects have anything in common?  A hand-bag, a fan, and a bracelet (leaving a head aside for the moment) all have accessory functions.  They are all things females would wear, and their primary use is not generally practical, but ornamental, meant to beautify the wearer.  They each can be expensive, but they are not necessarily so (in contrast to a gold brick or a jewel).   However, in the course of the drama each of these ornamental things becomes of practical: to carry a child, to claim responsibility, to catch a criminal.  Interestingly, there is both a practical and symbolic layer to each of these functions: to renounce and claim birthright, to remove sin, and to have sin marked upon one’s self.  Each of these material accessories become spiritual and symbolic accessories.  Wilde is doing something fun here—he puts the material on the same plane as the spiritual, in effect saying, “Look, the beautiful and frivolous can have just as much spiritual and symbolic meaning as anything else.”  It has nothing to do with money, but with beauty.

This is the same aesthetic Wilde preaches in The House Beautiful: “there is nothing in common life too mean, in common things too trivial, to be ennobled by your touch, nothing in life that art cannot raise and sanctify” (925).

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