Criticism, Dorian Gray in Theory, Essay, Literary Theory, Reader-Response

Dorian Gray, In Theory (Part 2)

Last Wednesday, 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. A polar argument for dissecting Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray is to switch focus from Wilde’s intentions, to that of the readers’ receptions.


Stanley Fish, “self-proclaimed inventor of reader-response theory” provides an entirely different way of understanding our own interpretations of The Picture of Dorian Gray (Leitch 2067). Fish believes that we “[locate] meaning not in texts but in readers, not in individual response but in the protocols of communities.” If Fish is correct, then we can attribute each generation’s criticism of Dorian Gray to the cultural, sociological, religious, and financial situations of its time. For instance, the vast majority of first critical responses to the novel were negative. How does a novel like The Picture of Dorian Gray go from being an outrage and abomination to being read in almost every high school and college literature curriculum?

As Fish states, it is our “communities, rather than the texts, [which] govern and generate interpretative communities” (2069). That is to say, it is not Oscar Wilde or his writing who have changed over time, but the way we have been taught to read the novel. At first publication, the homosexuality present in his work was an affront to social decency and morality. The first critics are not so much concerned with the message of art and artist as they are with Oscar Wilde’s inclusion of taboo ideas. Later, in the 1940s and 1960s, critics become interested in Oscar Wilde, the man and author. Focus shifts, then, from outrage over homoerotic motifs to the debate over how much of Oscar Wilde is truly in The Picture of Dorian Gray and other writings. As we reach the 1970s, after the Vietnam War and ideas of “free-love” and sexual revolution have stormed through Europe and the United States, homosexuality in literature becomes, if not a norm, at least not a surprise: “what a number of Urnings [homosexuals] are being portrayed in novels now!” (Schmidgall 376).

So, the contemporary critics of the day were educated in a different way and in search of new ideas. In the 1970s, critics such as Donald Lawler and Charles Knott completely desert the homosexual critique and the need to examine how autobiographical Dorian Gray is to Wilde’s life; instead, they begin to look at the origin of Dorian Gray, the writing process behind the famous novel. Still, into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, theoretical criticism for The Picture of Dorian Gray is fluid and changing. In the 1990s, for example, in wake of new laws on child-care and changing ideas of the damages of corporal punishment and discipline, comes psychoanalytic approaches to understanding The Picture of Dorian Gray as a text on child abuse.

Most recently, with Elisa Glick’s often cited “The Dialectics of Dandyism,” comes a new, Queer theory approach to Oscar Wilde, a look, not so much at homoeroticism and the evils of homosexuality, but at the role Oscar Wilde’s work plays in forming a queer identity, a literary rebellion of oppression. The point that Fish makes, then, that all literature is read anew, depending upon education and interpretations, is valid. Each new generation will read The Picture of Dorian Gray in a new manner, deeming different ideas important and different passages significant, depending on what that person’s interpretative community has chosen to demonstrate. A quick Google Image search for covers of the novel, comparing them across time and culture, will put this into sharp focus.

Please come back next Wednesday, when I consider Dorian Gray and Post-Structuralism.

Works Cited and Consulted

  • Glick, Elisa. “The Dialectics of Dandyism.” Cultural Critique, no. 48, 2001, pp. 129–163.
  • 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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Blog Post, J.K. Rowling, Reader-Response, writing

J.K. Rowling Can Say What She Wants

indexBy now, many readers and book bloggers are likely aware of a controversial statement that was made recently by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, in an interview with a British entertainment magazine, Wonderland.  In the interview (conducted, amusingly enough, by Emma Watson, the young and talented actress who plays Hermione in the film adaptations of Harry Potter) , Rowling allegedly indicates that two of the main characters, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, probably should not have ended up together after all, even though theirs was the primary romance in the series.

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” says Rowling. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

I have been asked numerous times over the last few days for my reaction.  The difficulty, for me, is in deciding which “cap” to put on in my response.  Are you asking me as a fan of the series?  Or are you interested in my interpretation of this as a scholar of literary theory?  Are you curious about how I think about this as a critic and a reader?  Or are you wondering about how I react to this as a writer who considers Rowling a master craftsperson?  There are so many ways to respond to this particular type of revelation, and while these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I can certainly find possible “pros” and “cons” from each perspective.  I will do my best, though, to shape one coherent general response.

index2This statement has unleashed reactions similar to those which arose after Rowling indicated that another of her major characters, the Hogwarts Headmaster and Wizard-extraordinaire, Albus Dumbledore was gay.  Fans then, and now, split along lines of outrage at Rowling apparently “changing” the stories, on the one hand, and excitement over the  added depth (or possible reaffirmation of some fans’ original interpretations or desires about the characters), on the other hand. These kinds of reactions have much more to do with reader-response than with the quality or integrity of the text itself.  Reader-response theory tells us that each reader is going to react uniquely to a book (and to each reading of that book) based on the personal experiences, opinions, background, etc. that she brings to the text at the time of reading.  So, does this mean that people who (re)read the books after learning about Dumbledore or about Rowling’s shaping of Ron & Hermione’s relationship might read the books in a new way?  Possibly.  Do these things harm the text, or change it?  Not in the slightest – they just complicate the reading (for some).

In that first revelation, Rowling was accused by many of being a “coward” for not introducing Dumbledore’s homosexuality into the stories themselves, instead choosing to “drop it” on us in an interview after the fact.  My reaction was quite different; in fact, I had already read Dumbledore as a gay man, especially in the penultimate and final books (The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows) where we learn much more about Dumbledore’s past.  But even excluding the clues which Rowling clearly dropped in the novels (and yes, they are clearly there, but it is not surprising or “wrong” if some readers overlooked these) there are two other problems I have with this negative reaction:

First, why does a character’s explicit heterosexuality or homosexuality need to be spelled out at all?  Most readers do not expect all elements of a plot or of a story’s characters, to be explicitly given to us – part of the fun in reading is in discovering these things.  Perhaps Rowling anticipated that more of her audience would have picked up on the nuances than actually did or perhaps she was asked a simple question (“did Dumbledore ever fall in love?”) and she gave a simple answer (“Yes, with a man named Grindelwald”).

Second, fans of the fantasy genre, in particular, should be accustomed to the fact that fantasy writers, particular those of complex, intricate, time-spanning series’ such as this one, often know much, much more about their characters and stories than they are ever able to incorporate into the series themselves; sometimes the additional information comes out in addenda – reissued editions, companion pieces, etc. Just look at all of the supplementary Tolkien works that take place in the lands of Middle Earth which have been released post-publication of the Lord of the Rings series!

Ultimately, I think it is Rowling’s right and privilege, as the author, both to reveal as much or as little as she wants about her characters and also to change her mind as she sees fit.  She is not changing the story, after all, just our understanding of how she came to imagine it and to craft it.  To add insult to injury, for some, is the fact that Emma Watson, our Hermione-incarnate, seems to agree with Rowling:

“I think there are fans out there who know that too and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy,” says Watson.

Emma_Watson_as_Hermione_Granger_(GoF-promo-05)So, the story writer and the woman who played the character for ten years and who knows her (Hermione) with an intimacy second only to Rowling herself, both agree that the relationship at the heart of the series might not be such a fairy tale.  And?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once killed-off his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, only to later change his mind about that.  Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein when she was very young, later looked back on the book with embarrassment and a completely different political perspective.  Writers have regrets, they rethink things, and they talk about it.  So what?  The outrage and hubbub are, in my opinion, just a tad overblown and largely unnecessary.  Sure, the series is the most popular of its kind in perhaps ever, so of course anything slightly controversial regarding it will become a topic of intense, heated, and sometimes hilarious social debate.  But, hey, at least Rowling didn’t follow her first instinct, which was to kill Ron.  Authorial intent is interesting in so far as it generates discussion and gets readers asking new questions, but, ironically, the reality is in the fiction – that world has already been created for us and must be taken as presented.

Let’s just enjoy the brilliance of the stories and the world that J.K. Rowling created.  We can and will react to the books in our own way, so why not let people – yes, even the author- say what they feel needs to be said about them.  In the end, all that matters is the experience you have with the books.  There is no right or wrong about that.