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 Feminist perspective and conclude with some brief, final thoughts. I have to say, looking back at a favorite novel through a variety of lenses has been a challenging but rewarding task. I actually had quite a lot of fun with it and thought about the novel in new and different ways.
A theory which need be applied to The Picture of Dorian Gray, but which seems surprisingly lacking, is the Feminist approach. Perhaps the small amount of feminist criticism written about this novel, or at least the difficulty in finding it, is due to the fact that feminist and queer theories are both relatively “new” schools (in terms of the overall history of theory and criticism), coming about at roughly the same time and, naturally, queer theory took firm hold of Dorian Gray. Be that as it may, it seems to me that much should be said about the lack of female presence in Dorian Gray, and also about the disturbing picture of women presented in the minor character roles which do exist for them.
In her essay, “Chloe Liked Olivia,” Virginia Woolf states that, “all the great women of fiction were . . . not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that” (Leitch 1024). This is absolutely true for Sybil Vane. Not only is she seen simply and briefly through men’s eyes (Oscar Wilde, as the writer, but also Dorian Gray and Lord Henry, as observers) but she also must play a boy on stage. Further, her importance in the story is only to the extent that she causes Dorian’s first slip into wickedness.
Other female characters in the novel include: Lady Agatha, Mrs. Vane, Lady Victoria Wotten, and Lady Brandon, all of whom only exist within the story to further the male roles. As a feminist, I wonder how Virginia Woolf must have read The Picture of Dorian Gray; I believe it is doing a great disservice to feminist theory to leave such a marker text out of the discussion. Though Queer theorists may have seized Dorian Gray –and for good reason– there is still room for discussion on many points of feminist theory, especially taking into consideration the role that Oscar Wilde’s own wife must have played on the portrayal of Sybil Vane. And, further, what does a gay man, married to a woman, have to offer the feminist community?
The possibilities for examining a text like The Picture of Dorian Gray are endless, but one must stop somewhere, at least for a little while. Any school of criticism can be applied to such an extraordinary text, and thus bring about new questions and new modes of examination. Placing many theories side-by-side, or interlacing them, perhaps, is an even greater way of coming up with new ideas, noticing nuances that were once overlooked.
The point of this series is to consider a single novel from a variety of critical perspectives, and to explore how one might go about that process. It demonstrates how The Picture of Dorian Gray has “changed” over time (or how reception of it has changed), simply by being read again and again. I hope that, after thinking of how different generations have read this one novel, we might remember to think more broadly, even more exotically, about other texts we read in the future. It is important to keep in mind that, just as two people reading one text at the same time will not walk away with the same feeling, the same understanding of it, so too will different generations, different cultures, different religions, different classes, and different genders have even further interpretations of that text. The experiment, indeed, arose from my own re-readings of a number of books, many of which I responded to quite differently with each new reading.
This series, I hope, is just a beginning, a tip to the iceberg of understanding. I hope, personally, to continue to ask questions about my reading(s), to re-examine old ideas, and to revisit texts from a new perspective; and, by doing these, I hope to encourage my own growth as a reader (and writer).
Please visit early segments for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism; Dorian Gray and Reader-Response; Dorian Gray and Post-Structuralism; and Dorian Gray and Marxism. If you have any ideas about another novel (or short story) that I should try this kind of experiment on, let me know!
Works Cited and Consulted
- 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.