Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray was first published in an American magazine, Lippincott's. As the main rival publication to Harper's and the Century, the editors at Lippincott's during the last decades of the century sought to diversify its appeal by publishing more British authors (editor J.M. Stottart booked Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle in addition to Wilde for publishing "novelettes" in Lipincott's). Wilde accepted the offer in hopes to further his own recognition as a literary talent and The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in the spring of 1890. In Britain, Ward, Lock & Co. published The Picture of Dorian Gray nine months later as a single volume. To satisfy the length requirements for volume publication, Wilde added six additional chapters (Chapters 3, 5, 14, 17, 18, and portions of 19, 20).

Wilde's work was met with mixed receptions--the story was at once embraced by Christian moralists who liked the work's seeming condemnation of a life consisting of purely sensual, aesthetic experiences, and also slammed by others who thought it was not a moral work at all. These latter unfavorable reviewers often associated the novel's sustained attention to the hedonistic lives of Dorian or Lord Henry Wotton with the French Decadent authors and "New Journalism," movements which more socially conservative audiences felt to be sensationalistic, prurient, and unhealthy. One of the most scathing attacks came from the Scots Observer who, in referring to Dorian Gray as "medico-legal," implied a connection between Wilde and a recent scandal involving sexual liaisons between telegraph-boys and one Lord Arthur Somerset. Wilde was impatient with reviewers that found his work to have no moral, and his retort was that "artists...had no ethical sympathies" at all. Those who sought a moral in his work deeply misunderstood it because morality had nothing to do with artistic creation.

As a result of Wilde's sparring with the press, the 1891 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray included some distinctive revisions. Wilde toned down words which would imply romantic affection between Basil Hallward and Dorian, added the preface, and commissioned the book publisher to adorn the book with artistic effects to signal its artistic (rather than moral) import. (Source: Joseph Bristow, Introduction to Dorian Gray)

The novel begins with a conversation between Basil Hallward, an artist, and Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry Wotton discovers that Basil has recently become enamored with a young man by the name of Dorian Gray and has painted a portrait of Dorian. Basil talks about how he has realized a new "artistic ideal" in Dorian, and fears that he has "put too much of himself" in the portrait. Meanwhile, Dorian arrives and Wotton insists on meeting Dorian.

Wotton, also charmed by Dorian and his youthful innocence, begins to influence Dorian by pointing out to him that his youth won't last, making Dorian more self-conscious about appreciating his youth. Consequently, Dorian begins to resent the picture's perpetual youth and makes an offhand comment about how he wishes he and the picture could trade places.

Soon, Dorian falls in love with an actress named Sibyl Vane, and they are engaged to be married. Dorian especially feels drawn to Sibyl's innocence which enables her to flit seamlessly and unconsciously into and out of female roles. Sibyl's brother, James Vane, who is about to leave for Australia, warns his sister against falling too quickly in love, and threatens that he will kill Dorian (whom he only knows as "Prince Charming") should he harm her. Before his departure, James Vane finds out from his mother that he is an illegitimate child (but this plot thread doesn't seem to gather much import in the remainder of the novel).

Dorian tells Basil in the presence of Wotton of his engagement and all three go to see Sibyl at the theater. Unfortunately, corrupted by the "knowledge" of love, Sibyl becomes a bad actress. Dorian casts Sibyl aside, and when he returns home, he sees that his portrait has now gained a certain disturbing sneer. Disturbed by this, Dorian resolves to be moral and to renew the engagement to Sibyl. It is, however, too late, and Wotton reveals to Dorian that Sibyl as poisoned herself. Wotton encourages Dorian to think on her death as freeing him from a boring marriage and as a rather aesthetically pleasing tragic gesture. Dorian wrestles with this and eventually takes Wotton's advice, agreeing then to join Wotton at the opera the same might.

Basil, of course, is horrified at Dorian's behavior. When Basil requests if he may exhibit the portrait, Dorian refuses and furthermore, refuses to show it to Basil. Basil mistakenly thinks that Dorian has discovered his having "put too much of himself" in the portrait. Dorian sends his portrait up to an abandoned room upstairs and locks up the room. Meanwhile, Dorian receives and reads a book from Wotton (likely French Decadent Huysman's A Rebours). A long chapter follows detailing the effect of this "poisonous book" and his subsequent pursuit of new sensations as his primary mode of living life. All experience becomes aestheticized for Dorian and detached from any sense of doing good or evil.

Despite many rumors of Dorian having ruined many others' lives and reputations, Dorian retains his look of boyish innocence and beauty because it is the portrait which registers these changes in his place. Basil eventually asks Dorian about the rumors about his questionable behavior. Dorian, pushed to the wall by Basil's questioning, decides to reveal the portrait to Basil. Shocked and afraid, Basil tries to get Dorian to repent of his sins, but in a moment of hatred for Basil, Dorian stabs and kills Basil. In order to get rid of Basil's body, Dorian blackmails his former friend Adam Campbell, a scientist who seems to have previously been involved with the controversial practice of vivisection.

At a dinner party of one Lady Warborough, Dorian nearly loses it and tempted by opium, decides to go seek oblivion at an opium den in the East End. In the den, James Vane hears someone call Dorian "Prince Charming" and runs out to kill him. Dorian manages to save himself by telling Vane that his affair with Sibyl was eighteen years ago, and so his youthful face testifies that he could not possibly be Sibyl's former lover. The woman who has revealed that Dorian is "Prince Charming" sets James Vane back on track, however, after Dorian has escaped.

While giving his own dinner party, Dorian flirts with Duchess of Monmouth (Wotton's cousin) but finds he can't carry on a spirit of levity because he is plagued by fears of Vane; at one point he sees (or imagine he sees) Vane at the window. Fortunately for Dorian, James Vane is accidentally shot by a hunter on his premises, and Dorian is for the moment freed from anxiety. Dorian then explains to Wotton that he has decided to turn "good," and live a more moral life. Wotton is cynical and says the goodness is merely another novel sensation. Dorian imagines that his leaving a young girl with whom he has recently  dallied in order to "save" her is a good action, but alas, he finds his portrait looks worse for it--it now registers hypocrisy. In the end, Dorian stabs his own portrait with the knife that he has killed Basil with, and dies. Those who find Dorian at the end sees that the portrait transforms back into a picture of youth, and Dorian's body now bears the marks of age and corruption.

The different versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray demonstrate the extent to which its final composition was deeply affected by the conversation/sparring between Wilde and the press. Dorian Gray strikes me as a text which registers the battle between anxieties over the degrading effects of "sensation" and "decadence" and Wilde's (and others' associated with the aesthetic/art for art's sake movement in England) frustration with conventional morality and advocacy of art's ability to transcend such bromides.

Formally (and undoubtedly, this owes too to Wilde's primarily writing only drama at the time Dorian Gray was published), the novel doesn't have much of a narrator's voice; much of the work is relayed through dialogue, with characters like Wotton and Dorian speaking epigrammatically and wittily like Wilde's favorite characters in drama. The narration is also often filtered through focalizations and free-indirect discourse, though the free-indirect discourse doesn't seem particularly productive of ironic effects because the narrator is so absent from the text. Ideas seem to rule the text--characters are rather flat and what they say and think matters much more. Such formal features only serve to add to the extent to which Dorian Gray feels like a retort to very specific contemporary ideas--its narrative/storytelling aspects seem very secondary. In fact, I might argue that Wilde's use of the "genericness" of the Faustian bargain seems to render the story intentionally secondary; or at least, Wilde seems to keep in mind different audiences: the reader who would "get" his ideas, and the reader who perhaps might just enjoy the sensational aspects of the man-sells-soul story (which, of course, is the point of art, and even this less careful reader might unknowingly follow his ideas).

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