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.
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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.
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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.

 

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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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Ancient Greece, Book Review, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT, Historical, History, John Steinbeck, Literature, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Religion, Satire, Sexuality, Suzanne Collins, William S. Burroughs

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.


November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

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Anne Rice, Augusten Burroughs, Book Review, Dan Brown, Fiction, Gay Lit, James Howe, Julian Barnes, Oscar Wilde, Paul Russell

Reviews, The Earlies Part 14

The Coming Storm by Paul Russell

Another book about the blurred lines between teacher/student and adult/teen and lover/lover relationship. A boarding school boy falls for and seduces a new young teacher… and all the mayhem follows close behind. Actually a very good read.


The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Wildly intelligent and fun. Almost as good as Angels and Demons.

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice

Very interesting fictionalization of the story of Jesus Christ’s childhood. Very much enjoyed this book.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Great, great book. Don’t know what else to say except ‘read it.’

Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Amazing! Incredibly funny and intelligent. One of my favorite books.

England, England by Julian Barnes

Hilarious irony. Brilliant.

Totally Joe by James Howe

So cute and funny. An easy, enjoyable read. Something for a lazy summer day.

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