Before I attempt a decent write-up of this novel, can I just brag about how lucky I am to have work consist of entertaining myself? Sure, writing essays and responses is desk-work and therefore not as fun, but my main work is reading fiction. People read fiction for fun, for leisure, and I get to do it academically and hopefully, one day, professionally.
Okay. I’ve got that out of my system now.
Today, I wanted to write about Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel pulls many parallels with the two other works I mentioned in my last post, and the similarities in subject matter are not as surprising when on considers that all three are Victorian era- an era notoriously known for the people’s almost inhumane concern with morality and good social standing. Dorian Gray was published in 1891. That’s five years after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and eight years before Heart of Darkness. This is actually what I expected, because the way in which man’s different traits are handled seem, to me, to be more sophisticated every time. As I began to point out last time. Heart of Darkness is a more subtle examination of the duality of man and the instances that can change a man’s character. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is a more direct critique of society’s demands on individuals, and a less subtle examination of the possible horrors of the human soul. Dorian Gray seems to find the medium between the two works, exploring the effects of society’s ideals on the individual and what happens when a person is able to escape judgement long enough– which seems to work stronger than conscience in every instance– and Wilde’s description of Gray includes several metanarative moments in which the reader is forced to question what “living well” means.
We begin with the suggestion that living well means remaining young and retaining one’s innocence, or at least the semblance of innocence, but it quickly becomes clear that age is not the man’s enemy. It is the inability to take accountability for one’s actions.
Aside from all the philosophical and witty questions about life and man’s purpose and possible success in it, Dorian Gray is another story about man’s divided self. That is, it is another story that attempts to come to terms with the fact that the actions of a man can be good or bad and that even when one strives to do only one or the other, the actions of the one side cannot fail to affect the other. In Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde we see one man with two possible states inhabiting one physical body. As I mentioned, the one state is induced by an external source, but we know that he evilness is not created by external source. Mr. Hyde was not someone foreign to Dr. Jekyll, he was merely the outlet for Dr. Jekyll’s animalistic, cruel impulses. Therefore, when Dr. Jekyll atones for the actions of Mr. Hyde by sacrificing himself, he is really taking accountability for himself.
On the other hand, Dorian Gray is a figure who keeps his form throughout the entire tale, except for the end, and the acts of lust, cruelty, selfishness and cowardliness–all very human and acceptable in mild forms– are committed by the character who is externally beautiful, young, and unchanged by the acts he commits. In fact, it seems that Dorian Gray wants to blame everyone but himself for his depravity. The reader is especially made aware of Lord Henry Wotton’s influence on Dorian through things like aphorisms and literary works, and one forgets that the desire to be the things that are not “socially acceptable” are not from Wotton, but come from Dorian himself.
I think that it is clear that Dorian Gray is more complex than Stevenson’s tale, but it is also meant to address different concerns, just like Heart of Darkness means to explore more than just the immoral character of the “white man” in central Africa. I should probably devote more time to discussing this, but these blog posts are just responses, not essays.
In closing, I just wanted to bring in some thoughts raised by Wilde’s preface, the one that seems to be a manifesto of his life’s intent just as much as it is a disclaimer for Wilde’s only novel that was quickly criticized for it’s “immoral depiction of a young man.” I saw some critical theory addressed here as well, such as instances of structuralism, formalism, and reader response. If one takes some of Wilde’s lines point-blank, one could bring in Roland Barthes “Death of the Author” or Saussure’s Course in general linguistics. For example, Wilde writes “to reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.” In this instance, Wilde expresses the work of the artist and the critic (who is potentially any reader) and points out that it is the reader’s impressions, and not the author’s purpose, that controls the potential power of a piece of literature.
In another instance, WIlde writes that “all art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Wilde reiterates his point about the reader’s role in creating the power of a piece of literature, but he also addresses the form of his own works. I have heard criticism that Wilde is rather superficial. That is, he uses words expertly and lays them out intricately and entertainingly (just take a moment to read the first few paragraphs of the novel, one of the most memorable descriptions of early summer in England in a bizarrely beautiful way, or this list of aphorisms), but he fails to layer enough meaning beneath the beautiful arrangement of words. Because of this, pointing out the surface, symbols, and that “beneath the surface” seems to challenge the reader to look deeper and find things that Wilde could not have intended and yet create an act of reading more valuable than initially believed.
My last note is an attempt to complete the task I began in writing this post, that is preparing me for my exams. Since I am studying comparative literature, it helps to see how this work compares across national traditions, but also across other works of the English literary tradition. So, consider Wilde’s quote “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” For those that have read John Milton’s Aereopagitica, you’ll recognize Wilde’s quote as something that seems to be informed by Milton’s criticism of censorship and general judgement of society. Wilde, however, seems more concerned with the author’s role, which again complicates how we can read him and his assertions. Oh well.
For those that haven’t read this novel yet, it’s okay, I guess (do you like my implicit criticism in that?). However, it is probably one of the most enjoyable works of literature I’ve read in a while as it was a genuine pleasure to read–and it’s online for free.