Last month, I introduced a five-part project exploring Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as viewed through various critical lenses. I began in Part 1 with Formalism. This week, I take a very brief look at the novel from a Marxist perspective. This is the shortest of the series by far because, quite frankly, I have not spent much time with any formal study of Marxism, save reading a few Terry Eagleton books.
Another interesting approach of theory, and one that has been taken by critics during their examination of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the study of a text as a historical product, or as a cultural producer. Raymond Williams argues that literature is “a specific historical product, carrying class values” (Leitch 1565). He goes on to claim that, “literary forms and genres are determined by the social roles they play” (1566). So, what does this mean for Dorian Gray?
As Baker puts it, “Wilde’s chief concern was always with art, the artist, the critic, or the effect of art and criticism on society at large” (350). Thus, it stands to reason that Oscar Wilde set out, in Dorian Gray to have the text act as a cultural producer. He is not simply mirroring his own personality, but offering a suggestion, a warning, to society; beware the wrath of vanity, of imitation, and of idolatry. Baker solidifies this idea, that Dorian Gray is alerting the people, en masse, by stating, “Wilde believed that the progress of society was dependent upon the progress of the individual” (351).
Another case for a Marxist reading of Dorian Gray is an idea posited in “the Dialectics of Dandyism.” Glick presents further discussion on the idea of real versus appearance (as in Dorian and his picture) when she writes, “Marx makes it clear that while the distinction between what appears to be and what really is functions as a smoke screen for capital, the split between appearance and essence is not imaginary” (133). She goes on to explain that appearances are necessary to conceal inner relations, and that these “secrets” are present in The Picture of Dorian Gray as made example by the passage, “I have grown to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it” (Wilde 7). Thus, Dorian Gray acts as a cultural product and producer, in that it was written to produce a sense of acknowledgment in the reader, and that, since its publication, cultures (especially, as Glick explains, the Queer community) have been affected by it.
The exploration of art and consumerism as both rivals and necessary conspirators is a fascinating one to me; I know there is a great deal of literature on the subject, though I have spent perhaps far too little time engaging with it. My consideration of Dorian Gray as a novel that both rejects and utilizes consumerism has encouraged me to consider other topics similarly. It is especially interesting to me that an aesthete, like Wilde, would so cheekily critique the very concept he personally faults. Wilde wrote for an audience, after all, so he cannot be excepted from his own criticism (as someone like Salinger, say, could be, because Salinger ultimately did reject the spectacle of it all and continued to produce art without making it consumable.)
Please visit early segments for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism; Dorian Gray and Reader-Response; and Dorian Gray and Post-Structuralism. I will return next week with the final installment, Part 5: Dorian Gray and Feminism.
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.
- Glick, Elisa. “The Dialectics of Dandyism.” Cultural Critique 48 (2001): 129-63.
- Leitch, Vincent B ed. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
- Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.