Throughout Dorian Gray, I found the presentation of art to be incredibly interesting. Basil and Harry seem to fight over Dorian as opposing artistic forces. On a larger scale, Basil and Harry’s work and its relationship to Dorian may reflect Wilde’s larger body of work.
For example, Basil’s relationship with Dorian emphasizes meaning. Basil worships Dorian’s appearance and recreates his image in his artwork. Against his better judgment, Basil reveals himself completely in his work. Just by looking at his painting, his feelings towards Dorian are apparent. One can look through the exterior to find depth without trying. Basil may represent one aspect of Wilde’s creative process and philosophy, which yearns for meaning.
Meanwhile, Harry’s influence on Dorian shows a conflicting artistic urge. Harry’s quick quips are impressive on the exterior but contain nothing of value. He insists that the book he gives Dorian is nothing but a well-written book, with no true meaning or message. The artist puts nothing beyond the surface, yet Dorian takes Harry’s remarks and the book he recommends incredibly seriously. After Harry gives Dorian the book, Dorian obsesses over it, buying copies in different colors to suit his mood. He views the work as predicting his own life and often accuses Harry of poisoning him.
This difference between Basil’s style of providing art and Harry’s style of providing art resembles the range of Wilde’s work. When we talked about Wilde’s Happy Prince tales as outliers in Wilde’s work, we considered that they may not mean anything at all. Like Dorian’s reaction to Harry’s influence, those trying to find meaning in these stories may be digging for something nonexistent and providing their own meanings instead. This would mirror the “Harry” style of art. Meanwhile, works like Dorian Gray are transparent. The story holds meaning beyond the surface, and Wilde’s focus on meaning in art provokes the reader to search for these meanings. Similar to Basil, he puts himself in the work. Wilde divorces the urges in his creative process and personifies them in Harry and Basil. One urge is to create clever and outwardly beautiful work, while the other is to create work that conveys meaning.
Marriage is undeniably inescapable in Wilde’s play, An Ideal Husband. It seems that there are as many perceptions of marriage as there are characters in the play, as each main character views the prospect (or reality) of marriage completely differently. Though the institution is mocked constantly throughout the play, its importance is never understated, even by those desiring to be life-long bachelors. Even Lord Goring, one of Wilde’s more obvious insert characters, says to Robert, “No man should have a secret from his own wife.” Though he immediately follows this statement up with the qualification, “She invariably finds it out.” Even Goring is ultimately unable to avoid married life, as the play concludes to his marriage to Mabel, though their wedding is itself a parody of marriage itself, as Mabel expresses disgust at the very idea that Goring would be an ideal husband to her.
It seems that, through heavily parodying the idea of marriage, but never reducing it to absurdity, that the play is recognizing that all things worth parodying must have at least some level of importance in society. In this way, An Ideal Husband is far from anti-marriage, just as The Importance of Being Earnest is far from being anti-posh, rather both seek to point out the absurdity of real life, without reducing real life to mere absurdity.
This is not to say that An Ideal Husband is pro-marriage or even neutral on the subject, but rather that it is able to make its criticisms of marriage more effectively by recognizing its importance, something that would not be possible if Wilde painted the institution as wholly undesirable and negative. Overall, I think it is clear that there are a lot of moving parts in An Ideal Husband, and if you read past the incredibly rich and witty dialogue, you can see Wilde toeing the line of what can and cannot be said, or performed on stage.
In class on Wednesday, we spent a lot of time discussing the concept of the closet. In the closet, one hides the parts of oneself one doesn’t want others to see. They must show their best selves to the world or face dire consequences. For Oscar Wilde, he had to hide his queerness from the world, and in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian had to hide away his corruption and project the image of perfection to the rest of society. While reading An Ideal Husband, Sir Robert Chiltern’s conflict reminded me of the concept of the closet.
Sir Chiltern has an important position as the Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs and a reputation as an upstanding man of honor. However, in his youth, he sold government secrets to Baron Arnheim in order to make his fortune. Now, Mrs. Cheveley is blackmailing him by threatening to expose his past in order to make him support the Argentine Canal plan, which he knows is a scam. If Mrs. Cheveley exposed him, he could lose everything. Mrs. Cheveley says to Sir Chiltern that, “Nowadays, with our modern mania for morality, every one has to pose as a paragon of purity, incorruptibility, and all the other seven deadly virtues… Scandals used to lend charm or at least interest, to a man—now they crush him” (528). Like Dorian, Sir Chiltern has to project a perfect public image in order to maintain his place in society.
Not only is this perfect image necessary to keep his job, but it’s also necessary to maintain his marriage. His reputation as a man of honor is the reason his wife loves him. When Mrs. Cheveley reveals to Lady Chiltern that Sir Chiltern sold government secrets, Lady Chiltern says, “What a mask you have been wearing all these years! A horrible painted mask! You sold yourself for money” (552). She’s calling Sir Chiltern out for maintaining a facade of perfection. However, Sir Chiltern’s morally dubious act was the reason he got his fortune and was able to marry Lady Chiltern in the first place. He just needed to hide that he ever did anything unvirtuous in order to maintain his lot in life.
After reflecting upon on our class discussion, I wanted to think more deeply about Dorian’s death at the end of the novel. The ambiguity surrounding this event is very interesting to me, and I would argue that Dorian is really committing suicide rather than attempting to destroy his painting. Lord Henry’s final words to Dorian really help to contextualize Dorian’s thought process at this critical moment in his life. He tells Dorian that “art has no influence upon action…, [and that] the books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” (163). This statement seems to refute much of the textual evidence (i.e., the painting whispering murderous ideas to Dorian) for the corrupting power of art, which was often suggested to originate from the power of the yellow book or the painting itself. This shift away from external corruption implies that the culpability for the dark deeds in the novel belongs to Dorian and his own misguided choices. Here, the word “books” could easily be replaced with “paintings,” and, in either case, the second clause would symbolize how the art form is merely reflecting the immorality of Dorian’s actions – not directly causing them. In this way, Dorian is confronted by the duty to take responsibility for his own actions, which he has been trying to avoid doing during the entire plot (i.e., he refers to Basil’s corpse as “that thing” to make the murder seem less real and personal). Later on, we see that Dorian “began to think over some of the things that Lord Henry had said,” so the fact that Dorian was reflecting on these ideas shows the reader that he is really grappling with guilt (164). As art “shows the world its own shame,” Dorian may have originally attempted to destroy his portrait (in another attempt to avoid responsibility) before it reminded him of his agency and culpability, which results in him stabbing a “knife in his [own] heart” (potentially) to finally punish himself for his crimes ( 167).
One of the things that fascinated me the most about Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” wasn’t the story itself, but the stage directions that pop up throughout the narrative. The general rule I have always heard about playwriting is to keep stage directions minimal, to only use them when absolutely necessary, and even then, to be very sparse and plain with your language. As someone who has never read any of Wilde’s plays before, I was struck by the way in which Wilde throws this rule out the window. They are wordy and eloquent and contain details like “Watteau would have loved to paint them” and “He is fond of being misunderstood” (515, 521). I found these stage directions equal parts off-putting and delightful. Off-putting because they were unexpected in this format, delightful because they are so beautifully written. I feel like they are where Wilde’s prose really shines.
However, these stage directions brought up a lot of questions for me as to how this text should be read. I know that it was intended to be viewed as a stage play, meaning the audience would not have necessarily had access to them. They would have been reserved mostly for the actors, and I imagine that some of these details would be quite helpful to them, and some would be quite frustrating. For example, the direction “She is a heliotrope, with diamonds” feels very opaque as a character description, whereas “She has the fascinating tyranny of youth, and the astonishing courage of innocence” is much more specific (517, 516). But the way Wilde mixes prose into this play is extremely fascinating to me. Did he mean to or was it unintended? As modern readers, how should we interpret them? Should we study them like normal stage directions, or as something more?
The Picture of Dorian Gray leaves us with a rather tragic ending. In a sense, there is no real sense of an ending other than the relatively expected demise of Dorian Gray. We are left with most of the main characters of the novel either dead or corrupted morally beyond fixation. Both Sybill and Basil Hallward are left dead by the corruption and degradation of Gray; they both end up as victims of his demise. In a sense, the ending of The Picture of Dorian Gray is quite bleak and without much of anything close to a happy ending. But perhaps Wilde was insinuating much more with the ultimate death of Dorian Gray. While his character does end up dying at the end of the novel, we are given an image of the untainted picture. The text reads, “When they entered they found, hanging upon the wall, a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage” (Gray 159). The physical Dorian Gray, who had corrupted beautifully and completely, confronts the realization of his sins and his wrongdoings; he attempts to destroy the painting in a burst of horror and regret over just how far his soul has corrupted. While such ultimately leads to his death, perhaps Wilde was utilizing this demise to show that the only true way Gray could return to his untainted, beautiful state, was through death or even, through death by his own hands. Although there is not many signs that point to anything other than a tragic ending for this work, there is respite among the fact that Gray accounts for his sins and ultimately, through his own passing at his own hands, his soul returns to the pure state it once was.
For the first time this semester, women play a large role in a work from Oscar Wilde. In the previous works we have read, women play a largely passive role often perceived with negative connotations in the eyes of the other characters in the story. In this play, women are not necessarily described better than in previous works, but they take a much more active role in propelling the story forward. Mrs. Cheveley, Lady Chiltern, and Mabel Chiltern are all principal characters in the story, and they each embody a different stereotype of femininity. Mrs. Cheveley is the sneaky gossip, always on the prowl for a new scandal, and orchestrating her own when there is none to be found. Lady Chiltern, ever the moralist, represents the perfect woman who does no wrong in contrast to Mrs. Cheveley. And finally, Mabel Chiltern, the bright eyed beauty, highlights the decadent woman with her looks and fascination with the unique.
At the crux of the conflict, we find Mrs. Cheveley with her sticky fingers and stolen letters. She strides into the Chiltern household with her agenda and declares war on the happy life of Robert Chiltern because of his ruthless ambition in his youth. There seems to be a prevailing theme of the corrupting nature of youth throughout the last two pieces we have read from Oscar Wilde. Mrs. Cheveley is capitalizing on that fact to blackmail Robert. A curious mascuine air surrounds her because of her assertive and dominant countenance. She does not bow to the intellect of men, and places herself in a position of power over them, which is a distinctly masculine trait throughout the literature of this time. This stereotype is not meant to describe her as a respectable woman, but to highlight that when women grasp for power they end up scorned and hated. Robert’s ambition leads him to similarly morally gray actions, but in contrast, he enjoys an immensely successful life with the admiration of all those around him. This disconnect with what a man and a woman can achieve highlights Wilde’s own perception of women as subordinate to men.
In contrast to Mrs. Cheveley, Lady Chiltern and Mabel Chiltern embody more feminine elements of a stereotypical woman. Lady Chiltern is lauded as the perfect woman, faithfully devoted to her husband and pure to the core. She is almost disgustingly feminine having it reflected even in the pink paper she writes her correspondence on. Mrs. Cheveley is particularly annoyed by this since the two women were enemies during schooling. Lady Chiltern also acts as the moral law throughout the play. Robert is forced to confront his sins because of her and her unwavering morality. All these traits define the ideal wife. A beautiful, faithful woman who adores her husband despite his faults leading him toward a better path in life. Mabel Chiltern represents a different version of the ideal woman. She is constantly pursued for her beauty, and enjoys the frivolous pleasures of life. She is drawn to Lord Goring for his decadent ideals, reminiscent of Lord Henry but with more concern for his friends, because he promises a truly unique and fantastic life full of material pleasures and experiences. Out of all the women in the play, Mabel is the simplest, in quest of a fitting husband to satisfy her luxurious lifestyle. Wilde would hold her as the most desirable woman because she seems to have the least concern with the serious points of life. Passion and pleasure are her aim for herself and her husband, and what’s more to life than that to a decadent?
One of the biggest outstanding questions I still have for The Picture of Dorian Gray is in regard to the end and what it all means. Where does this story leave us? What are we left with? When Dorian stabs his portrait, Dorian the man dies and the portrait reverts back to what Basil had initially painted. But what does that release signify? What does it mean for how we understand the relationship between Dorian and the portrait and who, of the two, was the real, or more real, entity? I asked this question in class and was really intrigued by the variety of different interpretations we all had — from postulating that Dorian was committing suicide to suggesting that this was his last displacement of responsibility for his actions onto the portrait. It is a compelling space to think about what the separation of body and soul means, and I’m inclined to think that in stabbing the portrait Dorian has released his soul from it, and in death at last body and soul were reunited.
Thinking more about the end, something about the very last paragraph of this story has always bothered me. It feels like less than it should be, somehow unfinished or at least unresolved, maybe a little spare compared to the rest of the text. After Dorian’s mad dash for the painting, the deep and twisting personal reflection that leads to the end, the sort of direct resolution of the text feels out of joint, or as if it hasn’t caught up with exactly what happened. Part of this effect comes from the fact that Dorian’s name is not to be found in the final paragraph. Dorian’s servants don’t find Dorian, they find “a dead man,” under a “portrait of their master.” (159) Even though we know who it is and that those that find the body eventually figure it out, Dorian himself seems sort of absent from these lines: “It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was” (159). That sentence, to me, feels like it’s missing its natural pair: It was Dorian Gray. Perhaps, the irresolution clues us further into the relationship between Dorian and the portrait, that the lack of identity at the very end suggests that neither the portrait or the man was anything at all, without the other.
After finishing The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the questions I am thinking about is the question of what makes a good book, which relates to some ideas we’ve been exploring in “Victorian Literature” as we read Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning. In this narrative poem, the narrator is an avid reader and talks about how books and poetry have influenced her life and her own work. She says she read books “Without considering whether they were fit / To do me good,” believing that it is when “We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth” that we get the good from a book (Browning 701-2, 706-8). In these lines, it seems as though her ideas align with the notion that it is the reader’s disposition and commitment to literature that contributes to what they get out of reading, not necessarily the content of the book itself. The way the reader approaches the book has an impact on their reading experience and the lessons they take away from it. With these ideas in mind, we can consider Dorian’s approach to the poisonous book he receives from Lord Henry. He approaches it with a mindset already leaning towards corruption. Dorian “never sought to free himself” from the influence of the book, believing that it contained “the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (Wilde 102). The sins he sees lived out in the book are sins he chooses to enact. He actively chooses his way of life, and though he blames the book for his actions, he actively chooses to take what he does from the book and connect it so closely to his life. If we question the power of the book as a corrupting force in Dorian’s life, we may also consider the power of Lord Henry over Dorian, and question whether it was Lord Henry’s influence that changed Dorian, or whether Dorian, perhaps inspired by Lord Henry, chose to follow a path of corruption farther than Lord Henry had ever followed it.
This is the first of Wilde’s plays we have read, and I found the stage directions to be almost more interesting than the dialogue. While plays are obviously meant to be performed live, given the detail in the stage directions, I wondered if Wilde really wrote An Ideal Husband to be read. Most stage directions come to life through the set design, movement, and dialogue of the actors, but he notes, “HAROLD, the footman, shows Mrs. Cheveley in. Lamia-like, she is in green and silver. She has a cloak of black satin, lined with dead rose-leaf silk” (557). The “Lamia-like” point colored how I interpreted the rest of the play, and an audience would have missed this in a live performance unless the stage directions were read aloud.
Keats’ poem, “Lamia,” is, at its core, a story of exposure. Essentially, Lamia is a serpent turned into a beautiful woman, which further connects to the snake brooch that Mrs. Chevely stole. Lycius falls in love with Lamia, and at their wedding, a blind prophet recognizes Lamia as the serpent. In the context of An Ideal Husband, the reference to this poem obviously reinforces Sir Robert Chiltern’s intent to find some secret about Mrs. Cheveley in order to protect himself. The threat of exposure extends beyond Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley to Lord Goring and Lady Chiltern as well. Lady Chiltern is the most interesting and puzzling character to make sense of when reading “Lamia” alongside the play. I expected, since Mrs. Cheveley represents the evil serpent, that Lady Chiltern is the most obvious beautiful and morally righteous counterpart. Sir Robert describes her as such: “She does not know what weakness or temptation is… She stands apart as good women do – pitiless in her perfection – cold and stern and without mercy. But I love her Arthur” (561). However, she ultimately turns into a different form of Lamia, threatened with the exposure of her letter to Lord Goring and attempting to end her husband’s career similar Mrs. Cheveley (578).
I think there is much more that can be done with Wilde’s use of “Lamia” in this play, but the main effect I walked away with was the deconstruction of morality. Even the morally righteous characters, like Lady Chiltern, have secrets, and despite her twisted approach, Mrs. Cheveley is really just in love with Lord Goring. Wilde explores morality in a lot of his works like “The Harlot’s House” and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but his exploration of morality in political and domestic spheres in this play is the most effective in proving that it is nearly impossible to label people as “good” or “bad.”