By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’: this oft-quoted line from Oscar Wilde was not spoken by Wilde during conversation, as so many of his witty lines were. Instead, ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ is uttered by one of Wilde’s characters in his play, Lady Windermere’s Fan. But what is the meaning of this pithy and strangely beautiful line?
Let’s take a look at the line as it appears in Wilde’s play. Lady Windermere’s Fan, subtitled A Play About a Good Woman, was first performed in 1892. The plot focuses on the titular Lady Windermere, who thinks her husband may be having an affair with a Mrs Erlynne. Although Lord Windermere denies the accusation, he invites Mrs Erlynne to his wife’s birthday ball. And let’s face it, that isn’t the most tactful thing to do.
Sure enough, Lady Windermere walks out on her husband in disgust, but when Mrs Erlynne gets wind of the confusion, she follows her and tries to persuade her to return to her husband. Unfortunately, this plan backfires somewhat when (spoiler alert) Mrs. Erlynne is discovered in a compromising situation which makes it look as though she is guilty after all.
But then (another spoiler alert!), we discover, in a shock twist, that Mrs. Erlynne is actually none other than Lady Windermere’s long lost mother!
None of this is essential to know to make sense of the famous line about us all being in the gutter but some of us looking at the stars. But it gives you an idea of the witty and slightly implausible (and faintly farcical) twists and turns of an Oscar Wilde drama.
But what makes his plays so memorable is not the plots, which are the stuff of conventional comedy, but the endlessly quotable one-liners he puts into the mouths of his characters.
And this early theatrical success for Wilde has more than its fair share of quips, many of which are still well-known: ‘I can resist everything except temptation’, ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’ (a definition of a cynic), and ‘experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes’.
But the most famous is also the most romantic: Lord Darlington’s ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’
The line appears in Act III of Wilde’s play:
Now, my dear Tuppy, don’t be led astray into the paths of virtue. Reformed, you would be perfectly tedious. That is the worst of women. They always want one to be good. And if we are good, when they meet us, they don’t love us at all. They like to find us quite irretrievably bad, and to leave us quite unattractively good.
Lord Darlington then rises from the table behind which he has been sitting taking care of his correspondence, and responds that women always find men bad. Dumby then replies that he does not think all men are bad. All the men he knows, certainly, are good, except for one (Tuppy).
But Lord Darlington is having none of it. He retorts, famously:
No, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. [Sits down at C. table.]
Dumby is taken by the romantic turn of phrase, responding:
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars? Upon my word, you are very romantic to-night, Darlington.
Note that the line in question is often slightly misinterpreted: Lord Darlington says ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ in response to Dumby’s line, ‘I don’t think we are bad.’
Observe that he is talking specifically about men and their moral qualities (or rather, lack thereof) when it comes to the treatment of the women in their life: a key theme for Lady Windermere’s Fan.
This is of interest because Wilde’s line is frequently interpreted as being a reference to ‘we’ in the broadest sense: that is, all of humankind, men and women. And ‘in the gutter’ is usually glossed as a reference to the luckless and downtrodden state of humankind.
In this analysis of the Lord Darlington quotation, he is saying that human beings may have nothing, but ‘some of us are looking at the stars’: in other words, some of us have the ability to appreciate the beauty of the world and stay focused on the positives, even from our rather wretched and low (literally low) position.
It’s hardly surprising the line has become one of Wilde’s most frequently cited: it embodies the spirit of Aestheticism, art for art’s sake, the worship of beautiful things that serve no practical purpose, in a memorable and quotable quip.
But we would do well to pay attention to its original context and meaning: namely, that all men are base and immoral, but some men are more cultured souls who are able to appreciate beauty when they see it. ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’, then, is a line about how men are never to be trusted, but some of them are charming all the same – and this line neatly sums up much of the appeal of Wilde’s comedies.
About Oscar Wilde
The life of the Irish novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is as famous as – perhaps even more famous than – his work. But in a career spanning some twenty years, Wilde created a body of work which continues to be read an enjoyed by people around the world: a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; short stories and fairy tales such as ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’; many successful plays; poems including The Ballad of Reading Gaol; and essay-dialogues which were witty revivals of the Platonic philosophical dialogue.
Wilde’s life – his generosity to others, his double life as a family man and someone who engaged with extramarital affairs with other men, and his subsequent downfall when he was put on trial for ‘gross indecency’ – has been movingly written about in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde and in the 1997 biopic Wilde, with Stephen Fry in the title role.