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

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 5)

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.

Feminism

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?

Concluding Thoughts

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

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 4)

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.

Marxism

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

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 3)

Two weeks ago, 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 and then considered the opposite perspective, Reader-Response theory. This week, I return to a more textual consideration as opposed to an audience-focused one.

The post-structuralists are most likely to be fascinated by the idea I put forth in part one of this series; that, perhaps, Oscar Wilde was both presenting himself to the public and, at the same time, chastising himself for doing so; it is the idea Jacques Derrida presents in his essay “Plato’s Pharmacy” and what he might call “remedy and drug” (Leitch 1837). Derrida writes, “a text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible” (1830). The discussions, then, of whether Oscar Wilde was being autobiographical or not; of whether Dorian Gray were a real person or not; of whether Sybil Vane represents Wilde’s wife or not, would be of great interested to the deconstructionists because they are all unanswerable and ever-changing, they are all “play.”

If it is the case that Wilde knows what he is doing by “[calling] into account the overly self-conscious artist who projects his own personality too severely on the public” only to then “put too much of [himself] into it, would be of great interest and amusement to Derrida and the deconstructionalists [sic] (Baker 350, 352). Similarly interested would be Baudrillard, for two reasons: the presence of a portrait in the story, one which becomes the reality, leaving the person a “simulacrum” and the projection of Wilde onto his own work, confusing reality and fiction. Baudrillard argues that copies and reproductions become more desirable than the original, that they “provide all the signs of the real and short-circuit all its vicissitudes” (Leitch 1733). This is certainly true of the painting of Dorian Gray; “the hideous corruption of his soul” is demonstrated by the changing face of the copy in the portrait, rather than on Dorian’s own visage (Wilde 104). As for Wilde’s projection of self onto the pages of his novel, Baudrillard would find this another means of copying real life and making it more interesting, more accessible, and more desirable than the life itself. Why bother living a life, with all its bothersome detours and “vicissitudes” when one can sit back and read a life, one carefully directed and presented?

Another post-structuralist who must be noted, and whose theory need be applied to Dorian Gray is Michel Foucault. In The History of Sexuality, he writes of “a policing of sex: that is, not the rigor of a taboo, but the necessity of regulating sex through useful and public discourses” (Leitch 1652). That the sexuality of Dorian Gray and indeed Oscar Wilde was policed, is indisputable. Wilde was sentenced to solitary confinement for his “acts of sodomy.” Foucault would offer that this had to happen. In order for homosexuality to be talked about, it was necessary for it to be publicly punished and, consequently, shoved into the spotlight:  “Wilde was arrested in April 1895 and from that moment a sheer panic prevailed over all questions of sex, and especially of course questions of the Intermediate Sex” (Schmidgall 229). Oscar Wilde’s sacrifice, though not intentional, allowed for debates to be fueled and discussions to be brought about. Then, incrementally, the act of talking about homosexuality allowed for the inclusion of it in new texts.

Please visit Part 1 and Part 2 for my thoughts on Dorian Gray and Formalism or Dorian Gray and Reader-Response. I will return next week with Part 4: Dorian Gray and Marxism.

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.
  • Schmidgall, Gary.  The Stranger Wild: Interpreting Oscar. Dutton: Penguin, 1994.
  • Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

 

Standard
Essay, Feminism, Kate Chopin, Literary Criticism, writing

The “Awakenings” of Edna Pontellier

awakening.jpg“She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is the story of one woman’s realization of the world and potential within her. In her Journey, Edna Pontellier awakens to three important pieces of her own being. First, she awakens to her artistic and creative potential. This minor but important awakening gives rise to Edna Pontellier’s most obvious and demanding awakening, one which resonates throughout the book: the sexual.

However, though her sexual awakening may seem to be the most important issue in the novel, Chopin actually slips in a final awakening at the end, one that is hinted at early on but not resolved until the last-minute, and that is Edna’s awakening to her true humanity and role as a mother. These three awakenings, artistic, sexual, and motherhood, are what Chopin includes in her novel to define womanhood; or, more specifically, independent womanhood.

What seems to ignite Edna’s awakening is the rediscovery of her artistic inclinations and talents. Art, in The Awakening becomes a symbol of freedom and of failure. While attempting to become an artist, Edna reaches the first peak of her awakening. She begins to view the world in artistic terms. When Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna why she loves Robert, Edna responds, “Why? Because his hair is brown and grows away from his temples; because he opens and shuts his eyes, and his nose is a little out of drawing.” Edna is beginning to notice intricacies and details that she would have ignored previously, details that only an artist would focus and dwell on, and fall in love with. Further, art is a way for Edna to assert herself.  She sees it as a form of self-expression and individualism.

Edna’s own awakening is hinted at when the narrator writes, “Edna spent an hour or two in looking over her own sketches. She could see their short-comings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes” (90). The discovery of defects in her previous works, and the desire to make them better demonstrate Edna’s reformation. Art is being used to explain Edna’s change, to suggest that Edna’s soul and character are also changing and reforming, that she is finding defects within herself. Art, as Mademoiselle Reisz defines it, is also a test of individuality. But, like the bird with its broken wings struggling along the shore, Edna perhaps fails this final test, never blossoming into her true potential because she is distracted and confused along the way.

A great deal of this confusion is owed to the second awakening in Edna’s character, the sexual awakening. This awakening is, without doubt, the most considered and examined aspect of the novel. As Edna Pontellier begins to realize that she is an individual, capable of making individual choices without being another’s possession, she begins to explore what these choices might bring her. Her first sexual awakening comes in the form of Robert Lebrun. Edna and Robert are attracted to one another from first meeting, though they do not realize it. They unwittingly flirt with each other, so that only the narrator and reader understand what is going on. For instance, in the episode where Robert and Edna speak of buried treasure and pirates:

“And in a day we should be rich!” she laughed. “I’d give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up. I think you would know how to spend it. Pirate gold isn’t a thing to be hoarded or utilized. It is something to squander and throw to the four winds, for the fun of seeing the golden specks fly.

“We’d share it and scatter it together,” he said. His face flushed. (59)

The two do not understand the significance of their conversation, but in reality, the words speak of desire and sexual metaphor. Jane P. Tompkins writes, “Robert and Edna do not realize, as the reader does, that their conversation is an expression of their unacknowledged passion for one another” (23). Edna awakens to this passion whole-heartedly. After Robert leaves, and before the two have opportunity to truly explore their desires, Edna has an affair with Alcee Arobin.

Though it is never directly spelled out, Chopin uses language to convey the message that Edna has stepped over the line, and damned her marriage. For instance, at the end of chapter thirty-one the narrator writes, “he did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties” (154).

However, it is not only in situations with men that Edna’s passion is flared. In fact, the “symbol for sexual desire itself,” as George Spangler puts it, is the sea (252). It is appropriate that the most concentrated and artistically depicted symbol for desire comes, not in the form of a man, who may be viewed as a possessor, but in the sea, something which Edna herself, once afraid of swimming, conquers. The narrator writes, “the voice of [the] sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (25).

This is perhaps the most sensual and passionate chapter of the book, devoted entirely to depictions of the sea and to Edna’s sexual awakening. It is pointed out here that “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.” Still, as Donald Ringe notes in his essay, “[The Awakening] is too often seen in terms of the question of sexual freedom” (580).

The true awakening in the novel, and in Edna Pontellier, is the awakening of self. Throughout the novel, she is on a transcendental journey of self-discovery. Edna is learning what it means to be an individual, a woman, and a mother. Indeed, Chopin amplifies the significance of this journey by mentioning that Edna Pontellier “sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson until she grew sleepy. She realized that she had neglected her reading, and determined to start anew upon a course of improving studies, now that her time was completely her own to do with as she liked” (122). That Edna is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson is significant, especially at this point in the novel, when she is starting a new life of her own.

This new life is signaled by a “sleep-waking” metaphor, one which, as Ringe points out, “is an important romantic image for the emergence of the self or soul into a new life” (581). A seemingly excessive amount of the novel is devoted to Edna sleeping, but when one considers that, for each time Edna falls asleep, she must also awaken, one begins to realize that this is just another way of Chopin demonstrating Edna’s personal awakening.

Another transcendentalist link to awakening can be found in the inclusion of Emerson’s theory of correspondence, which has to do with life’s “double world, one within and one without” (Ringe 582). Much of Edna is contradictory. Her attitudes toward her husband, her children, her friends, and even the men with whom she has affairs. These contradictions are encompassed within the idea that Edna was “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (33).

So, Edna’s true awakening is to the understanding of herself as a human being. But the awakening goes further still. She also becomes aware, at the end, of her role as woman and mother. At one point, early in the novel and before this awakening, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (80).

William Reedy describes Edna Pontellier’s character and conflict when he wrote that “Woman’s truest duties are those of wife and mother, but those duties do not demand that she shall sacrifice her individuality” (Toth 117). The last awakening, to this realization that womanhood and motherhood can be a part of the individual, comes at the very end of the book. Toth writes that “Chopin makes the ending attractive, maternal, sensuous” (121). Edna meets with Madame Ratignolle again, to see her while she is in labor. At this point, Ratignolle cries out to Edna, “think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (182). It is for the children, then, that Edna takes her life.

Though the signs are confused, they are throughout the book; with a broken-winged bird symbolizing Edna’s failure, and the sea concurrently symbolizing freedom and escape, Edna’s suicide is in fact a way of her maintaining her independence while also putting her children first. It is ironic that the point in her life when she realizes a mother’s duty, is at the moment of her death. She does sacrifice herself, as she claims she never would, by giving up the chance at all she could have in order to protect her children’s future and well-being.

Spangler explains this when he says, “primary was her fear of a succession of lovers and the effect such a future would have on her children: ‘to-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but Raoul and Etienne!’” (254).  Edna gives up the newly found passion and understanding, she gives up her art, and her life, to protect her family.

The Awakening is a complex and beautiful novel, filled with contradictions and sensations. Edna Pontellier journeys through life, awakening to the transcendental beliefs of individuality and connections with nature. She discovers sensual joy and power in the sea, beauty in art, and independence in sexuality. However, though some critics claim the ending to be the novel’s downfall, and what keeps it from top status in American literary canon, the fact is that it wraps up the novel in as beautiful a way as it was told all along. The novel ends in confusion and wonder, as it is told.

Edna spends her life, since the awakening, questioning the world around her and within her, so why not remain questioning to the end?  Spangler writers in his essay, that “Mrs. Chopin asks her reader to believe in an Edna who is completely defeated by the loss of Robert, to believe in the paradox of a woman who has awakened to passional life and yet, quietly, almost thoughtlessly, chooses death” (254).

But Edna Pontellier is not defeated by Robert. She is the one making choices, as she has determined to do all along. Her death was not thoughtless; in fact, it seems almost pre-planned, a “coming home” to the sea. Edna strips off her clothes and becomes one with the very source of nature which helped to awaken her to her own power and individualism in the first place. Further still, that she goes quietly is not an admission of defeat, but a testament to Edna’s ability to end her life the way she lived it.

Each decision that Edna Pontellier makes throughout the novel is done quietly, suddenly. The dinner party, the move from her home to the “Pigeon House.” There is never any ruckus or chorus, just simple, impassioned change. Thus, the novel’s conclusion is a statement to the enduring power of womanhood and individualism. Chopin is affirming that, even in death, perhaps only in death, one can become and remain truly awakened.

References

Adam W. Burgess, “The ‘Awakenings’ of Edna Pontellier.” Adam Burgess, Writer 03 Aug. 2018. https://adamburgesswriter.com/2018/08/03/the-awakenings-of-edna-pontellier/.

Kate Chopin, The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications,1993.

Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The AwakeningAmerican Literature 43 (January 1972) 580-88.

George M. Spangler, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” Novel 3 (Spring 1970): 249-55.

Jane P. Tompkins, “The Awakening: An Evaluation,” Feminist Studies 3 (Spring-Summer 1976): 22-9.

Emily Toth, Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

Standard