Friday, November 7, 2014

Was Oscar Wilde Antisemitic?

In my high school AP English class we read Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale.  I read it expecting the teacher to discuss the clear antisemitism (a blood libel) detailed in the plot.

When I came to school the next day, my teacher never mentioned it in her lecture. When I approached her after class, she discouraged any further discussion.

"That's how it was back then," she said. "Do you think we shouldn't read it because of that. It is great literature."

It wasn't that I thought we shouldn't read it. However, it bothered me that she wouldn't challenge the validity of the blood libel and explain how it lead to pogroms and persecution throughout European history to my classmates who already carried some mild prejudice about Jewish people.

I dropped it, but addressed the issue on a test essay.


In The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is a character called Mr. Isaacs. Oscar Wilde portrays him in a classically antisemitic light. I researched the meaning of this character and found an article by American University at Beirut Professor Emeritus  Stephen S. Nassaar titled, "The Problem of the Jewish Manager in The Picture of Dorian Gray."

He states that it is unlikely that Oscar Wilde was antisemitic because his two more supportive friends, before, during, and after his trial were a Jewish couple and no other plays or writings include antisemitism. His theory is that Mr. Isaacs is a parody of a character in another novel:
The most prominent and towering example of the portrayal of the Jewish community in the final decades of the century was Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876). In Daniel Deronda she displayed a warmly sympathetic attitude towards the Jewish community and used it to criticise non-Jewish English society. Wilde disliked Eliot considerably. (Nassaar)
Nassaar explains that just like the entire novel is anti-Victorian, Mr. Isaacs is anti-Eliot. He does accuse Wilde of insensitivity, just not antisemitism. 

Whether or not they agreed with the theory, discussing it in class put the students at ease about the Jewish manager's portrayal. Not because the article exonerated Oscar Wilde on the charge of antisemitism, but rather the topic was important enough to spend 30 minutes talking about in class.  

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