in 1990. But the voices of Wilde’s brilliant plays continue to be heard until well on in the present century. Indeed, they are still occasionally heard today. It was not the exaggeration that these plays were called the wittiest comedies of the nineteenth century. And it is true that they will have their great fame for many generations.
1. Some notes on style and stylistics.
The word “style” is derived from the Latin word “stylus” which meant a short stick sharp at one end and flat at the other used by the Romans for writing on wax tablets. Now the word “style” has a very broad meaning. We speak of style in architecture, painting, clothes, behaviour, literature, speech, etc. The style of any period is the result of a variety of complex and shifting pressures and influences. The way we think and speak modifies the way we write, or the way other write, influences our thought and speech. There is the constant interaction between life and literature. Books reflect the shape of our experience, but our experience of life is also shaped by the books we read. In every age the major writers help to shape the thinking and feeling, and hence the style, of their contemporaries.
Raymond Chapman, the author of “A Short Way to Better English”, says that “A good style of writing has three qualities, which may be described as accuracy, ease and grace.”7 There are always three influences that will exert their pressure on a writer’s style. One is his own personality, his own way of thinking and feeling that determines his mode of expression. The second is the occasion on which he is writing, the particular purpose that directs his pen at the moment of writing, so that the same man may employ different styles on different occasions. The third is the influence of the age in which he lives. In other words, a writer’s style is his individual and creative choice of the resources of the language. The limitations upon the choice are superimposed by the writer’s period, his genre and his purpose. Since style is something ingrained in writing, it follows that a man’s way of writing will be an expression of his personality and his way of looking at life. This explains the famous and much-quoted definition of style given by Buffon, a French writer and naturalist of the eighteenth century. He wrote: “Le style, c’est l’homme meme.” (“Style, it is the man himself.”)8
Stylistics, sometimes called linguo-stylistics, is a branch of general linguistics. It has now more or less definitely outlined. It deals mainly with two interdependent tasks:
the investigation of the inventory of special language media which by their ontological features secure the desirable effect of the utterance;
certain types of texts (discourse) which due to the choice and arrangement of language means are distinguished by the pragmatic aspect of the communication.
The two objectives of stylistics are clearly discernible as two separate fields of investigation. The inventory of special language media can be analysed and their ontological features revealed if presented in a system in which the co-relation between the media becomes evident.
The types of texts can be analysed if their linguistic components are presented in their interaction, thus, revealing the unbreakable unity and transparency of constructions of a given type. The types of texts that are distinguished by the pragmatic aspect of the communication are called functional styles of language (FS). The special media of language which secure the desirable effect of the utterance are called stylistic devices (SD) and expressive means (EM).*
The first field of investigation, i.e. SDs and EMs, necessarily touches upon such general language problems as the aesthetic function of language, synonymous ways of rendering one and the same idea, emotional colouring in language, the interrelation between language and thought, the individual manner of an author in making use of language and a number of other issues.
The second field, i.e. functional styles, cannot avoid discussion of such most general linguistic issues as oral and written varieties of language, the notion of literary language, the constituents of texts larger than the sentence, the generative aspect of literary texts and some others.
In dealing with the objectives of stylistics, certain pronouncements of adjacent disciplines such as theory of information, literature, logic and to some extent statistics must be touched upon. This is indispensable; for nowadays no science is entirely isolated from other domains of human knowledge. The linguistics, particularly its branch stylistics, cannot avoid references to the above mentioned disciplines because it is confronted with certain overlapping issues.
In linguistics there are different terms to denote particular means by which utterances are foregrounded, i.e. made more conspicuous, more effective and therefore imparting some additional information. They are called expressive means, stylistic devices, tropes, figures of speech and other names. All these terms are used indiscriminately and are set against those means which we shall conventionally call neutral. Most linguists distinguish ordinary semantic and stylistic differences in meaning. They distinguish three main levels of expressive means and stylistic devices: phonetic, lexical and syntactical.
Phonetic expressive means and stylistic devices. As it is clear from the title, the stylistic use of phonemes and their graphical representation is viewed here. The stylistic approach to the utterance is not confined to its structure and sense. There is another thing to be taken into account which plays an important role. This is the way a word, a phrase or a sentence sounds. The sound of most words taken separately will have little or no aesthetic value. It is in combination with other words that a word may acquire a desired phonetic effect. The way a separate word sounds may produce a certain euphonic impression, but this is a matter of individual perception and feeling and therefore subjective.
Lexical expressive means and stylistic devices. The main function of the word is to denote. Thus, the denotational meaning is the major semantic characteristic of the word. The words in context may acquire additional lexical meanings not fixed in dictionaries. What is known in linguistics as “transferred meaning” is particularly the interrelation between two types of lexical meaning: dictionary and contextual. When the deviation from the acknowledged meaning is carried to a degree that it causes an unexpected turn in the recognised logical meanings, we register a stylistic device.
Syntactical expressive means and stylistic devices. Stylistic study of the syntax begins with the study of the length and the structure of the sentence. Stylistic syntactical patterns may be viewed as variants of the general syntactical models of the language and are the more obvious and conspicuous if presented not as isolated elements or accidental usage, but as group easily observable and lending themselves to generalisation.
This brief outline of the most characteristic features of the language styles and their variants will show that out of the number of features which are easily discernible in each of the styles, some should be considered primary and others secondary; some obligatory, others optional; some constant, others transitory.
I think that the most important and interesting is lexical level.
It includes more bright and vivid units of the language.
2. Lexical expressive means and stylistic devices.
Each art has its own medium, i.e. its own material substance. Colours are the material substance of painting, sounds-the material substance of music. It is the language that is the material substance of literature. But language consists of colours and sounds due to the existence of expressive means and stylistic devices.
Language is capable of transmitting practically any kind of information. It has names for all things, phenomena and relations of objective reality. It is so close to life that an illusion of their almost complete identity is created, for man lives, works and thinks in the medium of language. His behaviour finds an important means of expression primarily in language. In the present chapter we shall try to analyse some lexical expressive means and stylistic devices used by Oscar Wilde in his plays.
EPIGRAM and PARADOX.
The majority critics of the nineteenth century agree that Wilde is the most paradoxical writer of his time.
According to professor Sosnovskaya V.B., paradox based on contrast, being a statement contradictory to what is accepted as a self-evident or proverbial truth.9
The appeal of paradox lies in the fact that, however contradictory it may seem to be to the accepted maxim, it contains nevertheless, a certain grain of truth, which makes it an excellent vehicle of satire. Indeed, it is a device much favoured by many English and American satirists. Paradox can be considered a figure of speech with certain reservations, since the aesthetic principle, that underlies it, i.e. contrast has divers linguistic manifestations.
According to professor Galperin I.R., epigram is a stylistic device akin to a proverb, the only difference being that epigrams are coined by individuals whose names we know, while proverbs are the coinage of the people. In other words, we are always aware of the parentage of an epigram and therefore, when using one, we usually make a reference to its author.10
Epigrams and paradoxes as stylistic devices are used for creating generalised images. Usually it is the Present Indefinite Tense. This form of the verb makes paradoxes and epigrams abstract.
e.g. “Men marry because they are tired,
women because they are curious.
Both are disappointed.” (p.138).11
“Nothing spoils a romance so much as
a sense of humour in the woman”. (p.108).
“Ideals are dangerous things,
realities are better. They wound,
but they are better.” (p.85).
“Women are pictures,
Men are problems.” (p.138).
In Wilde’s paradoxes and epigrams the verb “to be” is widely used. This verb intensifies the genetic function and makes aphorisms and paradoxes humorous. It makes also the ironical definition of phenomena of life.
e.g. “Curious thing, plain women are always jealous
of their husbands,
beautiful women never are.”(p.108).
“The men are all dowdies and the women
are all dandies.” (p.186).
“A man who moralises is usually a hypocrite,
and a woman who moralises is invariably
Another means which helps to create the generalisation is the choice of words. Wilde often resorts to the use of some abstract notions, concrete notions are rare.
e.g. “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit ;
touch it and the bloom is gone.” (p.296).
“Duty is what one expects from others,
it is not what one does himself.” (p.131).
“Life is terrible. It rules us,
we do not rule it.” (p.75).
“Experience is a question of instinct
All kinds of works – intensifiers, such as “Never, always, often” are used by Oscar Wilde for creating the abstractness and generalisation.
e.g. “Questions are never indiscreet.
Answers sometimes are.” (p. 180)
“Beautiful women never have time. They are
always so occupied in being jealous of other
people’s husbands.” (p.108)
“All men are married women’s property” (p.114)
“The clever people never listen and the stupid
people never talk.”(p.109)
For creating the abstractness Wilde also uses such words as “men, women, people, we, one”, etc.
e.g. “One should never trust a woman who tells one
her real age” (p.110).
“We men know life too early. And we women
know life too late. That is the difference between
men and women” (p.165).
“People are either hunting for husbands, or hiding
from them” (p.181).
One of the most characteristic and essential features of epigrams and paradoxes is their shortness and conciseness. They are achieved by the syntactical pattern of an epigram or paradox. The syntax of these stylistic devices is laconic and clear – cut.
e.g. “Men become old, but they never become good”
“Do not use bid words. They mean so little”
In these examples we can see the parallel constructions widely used by Oscar Wilde. They serve a perfect means of creating the clear-cut syntax of epigrams and paradoxes.
Another peculiarity of Wilde’s epigrams and paradoxes is his use of such construction as “that is the difference…”
e.g. “Cecil Graham: Oh, wicked women bother one. Good
women bore one. That is the difference between them”
“Lord Illingworth: we men know life too early.
Mrs. Arbuthnot: And we women know life too late. That
is the difference between men and women” (p.165).
This phrase “That is the difference…” seems to sum up the whole epigram or paradox. With the help of this phrase Oscar Wilde tries to show how great the difference is between the two objects or phenomena compared. Some of Wilde’s paradoxes and epigrams are formed with the help of contextual antonyms and contrasting pairs:
e.g. “The body is born young and grows old. That is life’s
tragedy. The soul is born old but grows young. That is
the comedy of life” (p.111).
“Men become old, but they never become good” (p.33).
One of the most important functions of epigrams and paradoxes is that of speech characterisation. But Wilde’s epigrams and paradoxes have another important function also. It is the showing of bourgeois morality. With the help of his epigrams and paradoxes the author shows us his characters, their way of life, manners, their thoughts and the bourgeois society of his time.
In these four Wilde’s plays there is a group of people such as Lady Bracknell, Mrs.Cheveley, Lord Illingworth and others , whose behaviour and way of life give us a clear picture of the upper-class society. These very people with their paradoxes and epigrams open their thoughts and feelings.
e.g. “A man who allows himself to be convinced by an argument is a
thoroughly unreasonable person”(p.185).
“The world was made for men and not for women”(p.100).
We can see the corruptibility of the ruling classes, their mean, shallow spirited interests, and their intrigues against each other. At first sight they seem to be real gentlemen and ladies. But in fact they are spoiled people who try to achieve their aims, however bad and selfish they sometimes may be, at all costs.
e.g. “Sir Robert Chiltern: Every man of ambition has to fight his
century with its own weapons. What this century worships is
wealth. The God of this century is wealth.”(206).
It is evident what weapons Sir R.Chiltern means. It is money and the way it is earned by is unimportant. The way of earning money may be different: bribery, blackmail, forgery and other immoral actions. Once Sir Chiltern achieved his aims at the cost of his honour-he sold the secrete information. He had not any regret for what he had done. He said that he had fought the century with his own weapon and won. And when his misdemeanour was revealed, he tried to save himself.
Another “immoralist” of the English society is Mrs.Cheveley.
e.g. “Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, every one has
to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other
seven deadly virtues”(p.192).
“People are either hunting for husbands or hiding from
She also had achieved her aims by the immoral actions: bribery and blackmail.
Most of Wilde’s characters are true representatives of their society. They are Lord Darlington, Lady Bracknell and especially Lord Illingworth, a person with cynical attitude towards everything in the world, who does not value the sincere human relations, to whom love, friendship ,faithfulness mean nothing. This can be clearly seen from some of his remarks.
e.g. “Women love us for our defects”(p.142).
“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that
every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”(p.140).
The most favoured subject for Wilde’s cynical comments is a woman and her position in the society of that time.
e.g. “Nothing spoils a romance so much as a sense of humour in the
“Women are pictures. Men are problems.
If you want to know a woman really means, which is absolutely a
dangerous thing to do-look at her, do not listen to her”(p.138).
“You women live by your emotions and for them”(p.137).
Thus, we can see that epigrams and paradoxes play one of the most important roles in Wilde’s plays. With the help of these stylistic devices Wilde reflects his own viewpoints on the society of his time, his opinions about life, love and friendship, men and women. His judgements are the sharp and biting remarks. They are used in the plainest and the most direct sense. Wilde does not conceal his inner feelings and thoughts about the decomposition of intellectual world and English society. These epigrams and paradoxes are short and laconic, and are not very complex that makes them easy for remembering. So, paradoxes and epigrams create the individuality of Oscar Wilde. Wilde is famous for his brilliant epigrams and the wittiest paradoxes.
IRONY and PUN
In irony, which is the very interesting item for consideration, subjectivity lies in the evaluation of the phenomenon named. The essence of this stylistic device consists in the foregrounding not of the logical but of the evaluative meaning. The context is arranged so that the qualifying word in irony reverses the direction of the evaluation, and the word positively charged is understood as a negative qualification and vice versa.
According to professor Galperin I.R., irony is a stylistic device based on the simultaneous realisation of two logical meanings- dictionary and contextual, but the two meanings stand in opposition to each other.12
According to Professor Kukharenko V.A., irony is a stylistic device in which the contextual evaluative meaning of a word is directly opposite to its dictionary meaning.13 So, like many other stylistic devices, irony does not exist outside the context. Irony must not be confused with humour, although they have very much in common. Humour always causes laughter. What is funny must come as a sudden clash of the positive and the negative. In this respect irony can be likened to humour. But the function of irony is not confined to producing a humorous effect. In a sentence like that: “How clever you are, Mr.Hopper” (p.43), where due to the intonation pattern, the word “clever” conveys a sense opposite to its literal signification. The irony does not cause a ludicrous effect. It rather expresses a feeling of irritation and displeasure. Here are some examples of irony:
e.g. “Oh, I love London Society! I think it has immensely
improved. It is entirely composed now of beautiful
idiots and brilliant lunatics. Just what Society
should be.” (p.175)
“And in England a man who can’t talk morality
twice a week to a large, popular, immoral
audience is quite over as a serious politician.”
“All women become like their mothers. That is
their tragedy. No man does. That is his.” (p.300)
These examples show that irony is a mode of speech in which the opposite of what is said is meant. The speaker of the first example, Mabel Chiltern does not really think that it is good for London Society to consist of “beautiful idiots and brilliant lunatics”. Wilde’s method of ironical usage is mostly direct: he speaks of the decomposition of people, their ideals and values. The effect of irony lies in the striking disparity between what is said and what is meant. This is achieved through the intentional interplay of two meanings, which are in opposition to each other.
e.g. “No woman should have a memory. Memory in a
woman is a beginning of dowdiness”. (p.144)
“My father told me to go to bed an hour ago. I
don’t see why I shouldn’t give you the same
advice. I always pass on good advice. It is the
only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to
“I knew we should come to an amicable
The context is one most important things when we use irony. The word “advice” is suggested for acceptance if it is good and for rejection if it is not good, but not for passing on it. In fact, Lord Goring, the speaker of this phrase, is a serious person, who knows that a good advice may be very useful. As for the last example, here the word “amicable” is contrary to the word “blackmail” with the help of which this agreement was achieved by Mrs. Chevely. Mrs. Chevely is an “immoralist” of English Society.
e.g. “People are either hunting for husbands or hiding
from them” (p.181)
“Oh, I like tedious, practical subjects. What I don’t
like are tedious, practical people.” (p.189)
The remarks of this “Lady” characterise her brilliantly. We can clearly see a scheming woman, an adventurer, who stops at nothing in gaining her filthy aims. She does not show her real face, she always disguises it. But her cynical remarks betray her. Another example of irony used by O.Wilde:
e.g. “Lord Goring: I adore political parties. They are
the only place left to us where people do not talk
The members of political parties must talk politics, it is their duty. They must be very serious and honest people and they must work for people’s well being, but instead of it they do not do anything for people. During their political parties they pronounce some absurd, cynical words and discuss rumours and gossips.
e.g. “Oh, we all want friends at times” (p.25)
Lord Darlington, saying this phrase, hides his love for Lady Windermere behind the word “friend”, but she does not accept his version of “friendship” in such kind and does not want to be with him. Oscar Wilde considers the word “friend” to have different meaning: people always need friends, not only for temporary period of time. The meaning of this word conveys a constant quality.
The specific, cynical quality of Wilde’s irony is manifested in his manner of writing. This device allows Wilde to reveal incongruity of the world around him and to show the viciousness of the upper - class society.
Pun is the next stylistic device used by Oscar Wilde in his plays.
According to Professor Sosnovskaya V.B., pun (paronomasia, a play on words) is a figure of speech emerging as an effect created by words similar or identical in their sound form and contrastive or incompatible in meaning.13
According to Prof. Galperin I.R., the pun is a stylistic device based on the interaction of two well-known meanings of a word or phrase. It is difficult to draw a hard and fast distinction between zeugma and the pun. The reliable distinguishing feature is a structural one: zeugma is the realisation of two meanings with the help of the verb which is made to refer to different subjects or objects. The pun is more independent. There need not necessarily be a word in the sentence to which the pun-word refers. This does not mean. However, that the pun is entirely free. Like any other stylistic device, it must depend on a context. But the context may be of a more expanded character, sometimes even as large as a whole work of emotive prose.14
Thus, the title of one of Oscar Wilde’s plays, “The Importance of Being Earnest”, has a pun in it. But in order to understand this pun we must read the whole play, because the name of the hero and the adjective meaning “seriously-minded” are both existing in our mind.
Pun is based on the effect of deceived expectation, because unpredictability in it is expressed either in the appearance of the elements of the text unusual for the reader or in the unexpected reaction of the addressee of the dialogue.
However playful is the effect of pun, however intricate and sudden is the merging of senses in one sound complex, in a truly talented work this unit of poetic speech shares equally with others in the expression of the author’s message. It is a vehicle of the author’s thought not a mere decoration. Pun is one of the most favoured devices of Oscar Wilde. In his comedies there are about twenty examples of pun. In this Chapter we will try to analyse some of them. For Wilde pun is one of the most effective means used for creating wit, brilliancy and colourfulness of his dialogues for criticism of bourgeois morality. At the same time the puns serve for showing the author’s ideas and thoughts.
e.g. “Lord Goring: My dear farther, only people who
look dull ever get into the House of Commons,
and only people who are dull ever succeed
“Lord Darlington: Ah, nowadays we are all of us
so hard up, that the only pleasant things to pay
are compliments. They are the only things we
These examples show that the play on words has a great influence on the reader. The speech of the hero becomes more vivid and interesting. The sound form of the word played upon may be either a polysemantic word:
e.g. “Lady Caroline: I believe this is the first English
country-house you have stayed at, Mrs.Worsley?
Have you any country? What we should call
country? Hester: We have the largest country in
or partial (complete) homonyms, as in the following example:
e.g. “Algernon: You look as if your name was Ernest.
You are the most earnest-looking person I ever
saw in my life”. (p.286)
In this example there are two meanings of the word played upon in the pun: the first – the name of the hero and the second – the adjective meaning seriously-minded.
In case of homonym the two meanings of one word are quite independent and both direct. These two meanings of the pun are realised simultaneously and in the remark of one and the same person. Such examples are comparatively rare in Wilde’s plays. Most of Wilde’s puns are based on polysemy. Such puns are realised in succession, that is at first the word appears before a reader in one meaning and then -–in the other. This realisation is more vivid in dialogues, because in such cases the pun acquires more humorous effect as a result of misunderstanding. In many cases the addressee of the dialogue is the main source of interference. His way of thinking and peculiarities of perception can explain this. Rarely the speaker himself is the source of interference (for example, if he has a speech defect). Almost all Oscar Wilde’s puns based on polycemy are realised in dialogues, in fact the remark of the addressee.
e.g. “Lady H.: she lets her clever tongue run away with her.
Lady C.: is that the only Mrs. Allonby allows to run
away with her?” (p.99)
In this example the pun is realised in the remark of the second person. The first meaning of the expression “to run away with” – is “not to be aware of what you are speaking”, and the second meaning is “to make off taking something with you”. The first meaning is figurative and the second is direct. In some cases the pun is realised in the remark of one and the same person, as in the following examples:
e.g. “Mrs. Allonby: the one advantage of playing with fire is
that one never gets even singed.
It is the people who do not know how to play with it
who get burned up”.(p.100)
Here the first meaning of the expression “to play with fire” – “to singe” is direct, and the second “to spoil one’s reputation” is figurative.
e.g. “Jack: as far as I can make out, the poachers are the
only people who make anything out of it.” (p.297)
The first meaning of the expression: “to make out” – “to understand” is figurative, and the second – “to make benefit from something” is direct.
But there are such examples, when pun is realised in the remark of the third person and in this case it is he (she) who is the main source of interference:
e.g. “Lady C.: Victoria Stratton? I remember her perfectly. A
silly, fair-haired woman with no chin.
Mrs. Allonby: Ah, Ernest has a chin. He has a very
strong chin, a square chin. Ernest’s chin is far too square.
Lady S.: But do you really think a man’s chin can be
too square? I think a man should look very strong and
that his should be quite square.” (p.115)
As a rule, when two meanings of the word are played upon, one of them is direct, the other is figurative, which can be illustrated by some of the above mentioned examples. So, we can see, that irony and pun also play the very important role in Wilde’s plays. The effect of these stylistic devices is based on the author’s attitude to the English bourgeois society. Thus irony and pun help Wilde to show that majority of his heroes are the typical representatives of the bourgeois society: thoughtless, frivolous, greedy, envious, mercenary people. They call themselves “Ladies and gentlemen”, but with the help of these stylistic devices Wilde shows that intelligence is their mask. Credit must be given to Wilde for being brilliant in his witticism. A play upon contrasts and contradictions lies at the basis of author’s sarcastic method in portraying his characters. The dynamic quality of Wilde’s plays is increased by the frequent ironical sentences and puns. These stylistic devices convey the vivid sense of reality in the picture of the 19-th century English upper-class society.
Wilde’s realism with its wonderful epigrams and paradoxes, brilliant irony and amusing puns initiates the beginning of a new era in the development of the English play.
Epithet is another stylistic device used by Oscar Wilde.
According to Prof. Galperin I.R., Epithet is a stylistic device