Oscar Wilde’s Objective Correlative

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Wilde’s “objective correlatives”: a reading of properties in Oscar Wilde

By – Asha Jacob (February 2017, Vol.III, Issue.XXV)


Oscar Wilde was a man whose fashion sense and evergreen dressing styles called for a split attention of his audience as they both watched his plays and admired him. Even within his plays, he creates situations wherein he draws the focus of the viewers towards lifeless accessories, which interestingly gains prominence as never before. Felicia J Ruff, in her essay ‘Transgressive Props; or Oscar Wilde’s E(a)rnest Signifier’, hints at Wilde’s use of props as idiosyncratic. She mentions thus:

                                            Despite Wilde’s renown for witty epigrammatic dialogue, few playwrights so deliberately weave physical objects throughout their plays. They appear with double meanings, such as the cigarette in Earnest. They serve, like the muffins consumed in that play, as comic sight gags. They are, too, staple devices of the nineteenth-century “well-made play”: the bracelet in An Ideal Husband is an example… significant props also figure in Wilde’s career: from the cigarette he smoked during the curtain speech of Lady Windermere’s Fan to the infamous Marquess of Queensberry’s insulting visiting card presented at the Albemarle Club. (315)

Wilde, as Felicia J Ruff mentions does pick out materials of everyday use to function as props in plays. These props are used both to evoke laughter and to steer the plot to its climax. Many of these props are significant to the times as well, such as the fan and the handbag. Even food emerges as a major prop on stage. Again as Felicia J Ruff observes, food connects to Wilde’s satire.  For instance, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Gwendolen and Cecily exhibit a typical female quarrel triggered by jealousy by squabbling over the division of cake at the tea table. And as already mentioned food is used on stage in a manner that evokes laughter.  The way in which Algernon gobbles up the muffins after Cecily quarrels with him in act II is one such example.

Wilde, therefore, does not leave the audience a choice to ignore his props as mere embellishments that form the part of the setting. Here, one is forced to give due importance to such trivial things. They are not just used as ornamental properties that are left to be merely fidgeted by the characters. Instead, they gain a role of their own.

  Some of the accessories in Wilde’s plays, however, transcend above and beyond the other props that appear in his plays. In three of his prominent plays, we can see the accessories of men and women emerging as instruments that change the course of the play. In short, they replace live characters. They actually have a significant role and do not merely function as background artifices for aesthetic enhancement.  In his play The Importance of Being Earnest, which was staged in 1895, two such accessories come to the fore: first, the cigarette case and later the more important one, the handbag. Both objects are used for revelations. A whole lot of the play’s farcical comedy is woven out of this bag. The huge ladies’ bag in a way functions as a dues ex machine or an unexpected or unrealistic intervention to rescue and resolve the protagonist’s conflict. In the play, Miss Prism is generally accepted as the dues ex machina. But, the long forgotten bag which jack digs out of his attic leads to his recognition and hence acceptance into the aristocratic society, which was the ultimate necessity of the play at that juncture. So, Oscar Wilde in a way introduces the bag as equally important dues ex machina. Both Miss Prism and the bag actually render the functions of dues ex machina. Such a character usually appears only towards the end of the play and maybe at times just referred to in the course of the play. The bag is first just hinted at in Jack’s conversation with lady Bracknell.  But, in the last scene the identity of the bag suddenly seems to be very important.  Jack rightly words this fact in the play: “Is this the handbag, Miss Prism? Examine it carefully before you speak…” (118). Moreover, one may also notice that all the characters of the play gather together awaiting this “eminent article” with due suspense that fits a usual dues ex machine. Gwendolen in Act III remarks thus while waiting for Jack to reappear: “This suspense is terrible…” (118). The appearance of miss Prism alone does not bring closure. The fact that the bag is given a special entry by Wilde in itself substantiates the point.

Steele and Borrelli in their book Fashion Theory, mention that in the 1840s women often carried small purses which they embroidered with zest in order to posit themselves as worthy maidens to potential husbands. It was however with the advent of railroads in 1843, that the handbags as such were brought to the fore. Now women travelled more by trains than horse carriages and so, carry bags for women had to be designed in such a manner that it could come handy for long distance travels and also suitably fit in for travel by trains. Thus, to a large extent, it was Victorian England that facilitated the birth of handbags alongside the establishment of railways. The making of handbags was also taken up with greater seriousness. It was now crafted by luggage makers, unlike the small purses which were, by and large, the handiworks of the dressmakers. Thus, the handbag like so many others was a Victorian accomplishment. Wilde in a way parodies this in his play.

The cigarette case of Jack also enjoys such prominence in act I. Wilde gives this article the role of exposing Ernest. Here again, the article is given a weighty entry, in that Algernon actually rings a bell to bring in the cigarette case. Jack’s account of his frantic search for the lost cigarette case is also quite noteworthy. He reacts with much more gravity than what a mere lost cigarette case would elicit in Act I: “Do you mean to say that you have had my cigarette case all this time? I wish to goodness you had let me know. I had been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it. I was very nearly offering a large reward.” (8). Cecily’s act of religiously wearing the ring that she herself exchanged with herself in the name of Algernon and her letters to herself also bring about laughter. But, their presence is not as phenomenal as the cigarette case and the handbag. However, their presence within the same play helps in striking the contrast. More importantly, the cigarette case “speaks” of Jack’s true identity.  It also stands as a foil to Jack’s precarious plans.

Felicia J Ruff observes in her essay ‘Transgressive Props; or Oscar Wilde’s E(a)rnest Signifier’, that in The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde uses the cigarette case as a well made play device. Wilde, during the 1890s lavished expensive meals and gifts on rent boys. These gifts were mostly silver, inscribed cigarette cases. So, visual hints were used on stage to convey private allegiances. Hence, this also serves as an example of a private joke.

In Wilde’s play An Ideal Husband, the brooch of Mrs. Cheveley delivers a function similar to that of the cigarette case in The Importance of Being Earnest. In fact it is endowed with a function that is more or less a combination of the handbag and the cigarette case. At a situation where Sir Robert Chiltern is irredeemably trapped with no possible help in view, the spotting of the brooch by Lord Goring may be addressed as the dues ex machine. In Act II Lord Goring and Sir Robert Chiltern seriously discuss about the weapon they could possibly shove against Mrs. Cheveley’s extortion.  Lord Goring mentions about the near impossibility of finding some flaw in her:

SIR ROBERT CHILTERN:  Well, I shall send a cipher telegram to the Embassy at Vienna, to inquire if there is anything known against her. There may be some secret scandal she might be afraid of.

LORD GORING: oh, I should fancy Mrs. Cheveley is one of those modern women of our time who find a new scandal as becoming as a new bonnet…I am sure she adores scandals, and that the sorrow of her life at present is that, she can’t manage to have enough of them. (48)

This hopeless situation is overturned only in the next act when Lord Goring confronts Mrs. Cheveley and questions her regarding the brooch. It is this brooch that was apparently stolen by Mrs. Cheveley that helps Lord Goring to elicit the letter from Mrs. Cheveley which she used to blackmail Sir Robert Chiltern. Thus, the brooch like the cigarette case in The Importance of Being Earnest forms concrete evidence against Mrs. Cheveley. The brooch was a vital Victorian accessory. This was the accessory that gave a final touch to the Victorian attire. Even in the play it is the brooch that helps bring in a closure.

             In the play Lady Windermere’s Fan as the title suggests, the fan acquires a role that transcends the regular function that is usually ascribed to a fan. In the play the fan evolves from a mere thing of beauty to a potential threat to Meg Windermere. If in the above mentioned plays the appearance of the props is what settled the issue at hand, in this play the removal of the fan or in other words, doing away with this threat is finally what results in peace settling down within the play. After having seen Mrs. Erlynne at Darlington’s house at that time of the night, Lord Windermere lost all respect for her. The fact that she was holding his wife’s fan at the time makes him averse to the fan-his own gift to his wife. Later he remarks thus to Mrs. Erlynne:

LORD WINDERMERE:  And as for your blunder in taking my wife’s fan from here and then leaving it about in Darlington’s rooms, it is unpardonable. I can’t bear the sight of it now. I shall never let my wife use it again. The thing is soiled for me. You should have kept it and not brought it back.

MRS. ERLYNNE: I think I shall keep it. It’s extremely pretty. (Takes up fan) I shall ask Margaret to give it to me. (118)

Here, Mrs. Erlynne makes up her mind to remove the fan away from their presence mainly to ease both from the pricks of guilt. If for Lord Windermere the fan would remind him of his folly of having once thought about the possibility of his wife’s infidelity, then for Lady Windermere it stands as a reminder of her reproachable act of attempting to leave her husband on the basis of some trivial suspicion.  One may also note that the fan is ascribed so much prominence in the play that, Wilde presents it as the instrument that triggers off the climax.

Previously, as Andrew Sofer observes in his book Stage Life of Props, the fan was the most actor-dependent for its stage interests. “The fan amplifies the telling gestures that might otherwise be invisible or easily missed” (127), mentions Sofer in the same book. In most plays a prop like the fan served only as an extension of the female character and more often used as a flirtatious device. But, in Lady Windermere’s Fan, the fan serves as a major plot device. The fan as a women’s accessory had emerged as indispensible in the Victorian era. The fan indeed had several connotations as well.  For instance, if a woman would draw it across the cheek it meant “I love you” and if she presented it shut, she is asking the one before her “do you love me?” similarly, letting the fan rest on the right cheek meant a “yes” and resting it on the left meant a “no”. It was in short a medium of gesturing to another person without involving one’s own body directly and subtly conveying messages that was shunned by the Victorian society. The fan acted as an aid to cope with Victorian etiquettes. Even the kind of fan that a woman carried indicated her social status. In short it was an entity that acted as a messenger between two people. Wilde’s representation of it as a potential threat possibly parodies the Victorian prominence that was so lavishly bestowed on the fan.

  The fan, the handbag, the brooch and the cigarette case thus surpass their ordinary functions. Andrew Sofer’s comment regarding the fan that, “the Fan’s stage life depends upon the transcendence if its mundane practical function…” can well be applied to the fan, handbag, the brooch and the cigarette case of Wilde’s plays. The articles used on stage are scarcely portrayed as performing their mundane practical function. Wilde’s props are not supernatural or magical, but they are introduced in such a manner that without them the plot can scarcely proceed.


Primary Sources

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. London: Penguin Group, 1895. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. An Ideal Husband. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1893. Print.

Wide, Oscar. ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other

Plays. London: Signet Classics, 1895. Print.

Secondary Sources

Ruff, Felicia J. ‘Transgressive Props; or Oscar Wilde’s E(a)rnest Signifier’. Wilde  Discoveries:         Traditions, Histories, Archives. Ed. Joseph, Bristow. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. Print.

Sofer, Andrew. The Stage Life of Props. United States: Michigan University Press, 1964 Print.

Steele, Valerie and Laird Borrelli. Fashion Theory. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1999. Print.


Introduction to the Author:

Asha Jacob is a post-graduation student, pursuing her Masters in English Literature at M. G. University (School of Letters), Kottayam, Kerala.

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