Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1802
OSCAR WILDE (1854 - 1900)
(Full name Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde; has also written under the pseudonyms Sebastian Melmoth and C. 3. 3.) Anglo-Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, critic, poet, and short story writer.
Wilde is one of the foremost figures of late nineteenth-century literary Decadence, a movement whose members espoused the doctrine of "art for art's sake" by seeking to subordinate moral, political, and social concerns in art to matters of aesthetic value. This credo of aestheticism, however, indicates only one facet of a man notorious for resisting any public institution—artistic, social, political, or moral—that attempted to subjugate individual will and imagination. In contrast to the cult of nature purported by the Romantic poets, Wilde posed a cult of art in his critical essays and reviews; to socialism's cult of the masses, he proposed a cult of the individual; and in opposition to what he saw as the middle-class façade of false respectability, he encouraged a struggle to realize one's true nature. Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), is typically considered one of the defining literary works of the Decadent movement. Exhibiting the author's fascination with human perversity, the novel also features numerous Gothic themes and techniques as it details in elaborate, ornamental prose the moral degeneration of its morbidly narcissistic protagonist. Other writings by Wilde noted for their use of Gothic elements include two satirical short stories, "The Canterville Ghost" (1887) and "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," and the biblically-inspired drama Salomé (1893).
Wilde was born in Dublin, where he received his early education. As a student at Dublin's Trinity College and later at Oxford University in London, he was influenced by the writings of Walter Pater, who, in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), urged indulgence of the senses, a search for sustained intensity of experience, and stylistic perfectionism in art. Wilde adopted such aestheticism as a way of life, cultivating an extravagant persona that was burlesqued in the popular press and music-hall entertainments, copied by other youthful iconoclasts, and indulged by the avant-garde literary and artistic circles of London wherein Wilde was renowned for intelligence, wit, and charm. Wilde published his first volume, Poems, in 1881. In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a wealthy Dublin family, and thereafter promoted himself and his ideas with successful lecture tours of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. In the late 1880s Wilde and his family settled in London, and he continued to crusade for aestheticism as a book reviewer and as the editor of the periodical Woman's World. "The Canterville Ghost," the first of Wilde's short stories to appear in print, was published in Court and Society in February 1887. In addition to this work, three subsequent short stories written by Wilde appeared in various London magazines that same year and were later collected as Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories (1891). His novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published during a period of great creativity and productivity for Wilde that extended from 1888 to 1895. Most of his highly regarded critical essays, collected in Intentions (1891), also appeared during this time. Shortly after the publication of this collection, Wilde attained the greatest critical and popular success of his lifetime with the plays Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Meanwhile, during the 1890s, Wilde met and became infatuated with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury. His relationship with Douglas, the Marquess's violent disapproval of this relationship, and his own ill-advised legal action against the Marquess scandalized London. The Importance of Being Earnest was in production at the time of Wilde's 1895 trial on charges of "gross indecency between male persons." His conviction and subsequent imprisonment led to ignominy for Wilde and obscurity for his works. He continued to write during his two years in prison, producing the poems in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and Other Poems (1898) and the essay De Profundis (1905). Upon his release, however, Wilde was generally either derided or ignored by literary and social circles. At the time of his death in 1900 the scandal associated with Wilde led most commentators to discuss him diffidently, if at all. While critical response no longer focuses so persistently on questions of morality, Wilde's life and personality still incite fascination. Biographical studies and biographically oriented criticism continue to dominate Wilde scholarship.
A writer far from exclusively concerned with the supernatural, Wilde nevertheless made several experiments with Gothic subjects during his relatively brief professional literary career. Wilde's first collection of prose, The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888), displays his early penchant for ornamentation and stylistic grace in his writings and largely predates his Gothic concerns. Often described as fantastic due to their exotic characters and setting, these stories feature characters who take responsibility for their own actions, are conscious of the suffering of those around them, and are capable of generosity and forgiveness as well as selfishness and cruelty. Containing both social and literary satire, the works collected in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories parody what he considered American naïveté, the cultural and social snobbery associated with the British aristocracy, as well as many of the contrivances of Gothic fiction. Among these pieces, "The Canterville Ghost" is a story about an American family who rents a haunted castle in England but steadfastly refuses to believe in the increasingly indignant ghost who inhabits it. Often dismissed as simplistic and melodramatic, this story nonetheless evinces Wilde's fascination with the supernatural and the dark side of human nature. Wilde further explored these themes in "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime." In this story, Lord Arthur, who is soon to be married, meets a palm reader who predicts that he will commit murder. Because Arthur believes in predestination, he feels obliged to fulfill the prophecy before allowing himself to marry. Like the family in "The Canterville Ghost," Arthur is unable to acknowledge or accept the existence of evil in himself and others. At the end of the story, after killing the palm reader by throwing him in the Thames, he heaves a "deep sigh of relief" before happily marrying his fiancée. The title figure of Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, in evident fulfillment of his impulsive wish to remain young while a painted portrait of himself grows old in his place, retains his youthful attractiveness while signs of age and debauchery appear in the painting. Detailing a period of eighteen years in Dorian's life after the completion of his portrait by the painter Basil Hallward, The Picture of Dorian Gray chronicles the young aristocrat's involvement in the unspecified "ruin" of a number of individuals, his revels in rare, beautiful, and costly objects, his experimentation with drugs and alcohol, and finally his descent to murder. During this time his portrait, hidden from view in Dorian's attic, mysteriously ages and becomes repulsive, reflecting the effects of Dorian's excesses, while Dorian himself remains young and attractive. His ultimate attempt to destroy the painting results in his own death; the portrait then resumes its original appearance, and the hideous corpse found lying before it is only with difficulty identified as that of Dorian Gray. A thematic departure for Wilde, the one-act drama Salomé joins a biblical subject with Decadent themes. Retelling the story of the prophet John the Baptist's death due to the passion of a Judean princess, Salomé has been categorized as an eroticized Gothic tragedy that explores themes of unrequited love and forbidden desire. Wilde's stylized and urbane social dramas of the 1890s, including An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) are finely crafted comedies of manners sparkling with wit and abounding with quotable epigrams. Generally devoid of Gothic concerns, these dramas are usually considered Wilde's crowning literary achievements.
Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray created a sensation on its first appearance, when it was widely interpreted as advocating the immoral behavior of its protagonist. The subject of extensive analysis in ensuing years, the novel has been assessed as a moral fable, a Gothic horror tale, a catalog of Decadent concerns owing much to Joris-Karl Huysmann's A rebours (1884; Against the Grain), a study of Victorian art movements, and a fictional dramatization of Paterian ideas about art and morality. While a number of critics have read the novel purely as a morality tale on the hazards of indulgence and self-absorption, others accept Wilde's viewpoint that the suffering and belated wisdom of the protagonist are incidental to the work's artistic form. Conceding a departure from his own literary principles, Wilde freely admitted that the book does indeed contain a moral, which he summarized as: "All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment." Critics interested in the Gothic elements of the novel have frequently studied these in conjunction with the work's aesthetic and ethical concerns. Lewis J. Poteet has explored the affinities between The Picture of Dorian Gray and its Gothic precursor, Charles R. Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, a work he argues constructs both the structural and thematic patterns of Wilde's novel. According to Poteet, both works share such features as the depiction of a "radical bifurcation of nature and art" illustrated in the seductive and corruptive effects of social knowledge, a distinctive doubling of characters, and a shared use of supernatural horror to convey a theme of moral retribution. Kenneth Womack has interpreted the novel as a late-Victorian study in Gothic subversion. Highlighting the essential moral hollowness of Dorian Gray, who in his debauched, hedonistic, and narcissistic behavior sacrifices his spiritual being to empty aesthetic pleasures, Womack suggests that the novel principally employs its supernatural device of Dorian's aging portrait for the purposes of social critique centered on the figure of the aesthete. Donald Lawler has also examined the juxtaposition of Gothic and aesthetic elements in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Lawler's estimation, Wilde's writings frequently appropriate a Gothic sensibility as a means of exploring the outer limits of human behavior, and that Wilde, in effect, endeavored to "gothicize" art and aesthetics in his novel and other works. Lawler has additionally explored Wilde's drama Salomé as "a gothically inverted worship of death" concentrated on the figure of the enraptured princess and symbolized in the sexualized imagery associated with her call for the head of John the Baptist. Overall, despite such modern assessments, Wilde is not usually considered a Gothic writer, but rather one whose unique blend of Decadent aesthetic concerns, literary supernaturalism, and interest in human perversity lends itself well to Gothic interpretation. While the critical reception of Wilde's writings remains complicated, in part because his works have had to compete for attention with his sensational life, the Gothic vein remains a viable and robust critical approach to one of the more fascinating and diverse literary figures of the late nineteenth-century period.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 118
Poems (poetry) 1881
The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (short stories) 1888
The Picture of Dorian Gray (novel) 1890; first published in the journal Lippincott's Monthly Magazine; revised edition, 1891
A House of Pomegranates (short stories) 1891
Intentions (essays) 1891
∗Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories (short stories) 1891
Lady Windermere's Fan (play) 1892
Salomé (play) 1893
A Woman of No Importance (play) 1893
An Ideal Husband (play) 1895
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and Other Poems [as C.3.3.] (poetry) 1898
†De Profundis (letter) 1905
Collected Works. 14 vols. (poetry, essays, short stories, novel, plays, and criticism) 1908
The Letters of Oscar Wilde (letters) 1962
∗ This volume includes the short stories "The Canterville Ghost," "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," and "The Sphinx without a Secret."
† This work was not published in its entirety until 1949.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2203
SOURCE: Wilde, Oscar. "The Sphinx without a Secret." In 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, and Martin H. Greenberg, pp. 438-44. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1993.
The following story was originally published under the title "Lady Alroy" in Saunder's Irish Daily News in May, 1887. Wilde changed the title to "The Sphinx without a Secret" when the story was collected and published in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories in 1891.
One afternoon I was sitting outside the Café de la Paix, watching the splendour and shabbiness of Parisian life, and wondering over my vermouth at the strange panorama of pride and poverty that was passing before me, when I heard someone call my name. I turned round, and saw Lord Murchison. We had not met since we had been at college together, nearly ten years before, so I was delighted to come across him again, and we shook hands warmly. At Oxford we had been great friends. I had liked him immensely, he was so handsome, so high-spirited, and so honourable. We used to say of him that he would be the best of fellows, if he did not always speak the truth, but I think we really admired him all the more for his frankness. I found him a good deal changed. He looked anxious and puzzled, and seemed to be in doubt about something. I felt it could not be modern scepticism, for Murchison was the stoutest of Tories, and believed in the Pentateuch as firmly as he believed in the House of Peers; so I concluded that it was a woman, and asked him if he was married yet.
"I don't understand women well enough," he answered.
"My dear Gerald," I said, "women are meant to be loved, not to be understood."
"I cannot love where I cannot trust," he replied.
"I believe you have a mystery in your life, Gerald," I exclaimed; "tell me about it."
"Let us go for a drive," he answered, "it is too crowded here. No, not a yellow carriage, any other colour—there, that dark green one will do"; and in a few moments we were trotting down the boulevard in the direction of the Madeleine.
"Where shall we go to?" I said.
"Oh, anywhere you like!" he answered—"to the restaurant in the Bois; we will dine there, and you shall tell me all about yourself."
"I want to hear about you first," I said. "Tell me your mystery."
He took from his pocket a little silver-clasped morocco case, and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside there was the photograph of a woman. She was tall and slight, and strangely picturesque with her large vague eyes and loosened hair. She looked like a clairvoyante, and was wrapped in rich furs.
"What do you think of that face?" he said; "is it truthful?"
I examined it carefully. It seemed to me the face of someone who had a secret, but whether that secret was good or evil I could not say. Its beauty was a beauty moulded out of many mysteries—the beauty, in fact, which is psychological, not plastic—and the faint smile that just played across the lips was far too subtle to be really sweet.
"Well," he cried impatiently, "what do you say?"
"She is the Gioconda in sables," I answered. "Let me know all about her."
"Not now," he said; "after dinner," and began to talk of other things.
When the waiter brought us our coffee and cigarettes I reminded Gerald of his promise. He rose from his seat, walked two or three times up and down the room, and, sinking into an armchair, told me the following story:—
"One evening," he said, "I was walking down Bond Street about five o'clock. There was a terrific crush of carriages, and the traffic was almost stopped. Close to the pavement was standing a little yellow brougham, which, for some reason or other, attracted my attention. As I passed by there looked out from it the face I showed you this afternoon. It fascinated me immediately. All that night I kept thinking of it, and all the next day. I wandered up and down that wretched Row, peering into every carriage, and waiting for the yellow brougham; but I could not find ma belle inconnue, and at last I began to think she was merely a dream. About a week afterwards I was dining with Madame de Rastail. Dinner was for eight o'clock; but at half past eight we were still waiting in the drawing-room. Finally the servant threw open the door, and announced Lady Alroy. It was the woman I had been looking for. She came in very slowly, looking like a moonbeam in grey lace, and, to my intense delight, I was asked to take her into dinner. After we had sat down, I remarked quite innocently, 'I think I caught sight of you in Bond Street some time ago, Lady Alroy.' She grew very pale, and said to me in a low voice, 'Pray do not talk so loud; you may be overheard.' I felt miserable at having made such a bad beginning, and plunged recklessly into the subject of the French plays. She spoke very little, always in the same low musical voice, and seemed as if she was afraid of someone listening. I fell passionately, stupidly in love, and the indefinable atmosphere of mystery that surrounded her excited my most ardent curiosity. When she was going away, which she did very soon after dinner, I asked her if I might call and see her. She hesitated for a moment, glanced round to see if anyone was near us, and then said, 'Yes; to-morrow at a quarter to five.' I begged Madame de Rastail to tell me about her; but all that I could learn was that she was a widow with a beautiful house in Park Lane, and as some scientific bore began a dissertation on widows, as exemplifying the survival of the matrimonially fittest, I left and went home.
"The next day I arrived at Park Lane punctual to the moment, but was told by the butler that Lady Alroy had just gone out. I went down to the club quite unhappy and very much puzzled, and after long consideration wrote her a letter, asking if I might be allowed to try my chance some other afternoon. I had no answer for several days, but at last I got a little note saying she would be at home on Sunday at four and with this extraordinary postscript: 'Please do not write to me here again; I will explain when I see you.' On Sunday she received me, and was perfectly charming; but when I was going away she begged of me, if I ever had occasion to write to her again, to address my letter to 'Mrs. Knox, care of Whittaker's Library, Green Street.' 'There are reasons,' she said, 'why I cannot receive letters in my own house.'
"All through the season I saw a great deal of her, and the atmosphere of mystery never left her. Sometimes I thought that she was in the power of some man, but she looked so unapproachable that I could not believe it. It was really very difficult for me to come to any conclusion, for she was like one of those strange crystals that one sees in museums, which are at one moment clear, and at another clouded. At last I determined to ask her to be my wife: I was sick and tired of the incessant secrecy that she imposed on all my visits, and on the few letters I sent her. I wrote to her at the library to ask her if she could see me the following Monday at six. She answered yes, and I was in the seventh heaven of delight. I was infatuated with her: in spite of the mystery, I thought then—in consequence of it, I see now. No; it was the woman herself I loved. The mystery troubled me, maddened me. Why did chance put me in its track?"
"You discovered it, then?" I cried.
"I fear so," he answered. "You can judge for yourself."
"When Monday came round I went to lunch with my uncle, and about four o'clock found myself in the Marylebone Road. My uncle, you know, lives in Regent's Park. I wanted to get to Piccadilly, and took a short cut through a lot of shabby little streets. Suddenly I saw in front of me Lady Alroy, deeply veiled and walking very fast. On coming to the last house in the street, she went up the steps, took out a latch-key, and let herself in. 'Here is the mystery,' I said to myself; and I hurried on and examined the house. It seemed a sort of place for letting lodgings. On the doorstep lay her handkerchief, which she had dropped. I picked it up and put it in my pocket. Then I began to consider what I should do. I came to the conclusion that I had no right to spy on her, and I drove to the club. At six I called to see her. She was lying on a sofa, in a tea-gown of silver tissue looped up by some strange moonstones that she always wore. She was looking quite lovely. 'I am so glad to see you,' she said; 'I have not been out all day.' I stared at her in amazement, and pulling the handkerchief out of my pocket, handed it to her. 'You dropped this in Cumnor Street this afternoon, Lady Alroy,' I said very calmly. She looked at me in terror, but made no attempt to take the handkerchief. 'What were you doing there?' I asked. 'What right have you to question me?' she answered. 'The right of a man who loves you,' I replied; 'I came here to ask you to be my wife.' She hid her face in her hands, and burst into floods of tears. 'You must tell me,' I continued. She stood up, and, looking me straight in the face, said, 'Lord Murchison, there is nothing to tell you.'… 'You went to meet someone,' I cried; 'this is your mystery.' She grew dreadfully white, and said, 'I went to meet no one.'… 'Can't you tell the truth?' I exclaimed. 'I have told it,' she replied. I was mad, frantic; I don't know what I said, but I said terrible things to her. Finally I rushed out of the house. She wrote me a letter the next day; I sent it back unopened, and started for Norway with Alan Colville. After a month I came back, and the first thing I saw in the Morning Post was the death of Lady Alroy. She had caught a chill at the Opera, and had died in five days of congestion of the lungs. I shut myself up and saw no one. I had loved her so much, I had loved her so madly. Good God! how I had loved that woman!"
"You went to the street, to the house in it?" I said.
"Yes," he answered.
"One day I went to Cumnor Street. I could not help it; I was tortured with doubt. I knocked at the door, and a respectable-looking woman opened it to me. I asked her if she had any rooms to let. 'Well, sir,' she replied, 'the drawing-rooms are supposed to be let; but I have not seen the lady for three months, and as rent is owing on them, you can have them.'… 'Is this the lady?' I said, showing the photograph. 'That's her, sure enough,' she exclaimed; 'and when is she coming back, sir?'… 'The lady is dead,' I replied. 'Oh, sir, I hope not!' said the woman; 'she was my best lodger. She paid me three guineas a week merely to sit in my drawing-room now and then.'… 'She met someone here?' I said; but the woman assured me that it was not so, that she always came alone, and saw no one. 'What on earth did she do here?' I cried. 'She simply sat in the drawing-room, sir, reading books, and sometimes had tea,' the woman answered. I did not know what to say, so I gave her a sovereign and went away. Now, what do you think it all meant? You don't believe the woman was telling the truth?"
"Then why did Lady Alroy go there?"
"My dear Gerald," I answered, "Lady Alroy was simply a woman with a mania for mystery. She took these rooms for the pleasure of going there with her veil down, and imagining she was a heroine. She had a passion for secrecy, but she herself was merely a Sphinx without a secret."
"Do you really think so?"
"I am sure of it," I replied.
He took out the morocco case, opened it, and looked at the photograph. "I wonder?" he said at last.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1000
SOURCE: Wilde, Oscar. "To the Editor of the St. James's Gazette." In The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, edited by Richard Ellmann, pp. 238-41. New York: Random House, 1969.
In the following letter, published in the St. James's Gazette two days after that newspaper published a vicious attack ("A Study in Puppydom," June 24, 1890) on The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde responds to the critic's derisive evaluation of his work and defends his novel.
In your issue of today you state that my brief letter published in your columns is the "best reply" I can make to your article upon Dorian Gray. This is not so. I do not propose to fully discuss the matter here, but I feel bound to say that your article contains the most unjustifiable attack that has been made upon any man of letters for many years. The writer of it, who is quite incapable of concealing his personal malice, and so in some measure destroys the effect he wishes to produce, seems not to have the slightest idea of the temper in which a work of art should be approached. To say that such a book as mine should be "chucked into the fire" is silly. That is what one does with newspapers.
Of the value of pseudo-ethical criticism in dealing with artistic work I have spoken already. But as your writer has ventured into the perilous grounds of literary criticism I ask you to allow me, in fairness not merely to myself but to all men to whom literature is a fine art, to say a few words about his critical method.
He begins by assailing me with much ridiculous virulence because the chief personages in my story are "puppies." They are puppies. Does he think that literature went to the dogs when Thackeray wrote about puppydom? I think that puppies are extremely interesting from an artistic as well as from a psychological point of view. They seem to me to be certainly far more interesting than prigs; and I am of opinion that Lord Henry Wotton is an excellent corrective of the tedious ideal shadowed forth in the semi-theological novels of our age.
He then makes vague and fearful insinuations about my grammar and my erudition. Now, as regards grammar, I hold that, in prose at any rate, correctness should always be subordinate to artistic effect and musical cadence; and any peculiarities of syntax that may occur in Dorian Gray are deliberately intended, and are introduced to show the value of the artistic theory in question. Your writer gives no instance of any such peculiarity. This I regret, because I do not think that any such instances occur.
As regards erudition, it is always difficult, even for the most modest of us, to remember that other people do not know quite as much as one does oneself. I myself frankly admit I cannot imagine how a casual reference to Suetonius and Petronius Arbiter can be construed into evidence of a desire to impress an unoffending and ill-educated public by an assumption of superior knowledge. I should fancy that the most ordinary of scholars is perfectly well acquainted with the Lives of the Caesars and with the Satyricon. The Lives of the Caesars, at any rate, forms part of the curriculum at Oxford for those who take the Honour School of Literœ Humaniores; and as for the Satyricon, it is popular even among passmen, though I suppose they are obliged to read it in translations.
The writer of the article then suggests that I, in common with that great and noble artist Count Tolstoi, take pleasure in a subject because it is dangerous. About such a suggestion there is this to be said. Romantic art deals with the exception and with the individual. Good people, belonging as they do to the normal, and so, commonplace, type, are artistically uninteresting. Bad people are, from the point of view of art, fascinating studies. They represent colour, variety and strangeness. Good people exasperate one's reason; bad people stir one's imagination. Your critic, if I must give him so honourable a title, states that the people in my story have no counterpart in life; that they are, to use his vigorous if somewhat vulgar phrase, "mere catchpenny revelations of the non-existent." Quite so. If they existed they would not be worth writing about. The function of the artist is to invent, not to chronicle. There are no such people. If there were I would not write about them. Life by its realism is always spoiling the subject-matter of art. The supreme pleasure in literature is to realise the non-existent.
And finally, let me say this. You have reproduced, in a journalistic form, the comedy of Much Ado about Nothing, and have, of course, spoilt it in your reproduction. The poor public, hearing, from an authority so high as your own, that this is a wicked book that should be coerced and suppressed by a Tory Government, will, no doubt, rush to it and read it. But, alas! they will find that it is a story with a moral. And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment. The painter, Basil Hallward, worshipping physical beauty far too much, as most painters do, dies by the hand of one in whose soul he has created a monstrous and absurd vanity. Dorian Gray, having led a life of mere sensation and pleasure, tries to kill conscience, and at that moment kills himself. Lord Henry Wotton seeks to be merely the spectator of life. He finds that those who reject the battle are more deeply wounded than those who take part in it. Yes; there is a terrible moral in Dorian Gray—a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy. Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7824
SOURCE: Lawler, Donald. "The Gothic Wilde." In Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, edited by C. George Sandulescu, pp. 249-68. Gerrards Cross, England: Smythe, 1994.
In the following essay, Lawler examines The Picture of Dorian Gray, Salomé, and The Sphinx, asserting that these three works share "a gothicized aestheticism whose obsessive beauty-worship expresses itself in a symptomatic fixation with art's decorative character—and … a reliance on the Gothic as expressing, determining, and resolving the artistic requirements of each work."
As the 1880s were ending and the Aesthetic Movement modulating into the Decadence, Oscar Wilde was concluding a series of essays, later to be collected as Intentions, that contributed a radical aesthetic to this movement of which he had become the unacknowledged leader. Having made a case for aestheticizing Victorian manners and mores in 'The Decay of Lying', Wilde began turning the tables on art in 'The Portrait of Mr. W. H.', by offering a fictional resolution to the problem of Shakespeare's sonnets, showing that faith alone brings art to life, whereas empirical demands for proof cause faith to become deceitful, seeking foolish correlatives of itself in forgery. Wilde's gothic transactions with aestheticism that were to follow in the early 1890s, invite critical inquiry that addresses both their revisionary and gothic character. This paper brings into focus Wilde's uses of the gothic1 in three major works, in three different structural genres: Dorian Gray, a novel; Salome, a one-act play; and a long poem, The Sphinx. From a critical perspective, they form an odd sort of trilogy, connected by shared inter-ests, common themes, and treatments—especially a gothicized aestheticism whose obsessive beauty-worship expresses itself in a symptomatic fixation with art's decorative character—and sharing a reliance on the gothic as expressing, determining, and resolving the artistic requirements of each work.2
Wilde appropriated gothic resources of expression, effect, even genre-framing for exploring the limits and contradictions of his own arguments for aestheticizing life. In this series of works the once 'Great Aesthete' explores the destructive effects of art, especially in the familiar romantic idealization of beauty as well as in a synaesthesia of art for life, an advanced form of Romantic idealism's disillusion with worldly commerce.
I propose to begin as did Wilde with Dorian Gray in which he first explored and reshaped the expressive resources of the gothic for telling the story of Dorian Gray.3 In so doing, Wilde displayed his exceptional powers of inventive synthesis, theatrical intuition, and stylistic ingenuity to their best advantage. The gothic informs every important aspect of the novel to the extent that references will be limited to a few representative instances of the novel's more innovative and influential gothic features.4
Wilde's contribution to exploring new worlds of gothic influence and revelation was to gothicize art in Dorian Gray. More precisely it was the romantic aesthetic worship of art and beauty that he gothicized, locating it at the juncture between the two great forces of the revised, 1891 novel: the archetypal moral allegory of the wages of sin complemented by an aesthetic allegory that interrogates two, art-related delusions. The first is Basil's artistic error of painting a confessional portrait that proclaimed his own love for his subject. The second is Lord Henry's aesthetic doctrine that living may be refined into an art-form. Dorian's supplement to that axiom is the delusion that Henry's aesthetic vision is achievable with a wish-fulfilled perpetual youth stolen from Basil's portrait and by aestheticizing life through art, leading to a spiritualization of the senses.
The encryption of the gothic begins with Basil Hallward's romanticized portrait that awakens a narcissism in Dorian, who sees himself through the eyes of the artist's 'idolatry'. Basil's admission to Henry that he had erred artistically by putting too much of himself into the painting includes his aesthetic apologia exposing a more ambitious motive of the artist for his subject than an invitation to vanity. Dorian has 'suggested to me a new manner in art,' and Basil then adds, 'I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before' (14). That statement departs from Romantic idealism to foreshadow the gothic world.5 Unlike previous gothic stories, the invention of the gothic world in this one is a cooperative venture in three stages, dispersed over the first three chapters. Basil provides the occasion in a life-size, realistic portrait of his ideal Dorian. Henry adds the catalytic temptation in his philosophy of pleasure declaimed as Dorian poses on Basil's platform, while the painter adds the final touches to the picture. These remaining brush strokes are critical because they are a record of Dorian's expression as he recognizes in his repressed appetites ways to a knowledge of good and evil with the power of transforming his life. Basil paints on, 'conscious only that a look had come into the lad's face that he had never seen before' (20), as Dorian experiences a conversion to Henry's philosophy of self-realization through affirmation and pursuit of appetites: 'The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it' (21). Dorian is easily caught in the network of Henry's epigrams—'Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.' The novel makes no claims about Dorian being smart, but he had a perfect profile, which after all both Henry and the author preferred to mere intelligence in their favorites.
Thus, Basil's portrait of an ideal Dorian becomes a recording of Dorian's fall from innocence and grace. These are the strange combinations and conjunctions of influences reflected in the portrait that were to have such a profound and lasting influence on Gray. Henry's temptation speech established the basis for Dorian's legitimizing his appetites by redefining them as questing for experience and therefore as a kind of knowledge rather than as matters for denial, repression, and shame. In gothic terms, Gray's wish to exchange lives with the portrait is his expression of the classic desire of the gothic protagonist/antagonist to re-create himself, this time by bartering his soul for a life in art, appropriating the appearances of the artist's icon, while his soul animates the picture that will then begin to age. The painting's reflecting the true condition of Gray's soul is the price of his admission to the gothic world.
Dorian Gray never does understand the rules of the world he hoped to live in, but they are obviously not what he expected. In the gothic world, they never are. The interactive magical picture is not merely the focus of the gothic world in the novel: it is the gothic world and with its invention Wilde gothicizes art and the beauty-worship of aestheticism, just as Mary Shelley gothicized science and the mad scientist in Frankenstein.6 The consequences of Dorian's wish that gothicizes art resonate throughout every remaining action of the novel. Nothing is left untouched by it.
Dorian's new opinions of art, mostly appropriations from Lord Henry, nonetheless diverge from his mentor's even as early as the Sibyl Vane affair. Dorian's rejection of Sibyl is the direct result of her abandonment of a life or more accurately a love in art for the real thing, once she had experienced it. Her declaration as a contemporary Lady of Shalott strikes at the heart of Dorian's aesthetic idealism. With the loss of Sibyl's influence and his gradual estrangement from Basil, Gray indulges his appetites, believing his sins justified by his quest for self-understanding and self-fulfillment. These may have been precepts of Henry's philosophy of the Dandy; but once acted upon, understanding becomes self-loathing. Dorian also enacts and therefore transforms Henry's doctrine of aestheticizing life, only Dorian really attempts it as an extended exercise in redesigning his instinctive behaviour, sense impressions, and even the structure of both brain and mind through art.7 This is the main purpose of the notorious eleventh chapter, of its central location, of its literal cataloguing of the exotica of art, and of its position immediately preceding Basil's murder. Chapter eleven presents two contradictory views of Dorian's extended experiments in self-reconstruction. First, it implies that Gray artificially controls and refines his responses. Second, it shows that Gray's method for applying art to life and recreating himself is a delusion. He is, rather, a collector and a dilettantish one at that. His only artistic creation, most ironically, is his gothic revision of Basil's portrait, which Gray achieves through his misbehaviour, contextualized in the diary of his life as updated daily in the picture (120).
Even Gray's delusions of a life in art are permanently gothicized after he reveals the condition of his soul to Basil in the gothic portrait and then murders him. Gray who once had lived to savour and raise every new experience to the level of a sonnet, a fugue, or a watercolour could think of nothing thereafter but escape from guilt and of course his emblematic conscience, even if that meant abandoning art and dandyism for ugliness, violence, and crime.8 Gray is hounded by an impressive variety of secularized, contemporary Wildean furies in addition to the portrait: from the avenging but luckless James Vane to the various arts in which Gray seeks both consolation and escape. Gray's fascination with the painting quickly becomes a morbid obsession, and as other gothic herovillains, he becomes the enthralled captive of the gothic world he has created, ending in hysteria and near-madness.
The phrase 'Gothic art' is used by Wilde but once and in Chapter eleven of the novel, prefaced by Dorian's conviction that 'life itself was the first, the greatest of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation' (100) and contextualized by Dorian's increasingly hallucinated mental state (102). In the story of Gray's failure to aestheticize the life of a dandy, Wilde represents art as having been transformed into the talisman of gothic thinking in which the moods and atmospheres created by art recreate, reinforce, and sustain the nightmare originating in the picture. Once Dorian's imagination has been gothicized, he cannot free himself from it. Instead of promoting the ideal of Dorian's 'new scheme of life', elaborated in Chapter eleven, 'that would have its reasoned philosophy and its ordered principles, and find in the spiritualizing of the senses its highest realization' (101), gothicized imagination subverts Gray's agenda for aestheticizing life and spiritualizing the senses into parodies as foul as the picture of Basil's original icon of beauty and inspiration had become.9
After finishing Dorian Gray, Wilde turned his attention to other projects: another essay, perhaps a reparational homage to Ruskin in 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' and the first of his derivations of the French well-made play that became Lady Windermere's Fan. His work on that social comedy was soon interrupted by Salome, a topic that Wilde had been considering for more than a year. In addition to obvious and well-recognized French influences and Wilde's decision to write out of his system a sexual tragedy before completing a more polite sexual and social comedy, it appears that he was also interested in exploring further potentials of gothicized art for three related interests represented but not foregrounded in the novel: sexual passion (unfulfilled, repressed, and perverse), the supernatural (especially the scriptural and prophetic), and the tragic.10
The controversies surrounding the play must have exasperated even the showman in Wilde since its performance was limited to the original French version in Paris during Wilde's lifetime.11 Nevertheless, Salome, without doubt, was in-tended by Wilde to be shocking and controversial, and in that he could not have been disappointed. In the play, Wilde extends the influence of gothicized art to scripture, dramatizing freely from the narratives of Matthew (14:1-12) and Mark (6:14-29). Wilde wants his scriptural materials to exercise influences in the play roughly analogous to myth or legend in Greek tragedy, within the context of a gothic mode modulated by the rich economy of symbolist drama. Together they develop the mood and tonal unity of the drama, transforming the biblical account of Salome and the death of John the Baptist from an erotically charged imbroglio of mismatched desire into a gothically inverted worship of death. Herod's recoil at Salome's necrophilic foreplay with the head of the Baptist as the stage empties and darkens may be the most subtly complex dramatic action Wilde invented, and its power, drawing upon the convergence of the play's gothic elements, is superbly theatrical.12
The decorative and descriptive symbolism Wilde uses repeatedly in the play forecasts an approaching gothic storm of sexual emotion and reaction. The repetitive technique may have been inspired by Maeterlinck, but it also derives surely from the uses of aesthetic and decorative effects in Dorian Gray.13 In Salome, subtle dramatic variations and inversions of dialogue, scenery, lighting, acting as dramatic equivalents of balladic refrains (according to Wilde), promote premonitions of the gothic. It is not necessary to recognize these as patterns repeated from the novel, partly because foreknowledge of events leading to Salome's dance and its outcome for the Baptist bears a parodic similarity to dramatic irony—the gothic is a parodic form—producing resonances for the audience with every word and action of the characters.
The argument from unrequited or denied sexual passion involves the major players of the drama in a complex dance of transformations, leading to the deaths of all but the original guilty parties, Herod and Herodias, whose incestuous marriage occasioned the arrest of the Baptist for preaching against Herodias's adultery. The overlapping romantic entanglements among characters produce several perverse and inverse passions that build toward Salome's awakened lust for the prophet. It is her sudden, irresistible passion that Wilde requires of his biblical Juliet, whose virginal innocence is attested by the other characters in that stylized dialogue Wilde uses to frame the symbolist associations he unpacks from some of his earlier stories.14 Wilde required Salome's passion to flame out of an early indifference to the attentions that her budding sexuality wins for her. Even Herod's leering admiration that awakens a sense of her own sexual power does not affect her beyond making her more wary. Rather than appearing intimidated by Herod's amorous interest, Salome realizes that a weakness of character expressing itself in voyeurism gives her a degree of power over him that she will soon exploit. Would Salome and Herodias have discussed Herod's Inclination? Salome remains coyly indifferent to the attentions of Narraboth, the young Syrian captain of the guard; but then she is a princess, and Wilde never has her forget it. Her detachment matches that of Dorian Gray at the beginning of the novel, a quality the author apparently found attractive and perhaps personally challenging. And yet she responds immediately to the sound of Iokanaan's chthonic voice, a monotone that intimidates Herod if not Herodias, who suffers no illusions that the Baptist speaks with any supernatural authority. The appearance of the Baptist evokes Salome's libido, moving her to adopt the language and manner of an aggressive courtship of the prophet. Young and impetuous, Salome grows more perverse with each rebuffed advance. Acceleration of Salome's enthralled passion for the prophet can be measured by the Baptist's features that her passion fetishizes: the black hair, the white body, and finally the red lips. Salome's contradictory passion and denial statements express youthful petulance and confusion at failing to arouse even Iokanaan's human interest in her let alone an erotic response. Her passion focuses at last upon the lips of the prophet as the symbol of his power and prophetic office.15 Thereafter, Salome is obsessed with kissing the mouth of the Baptist. His contemptuous rejection of her as unworthy of notice seems to motivate her the more, as it warps her judgment.
Salome's immortal dance is the central action of the play, her art gothicized by a purpose we foreknow to be death, but which turns out to be something even worse. Salome dances for the head of the Baptist, a man she loves so madly that she will take his life in order to possess him. That desire beckons the gothic entry into the drama, an arrival more anticipated than experienced.16 The dance is a powerful scene in any venue, and yet it is all but unwritten in the play. The unveiling of the scorned woman dancing her temptation before the enthralled desire of Herod is left, like the sins of Dorian Gray, to the reader's (and the dancer's) powers of invention. Salome's dance becomes the first measure of her moral insanity—once a category of psychology understood by Victorians. Moreau's image of Salome dances also before our mind's eye, a visual double and another painted allusion, as Wilde's image performs her own version of this most intentional of dances. And yet, if this be the obligatory scene of the play, it is neither the climax nor the quintessentially gothic scene that biblical history teaches us to expect, a point that confirms Wilde's theatrical instincts.
There are three powerful scenes yet to follow in which the gothic character of the play defines itself. In another of Wilde's bargaining scenes, Herod's haggling over the promised reward neatly reverses the power roles of the King and his stepdaughter. In her monotonal responses, interrupted by Herod's prolix, Pilate-like attempts at saving both face and conscience, Salome assumes the imperative style of the Baptist, thereby parodying it. The final scene begins with the head of Iokanaan brought to Salome on a charger, in payment of Herod's debt and the double revenge of two scorned women, Herodias and her daughter.
Having altered the scriptures thus far for dramatic effect, Wilde places his personal imprint on the Salome legend in the conclusion, producing an unusual climax for a gothic plot. Salome's dramatic apostrophe to the severed head and missing body of the Baptist is indeed worthy of a prose Browning. Salome's perverse eroticism, out-does even Swinburne in the gothic power of its interrogation of the Baptist's prophetic and implicitly Christian asceticism by Salome's Dionysian carnality. In a sense, Salome's monologue was prefaced by her awakened libido at the sight of the Baptist, who represents power, supernatural authority, her own lost innocence and frustrated desire. More than one reader has remarked on the parallelism between Salome and Iokanaan, and that sense of shared identity emphasizes Wilde's gothic representation of the revulsion of the flesh at what is described in Dorian Gray as 'this monstrous soul-life'. Iokanaan had spiritualized his senses by denying and demonizing them and the world to which they belong. Salome apparently wins her monologistic debate with the Baptist but at the price of becoming enough like him to suggest the transposition of Dorian and his picture.
The play ends with two more strong dramatic moments. First we hear the voice of Salome sounding like the disembodied voice of the Baptist in her Maenad-like, triumphant peroration: 'They say that love hath a bitter taste.[…] But what of that? What of that? I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan.' Only in possessing the head of the Baptist does Salome think to possess his lips of power and prophecy, both metaphors of the man. Herod's disgusted, and fearful reflex is one of those moments of ironic and even cynical reversal that Wilde loved to construct in his prose poems: 'Kill that woman!'. The genius in that reflexive instant lies in the way Wilde forces dramatic recognition of both the appropriateness of the sentence and concurrently its impulsive, arbitrary, and hypocritical wrongness. The play closes with Salome crushed to death but thereby released by Herod from a state of Dionysian sexual frenzy that has disgusted the Tetrarch (although apparently not Herodias, whose last words are 'I approve of what my daughter has done') and is supposed to appall the audience as well. The conclusion like that of other gothic plots remains ambiguous, inviting revisionary, even contradictory interpretations. Nor should we mistake the play's and the gothic's heteroglossal preferences, if I may appropriate Bakhtin's ingenious and fashionable term.17
The Sphinx, Wilde's long unfinished poem, had its beginnings in Paris, according to Ellmann, in 1874 (36, 90-91), inspired by Poe, Swinburne, and Browning. The idea was put aside but taken up again at Oxford in 1878, after Wilde had finished 'Ravenna', when it would have suited his purpose of establishing himself as a young poet of promise to follow the Newdigate Prize poem with another from a similar perspective: a set piece featuring youthful, Byronic reflections on a vaguely classical subject graced by curious historical and learned ornamentation. Though ambitious enough for fame, a youngish Wilde perhaps sensing unrealized potentials put it back in the trunk. He may have had another go at it in the early eighties while back in Paris but with no better result. Finally, some time in the early nineties, probably following the publication of the original Salome, Wilde completed the poem, in Paris, of course.
I suggest that Wilde returned for this last time to his unfinished sphinx because he saw how it could be revived and completed by applying a gothic aesthetic that had produced such sensational effects in both Dorian Gray and Salome. The gothic provided the means for realizing the unfulfilled potentials of the various drafts, and this revised, final version of The Sphinx was published at last in an ornate edition designed by Charles Ricketts in 1894, at least a year after it was completed.
Although Wilde's Sphinx is more Greek than Egyptian in form, both mythic traditions are mingled together freely in the poem. Hermaphroditic, the sphinx symbolizes a pagan ideal of uniting a primitive animism with animal worship, an early representation of mystery religion, and a forerunner of the great mystery religion, Christianity, bridging the historic evolution of mind and soul. Wilde connects the mythological sphinx—perhaps for contemporary and later readers a relic of an incredible age of monsters out of the fossil rocks, somehow symbolized by the early generations of Greek and Egyptian gods, swarming with monstrous mutations—to the Old and New Testaments in which the land of Egypt, a refuge for Joseph and Israel only to become a slave state, later serves as a haven for the holy family fleeing the tyranny of another Herod.
Wilde's sphinx dwells in a private Victorian collection of antiquities, a curiosity, a silent messenger of Greco-Egyptian myth and the chaos that informed it, surrounded by the upholstery of late Victorian imperial England. It is a displacement that inspired Victorian and later stories of supernatural terror and whose gothic potentials are obvious. The location is also a metaphor for the aestheticized history of the sphinx, a fantastic biography of mythic and legendary rumours, appropriately chaotic and contradictory, whose primary effect is the gothicized, nightmare-like state of an overly stimulated imagination, such as we encounter in Dorian Gray and Salome. Indeed, our interlocutor's late descriptions of the sphinx have the distinct flavour of Wilde's gothicized art.18 The characteristic heaping up of aesthetic ornamentation also serves purposes similar to the gothicized art of Dorian Gray. Different forces creating the gothic world of each work, however, do indeed produce related but different effects. Dorian's intentional wish creates his gothic world of art, but it is the speaker's enthralled, perverse sexual fantasies that lead him into the sphinx's circle of desire and devolution.
The speaker's long, monologic interview with the sphinx, the many questions put to the mute statuette whose mythic voice has not been heard in twenty centuries, seem to break an enchantment of silent isolation and bring the symbol back to a kind of life, at least in the gothicized imagination of the speaker.19 The sphinx yet has power, it seems, of speaking as a gothic artifact through the imagination of the questioner. In this respect, Wilde's sphinx appears to be a significant departure from Rossetti's reflections on the great bull that Layard had excavated from Nineveh and brought as the spoils of science to the British Museum. Wilde wants the sphinx to be a relic of an altogether different sort of history, not natural but mythic and pre-human. The Sphinx offers a gothic archaeology of a human soul rather than of a city, and the secret of the sphinx's savage antiquity lies in the imagination of the speaker as a primitive retention of pre-conscious mind. The life of the sphinx is stored in the imagination of the speaker rather than at a national gallery or in his private collection. The statuette speaks to those who understand its unconscious iconography.20
The interrogation of the sphinx produces a fantastic psychoanalysis of the god's ancient promiscuous life. The probing questions and increasingly morbid emphasis on the sphinx's mythic indiscretions gradually reveal to the reader the erotic fantasies of the speaker in the guise of an inquiry into the perverse sexual preference of sphinxes in which passion is linked with cruelty and even murder, both aspects of erotic passion in Dorian Gray and Salome, and both traditionally energizing forces of the gothic. However, grotesquely, the sphinx symbolizes for the speaker a demi-god at liberty to indulge in its impulses and appetites freely and without guilt, as matters of preference and involving nothing of moral restraints or absolute prohibitions, both of which, when viewed by Wilde's contemporary anthropology, were considered decayed remnants of tribal taboos.
The speaker's renunciation of the sphinx as false in a complex echoing of Keats raises questions about our speaker's stability, similar to those about Gray. First, the rejection is also a self-indictement of one whose imagination has been gothicized by the sphinx's seductive silence, ancient at the crossroads of historic and cosmic time yet revenant in its power to energize our speaker's imaginative avatar. The sphinx seems therefore relevant historically as gothicized imagination: not merely its symbol but its reification, realized in the monstrous archetype from which the speaker cannot completely escape. Yeats's famous concluding lines to 'The Second Coming' may have a special relevance, perhaps even special reference to Wilde's revenant sphinx: 'what rough beast, its hour come round at last …' We also have license to recall Herod's reflexive dismissal of Salome's necrophilia.21
Wilde's connection of the sphinx with Christianity may not be as gratuitous as Ellmann suggests. Developing from Dorian Gray and Salome, it anticipates Wilde's later meditations on the aesthetic Christ as an artist of religion. Each symbol—the sphinx statuette and crucifix—exercises power over the speaker's imagination in this poem, although the crucifix is rather a late-comer. Yet each symbol betrays albeit differently the humanism that was at this point in Wilde's life central to his speculative thinking. The primitive animistic power of the sphinx in its chaotic mixture of animal and human pre-consciousness becomes historically parallel to the irrational, that is to say, the historically unfulfilled archetype of the crucified god whose humanity and divinity appear locked in unresolvable antithesis. In the poem if the sphinx is too savage to lift the narrator above the primitive avatar of human imagination, the crucifix is too complex a symbol of the human in the divine and the divine potential of the human to be realizable. Claims by both symbols offer the speaker little to choose but a cold conscience, itself the remnant of tribal guilt. At the centre of the circle of fear and desire are the contradictory symbols: the woman/animal and the man/god, each representing a now gothicized myth, one ancient and bestial the other historical and divine through which, Wilde's interlocutor implies, human imagination has been tangled in problematic contradictions. Arousing himself from his gothic reveries, our speaker, still a student in his 'students cell', finds himself obliged to choose between the loathsome mystery of the sullen sphinx whose power to 'wake in me each bestial sense' and the powerless crucified God who 'weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for every soul in vain'. Can there be escape from this nightmare if the sphinx must be renounced by a dying or poisoned soul? The waking world appears to offer only despair in place of guilt, suggesting that the difference between two worlds linked by imagination is insufficient to relieve the burden of a gothic life of desire that eventually kills the soul.
Wilde's uses of the gothic mode in three major works helped produce two masterpieces and transformed an unfinished work into a dramatic monologue of the conflicted presentations of carnal passion and spiritual enervation.
Wilde's first deployment of the gothic mode seems to have arisen from the inspiration for Dorian Gray to deconstruct Wilde's own aesthetic philosophy of life as represented in his stories and essays of the late eighties and early nineties. To a significant extent, the foundations of Dorian Gray, Salome, and The Sphinx as decadent masterpieces seem dependent upon Wilde's decision to use the gothic as the most effective means for resolving artistically the competing claims of the aesthetic, sexual, tragic, and supernatural aspects of works representing portions of his own inner life. Since the works were to be realized through sequences of effects, like the phasmatropic projection of Victorian picture cards set into a synchronized motion, Wilde required a form that emphasized powerful engagement of reader reaction through his manipulation of imagery, symbols, legendary or mythic structures and secondary or imagined emotions. Traditionally, appeals of this kind have been especially suited to the gothic because the genre offered models for expressing those hidden, complex relationships among the sexual, psychological, and supernatural declensions of mind encoded in the exotic and decorative powers of art.
Wilde's use of the gothic was a brief, brilliant episode in an experimental phase of his career during which he assayed and reshaped conventions of the major structural genres en route to his greatest success as a comedic dramatist. Wilde was not to return to the gothic. Perhaps after prison and social martyrdom, reflected so powerfully in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, neither the gothic nor the tragic were available options to his art because he had experienced both real tragedy and the fulfillment of his own imagination of disaster. As Lord Henry once put it: 'the only things that one can use in fiction are the things that one has ceased to use in fact' (64).
1. Given the persistence of a critical superstition that the gothic novel died in the 1820's, I am obliged to declare such reports have been grossly exaggerated and to affirm its survival despite critical interment: 'it had a limited run (nearly everyone dates it from Otranto in 1764 to either Melmoth in 1820 or Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner in 1824)' (Geary 2).
Day's definition of gothic literature identifies characters' experience of an enthralled state of fear and desire as the distinctive power of the genre, and it will serve our needs in this essay. Although emphasizing the fate of characters in gothic plots, this approach is a variant of reader-response in the Aristotelian tradition. The primary cause of the characters' enthralled condition is a kind of hubris: the desire for something contrary to nature, often associated with the supernatural or forbidden sex.
In his Preface to the second edition of The Castle of Otranto, H. Walpole explained that his new type of romance had been invented to energize the fiction of his age by representing two powerful, instinctive forces omitted from contemporary novels: the will to believe in a supernatural (and the fear of it at the same time, most often expressed as dread of the demonic) and the desire for a sexual freedom proscribed by social mores and religion. The gothic internalized the conflict of these forces through the power of romance or fantastic narrative to engage readers' primary emo-tions of awe, fear, wonder, and desire. Walpole also established alliances with the tragic and the didactic, traits that have remained affiliated with the gothic ever since.
The transmission of the gothic to the present has produced too many distinct sub-types even to mention let alone discuss, but these discrete species range from gothic science fiction (Frankenstein to Jurassic Park) to gothic fantasy (Varney the Vampire to Twin Peaks) and include domesticated gothics like The Picture of Dorian Gray, and exotics like Salome, and The Sphinx.
2. The premise of this approach of Dorian Gray, Salome, and The Sphinx is that they are each in the gothic mode, meaning that they commonly share an experimental use of the gothic in conjunction with other well-documented formal elements of plotting and style. Wilde's use of the gothic has been noted, albeit in passing, by many scholars (Buckler, Charlesworth-Gelpi, Cohen, Ellmann, Hyde, Kohl, Nassaar, Régnier, San Juan) but not formally addressed. It seems to me that many features of Wilde's three works that have perplexed critics as 'strange' (a favoured term) and even ineffable are more readily understandable as expressive of the gothic.
3. References in my text are to the revised, 1891 version of the novel. However, in the original, Lippincott's version (1890), gothic sensationalism amplified the effect of the moral allegory, of Dorian's growing depravity and eventual indirect suicide. Although it was not Wilde's intent, his original use of the gothic contributed to a widespread misinterpretation of that finale as the despairing but repentant act of a justified sinner: a misreading Wilde himself realized his text supported. The revised version, although it does not close out moral allegory, reinforces the relationship between art and the gothic world of nightmare and anxiety.
4. Wilde selected the gothic because he needed a literary mode that would promote the best features of a complex narrative that included a fantastic premise with supernatural resonances (the soul-bargaining and the magical picture), a complex allegory (moral, aesthetic, historical, autobiographical), and multivalent sexual passions while producing a more tragic than pathetic or sentimental impression. Wilde developed his gothic fantastic treatment of the living painting to emphasize his ingenious scheme of gothicising art and everything associated with art in the novel, but especially the decorative uses of art. The result of these and the other conjunctions within the context of a gothic narrative was to produce a style of discourse, design, and symbolic emphasis that was immediately identified as the distinctive idiom of British Decadence. The key to this idiom, I believe, is Wilde's gothic treatment of art and its many associations, but especially as an intensely decorative and ornamental mode.
5. 'To recreate life' is the gothic signature of such overreachers as Drs Frankenstein and Jekyll. It does not matter to the gothic that Basil intended no more than recreating life aesthetically. The tragic pattern is already established for Dorian to complete, proving Basil's error fatal not only for the painter but also, eventually, for Sibyl Vane and Dorian.
6. Wilde gothicizes art in the novel and in the other texts we examine only for the duration of the plot and not in some ontologic sense. Nevertheless, Wilde's vision of the gothic potential of art does take its place permanently in the repertory of the gothic. Just as Frankenstein defines the condition of gothic science, so does Dorian Gray establish a gothicized art that is retained as a resource in the genre.
7. It is probable that Wilde derived Dorian's method of attempting to spiritualize the senses from contemporary thinkers like G. H. Lewes and Wilhelm Wundt. We find traces in references to Henry's quasi-scientific studies of individual and group behaviour, the importance of hereditary influences on Dorian equated with personal influences (Henry, Basil, and Sibyl) and the influences of art. These reflect theories of Lewes and Wundt on parallel psychic and physical causation that informed their debate with Huxley and the Darwinists over a purely materialist model for development and influence of human consciousness.
The key notion for Lewes was 'psychic causality', an idea that first Henry and then Dorian mis-appropriate as a formula for reconstructing an aestheticized self, built up by repeated exposures to artistic effects that would produce acquired dispositions. Unfortunately for Gray's scheme of becoming the artist of his own life, since art had been gothicized in the painting by his own wish, everything aestheticized becomes thereby gothicized as well.
8. See Dorian Gray 143: to Dorian the image of the closed circle of hallucinated desire and fear is an apt representation of his gothicized mind. At this point art enthrals rather than enchants because the linkage of art with evil, of dandyism and aestheticism with the gothic world has become a self-replicating pattern.
9. A few representative examples will do: the morning after Basil's murder Gray awakens peacefully in his sunlit bedroom, then but 'gradually the events of the preceding night crept with silent, bloodstained feet into his brain' (125). The bloodstains foreshadow the changes in the picture. Later, when Gray seeks escape from consciousness in London's opium dens, 'the moon hung low in the sky like a yellow skull' (142). This moment comes just before he encounters his nemesis, James Vane. It may be worth an aside to note that Wilde's idea for costuming Salome was to dress the entire cast in yellow.
10. Themes of perverse sexual passion, supernaturalism of one sort or another, and tragic deaths have been associated with the gothic novel since The Castle of Otranto and were also linked in some of Wilde's poetry and later stories like 'Mr W. H.' and those in A House of Pomegranates.
11. The text I use is the English language translation, originally botched so badly by Alfred Douglas that Wilde finally did a complete revision, after having rejected Aubrey Beardsley's offer to make a new translation of his own. In a somewhat more radical if eccentric way, the play's transmission history forms the rough equivalent of mediated narratives in gothic stories.
Refusal to approve a license for the English version while the play was in rehearsal caused a great controversy over censorship, and drew from Wilde a threat to renounce his English citizenship and defect to France where he would be free from interference. Had he done so rather than heed George Archer's counsel not to leave under fire, he would have left an intellectual hero, at least in Europe, and literary and cultural history would have been changed. It is tempting to speculate how different Wilde's life could have been. As it was, Wilde stayed, and a similar motive later kept Wilde from taking his chance to leave England for France after the collapse of the first trial.
12. It should be noted that Salome performed is far more effective than Salome read, although admittedly the experiences differ. For instance the theatrical effect of the repetitious, stylized dialogue, punctuated by the symbolist imagery encountered in the speech of every character but Herodias and Iokanaan can be mesmerizing in the theatre, especially as the erotically and gothically derived tensions build toward a culturally foretold climax. Indeed, no small portion of the play's success is the result of Wilde's genius for playing his characters against his audience's expectations derived from both scriptural authority and other artistic representations.
13. Wilde's gothic invasion of the world of art from the novel to the play included the power to gothicize the imaginations of those who invoke emotionally charged decorative effects or seem obsessed by them: allusiveness is an attribute of genres. This helps to account for the otherwise gratuitous foreboding shared by the choric characters with the principals. Hence anything that a gothicized art may incorporate either directly or by association becomes a rumour of some aspect of the gothic world.
The power of gothicized art, as we have already seen, haunts the imagination of the characters and, thereby, affects the reader's imagination. By using the power of a gothic aesthetic, Wilde had at his disposal for drama a proved and effective way for exercising an audience's response and for energizing their imaginations without need of explanations. Gothic appeals to readers' secondary fears and desires, for example, are experienced as reflexes of imagination, needing no conceptual recognition.
14. Those parodic prose-poems with biblical subjects were given in Wilde's aestheticized, archaic idiom. The moon that serves symbolic duty in poems, stories, and the novel, rises to the level of influence in Salome and serves also as a thematic barometer, changing from white to red to black. There is the symbolism associated with Salome's little white feet—possibly imported from 'The Fisherman and His Soul' because of their sexual fetishism there—that fascinate the Syrian captain and even his gay admirer, the 'Page of Herodias'. Flower and bird symbols abound in 'The Nightingale and the Rose', and a bird out of The Happy Prince and Other Tales may have precursed the white doves associated with the early, virginal Salome before the moon turns red.
15. Iokanaan hardly engages Salome in dialogic exchange; and he does not have a pleasant word to say to or about anyone. He offers only a few words about the Christ who is to follow but who remains distantly off stage. The Baptist appears as the last Old Testament prophet.
Salome, however, finds him irresistible, perhaps, because he denies himself to her, or perhaps for no reason at all beyond an inexplicable attraction. It is the sort of tragic fatality about which Basil speaks in the novel. If the fisherman (of 'The Fisherman and His Soul') could fall in love with a woman's feet because the mermaid had none and Dorian be enchanted by Henry's voice, it would not be uncharacteristic in Wilde for Salome to be smitten by Iokanaan's voice, hair, skin, and at last mouth.
Religion is not so much gothicized in Salome as marginalized. However, scripture in its translated discourse, to the extent that it is aestheticized in the play, does reveal a parodic, gothic potential for Wilde as it did in the prose poems. Matthew and Mark are, after all, revised by Wilde for a gothic, dramatic purpose.
16. Here is another instance of Wilde's innovative use of gothic conventions or practice.
17. Perhaps the literary and dramatic conclusions need to be critically separated for the moment. As the performance ends, the audience is supposed to agree with Herod's outrage at Salome's necrophilia and blasphemy but be shocked at his arbitrary order to kill Salome—at least this may be assumed about the majority of Wilde's contemporary audiences. Readers who dramatize the text internally enjoy the burden of electing to reread the conclusion where they will find not only signs of authorial sympathy for the admittedly mad Salome but traces of another working myth—that of Cupid and Psyche—behind the Dionysian construction that is foregrounded.
There is, then, more than one irony to Herod's command. Salome has ended her monologue: 'If thou hadst looked at me thou hadst loved me, and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death. Love only one should consider.' What a lesson for him! Perhaps what Salome thought she was getting in Iokanaan was a god to equal her passion rather than a desiccated prophet. Herod's response is to deplore Salome's 'crime against an unknown God'. It is a statement with more reflexive than direct meanings. In the myth of Cupid and Psyche, Cupid was the unknown god.
Historically, another Herod was to pass another death sentence, this time on the very unknown god this Herod condoles. And, of course, the 'unknown God' alludes to St Paul's famous 'Areopagus Sermon' in Athens (Acts 17:22-31) that led to the conversion of many.
18. Wilde reintroduces from Dorian Gray the drawing room of a collector of ancient and fabled curiosities, especially ones that would have been associated with anthropological study of primitive customs, religious rituals, and sexual rites that James G. Frazer had just analyzed in The Golden Bough. The Roots of Religion and Folklore (1890). Wilde's interlocutor may remind us of Gray in both his youth and debauched imagination, but there seems something of the amateur anthropologist in him also, more like the Victorian gentleman-scientist of Robert Browning's 'A Tocatta of Galuppi's', perhaps, than Wilde's decadent brat. Once again Wilde imports a work of art to be wished into a kind of hallucinated, gothic life that then reflects the true condition of the protagonist's guilty soul.
In the 1944 MGM film adaptation of Dorian Gray, not only does the sphinx appear in Basil's studio, in the painting, and in Dorian's study but also the poem is quoted several times as a basis for representing the statuette as one of the gods of Egypt with the power of granting Dorian Gray's wish for endless youth and for exercising an ancient evil influence over the lad in what was a rather creative reversal of the historical declension of influences in the texts.
19. The sphinx has long since turned to stone and has no longer a voice of her own. Her previously reputed conversations with humans having been riddling invitations to death make us wonder whether this her silence is now another form of riddle.
20. In Dorian Gray, this very argument for the survival of imagination and conscience as transformed remnants of the emotional and irrational life of primitive cultures is one phase of the theme of gothicized influence. The idea fascinated Wilde, perhaps because he was one who had learned to search for and recognize influences that had shaped his own life, especially we may suppose, his sexual life. This interest may have originated with Pater and later been reinforced by the growing influences of post-Darwinist psychology and the newer cultural and primitive anthropology. The theme appears in stories like 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime', 'Mr. W. H.', and Intentions before it became gothicized in Dorian Gray, Salome, and The Sphinx.
21. Wilde's reversal of the argument of Salome in the poem is worth noting. Instead of the female princess who is the victim of the gothic world created by her sick desire for Iokanaan, the speaker's morbid and carnal curiosity elaborated through his double-edged confessional interview, exercises in him appetites so feral that no human of Wilde's class could have entertained them without shame, even in a conditional state.
Behrendt, P. F. Oscar Wilde. Eros and Aesthetics, New York, St Martin's Press, 1991.
Buckler, W. 'The Picture of Dorian Gray. An Essay in Aesthetic Exploration', Victorians Institute Journal 18 (1990), 135-174.
Charlesworth-Gelpi, B. Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian Literature, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.
Cohen, P. K. The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, Cranbury, New Jersey and London, Associated University Press, 1978.
Day, W. P. In the Circles of Fear and Desire, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Ellmann, R. Golden Codgers, New York, Oxford University Press, 1973.
――――――. Oscar Wilde, New York, Knopf, 1988.
Gagnier, R. Idylls of the Marketplace, Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 1986.
Geary, R. F. The Supernatural in Gothic Fiction, Lewiston, New York, Mellon University Press, 1992.
Hyde, H. Oscar Wilde, New York, Ferrar, 1975.
Kohl, N. Oscar Wilde. The Works of a Conformist Rebel, trans. D. H. Wilson, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Nassaar, C. S. Into the Demon Universe. A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1974.
San Juan, Jr., E. The Art of Oscar Wilde, Princeton University Press, 1967.
Walpole, H. 'Preface', The Castle of Otranto. Ed. W. S. Lewis, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1969.
Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works, London, Collins, 1969.
――――――. Letters, Ed. R. Hart-Davis, London, Hart-Davis, 1962.
――――――. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ed. D. Lawler, New York, Norton, 1987.
Worth, K. Oscar Wilde, New York, Grove Press, 1983.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12486
ST. JAMES GAZETTE (REVIEW DATE 24 JUNE 1890)
SOURCE: "A Study in Puppydom." In A Norton Critical Edition: Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray, edited by Donald L. Lawler, pp. 67-71. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988.
In the following essay, first published in the St. James's Gazette on June 24, 1890, the critic derides The Picture of Dorian Gray as poorly written, derivative, immature, and immoral.
Time was (it was in the '70's) when we talked about Mr Oscar Wilde; time came (it came in the '80's) when he tried to write poetry and, more adventurous, we tried to read it; time is when we had forgotten him, or only remember him as the late editor of The Woman's World—a part for which he was singularly unfitted, if we are to judge him by the work which he has been allowed to publish in Lippincott's Magazine and which Messrs Ward, Lock & Co. have not been ashamed to circulate in Great Britain. Not being curious in ordure, and not wishing to offend the nostrils of decent persons, we do not propose to analyse The Picture of Dorian Gray: that would be to advertise the developments of an esoteric prurience. Whether the Treasury or the Vigilance Society will think it worth while to prosecute Mr Oscar Wilde or Messrs Ward, Lock & Co., we do not know; but on the whole we hope they will not.
The puzzle is that a young man of decent parts, who enjoyed (when he was at Oxford) the opportunity of associating with gentlemen, should put his name (such as it is) to so stupid and vulgar a piece of work. Let nobody read it in the hope of finding witty paradox or racy wickedness. The writer airs his cheap research among the garbage of the French Décadents like any drivelling pedant, and he bores you unmercifully with his prosy rigmaroles about the beauty of the Body and the corruption of the Soul. The grammar is better than Ouida's; the erudition equal; but in every other respect we prefer the talented lady who broke off with "pious aposiopesis" when she touched upon "the horrors which are described in the pages of Suetonius and Livy"—not to mention the yet worse infamies believed by many scholars to be accurately portrayed in the lost works of Plutarch, Venus, and Nicodemus, especially Nicodemus.
Let us take one peep at the young men in Mr Oscar Wilde's story. Puppy No. 1 is the painter of the picture of Dorian Gray; Puppy No. 2 is the critic (a courtesy lord, skilled in all the knowledge of the Egyptians and aweary of all the sins and pleasures of London); Puppy No. 3 is the original, cultivated by Puppy No. 1 with a "romantic friendship." The Puppies fall a-talking: Puppy No. 1 about his Art, Puppy No. 2 about his sins and pleasures and the pleasures of sin, and Puppy No. 3 about himself—always about himself, and generally about his face, which is "brainless and beautiful." The Puppies appear to fill up the intervals of talk by plucking daisies and playing with them, and sometimes by drinking "something with strawberry in it." The youngest Puppy is told that he is charming; but he mustn't sit in the sun for fear of spoiling his complexion. When he is rebuked for being a naughty, wilful boy, he makes a pretty moue—this man of twenty! This is how he is addressed by the Blasé Puppy at their first meeting:
"Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away…. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you…. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dulleyed. You will suffer horribly."
Why, bless our souls! haven't we read something of this kind somewhere in the classics? Yes, of course we have! But in what recondite author? Ah—yes—no—yes, it was in Horace! What an advantage it is to have received a classical education! And how it will astonish the Yankees! But we must not forget our Puppies, who have probably occupied their time in lapping "something with strawberry in it." Puppy No. 1 (the Art Puppy) has been telling Puppy No. 3 (the Doll Puppy) how much he admires him. What is the answer? "I am less to you than your ivory Hermes or your silver Faun. You will like them always. How long will you like me? Till I have my first wrinkle, I suppose. I know now that when one loses one's good looks, whatever they may be, one loses everything…. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose?… Oh, if it was only the other way! If the picture could only change, and I could be always what I am now!"
No sooner said than done! The picture does change: the original doesn't. Here's a situation for you! Théophile Gautier could have made it romantic, entrancing, beautiful. Mr Stevenson could have made it convincing, humorous, pathetic. Mr Anstey could have made it screamingly funny. It has been reserved for Mr Oscar Wilde to make it dull and nasty. The promising youth plunges into every kind of mean depravity, and ends in being "cut" by fast women and vicious men. He finishes with murder: the New Voluptuousness always leads up to blood-shedding—that is part of the cant. The gore and gashes wherein Mr Rider Haggard takes a chaste delight are the natural diet for a cultivated palate which is tired of mere licentiousness. And every wickedness or filthiness committed by Dorian Gray is faithfully registered upon his face in the picture; but his living features are undisturbed and unmarred by his inward vileness. This is the story which Mr Oscar Wilde has tried to tell; a very lame story it is, and very lamely it is told.
Why has he told it? There are two explanations; and, so far as we can see, not more than two. Not to give pleasure to his readers: the thing is too clumsy, too tedious, and—alas! that we should say it—too stupid. Perhaps it was to shock his readers, in order that they might cry Fie! upon him and talk about him, much as Mr Grant Allen recently tried in The Universal Review to arouse, by a licentious theory of the sexual relations, an attention which is refused to his popular chatter about other men's science. Are we then to suppose that Mr Oscar Wilde has yielded to the craving for a notoriety which he once earned by talking fiddle-faddle about other men's art, and sees his only chance of recalling it by making himself obvious at the cost of being obnoxious, and by attracting the notice which the olfactory sense cannot refuse to the presence of certain self-asserting organisms? That is an uncharitable hypothesis, and we would gladly abandon it. It may be suggested (but is it more charitable?) that he derives pleasure from treating a subject merely because it is disgusting. The phenomenon is not unknown in recent literature; and it takes two forms, in appearance widely separate—in fact, two branches from the same root, a root which draws its life from malodorous putrefaction. One development is found in the Puritan prurience which produced Tolstoy's "Kreutzer Sonata" and Mr Stead's famous outbursts. That is odious enough and mischievous enough, and it is rightly execrated, because it is tainted with an hypocrisy not the less culpable because charitable persons may believe it to be unconscious. But is it more odious or more mischievous than the "frank Paganism" (that is the word, is it not?) which delights in dirtiness and confesses its delight? Still they are both chips from the same block—"The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon" and The Picture of Dorian Gray—and both of them ought to be chucked into the fire. Not so much because they are dangerous and corrupt (they are corrupt but not dangerous) as because they are incurably silly, written by simpleton poseurs (whether they call themselves Puritan or Pagan) who know nothing about the life which they affect to have explored, and because they are mere catchpenny relevations of the non-existent, which, if they reveal anything at all, are revelations only of the singularly unpleasant minds from which they emerge.
LEWIS J. POTEET (ESSAY DATE SUMMER 1971)
SOURCE: Poteet, Lewis J. "Dorian Gray and the Gothic Novel." Modern Fiction Studies 17, no. 2 (summer 1971): 239-48.
In the following essay, Poteet surveys possible connections between The Picture of Dorian Gray and Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, maintaining that "Wilde in fact may be said to have written a version of Gothic novel, giving the form contemporary dimensions."
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde's only novel, was written and published during the same burst of creative energy that produced the essays collected in Intentions (1891).1 Yet it has rarely been studied in connection with them or with any native English novelistic tradition; it has usually been treated as a curious, anomalous artifact of aestheticism, deriving more from the French than from anything else. In fact, Graham Hough is typical in treating the novel as a bad imitation of K.-J. Huysmans' A Rebours. He bases this judgment on the identity of the unnamed "yellow book" which Dorian Gray reads in Chapter X and whose influence on his life is detailed in Chapter XI, and he says rather ungenerously that the "yellow book," which he identifies with A Rebours, "probably remains anonymous because Wilde owed too much to it and was not overanxious to advertise his sources."2 The most recent full-length study of Wilde's work, too, calls Huysmans' novel the "main inspiration" of Dorian Gray.3 These attributions of influence have been made again and again despite Wilde's clearly caustic deprecation of Huysmans in a letter to Robert Ross (Letters, p. 520).4 He does, to be sure, mention Huysmans in answer to a question about the "yellow book": "The book in Dorian Gray is one of the many books I have never written, but it is partly suggested by Huysmans's A Rebours…. It is a fantastic variation on Huysmans's over-realistic study of the artistic temperament in our inartistic age" (Letters, p. 313). But he has been taken to mean that his own novel is the "fantastic variation"; what he says is that it is the "yellow book" which Lord Harry sends Dorian. In another letter, answering the same question, he writes, "The book that poisoned, or made perfect, Dorian Gray does not exist; it is a fancy of mine merely" (Letters, p. 352) as if to counter the mistaken, if commonplace, association with Huysmans.
Wilde may indeed have owed Huysmans more than he acknowledged, but a close look at both books uncovers important differences. A Rebours is, as Wilde says in the description of the "yellow book" in Dorian Gray, "a novel without a plot"; Dorian Gray is definitely a novel with a plot, beginning with Dorian's temptation and his rash vow, moving through his progressive loss of "natural" innocence and his artificialization of his life to his crime, the murder of Basil Hallward, and his own death. A Rebours is an intensely psychological study of a single protagonist, seen through his own eyes; Wilde divides the reader's attention among three main characters and a "living" portrait. The protagonist of A Rebours is not criminal; Dorian is. He does not even inspire unsavory rumors, as Dorian does, for society is irrelevant to the exploration of his personal aesthetic. In fact, the direct influences of A Rebours on Dorian Gray are pretty much limited to Chapters X and XI, in which Dorian encounters the "yellow book" and imitates the protagonist by collecting sensations—musical, artistic, gemological, religious. But even this is only one of several exercises in Dorian's progressive initiation into aestheticism: it has its appropriate place, I suggest, in a larger scheme.
Behind the larger scheme of the book lies a native, English Romantic literary tradition, that of the Gothic novel, the form which a recent scholar calls "the serious romance" and which he says the novels of Godwin, Ann Radcliffe, Charles Maturin, Mary Shelley, Dickens, the Brontës, and R. L. Stevenson best represent.5 Instead of making generalizations about the Gothic novel in general, we may most usefully inquire into the relationship of Wilde's novel to it by looking closely at the Gothic novel that was most likely to be on his mind when he wrote Dorian Gray. Charles R. Maturin, one of the Gothic novelists most successful and prolific in the Romantic period, was an ancestor of Wilde; in fact, Wilde mentions his novel Melmoth the Wanderer and acknowledges the family relationship with some pride—Maturin was his grand-uncle (Letters, p. 520). Wilde may have helped his friends Robert Ross and More Adey to write an "anonymous biographical introduction to a new edition of the novel in 1892" (Letters, p. 555n), about a year after Dorian Gray was published.
And Melmoth the Wanderer does provide many of the larger patterns with which Wilde shapes his novel, so that Wilde in fact may be said to have written a version of Gothic novel, giving the form contemporary dimensions. From Melmoth and other Gothic novels and legends which provided material for them (the Faust legend, for example), Wilde takes the overall movement from rash vow (the bargain with the devil) to condemnation. Melmoth's pact with the devil is for vaguely specified ends, giving him the power of a magician over the world of spirits and demons and the power to move about the earth freely, not limited to place or time as are ordinary men. Thus, in the most explicit statement about his bargain, he cries out before his condemnation to hell, "no one has ever exchanged destinies with Melmoth the Wanderer. I have traversed the world in the search, and no one, to gain the world, would lose his own soul" (III, 327), Dorian makes a pact, the implications of which are tied in with Wilde's aesthetic theory, as we shall see; he is increasingly the subject of gossip and rumor because, like Melmoth, he moves about secretly and is associated with debauchery and disaster (Melmoth II, 180ff, 275). Wilde takes from Maturin's novel Dorian's eternal youth—Melmoth, though "then … considerably advanced in life, to the astonishment of his family,… did not betray the slightest trace of being a year older than when they last beheld him" (I, 35-36). He also follows Maturin by making Dorian suddenly age at the moment of his damnation, just as, after Melmoth's dream of damnation, "now the lines of extreme age were visible in every feature. His hairs were as white as snow, his mouth had fallen in, the muscles of his face were relaxed and withered—he was the very image of decrepit debility" (III, 328-332).
From Melmoth and other Gothic novels, Wilde accepts the radical bifurcation of nature and art; he puts to original uses the Gothic novelist's conventional plot pattern in which an innocent child of nature is corrupted by the artificialities of society. In Melmoth, the child of nature is Immalee: "Her drapery consisted only of flowers, whose rich colours and fantastic grouping harmonized well with the peacock's feathers twined among them, and altogether composed a feathery fan of wild drapery, which in truth, beseemed an 'island goddess'" (II, 187-188). After her "seduction" into the cruel arts of society and a knowledge of the inconsistency and cruelty of man to man in society, Immalee finds nature no longer friendly but threatening (II, 210-221, 249-256). On her "nuptial" trip with her tempter and demon-lover, she finds nature hostile:
I feel as if I were traversing some unknown region. Are these indeed the winds of heaven that sigh around me? Are these trees of nature's growth, that nod at me like sceptres? How hollow and dismal is the sound of the blast!—it chills me though the night is sultry!—and those trees, they cast their shadows over my soul!
This vision of nature inverted, of a sort of anti-nature, would not have been distasteful to the author of "The Decay of Lying," but of course Wilde's attitude to nature and art is not precisely that of Maturin. The point is that Wilde keeps the concepts in opposition and connotatively loaded as the Gothic novelist had, particularly as he describes Dorian's progress from child of nature in the first chapter to disillusioned aesthete at the end. At the beginning, he is described with profuse nature imagery:
The studio was filled with the rich odor of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amid the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn…. Dorian "looks as if he was made of ivory and rose-leaves…. He is some brainless, beautiful creature, who should be always here in winter when we have no flowers to look at."
(II, 1, 3-4)
Dorian's vow preserves his beauty but commits him to the superiority of art over nature, and he cultivates the artificial. He finds nature increasingly neither beautiful nor ugly, but dull and without meaning. Ultimately, his natural beauty gone, he lies dead, identifiable only by his rings (II, 272).
The Gothic novel is also almost certainly an influence on the passage, in Chapter XIV, in which Wilde describes how Dorian gets rid of the body of the murdered Hallward. The torture devices, the dark caverns, the mysterious diabolical machines of the Inquisition which are suggested in Melmoth are adapted as Dorian forces Campbell, a young scientist whom he has compromised in some unexplained way, to bring his "heavy chest, and the irons, and the other things that he required for his dreadful work" (II, 209) of dissolving the body.
But most important, Wilde would have been able to find the suggestion in Melmoth of the portrait device. The young narrator of that novel first encounters the Wanderer in a portrait:
John's eyes were in a moment, and as if by magic, rivetted on a portrait that hung on the wall, and appeared, even to his untaught eye, far superior to the tribe of family pictures that are left to moulder on the walls of a family mansion. It represented a man of middle age. There was nothing remarkable in the costume, or in the countenance, but the eyes, John felt, were such as one feels they wish they had never seen, and feels they can never forget.
As in Dorian Gray, the portrait of old Melmoth is given mysterious and terrifying associations. The young narrator thinks he sees "the eyes of the portrait, on which his own was fixed, move" (I, 23). He discovers that his uncle asked in his will that the portrait be destroyed, as if by that act the obscure curse of the Wanderer might be driven off (I, 26-27). When young Melmoth tries to destroy it, obeying the will, he finds hints that it may have a life of its own:
He seized it;—his hand shook at first, but the mouldering canvas appeared to assist him in the effort. He tore it from the frame with a cry half terrific, half triumphant,—it fell at his feet, and he shuddered as it fell. He expected to hear some fearful sounds, some unimaginable breathings of prophetic horror, follow this act of sacrilege, for such he felt it, to tear the portrait of his ancestor from its native walls. He paused and listened;—there was "no voice, nor any that answered;"—but as the wrinkled and torn canvas fell to the floor, its undulations gave the portrait the appearance of smiling. Melmoth felt horror indescribable at this transient and imaginary resuscitation of the figure.
It is not only in Melmoth, of course, that this concentration on a portrait is to be found; Eino Railo has traced the history of the portrait motif through Gothic literature from Walpole to Wilde, with particular attention to works by Poe and Rossetti.6 But in Maturin's attribution of a sort of life to the portrait, which to destroy is in some way fearful to the living, we have the most direct suggestion of Wilde's symbol in a book he knew well.
Wilde certainly puts the portrait to more significant use than Maturin. He makes it a structural, unifying element in his novel, and he spins out of it whole levels of meaning never attained in Melmoth. Most studies of Dorian Gray have recognized the portrait's function as Dorian's "double," the figure which embodies the subconscious, darker, evil side of his nature. This psychological allegorizing, the "doppelgänger motif," has been shown to be a basic technique of the novelistic romance.7 In studying it, Eino Railo calls this "parting of good and evil as though into two separate entities in the same individual and [the idea of] veritable doubles" an "extremely vital theme of terror in romantic literature."8 In Melmoth, for example, Moncada, a character in one of the internal narratives, finds himself inescapably involved with a parricide, who acts as a catalyst to his own unrealized darker potentialities—"I dreaded him as a demon, yet I invoked him as a god" (II, 42). A recent analysis of the "double" which goes beyond mere identification explains it as originating in a "verbal distinction … between personality and character, the former as in some way the conscious product of the latter." In the nineteenth century, this critic says, writers began to treat the self as "binary or double-decked" and naturally tended to "anthropomorphize each part."9 According to this analysis, Wilde's use of the portrait, however more sophisticated than in Melmoth, is still relatively simple:
The artist transfers to the canvas, as by magic, the entire personality of his sitter, thus creating the latter's double…. The portrait represents the evil half of his being…. In this manner Wilde brings to light an idea that had probably always lain behind the portrait-theme—that the picture constituted in some mysterious way the sitter's double, living a parallel life and reflecting his personality…. What the author is actually arguing is simply that a vicious life leaves its own marks.10
While this scheme may point up Wilde's place in a tradition, it oversimplifies the psychology of the artist in Dorian Gray. The essays in Intentions, particularly the two parts of "The Critic as Artist," describe the creative personality not in terms of conscious and subconscious but as in process of multiple realizations of the possibilities of the self. In one of his fanciful descriptions of the book, Wilde suggests, similarly, that the different characters may represent not just two but several versions of one person: "that strange coloured book of mine … contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps" (Letters, p. 352).
Wilde was not so much drawn, I suggest, to the "doubling" of certain characters in the Gothic novel as to the far more central technique of focusing on a strong-willed central protagonist whose goals are not narrowly defined. What stands out, after all, about Melmoth and Ambrosio (hero of The Monk, 1794) and even Manfred (The Castle of Otranto, probably the first Gothic novel) is both their self-absorbed, narcissistic egomania and the fluidity of their aims. They seek variously to possess the souls of innocent victims and the bodies of women (Melmoth, Ambrosio, and Manfred) or exclusive and perpetual control over a kingdom through a dynastic triumph (Manfred), or power over dark powers (Melmoth and Vathek); but the exact object of their ambitions is never as important as the exercise of the will itself. What better fictional model could Wilde have had for the artist- and critic-figure of the Intentions? His self is described as a creative, dynamic one, not a simple character with fixed attributes. He is active and forceful; his art is the product of his conscious will; but he uses the will not to "express" a static personality, good or evil, but rather as an agent to flux:
The soul that dwells within us is no single spiritual entity, making us personal and individual, created for our service and entering into us for our joy. It is … sick with many maladies, and has memories of curious sins.
He will realise himself in many forms, and by a thousand different ways, and will ever be curious of new sensations and fresh points of view. Through constant change, and through constant change alone, he will find his true unity…. What people call insincerity is simply a method by which we can multiply our personalities.
It is perhaps not quite accidental that Wilde's character of the artist is derived from sources contemporary with the Gothic novel—specifically, Keats, whose letters Wilde loved to quote, and whose definition, in one of the best-known of them, of his own poetical "character" distinguishes it from the Wordsworthian in that it "is not itself—it has no self—it is everything and nothing—It has no character."11
It is my contention, then, that with the portrait-motif as with the other structural elements derived from the Gothic novel, Wilde expresses and tests the theory of art and the artist of the Intentions. This dimension in the novel is suggested by Richard Ellmann when he writes, "Dorian sells his soul not to the devil but, in the ambiguous form of his portrait, to art."12 It is not merely "art" in the abstract, though; it is specifically to the theory of art expounded in the Intentions that Dorian makes his rash vow: "If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything!" (II, 31). Dorian's dilemma is embodied in the paradox repeated throughout the dialogues, a paradox derived ultimately from Keats' Odes—man, mortal and mutable, creates works of art which are immortal. Dorian tries by an extraordinary exercise of the will to resolve the paradox, to become a work of art. He is tempted into this venture by a sort of "devil," the aesthetic critic Lord Henry, who preaches a version of the dialogues' main tenet, the artistic possibilities of multiple realizations of the self: "I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream—I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy" (II, 21-27). Dorian's vow and his subsequent exploration of art, music, travel, and the whole range of sensation, not excluding opium, sex (Lord Henry's conquest of Dorian, and Dorian's of Campbell, are described with many hints of the seduction of a younger by an older man), and finally murder, are thus to be taken as the story of an artist in the framework laid down by "The Critic as Artist":
In his search for sensations that would be at once new and delightful, and possess that element of strangeness that is so essential to romance, he would often adopt certain modes of thought that he knew to be really alien to his nature, abandon himself to their subtle influences, and then, having, as it were, caught their color and satisfied his intellectual curiosity, leave them with a … curious indifference that is not incompatible with a real ardor of temperament.
He is an artist in life, not only in paint or in words, for he tries to give his life the beautiful changeableness of the artist and artist-critic of Wilde's dialogues.
Dorian Gray is, then, both artist and work of art; in fact, in Wilde's version of romantic, the two are one. As artist, Dorian seeks to apply aesthetic criteria in a pure form to all of life, even—in the Sybil Vane affair—to love, loving the actress only so long as her art is perfect and spurning her when, touched by real love, she loses her sense of form. As work of art, Dorian illustrates the Wildean notion of the independence of the work of art from conditions of creation and the artist's preconceptions, for initially Basil Hallward and Lord Henry "create" Dorian. Basil Hallward creates the emblem of his beauty—the portrait—which precipitates his narcissistic recognition of his own beauty and his rash vow; Lord Henry "creates" his personality by tempting him with a vision of the artistic possibilities of confident and aggressive self-development. But Dorian goes far beyond Lord Henry's instruction, for he really acts, while Lord Henry merely speculates on the possibilities. And Dorian bewilders Basil, who is basically Victorian in his morality, with a complete amorality. Dorian in effect takes over the creation of the work of art from Basil, for he is himself the work of art in the new scheme, and his artistic experiments in living make him more and more different from whatever the "real" Dorian Gray, who sat for Basil's portrait, may have been. In a sense, he also undertakes a repainting of the portrait, for his experiences modify the expression on the canvas, making it more and more old, cruel, and brutal. But these changes in the canvas—often explained as the conventional "voice of conscience" in Dorian—actually reflect the life of Dorian filtered through the judgment of Basil, the Victorian moralist, to whom Dorian's search for sensation is a wallowing in sin. After all, Basil used "realism … of method," painting Dorian "in his own dress and in his own time" (II, 138). It is typical Wildean puckishness that at one level the entire portrait device is an elaborate joke at the expense of representational painting.
Dorian's rash bargain, then, is ambiguous in the same way as the bargain made by the protagonist of the Gothic novel. Melmoth's deal with the devil elevates him above normal men; he dares more, he achieves more, than they do. He tests the bounds of the spiritual universe. He sees the world of men from a special perspective, outside time, and can compare generations and societies as most men cannot. He is a martyr to this special knowledge. He is damned, for the price of his greater knowledge and experience is his soul. Similarly, Dorian dares to live by an aesthetic more purely aesthetical than most men are willing to attempt. His rejection of the moral evaluation of behavior is complete. Wilde is, like most late Victorians, skeptical of metaphysical systems; and for his version of Gothic novel, even the pretended belief in the world of demons which characterizes the works of Walpole, Beckford, and Maturin is impossible. But he can substitute a contemporary version. The aesthetic dandy, cynical, amoral, and defiant of conventional morality, keenly interested in the contemporary French writers of "little yellow books" who so shocked the Victorian middle class, was a perfect "demon" to flaunt before the respectable late-century reading public. And from Wilde's point of view, the only spiritual world with any meaning is the aesthetic one. It is thus appropriate for Dorian's vow to be in the service of art.
But Wilde is at once both honest about the possibilities of such a pure aestheticism and true to the Gothic tradition of the moralistic ending. He gives the moralists their spokesman in Basil Hallward and his terrifying portrait; he acknowl-edges the likelihood that Dorian is excessively individualistic ("You worshiped yourself too much"—III, 190); and he recognizes the sterility of the absolute affirmation of art, as the dead Dorian can only be identified by his rings (II, 272). Above all, Dorian's ultimate self-hatred as he accepts the moralists' view of his life and his consequent attack on the portrait (which turns out to be suicide)—all this is not so much a denial of the aesthetic as it is both an acknowledgment that in its pure form it is not ready for the world, or the world for it, and also an experiencing of the decadent's final thrill—le frisson nouveau—death. Dorian Gray, like Melmoth, seems insincerely moralistic at the end; both were conceived, however, as tests, experiments in the juxtaposition of opposites, to be ended only by a doom made necessary precisely by the irreconcilability of the opposing forces.
The Gothic novel, itself a fin-de-siècle genre of the eighteenth century, cast off the conventional eighteenth-century homage to realism, credibility, and responsibility to an aesthetic of taste, reaching beyond accepted novelistic approaches to life and character to explore with brilliant if erratic flashes a psychological universe. Horror in the Gothic novel is almost never genuine; its effects are overstated in a calculated way; characters are rarely believable or consistent. It is not hard to see why the Gothic novel appealed to Oscar Wilde. In it he found implicit and explicit attitudes toward a realistic, moralistic Establishment aesthetic similar to the one he faced. It gave him a form through which he could test his own anti-Victorian aesthetic in a protagonist whose very woodenness is a function of his being partly allegorical and whose damnation is as inescapable as it is irrelevant to the "truth" of his theories. For the "truth" of Dorian Gray is to be found, like the "truth" of Melmoth the Wanderer, in the resonances and tensions of the work, rather than in any fidelity to the ordinary life of the society from which its author came.
1. All parenthetical references in the text to Oscar Wilde's works are to the edition by Robert Ross (New York: Bigelow, Brown, & Co., 1909); to the letters, to the edition by Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd., 1962); to Melmoth the Wanderer, to the edition Wilde probably helped edit (London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1892).
2. Graham Hough, The Last Romantics (London: Methuen & Co., 1961), p. 195.
3. Epifanio San Juan, Jr., The Art of Oscar Wilde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 53.
4. Wilde writes, "En Route is sheer journalism. It never makes one hear a note of the music it describes…. The style is … worthless, slipshod, flaccid."
5. Edwin Eigner, Robert Louis Stevenson and Romantic Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), pp. 5-6.
6. Eino Railo, The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism (London: George Routledge & Sons, Ltd., 1927), pp. 304-307. I am indebted to Edouard Roditi's Oscar Wilde (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions Books, 1947), for pointing out the possibility of the influence of Maturin on Wilde. He also suggests a number of analogues in other nineteenth-century uses of the portrait motif (pp. 113-118).
7. Eigner, pp. 21-22.
8. Railo, pp. 186-188.
9. Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1948), pp. 72-73.
10. Railo, p. 307.
11. John Keats, Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), pp. 227-228.
12. Richard Ellmann, "Romantic Pantomime in Oscar Wilde," Partisan Review, (Fall, 1963), 353.
13. On possible sources for the concept of murder as a fine art, see De Quincey's "On Murder, Considered as one of the Fine Arts," Collected Works, XIII (London: A. & C. Black, 1897), 9, and Wilde's own "Pen, Pencil, and Poison" (IV, 61 ff).
KENNETH WOMACK (ESSAY DATE 2000)
SOURCE: Womack, Kenneth. "'Withered, Wrinkled, and Loathsome of Visage': Reading the Ethics of the Soul and the Late-Victorian Gothic in The Picture of Dorian Gray." In Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys, pp. 168-81. New York: Palgrave, 2000.
In the following essay, Womack argues that "[a]n ethical reading of" The Picture of Dorian Gray "reveals the ways in which the novelist exploits the fantastic elements inherent in the Victorian Gothic as a means for fulfilling his decidedly moral aims."
As a literary phenomenon, the Victorian gothic manifests itself in fin-de-siècle literature both as a subversive supernatural force and as a mechanism for social critique. Envisioning the world as a dark and spiritually turbulent tableau, the fictions of the late-Victorian gothic often depict the city of London as a corrupt urban landscape characterized by a brooding populace and by its horror-filled streets of terror. In The Three Impostors (1895), for instance, Arthur Machen offers a desolate, hyper-eroticized portrait of London and its invasion by a chemically altered degenerate race of pagan beings. In one of the more chilling portrayals of London's citizenry, Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan (1896) narrates the Devil's progress through the city's ethically bankrupt environs as he searches for someone—indeed, anyone—with the moral strength to resist his temptations. He does not succeed. At the conclusion of The Sorrows of Satan, the Devil ascends the steps of Parliament, walking arm-in-arm with its acquiescent ministers. The characters in Richard Marsh's The Beetle (1897) encounter a similarly troubled London cityscape. In the novel, a desperate and lonely Robert Holt wanders the city in search of lodging only to confront the supernatural insect, metaphor for London's spiritual vacancy in the form of a giant beetle. Finally, in The Lodger (1923), Marie Belloc Lowndes depicts the mean streets of 1880s London in her fictional account of Jack the Ripper's murderous exploits in the city's notorious East End. The novel's chilling atmosphere of suspense, fear and horror—as with other works in the genre—underscores the manner in which the Victorian gothic provides a critique of the moral and spiritual value systems of London and its forlorn inhabitants. Each volume also narrates—in one form or another, human, insect or otherwise—the corruption of the soul.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Oscar Wilde likewise investigates the ethics of the soul through his own well-known portrait of aesthetic narcissism and fin-de-siècle decadence. Yet in the novel's Preface, Wilde writes that 'no artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist', he coyly adds, 'is an unpardonable mannerism of style' (1991, 69). During the novel's initial serialization, the popular press severely rebuked The Picture of Dorian Gray for its ostensible lack of moral import. A reviewer in the 30 June 1890 edition of the Daily Chronicle described the novel as 'unclean' and a 'poisonous book' with 'odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction'. In a 5 July 1890 notice in the Scots Observer, yet another reviewer complained about the novel's 'false' morality, 'for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health, and sanity' (cited in Beckson 1998, 271). Wilde swiftly replied to the growing horde of critics, arguing, rather ironically, that The Picture of Dorian Gray was in fact too moral: 'All excess, as well as all renunciation', Wilde soberly concluded, 'brings its own punishment' (cited in Ellmann 321). While the novelist's contradictory stances regarding his narrative's ethical properties seem purposefully beguiling, few critics deny the moral fable that functions at the core of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although Colin McGinn, for example, evaluates the novel in terms of its humanist agenda in Ethics, Evil, and Fiction (1997), he neglects, as with other Wilde critics, to consider the role of the Victorian gothic as the mechanism via which Wilde achieves his moral aims regarding the soul and its function as the repository for humanity's notions of goodness and evil—the essential qualities that define our perceptions about the interpersonal fabric of the self.1
An ethical reading of Wilde's novel reveals the ways in which the novelist exploits the fantastic elements inherent in the Victorian gothic as a means for fulfilling his decidedly moral aims in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ethical criticism, with its reliance upon contemporary moral philosophy, affords readers with a paradigm for considering the contradictory emotions and problematic moral stances that often mask literary characters. Ethical criticism also provides its practitioners with the capacity for positing socially relevant interpretations by celebrating the Aristotelian qualities of living well and flourishing. As Martha C. Nussbaum reminds us in The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, the ethical study of literary works offers a powerful means for interpreting the ideological and interpersonal clashes that define the human experience. The ethical investigation of literature, she writes, 'lays open to view the complexity, the indeterminacy, the sheer difficulty of actual human deliberation'. Such humanistic criticism, she adds, demonstrates 'the vulnerability of human lives to fortune, the mutability of our circumstances and our passions, the existence of conflicts among our commitments' (1986, 1314). By focusing our attention upon the narrative experiences of literary characters, ethical criticism provides a powerful mechanism for investigating the interconnections between the reading experience and the life of the reader.
An ethical reading of Wilde's novel—concerned, as it is, with the soul and our perceptions regarding the nature of goodness—demands that we devote particular attention to these issues and their relevance to such a reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In her important volume of moral philosophy, The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch elaborates upon the concept of goodness and the ways in which our personal configurations of it govern human perceptions regarding the relationship between the self and the world. Murdoch's paradigm for understanding goodness functions upon the equally abstract notions of free will and moral choice. 'Good is indefinable', Murdoch writes, 'because judgments of value depend upon the will and choice of the individual' (1985, 3). Postulating any meaning for goodness, then, requires individuals to render personal observations about the nature of this precarious expression and its role in their life decisions. Although Murdoch concedes that goodness essentially finds its origins in 'the nature of concepts very central to morality such as justice, truthfulness, or humility', she correctly maintains, nevertheless, that only individual codes of morality can determine personal representations of goodness (89). 'Good is an empty space into which human choice may move' (97), she asserts, and 'the strange emptiness which often occurs at the moment of choosing' underscores the degree of autonomy inherent in the act of making moral decisions (35). Individuals may also measure their personal conceptions of goodness in terms of its foul counterpart, evil, which Murdoch defines generally as 'cynicism, cruelty, indifference to suffering' (98). Again, though, as with good, evil finds its definition in the personal ethos constructed by individuals during their life experiences in the human community.2
Because such ontological concepts remain so vitally contingent upon personal rather than communal perceptions of morality, Murdoch suggests that their comprehension lies in the mysterious fabric of the self. 'The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion', she observes, and 'goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness' (93). In Murdoch's philosophy, goodness manifests itself during the healthy pursuit of self-awareness and self-knowledge. The soul, as the product of such an intrapersonal quest, functions as the repository for goodness and evil, as well as the essential material that comprises the self. Moral philosophers often conceive of the soul as a vast entity that consists of our innate emotional senses and desires. In Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Nussbaum elaborates upon the concept of the soul, which she sees as 'shaped and structured by the needs and interests of an imperfect and limited being. Its characterization of what truth and value are is distorted by the pressure of bodily need, emotional turmoil, and the other constraining and limiting features of our bodily humanity' (1990, 248). The soul operates as a conflation of sorts between bodily desires and individual value systems, and the harmony between these two elements produces a kind of moral beauty. Robert E. Norton describes the soul's capacity for moral beauty as 'both the motivation and manifestation of virtue' (1995, 48) and associates 'moral purity and goodness with a kind of beauty of soul' (1995, 96). As the essence of a given individual's humanity, then, the soul consists of spiritual and emotional components that define the sensual and virtuous qualities of our selves.
'To choose a style', Nussbaum writes in Love's Knowledge, 'is to tell a story about the soul'. For Wilde, the literary style of The Picture of Dorian Gray manifests itself in his appropriation of the Victorian gothic as his novel's narrative means. 'Form and style are not incidental features', Nussbaum argues. 'A view of life is told. The telling itself—the selection of genre, formal structures, sentences, vocabulary, of the whole manner of addressing the reader's sense of life—all of this expresses a sense of life and of value, a sense of what matters and what does not, of what learning and communicating are, of life's relations and connections' (1990, 259, 5). In this manner, the Victorian gothic's supernatural elements make possible Wilde's narration of Basil Hallward's artistic rendering of Dorian Gray, the painting of whom functions as the basis for the ethical debate that undergirds much of the novel: should we, as human beings, pursue our id-driven desires for sensual gratification and external beauty for the price of a hideous soul? Wilde employs the paradoxical Lord Henry Wotton as the voice of The Picture of Dorian Gray's moral deliberations and Dorian's soul as the object of Lord Henry's intellectual whimsy. In addition to calling into question the ethics of the aristocracy in his novel, Wilde avails himself of the Victorian gothic as a means for engendering a philosophical discourse on good and evil, as well as on the mysterious properties of the human soul.3 An ethical reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray not only allows us to speculate about Wilde's moral aims in his depiction of Dorian's increasingly repulsive soul, but also to interrogate the Victorian gothic as an ethical construct in itself.
As with the novel itself—which John Stokes describes as being from 'that bottomless pile of Gothic stories' (1996, 37)—the character of Dorian Gray combines elements of aesthetic decadence with the Victorian gothic. As he roams through the 'dim roar' of the novel's desolate London setting, Dorian vacillates between states of pronounced ennui and musical euphoria (Wilde 1991, 71). As Basil completes the portrait, for instance, the eternally posing Dorian complains of boredom: 'You never open your lips while you are painting', he tells the artist, 'and it is horribly dull standing on a platform and trying to look pleasant' (1991, 83). Conversely, Wilde punctuates Dorian's most intense life experiences, particular his aesthetic ones, with musical images. Talking to Dorian, Wilde writes, 'was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow … with all the music of passion and youth' (1991, 99). Dorian's beauty informs every aspect of his persona, from his external appearance to his capacity for inspiring confidence in every person he encounters: 'Yes, he was certainly handsome', Wilde writes, 'with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as youth's passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world' (1991, 83). As an exquisite combination of youthful good looks and a pleasant outward demeanor, Dorian enjoys the worship of nearly everyone he meets, especially Basil and Lord Henry.
While Dorian ultimately subscribes to Lord Henry's ontology of new Hedonism, Basil proffers the moral philosophy that the young aesthete clearly—given the novel's tragic conclusion—should have accepted. Devoted both to his craft as well as to his subject, Basil espouses a theory of moral beauty simply too realistic for Dorian to imbibe, stricken, as he is, with his ostensibly fleeting good looks. In sharp contrast with the fin-de-siècle decadence that surrounds him, Basil's philosophy of the soul argues for a healthy balance between our inner and outer selves, between our spiritual centres and the external images that we present to the world. 'The harmony of the soul and the body', Basil cautions, 'we in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, and ideality that is void' (1991, 79). In his portrait of Dorian, Basil clearly attempts to strike a balance between these two vital elements, so much so that he initially refuses to exhibit his latest creation and unleash it upon an aesthetically absorbed late-Victorian society. Basil fears, correctly, that the painting will consume 'my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself' (1991, 75). Perhaps even more troubling, the artist confesses that Dorian's 'personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style' (1991, 78). This all-encompassing sense of artistic style, a kind of decadence in itself, frightens the painter even more, for he perceives the unsettling wave of aestheticism that characterizes fin-de-siècle London, particularly evidenced by Lord Henry's mindset.4
Unlike Basil, who champions a theory of moral beauty founded upon a balance between body and soul, Lord Henry advocates the separation between these two forms of experience. Lord Henry, in the words of Amanda Witt, 'cultivates the attitude of observing his own life, rather than actually living it' (1991, 91). At times a caricature of the disinterested upper class, Lord Henry subscribes to a range of effected homilies and aphorisms. In one instance, he proudly proclaims that 'there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about'. The philosophy of new Hedonism that he delineates in the novel—and which Dorian, to his detriment, literally and figuratively absorbs—can only function by separating fully the spiritual from the corporeal self.5 'Beauty, real beauty', Lord Henry remarks, 'ends where an intellectual expression begins' (1991, 72), adding that 'Beauty is a form of Genius—is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation' (1991, 88). Lord Henry's decadent philosophy challenges its subscribers to elevate their desires for aesthetic experience and fulfillment over interpersonal consequences, to achieve a total separation between their ethical obligations to their community and their needs for self-indulgence: 'I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream', Lord Henry observes, then 'I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediævalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal' (1991, 85).
Lord Henry's late-Victorian philosophy of new Hedonism also proposes a striking counterpoint to notions of goodness as espoused by such contemporary moral philosophers as Murdoch, Nussbaum, McGinn and others. In Murdoch's ethical paradigm, the concept of goodness relates to a given individual's capacity for perceiving the 'unself', or that person living within us who attempts to approach the world with a 'virtuous consciousness'. Such a lifestyle possesses the possibility of producing a beautiful soul. In Lord Henry's philosophy, however, what matters is 'one's own life', as opposed to the lives of the others with whom we live in community. New Hedonism, at least in Lord Henry's postulation, urges its adherents to pursue pleasure at any cost. 'Individualism', Lord Henry argues, 'has really the higher aim' than endeavouring to share in the ethical codes of one's society (1991, 134). The philosophy of new Hedonism also eschews morality in favour of pleasurable experience. Although some experiences initially may be spiritually distressing or ethically unsatisfying, Lord Henry contends that their iteration should produce nothing but pleasure once the individual has inured his or her conscience to the soul-purging qualities of such experiences, no matter how sinful they may prove to be. 'Moralists had, as a rule, regarded it [experience] as a mode of warning, had claimed for it a certain ethical efficacy in the formation of character, had praised it as something that taught us what to follow and showed us what to avoid', Lord Henry remarks. 'But there was no motive power in experience', he adds. 'All that it really demonstrated was that our future would be the same as our past, and that the sin we had done once, and with loathing, we would do many times, and with joy' (1991, 118).
Delivered with the confidence and verbal precision of his station, Lord Henry's aesthetic philosophy proves too enticing for the naïve and impressionable Dorian to ignore and serves as the catalyst for the Faustian bargain that he strikes in the novel. 'A new Hedonism', Lord Henry tells the young aesthete, 'that is what our century wants. You might be its visible symbol. With your personality there is nothing you could not do. The world belongs to you for a season' (1991, 88). Yet Dorian, inspired by Lord Henry's philosophy, dares to possess the world for more than a mere season. While staring at his portrait, 'the sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before' (1991, 90). Fearing the day when time finally robs him of his youthful good looks, Dorian initially vows to kill himself when he grows old. For Dorian—with Lord Henry's theory of beauty still ringing in his ears—living in anything other than a state of exalted beauty seems simply unfathomable:
There would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed. The scarlet would pass away from his lips, and the gold steal from his hair. The life that was to make his soul would mar his body. He would become dreadful, hideous, and uncouth.
Dorian soon finds himself unable to distinguish between himself and the picture, describing it as 'part of myself' and the 'real Dorian' (1991, 93-4). Unbeknownst to himself at the time, Dorian enters into a supernatural bargain of sorts when he wishes he could change places with the picture: 'If it were only the only the other way!' he pleads. 'If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything!' (1991, 90).
The ethics of his Faustian transaction and of his absorption of Lord Henry's philosophy only become known to Dorian after his brief association with Sybil Vane, an aspiring young working-class actress from London's East End. Night after night, Dorian watches as she performs in various Shakespearean plays, taking on a myriad of fictional identities while remaining, in Dorian's envious words, 'more than an individual' (1991, 115), a beautiful soul in her own right. Unconcerned with her lower-class origins, Dorian falls in love with the youthful actress: 'Sybil is the only thing I care about', he tells Lord Henry. 'What is it to me where she came from? From her head to her little feet, she is absolutely and entirely divine. Every night of my life I go to see her act, and every night she is more marvelous' (1991, 114). In short, Dorian admires Sybil for her ability to create genuine, beautiful souls upon the stage. He reveres her capacity for taking fictional characters and imbuing them with the physical and spiritual aspects of real life that Dorian, whose external beauty depends on stasis for its endurance, simply cannot grasp. Yet Dorian's love for Sybil collapses after she gives a lifeless performance in Romeo and Juliet. After the play, Sybil appears 'transfigured with joy' because her incipient relationship with Dorian had freed her 'soul from prison'. Before encountering Dorian, the only reality that she knew existed on the stage; after meeting Dorian, however, 'suddenly it dawned on my soul what it all meant', she explains, vowing to give up the theatre and its artificiality (1991, 140-1). Dorian subsequently chastises Sybil for her change of heart, for her implicit denial of Lord Henry's philosophy.
After he leaves a distraught Sybil in her dressing room, Dorian strolls alone among London's desolate gothic streets: 'He remembered wandering through dimly-lit streets, past gaunt black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses', Wilde writes. 'Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called after him. Drunkards had reeled by, cursing, and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled under doorsteps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts' (1991, 143). When he returns home after experiencing his dark night of the aesthetic soul, Dorian perceives a change in Basil's portrait of him, 'a touch of cruelty in the mouth' that had not existed there previously (1991, 144). Suddenly remembering his wish for eternal youth and its spiritual consequences, Dorian decides to return to Sybil in order to forestall the spiritual demolition of his soul. As he bathes in the warm glow of his romantic feelings for the young actress, Dorian repeats her name over and over again to the music of singing birds. 'I want to be good', he later tells Lord Henry. 'I can't bear the idea of my soul being hideous' (1991, 149). After he learns of Sybil's suicide, however, Dorian chooses to devote himself entirely to a lifestyle of hedonism in the tradition of Lord Henry's philosophy. Having already tasted the pleasures of decadence, Dorian resolves to avail himself of sin with the knowledge that he can do so without being challenged by a guilty conscience: 'Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins—he was to have all these things', Wilde writes. 'The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame' (1991, 157). In this fashion, the picture becomes Dorian's ethical doppelgänger, his wilful sacrifice for a decadent lifestyle and the means via which he will preserve his youth.
Dorian embarks upon his life of debauchery with the aid of a book given to him by Lord Henry. Essentially a handbook for decadent living, the volume—a yellow, paper-covered French novel—influences Dorian's progress toward total spiritual and ethical ruin.6 'The whole book seemed to him', Wilde writes, 'to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it' (1991, 174). With his new Hedonist education at the hands of Lord Henry complete, Dorian engages in a protracted life of crime and corrosive sensuality in gothic London. At the age of 25, Dorian's aristocratic social standing begins to erode when an exclusive West End club threatens to blackball him. In addition to consorting with thieves and coiners, Dorian brawls with foreign sailors in the Whitechapel area. Suddenly the subject of numerous rumours and upper-class gossip, Dorian becomes associated with scandals involving the suicide of a 'wretched boy in the Guards' (1991, 193); the disappearance of Sir Henry Ashton, who fled England in disgrace; and the diminished reputations of the young Duke of Perth and the son of Lord Kent. 'Women who had wildly adored him, and for his sake had braved all social censure and set convention at defiance', Wilde writes, 'were seen to grow pallid with shame or horror if Dorian Gray entered the room' (1991, 186-7).
In addition to his chosen life of crime and social iniquity, Dorian feeds his exaggerated licentious desires during his search for new arenas of sensual fulfillment. In one instance, he considers joining the Roman Catholic communion, not for spiritual reasons, but rather, because the 'Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him' (1991, 178). Dorian also becomes an avid collector of beautiful objects and searches for yet other venues for assuaging his aesthetic needs. At one juncture in the novel, Dorian devotes himself entirely to the study of music, constructing an elaborate room with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer in which to serenade himself with the pleasing strains of Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven. As a collector of sensual objects, Dorian accumulates perfumes from the Far East, painted gourds from Mexico, rare and expensive jewelry, tapestries and embroideries once housed in the palaces of Northern Europe, and various ecclesiastical vestments. Dorian assembles his orgy of material possessions to provide himself with a 'means of forgetfulness', Wilde writes, with 'modes by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to be borne' (1991, 185). Hidden in the attic above his palatial London home lies the picture, which grows even more ghastly as Dorian's evil exploits continue to mount. At 38, Dorian soothes his fears in opium dens in remote London, where 'the heavy odour of opium met him', Wilde writes. 'He heaved a deep breath, and his nostrils quivered with pleasure' (1991, 224). All the while, Dorian earns glowing praise for his decadent lifestyle and his lack of meaningful social or artistic endeavour from Lord Henry, his hedonist master and tutor.7 'You are the type of what the age is looking for, and what it is afraid it has found', Lord Henry tells him. 'I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets' (1991, 248).
Dorian's life of debauchery begins to collapse, however, with the confluence of his murder of Basil and his dogged pursuit by James Vane, Sybil's vengeful brother. Dorian kills Basil after the artist insists that the aesthete show him the picture of Dorian's rotting soul. Basil reacts in horror as he glimpses the portrait of Dorian's foul inner life being slowly corroded by 'the leprosies of sin' (1991, 199). After he stabs the artist to death for condemning his evil lifestyle, Dorian stares disinterestedly at Basil's lifeless body as a woman on the street sings in a hoarse voice. By murdering Basil, Dorian attempts to rid himself once and for all of the artist's irritating moral influence. As Stephen Arata observes in Fictions of Loss in the Victorian fin de siècle, 'The contrast between the lovely Dorian and the hideous portrait can be taken to stand for the difference between Henry's ethic and Basil's' (1996, 64). In this instance, Henry's hedonistic philosophy wins out yet again. Dorian finally begins to re-evaluate his decadent existence after experiencing James's stubborn effort to exact revenge for the untimely death of his sister. After spotting him in a London opium den, James follows Dorian to a social occasion at the home of the Duchess of Monmouth. James startles Dorian into a 'death-like swoon' after pressing his face against the window of the conservatory. 'The consciousness of being hunted, snared, tracked down, had begun to dominate him', Wilde writes (1991, 233-4), and Dorian conceals himself in the Duchess's house.
After the Duchess's brother accidentally kills James during a shooting-party the next day, Dorian experiences a 'cataleptic impression'—a cognitive, philosophical phenomenon that, according to Nussbaum in Love's Knowledge, 'has the power, just through its own felt quality, to drag us to assent, to convince us that things could not be otherwise. It is defined as a mark or impress upon the soul' (1990, 265). Relieved to have survived James's efforts at revenge, Dorian resolves to devote himself to goodness. 'I wish I could love', he tells Lord Henry. 'But I seem to have lost the passion and forgotten the desire. I am too much concentrated on myself' (1991, 238). Despite Lord Henry's considerable protests, Dorian demonstrates his intentions to adopt an ethical lifestyle by opting not to destroy the innocence of Hetty Morton, a girl in the village near the Duchess's estate. Shocked by his sudden change of heart, Dorian 'determined to leave her as flower-like as I had found her' (1991, 243). As Dorian symbolically rises from the piano—the producer of the sensual music that served as the soundtrack for his evil life—he confesses to Lord Henry that 'I am going to be good' and that 'I am a little changed already' (1991, 249). Yet when he later checks the picture for evidence of his ethical renewal, he discovers 'no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning, and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite', Wilde writes. 'The thing was still loathsome—more loathsome, if possible, than before' (1991, 252).
Rather than being the product of a genuine shift in moral attitude, Dorian's aspirations toward goodness result from his own vanity, as well as from his apprehension regarding the potential loss of the self that he adores above all others in his community. In this manner, the novel's faux cataleptic impression confronts readers—and perhaps Dorian himself—with an unusual ethical construct, the anti-epiphany. Stultified by his own hypocrisy and his 'mask of goodness', Dorian chooses to destroy his decaying soul: He 'would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be free', Wilde writes. Dorian 'would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace' (1991, 253). Taking up the knife that he used to murder Basil, Dorian stabs at the picture. After servants hear an agonized cry and a 'crash', they enter the attic and discover a splendid portrait of their master in all 'his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor', Wilde writes, 'was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage' (1991, 254). By attempting to eradicate the picture that serves as a record of his unethical life, Dorian succeeds in destroying himself. While the novel's deus ex machina conclusion, a virtual cliché of gothic fiction in general, suggests a number of narrative possibilities,8 Dorian's supernatural demise nevertheless results directly from his Faustian bargain and the ethically vacuous existence that he deliberately pursues.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian's adherence to Lord Henry's hedonist philosophy clearly manifests itself in his spiritual and physical destruction. Dorian's soul expires, William Buckler astutely observes, because of the 'inevitable consequence, not of aestheticism, but of an ugly, self-deceiving, all-devouring vanity that leads the protagonist to heartless cruelty, murder, blackmail, and suicide' (1991, 140). Wilde employs the Victorian gothic as the express means through which he characterizes the corrosion and ultimate demise of Dorian's soul. Because Wilde relies on the supernatural and the grotesque as means for narrating Dorian's spiritual digression in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the Victorian gothic clearly operates as an ethical construct in Wilde's novel. Ethical criticism, with its interest in exploring the trials and tribulations of human experience and their intersections with the act of reading, simply affords us with a mechanism for recognizing a given writer's humanistic agenda. In The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind, Cora Diamond argues that through ethical criticism 'we can come to be aware of what makes for deeper understanding and an enriching of our own thought and experience; we can come to have a sense of what is alive, and what is shallow, sentimental, cheap'. The ethical critique of literature reminds us, moreover, that 'it is our actions, our choices, which give a particular shape to the life we lead; to be able to lead whatever the good life for a human being is is to be able to make such choices well' (Diamond 1991, 303, 373). In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde avails himself of the Victorian Gothic in a stunning depiction of what transpires when human beings make ineffectual choices and sacrifice their own senses of moral beauty by elevating the aesthetic pleasures of the body over the spiritual needs of the soul.
1. In 'Ethics and Aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray,' Michael Patrick Gillespie offers yet another ethical critique of Wilde's novel, although, as with McGinn, he fails to consider the role of the Victorian gothic as the engine of the novelist's moral debate regarding the sanctity of the human soul, opting instead to read the novel in terms of the ethical nature of its aesthetic elements: 'Through the actions of its characters', Gillespie writes, The Picture of Dorian Gray's 'discourse establishes within us a sense of the wide-ranging aesthetic force that ethics exerts upon a work of art. Furthermore, Wilde's novel gives us the opportunity to enhance the mix of our aesthetic and ethical views by extending our sense of the possibilities for interpretation beyond those delineated by our immediate hermeneutic system' (1994, 153-4).
2. For a useful definition of 'ethics' and discussion of its emergence as a viable reading paradigm during the past decade, see Geoffrey Galt Harpham's chapter on 'Ethics' in Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin's Critical Terms for Literary Study (2nd edn, 1995). 'Understanding the plot of a narrative', Harpham writes, 'we enter into ethics. Ethics will always be at the flashpoint of conflicts and struggles', he continues, 'because such encounters never run smooth' (1995, 404). As Wayne C. Booth observes in The Company We Keep: an Ethics of Fiction, 'the word "ethical" may mistakenly suggest a project concentrating on quite limited moral standards: of honesty, perhaps, or of decency or tolerance'. In Booth's postulation of an ethical criticism, however, 'ethical' refers to 'the entire range of effects on the "character" or "person" or "self". "Moral" judgments are only a small part of it' (1988, 8).
3. In Fictions of Loss in the Victorian fin de siècle, Stephen Arata rejects the notion that Wilde appropriates an ethical rhetoric in The Picture of Dorian Gray, contending that 'here as elsewhere Wilde rejects humanistic notions of the organic and autonomous individual' (1996, 61). Yet a comparison of Wilde's divergent characterizations of the competing ethics of Lord Henry and Basil suggests otherwise. Wilde clearly derides Lord Henry's ambiguous philosophy of new Hedonism through its expositor's pompous and malformed discourse, while arguing in favour of Basil's theory of moral beauty through the devastation, and ultimately the death of, Dorian's soul.
4. In this instance, Basil clearly fears the rise of aestheticism because he senses the erosion of the ethical and cultural value systems of his community, a process that William Greenslade describes as 'degeneration' in Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel, 1880–1940. 'Such fears at the fin de siècle were at work shaping institutional practices—medical, psychiatric, political—and their assumptions', Greenslade writes. 'Degeneration facilitated discourses of sometimes crude differentiation: between the normal and the abnormal, the healthy and morbid, the "fit" and "unfit", the civilized and the primitive. Degeneration', he adds, 'was, in part, an enabling strategy by which the conventional and respectable classes could justify and articulate their hostility to the deviant, the diseased, and the subversive' (1994, 2). Despite his espousal of a new Hedonism, Lord Henry also registers anxiety about the lower classes and the disenfranchised in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As an anti-Hedonist, Basil ironically demonstrates little affinity for the practices of degeneration and proves to be remarkably tolerant of the lower classes, particularly evinced by his enthusiastic approval of Dorian's relationship with Sybil.
5. In Oscar Wilde and the Poetics of Ambiguity, Gillespie reminds us of the illogic inherent in Lord Henry's philosophy, an anti-ethical system with little concern for consistency or reason. 'As the novel progresses', Gillespie writes, 'one finds that each of these points of view contributes to a more detailed illumination of the discourse and in doing so blunts inclinations to privilege any one of these perspectives over the others. New Hedonism in fact defines itself only through the symbiotic support of multiple systems of values, and any effort to view it in isolation would prove reductive' (1994, 61).
6. In Oscar Wilde, Richard Ellmann speculates about the book's identity. At his trial, Wilde conceded that the mystery book was Joris-Karl Huysmans's À Rebours (1884), although it also has thematic similarities to Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). According to Ellmann, in the first draft of The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde entitled the book Le Secret de Raoul, by Catulle Sarrazin. 'This author', Ellmann writes, 'was a blend of Catulle Mendès, whom he had known for some years, and Gabriel Sarrazin, whom he met in September 1888, and the name of 'Raoul' came from Rachilde's Monsieur Vénus' (1988, 316).
7. In Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles, and Imitations, John Stokes notes the interesting similarities in the interpersonal dynamics of the relationships between Lord Henry and Dorian and between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, the novelist's youthful lover and aesthetic protégé (1996, 11).
8. For a thorough analysis of The Picture of Dorian Gray's sudden and mysterious conclusion, see McGinn's Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. 'What Wilde has done is to condense the general theme of his book into this final scene', McGinn argues, 'giving it literal expression, so that Dorian's odd ambiguous status, suspended between life and art, is represented' (1997, 135).
Arata, Stephen. Fictions of Loss in the Victorian fin de siècle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Beckson, Karl. The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia. New York: AMS, 1998.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: an Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Corelli, Marie. The Sorrows of Satan, or the Strange Experience of One Geoffrey Tempest, Millionaire: a Romance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Diamond, Cora. The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind. Cambridge: MIT, 1991.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Gillespie, Michael Patrick. 'Ethics and Aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray'. Rediscovering Oscar Wilde. Ed. C. George Sandulescu. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994. 137-55.
Greenslade, William. Degeneration, Culture, and the Novel, 1880–1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. 'Ethics'. Critical Terms for Literary Study. Eds Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. 2nd edn. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 387-405.
Lowndes, Marie Belloc. The Lodger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Machen, Arthur. The Three Impostors. New York: Knopf, 1930.
Marsh, Richard. The Beetle. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1976.
McGinn, Colin. Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Murdoch, Iris. The Sovereignty of Good. 1970. London: Ark, 1985.
Norton, Robert E. The Beautiful Soul: Aesthetic Morality in the Eighteenth Century. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995.
Nussbaum, Martha C. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Stokes, John. Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles, and Imitations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Wilde, Oscar. Plays, Prose Writings, and Poems. New York: Everyman's Library, 1991.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1034
Laver, James. Oscar Wilde. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1954. 32 p.
Succinct biography of Wilde. Includes a bibliography.
Backus, Margot Gayle. "Homophobia and the Imperial Demon Lover: Gothic Narrativity in Irish Representations of the Great War." Canadian Review of Comparative Literature/Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée 21, no. 4 (March-June 1994): 45-63.
Explores the underlying motifs of demonized homosexuality and "the Gothic reunion of the self with some incomprehensible, unspeakable thing from which it has been divided" in The Picture of Dorian Gray and several other contemporaneous works of Anglo-Irish fiction.
Charlesworth, Barbara. "Oscar Wilde." In Dark Passages: The Decadent Consciousness in Victorian Literature, pp. 53-80. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.
Biographical reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Clark, Bruce B. "A Burnt Child Loves the Fire: Oscar Wilde's Search for Ultimate Meanings in Life." Ultimate Reality and Meaning 4, no. 3 (1981): 225-47.
Calls The Picture of Dorian Gray the most important of Wilde's works in explicating his thoughts on reality and literary meaning.
Clausson, Nils. "'Culture and Corruption': Paterian Self-Development versus Gothic Degeneration in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray." Papers on Language and Literature 39, no. 4 (fall 2003): 339-64.
Argues that in The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde endeavored to merge a Gothic plot of decadence and degeneration with themes of self-development and (homo)sexual liberation inspired by the writings of Walter Pater.
Cohen, Philip K. "The Crucible: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Intentions." In The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, pp. 105-55. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.
Suggests that in The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde fully explored the potential tragedy that was circumvented in his satiric short story "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime," maintaining that in the essays of Intentions Wilde sought to establish a middle ground between the repression and hypocrisy portrayed in the story and the hedonistic abandon depicted in the novel.
Dickson, Donald R. "'In a Mirror That Mirrors the Soul': Masks and Mirrors in Dorian Gray." English Literature in Transition: 1880–1920 26, no. 1 (1983): 5-15.
Considers "the notion of mirror images that reflect masks of characters" with regard to the subtle aesthetic design of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Dryden, Linda. "Oscar Wilde: Gothic Ironies and Terrible Dualities." In The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles: Stevenson, Wilde and Wells, edited by Laurence Davies, pp. 110-45. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Analyzes The Picture of Dorian Gray within the genre traditions of Gothic horror and literary Decadence, particularly highlighting affinities between Wilde's novel and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Ericksen, Donald H. "The Picture of Dorian Gray." In Oscar Wilde, pp. 96-117. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Discusses the sources, plot, critical reception, characterization, imagery, language, and setting of Wilde's novel.
Gomel, Elana. "Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the (Un)Death of the Author." Narrative 12, no. 1 (January 2004): 74-92.
Interprets The Picture of Dorian Gray as it traces parallels between the narrative themes of fin de siècle Gothic fantasy and postmodern theory concerning authorship, identity, and textuality.
Jullian, Philippe. "Dorian Gray." In Oscar Wilde, translated by Violet Wyndham, pp. 213-23. London: Constable, 1969.
Enumerates some of the diverse literary and social influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray and summarizes the effect of the novel's publication on Wilde's career and personal reputation.
Kohl, Norbert. "Culture and Corruption: The Picture of Dorian Gray." In Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, translated by David Henry Wilson, pp. 138-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Attempts to account for the "continued interest in and varied reception of Dorian Gray" through an examination of the novel's origins, structures, setting, themes, and characterizations.
Oates, Joyce Carol. "The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde's Parable of the Fall." In Contraries: Essays, pp. 3-16. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
Contends that "Wilde's novel must be seen as a highly serious meditation upon the moral role of the artist," regarding its theme as "the Fall—the Fall of innocence and its consequences, the corruption of 'natural' life by a sudden irrevocable consciousness (symbolized by Dorian's infatuation with himself)."
Pappas, John J. "The Flower and the Beast: A Study of Oscar Wilde's Antithetical Attitudes toward Nature and Man in The Picture of Dorian Gray." English Literature in Transition 15, no. 1. (1972): 37-48.
Examines The Picture of Dorian Gray for expressions of antipathy toward nature as well as toward the place of humans in the natural world.
Riquelme, John Paul. "Oscar Wilde's Aesthetic Gothic: Walter Pater, Dark Enlightenment, and The Picture of Dorian Gray." Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 3 (fall 2000): 609-31.
Investigates The Picture of Dorian Gray as a novel that blends various literary sensibilities, tropes, and structuring principles, including Gothic doubling, Paterian aestheticism, mythic allusion, and the technique of chiaroscuro.
Zeender, Marie-Noëlle. "John Melmoth and Dorian Gray: The Two-Faced Mirror." In Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, edited by C. George Sandulescu, pp. 432-40. Gerrards Cross, England: Smythe, 1994.
Compares the themes, characterizations, and centralizing motif of the two-faced mirror in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer.
Ziolkowski, Theodore. "Image as Motif: The Haunted Portrait." In Disenchanted Images: Literary Iconology, pp. 78-148. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Includes commentary on The Picture of Dorian Gray in a chapter devoted to supernatural occurrences involving portraits in fiction.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Wilde's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 49; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 15; British Writers, Vol. 5; British Writers: The Classics, Vols. 1, 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1890–1914; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 119; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, 112; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 10, 19, 34, 57, 141, 156, 190; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Most-studied Authors, and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 17; Drama for Students, Vols. 4, 8, 9; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Novels for Students, Vol. 20; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 7; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 11, 77; Something About the Author, Vol. 24; Supernatural Fiction Writers; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 8, 23, 41; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; World Literature Criticism; and Writers for Children.
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