Oscar Wilde on What Makes People Tick
The relationship between free will and necessity was a major concern for nineteenth-century British culture. Much Victorian fiction can be regarded as exploring the question of ‘what makes people tick’ – that is, what determinations (social, psychic, biological etc.) act on individuals, how they interact with the outside world, and whether they leave anything to the traditional concept of free will. The overall tendency, I will show, was ‘non-compatibilist’, in the sense that most thinkers at the time held that where causation begins, free will ends. The growth of the natural and social sciences, thus, seemed to progressively restrict the space for personal freedom; at the same time, many held that a belief in free will was essential to living a virtuous life, or even to sketching any sort of political programme. Wilde was interested in the problem from a young age, and I will show much of his work explores this philosophical problem. I plan to sketch out the general problem of free will, give examples of the specific forms it took in Victorian Britain, and lay out how Wilde approached various sides of the problem in his poems, stories, private writings, and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Andrea Selleri is an assistant professor at the Department of English Language and Literature at Bilkent University in Ankara. His research centres on the relationships between literature, criticism and philosophy in the Victorian period. This lecture is adapted from an article, ‘Oscar Wilde and the Freedom of the Will’, that appeared in English Literary History in 2021.