Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Theory, Non-Fiction, Oscar Wilde

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 1)

Original artist unknown.

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde 4). One of my favorite novels is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was thrust into the critical pool upon its first release in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, and it has remained in that pool, wading through theoretical waters, ever since. The novel has been critiqued by hundreds of scholars, from all schools of theory and research. But what makes Dorian Gray such a compelling research topic? What can the different theories bring to light about the novel? How do we read Dorian Gray and get what we “should” from the work? Is it important that Oscar Wilde may have written the novel as an autobiography?

To answer these questions, I would like to consider how this novel has been treated by five different theoretical perspectives, which I will divide into a five-part series, as follows: First, a Formalist approach to Dorian Gray, discussing the idea that the best artists put nothing of their own personality into their product; second, the reader-response theory and its implications on The Picture of Dorian Gray over time, such as how cultural shifts and experiences change the way we view the novel; third, the post-structural ideas of “play” and “remedy vs drug”; fourth, the text as a historical product, as informed by Raymond William and Marxism; and fifth, the feminist view, or lack thereof, on Wilde’s work.

This is a source-informed but somewhat recreational attempt to examine, in non-linear fashion, a variety of ways in which Dorian Gray has been treated in literary theory and criticism. I was intrigued by Wilde’s assertion that diversity of opinion about an artwork essentially keeps that artwork alive. Since diverse opinions continue to surround Dorian Gray after nearly 130-years in print, it seems fair to say that this work of art is still very much alive. 

Formalism

T.S. Eliot writes, “no artist produces great art by a deliberate attempt to express his personality” and that a “poet has, not a personality to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality” (qtd. in Leitch 1096). To argue or to agree with Eliot and the Formalists, one must first do two things: define “great art” and decide what favor or disfavor has been done by an artist attempting to express himself in his work. The first of these two things seems, to me, an impossibility. There can be no definition for great art, any more than there can be definition for art in general (how often has this conversation come up?). So, for my purposes, I reject the need to classify art as good or bad, and instead focus on whether Oscar Wilde is autobiographical in Dorian Gray; if so, are the Formalists correct in their argument that a writer’s biography and personality must be kept separate from an artist’s work in order for the work to be, shall we say, effective?

According to one researcher, The Picture of Dorian Gray is all about Wilde. In his essay, “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate,” Nethercot writes that one of Wilde’s methods of self-revelation “was his habit of introducing details from his own life and character into his descriptions of people he was writing about” (Nethercot 835). He goes on to argue that the narrator’s review of the “curious stories [becoming] current” about Dorian Gray in his twenty-fifth year is, in fact, Wilde’s own review of himself: “Wilde was twenty-five in 1879, and by that time the mask which he had at first endeavored to set up before his face in his daily activities and conversation had begun to slip” (841). Even Dorian’s “confession” monologue near the end of the novel can be viewed as an internal-struggle Wilde was having, himself unsure of how much of his personal life to make public, though he had been “confessing in public all along” (842). The mystery is, then, was Oscar Wilde consciously using his own life experiences and personalities in his writing and, if so, did he approve of that practice in general? Should we?

A wide reading suggests Wilde does put much of himself into his writing, and perhaps Dorian Gray was a type of public, yet veiled, “coming out” for the author. However, it is likely that Oscar Wilde knew the danger in which he placed himself by putting so much of his own personality into the pages of his text. Houston A. Baker writes that Wilde’s own view on the artist is that he “must have a strong personality, but he cannot simply thrust upon the world his own raw emotions in the work of art” (Baker 352). This opinion also seems to be made clear in the pages of Dorian Gray when Basil Hallward admits that he cannot exhibit his own work because he has “shown in it the secret of [his] own soul” (Wilde 8). Perhaps, then, The Picture of Dorian Gray is answering two of Wilde’s needs: to present himself honestly to the public and to publicly admonish himself for it. If this is the case, then Wilde confounds the Formalists not only by inserting himself into his fictional work, but by admitting he has done so and using the same work to reprimand himself (ultimately a kind of meta-insertion).

I’m uncomfortable with the Formalist’s approach to literary criticism. The suggestion is that one can (or must) study a work for structural purposes only, rejecting any other context or outside influence that might have helped to create that text. While I see the benefits of this type of consideration in terms of critiquing the success or failure of plot structure, for example (or pacing, or narrative time, etc.), as a single method for evaluating the text it is too limited because it necessarily omits a number of important elements that influenced and allowed for the creation of the work in the first place. To me, a piece of literature (or art) should not be dissected from its context, be that social, economic, or cultural. 

Come back soon for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Reader-Response theory!

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Baker, Houston A. “A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 24.3 (1969): 349-55.
  • Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 
  • Nethercot, Arthur H.  “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate.” PMLA 59.3 (1944): 833-50.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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10 thoughts on “Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 1)

  1. Joel Getter says:

    Adam, fantastic article! I think that separating any form of art from its context is an impossible exercise (at least to me). A work of literature, a painting, or any other creative act is the product of its time, culture, and of the artist. I’ve actually thought about taking multiple approaches to one of my favorite works, ‘Heart of Darkness.’ I’m sad to say I’ve never read ‘Dorian Gray’ (or anything by Wilde for that matter). Alright, one more book to add to my TBR list. I look forward to the next installment of this series!

    Liked by 1 person

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