Poisonous Books

Considering the preface of Dorian Gray in hand with the “poisonous book” that Lord Henry gives Dorian, I wondered where the “poison” in the story truly originated. In the preface, Wilde insists that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” and that “those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming.” Later, Lord Henry echoes Wildes’s point: “As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that… The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” On the other hand, Dorian maintains that the book does poison him: “It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain.” The narrator seems to confirm this by saying that “Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book.”

Wilde presents juxtaposing ideas: books can be poisonous, or they cannot. It is difficult to tell what Wilde truly believes or what he wants to communicate. While the preface does seem to state the author’s view explicitly, it also provokes the reader to look for meanings. What the preface says and what the preface accomplishes stand in contrast.

Likewise, while Lord Henry claims that books do not contain influence or convey meaning beyond what the reader brings, the text seems to contradict this at times, stating explicitly that “Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book.” Simultaneously, the text informs the reader that “[Dorian] never sought to free himself from it.” This points to culpability on Dorian’s end. The book may not have poisoned him; rather, Dorian allowed himself to be poisoned.

Perhaps Wilde’s point is that art cannot actively “poison” or influence, but if humans choose to let it poison them, it will transform them. Humans must provide meaning that will work through art to change them. Wilde describes the relationship between Dorian’s life and the book: “The hero, the wonderful young Parisian in whom the romantic and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended, became to him a kind of prefiguring type of [Dorian]. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.” This passage goes in hand with the idea we saw in Wilde’s other work: life imitates art. Humans bring meaning to art, which in turn influences life. Thus, life comes to imitate the meaning humans give to art.

Oscar Wilde: Morality and Ethics

The Picture of Dorian Gray, highlights/stresses Wilde’s own views on the concept of morality and ethics with a careful characterization of Lord Henry and Basil Hallward. There are distinct characteristics that create the aforementioned figures and it’s obvious that Lord Henry and Basil Hallward carry very different qualities. Lord Henry places much emphasis on the idea of pleasure and happiness, sometimes even skewing this idea/definition of happiness, as he influences the morals and viewpoints of Gray. He also distorts the idea of happiness by subtly connecting it with beauty and youth. In other words, Lord Henry interconnects pleasure and beauty while replacing the idea of happiness and morality with such ideas. He states, “Pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about,” he answered in his slow melodious voice. “But I am afraid I cannot claim my theory as my own. It belongs to Nature, not to me. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.” Lord Henry influences Gray with this hedonistic mindset throughout the novel, one that Hallward is uneasy about. The character of Basil Hallward represents a different look on morality. He is wary of Henry’s cynicism and his influence on Gray and actively voices such concerns. Where Hallward’s sense of morality falters is with his obsession with beauty. He carries a belief in the symbiotism of good and beauty, one that borders on ignorance and such is shown by his continued trust that Dorian Gray’s outwardly beautiful nature represents goodness and ethicality. Hallward states, “mind you, I don’t believe these rumours at all. At least, I can’t believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands even.” Such ignorance or refusal to believe that one could be corrupted and immoral ultimately leads to his abrupt demise.

Blossoms of Life

This week, we began reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde’s only novel. I had read this book in highschool and thought it was going to be a laid back read, but upon reading the first chapter I realized there was so much that I never picked up on before. In class, someone said that there was an analysis that said the three men of the story reflected the three versions of himself that existed within Wilde. I was intrigued by this idea, and wanted to examine it within the frame of the various flowers littered within the pages of the novel. Reading a novel by such an enigmatic author is both challenging and consuming. While there are so many avenues to explore, there’s always that underlying question of whether or not we should even look that deep. Maybe Wilde simply stumbled upon a pretty flower one day and decided to add that imagery to his work, or one of his fleeting passions of the time was flowers and their delicate beauty. Nonetheless, what could be the author’s whim becomes the subject of great conversation by those who read him. 

From the very beginning, Dorian Gray is compared to a rose with its deep beauty and romantic connotations, but every rose has its thorns. That is to say, looks can be deceiving. This became increasingly clear with the chapters we read this weekend as Dorian realizes his material luck leaving his emotional and moral burdens to the portrait in his school room. We see Dorian begin his descent from purity slowly, then all at once when Sybil loses her artistic value blossoming in her true love instead of the theatricality of stage life. Here we see how his thorns pierce those who get too close to his intoxicating beauty. In a way, there is a perfect metaphor for the Decadents, who find their value in the material and art for simply art’s sake. Those who become useless to them, losing their artistry, get tossed into the garbage. Dorian, who is the unknowing worshiper of the decadent, destroys Sybil once she loses her artistic value. Although Dorian is lauded as this perfect epitome of beauty and youth, we are beginning to see how the outward vanity tarnishes the inward beauty. Like with the rose, it is dangerous to get too enraptured with the outward beauty because you will fall prey to the dangers below the surface. Duality plays a large role within this comparison with the allure of the facade to shield from the shallow ideals below. 

While the other men in the story are not directly compared to flowers, there is imagery throughout the novel that I think connects back to these characters. When Lord Henry and Dorian converse in the garden, Dorian is playing with a spray of lilac, but once he hears Lord Henry’s ode to the importance of youth, the spray falls from his hand. Lilac itself is a symbol of purity, innocence and first love. At this point, we see Dorian being lured away by the pleasure Lord Henry preaches. Basil is left behind to his world of morals and passion, whereas Dorian is entering the world of pleasure. The spray that falls from his hand signifies his descent from purity on the inside, and in the social sphere. Basil clings to the idea of the pure hearted Dorian, but that man is no more. His first love, his fiery passion, his muse is fading away being corrupted by material pleasures. 

Lord Henry, the manipulator, talks about his previous obsession with violets when Dorian speaks of cultivating poppies in his garden in remembrance of Sybil Vane. Violets symbolize truth, loyalty, and humility. A sense of irony forms when you think about Lord Henry being obsessed with these flowers for a time. We know that he is obviously not a humble person, nor does he have any care for the truth. He leads his life in pursuit of life’s pleasures and once they pleasure him no more they are useless, which seems to run in opposition to truth and humility. But if we look at this through the lens of Wilde, wouldn’t the truth be ever changing and contradictory? In that respect, these flowers perfectly signify Lord Henry’s vision of himself in the world. He does not have the answers, but he speaks out to the world as if he knows all. In his world, he is the truth, and he will impart his “truth” onto his new creation: Dorian. Lord Henry is quite loyal to his new creation because he was a blank slate to be written on. 

Each of the principal men in the novel are complex characters which cannot be embodied by a singular representation, but these comparisons to flowers enhance the reading of this story, opening different avenues of analysis and the overall message Wilde is trying to impart on his readers. Beautiful imagery enhances a story of the dangers of beauty and pleasure. Everything is connected in one way or another, and these connections make life complex and messy leading us down dangerous paths of sin.

The Issue of Autobiographical Elements in Dorian Gray

One of the most interesting aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the artistic perspective of Basil Hallward. The painter states that an “artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them” (25). This passage reminds me of the decadent movement’s belief in the creation of art for art sake (in other words: for the sake of beauty), which also connects to the idea about the importance of art’s impression on the viewer. This impressionistic mindset purports that the artist should not try to infuse his or her work with meaning because all meaning is created from each individual’s unique reaction to art. In this instance, treating art “as a form of autobiography” would conflict with this decadent ideal by making art less about the viewer and more about the artist (25). This sentiment is echoed in the Preface as Wilde writes, “To reveal art and conceal is the artist is art’s aim” (17).  This mantra is interesting in connection to Wilde’s own life because many of Wilde’s autobiographical details (i.e., interest in Catholicism, sexuality) would have been controversial in traditional British society and might have caused problems for him if more traditional readers were to find these themes in his work. However, despite this negative view of autobiographical influences on art, The Picture of Dorian Gray also seems to advocate for this practice. Basil seems to contradict his aforementioned views as he explains that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist” (21). As the word “feeling” connotes passion and extreme effort (qualities that are essential for masterful art), Basil may be implying that all truly great paintings reveal something about their creator. This phenomenon is also reflected in the Preface as Wilde also writes, “The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography” (17). Since Wilde has previously described criticism as an art itself, this mantra may reveal how the “highest art” skillfully is skillfully injected with autobiographical details while the “lowest” art may rely too heavily on this practice. With the context of the negative contradictory view of autobiographical influences in mind, great art might also have to try to conceal its details about its creator in order to ensure that the reader is not overly distracted away from appreciating the formal impressionistic beauty of the work.    

Art and the Artist, in Dorian Gray

I find it interesting that the turning point of the novel is not necessarily a dramatic moment, but rather a quiet decision made by the main character which ends up having disastrous consequences on himself and those around him. When Sybil dies, Dorian has to make a choice: he can either mourn her death as a human being he once loved, or reduce her to mere fuel for his art, making her death nothing more than inspiration for him. Due to the influence of Lord Henry, he chooses the latter, and at this point his fate is essentially sealed, his true nature is permanently scarred, and will never again be accurately reflected in his pristine and beautiful face. This decision essentially switches Dorian’s place with his painting, leaving him as a mere façade, and the painting to reflect who he really is. 

It seems to me that the painting represents Wilde’s own struggles to practice what he preaches, and keep the artist out of the art. Basil initially believes that the painting cannot be displayed, because it reveals too much about his own character, and ironically enough, this same piece of art becomes a looking glass to Dorian’s soul, becoming completely distorted from Basil’s original vision. Later in the novel, Basil seems to have had a change of perspective on his art, instead believing that true art conceals the artist, rather than revealing his true nature. This belief seems to be more closely aligned to Wilde’s, but I’m not sure if that’s the message the book itself is attempting to get across. If anything, it seems that the strong desire to completely remove the artist from his art is a destructive force thus far, implying that such a thing is impossible.

Just Guys Being Dudes, Dudes Being Guys

In my blog post last week, I talked about how the references Wilde made to the Symposium in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” and at his trial were used as a defense for having close relationships with men and admiring their beauty. In class on Wednesday, we talked about homosocial relationships between men and how that featured in The Picture of Dorian Gray. To me, it seems like this use of homosocial relationships in Dorian Gray is used as a defense for Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian’s relationship in the same way that the Symposium is used as a defense for Shakespeare and Willie Huges’ relationship in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”

In class, we talked about how certain homosocial behavior is viewed as acceptable only if all the participants in this behavior are straight. For instance, during a men’s basketball game, it’s perfectly acceptable to give your teammate a butt pat. However, if either of those players isn’t straight, the act is viewed with entirely new meaning. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry and Basil being completely obsessed with Dorian’s beauty can just be viewed as, to use a colloquial turn of phrase, dudes being guys, guys being dudes. Straight is often seen as the default, even today. Therefore, unless explicitly stated, Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian can be read as completely straight, and the admiration of Dorian’s beauty is just perfectly acceptable homosocial behavior. In fact, if you see anything queer about their relationship, you’re probably the weird one. 

This can all tie back to the Preface of Dorian Gray, where Wilde says that this work is just meant to be a thing of beauty, and if you find anything off with it, there’s something off with you. He’s saying that no one should try to look past the surface level of Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian’s relationship with each other. They’re all just good buds, and it’s perfectly cool for good buds to be obsessed with each other. What’s interesting to me is that this defense actually worked for a while, because as mentioned in class, for years, queerness wasn’t even mentioned when studying The Picture of Dorian Gray. Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian were just viewed as friends, albeit friends who corrupted each other, but just friends nonetheless. I just think it’s interesting how for so long, no one really wanted to peer beneath the surface of Dorian Gray.

The Dangers of Exposing One’s Soul

I never read Dorian Gray before this class, and while I anticipated Dorian would psychologically deteriorate after Lord Henry’s remarks, I did not expect him to kill Basil. I think the fact that Basil was murdered by his greatest source of artistic inspiration is an interesting way for Wilde to explore the relationship between an artist and his muse, and more deeply, the dangers of putting one’s “soul” into a work of art. While Basil refused to exhibit the portrait because it exposed too much of his soul, it is really the portrait’s representation of Dorian’s soul that is the downfall of the two men. Wilde warns us in the preface about searching for meaning in art; he says, “to reveal art and conceal the artist is the art’s aim” (17). In considering Dorian not only a source of inspiration but a form of art itself, Basil reveals both himself and Dorian in the portrait. Given the fact that the portrait contains pieces of both men, it is significant that Dorian describes the portrait as motivating his violence: “Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips” (117). As I re-read this passage, perhaps this suggestion by the canvas is another layer of commentary on looking for meaning in art because clearly the portrait did not actually whisper in Dorian’s ear. The portrait simply reflects, and as a result, intensifies, what Dorian already thinks and feels, more specifically, the growing wickedness of his character.

            I finished this chapter with a few questions in mind. The first and more superficial is what will Dorian do with the body, but also how did the portrait change if Basil did not paint the grin in the first place? Is it possible that so much of the identities of Basil and Dorian are in the painting that they are hallucinating the same thing, and the picture is actually unchanged? I am suspicious of Lord Henry even though he is not a painter. Logistics of the painting aside, when I read the first few chapters, I thought this book could be read as a psychological study of the relationship between artist and muse and the toll that being one’s source of inspiration can take on a person. I think that element is still important, but in these last 50 pages, I’ve begun to think the novel could be read as a cautionary tale as well.

What is Wilde trying to tell us?

Many of the writings of Wilde that we have read so far have all been rather straightforward in their praise of decadent ideas about morality and social life. The dialogues especially (“The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”) make it clear that they are trying to convince you of a decadent ideal; it is their sole purpose. Because of this, it is very easy to read Wilde as a staunch defender of decadence and no more. However, The Picture of Dorian Gray complicates that idea.

Although the text is awash with decadent ideas (the worship of male beauty, the simultaneous rejection and desire for education and learnedness, the carefree attitudes towards social order), it does not seem to be defending those ideas. As Dorian grows more and more decadent, the painting of him grows more and more corrupted. His relationship with Lord Henry is seen as corrupting in the novel, much like Wilde’s relationship with Bosie was seen as by the public.

But the decadent ideals are not completely slandered either. To some extent, Dorian Gray is getting what he wants. He lives a life of luxury, enjoys whatever he likes, and is hardly even touched by the public’s perception of him. And if there are similarities between the relationships of Dorian and Lord Henry and Wilde and Bosie, then it is hard to believe that Wilde would view his own relationship as pure corruption.

All of this is to say that I have been grappling with the question of whether or not The Picture of Dorian Gray has some deeper moral or social message, and what that message might be. I have not found an answer yet, and Wilde is so slippery, I’m not sure I will. The one thing I am reasonably sure about is that this text feels deeply personal in a way that his other works have not.

Power and Art in Dorian Gray

One of the many fascinating aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the immense power Dorian and Lord Henry wield in the narrative, especially compared to Sibyl and Basil.  It’s particularly curious because Basil and, more minorly, Sibyl, are the text’s artists, but are simultaneously the ones most under Dorian’s spell and are relatively powerless to save their art from contact with him. Basil says that Dorian is “all my art to me now” and that “the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life” (23). He places a power and personal weight in Dorian’s beauty, noting the control it has over his art.  When Dorian will no longer sit for Basil, Basil claims that in refusing, Dorian will “spoil [his] life as an artist” (91).  This personal investment in Dorian, as his artistic ideal, eventually becomes his downfall.  In a similar way, Sibyl’s love for Dorian comes between her and her art. After she kisses Dorian, she proudly loses her ability to act — in finding real love for Dorian, all of her stage love seems to her a sham and Dorian is “more to [her] than all art can ever be” (71). As we know, however, Dorian values the Sibyl of the stage more, the ideal she portrays through her art, and so her investment in Dorian also becomes her downfall. Each is robbed of their life and ability to make the art that made them special, one because Dorian was art’s ideal and the other because Dorian became more real than art could ever be.  

It sort of echoes our class conversation on “The Ballad of a Barber,” that perhaps there’s a limit to what the artists can make more beautiful or perhaps that there’s something maddening about true natural beauty, despite the fact that Basil says “there is nothing that Art cannot express” (23).  This raises another question for me however — is Dorian really beautiful? Obviously he is physically beautiful and seems at first to have a sort of naive beauty of spirit too.  But as his soul degrades, does he stay beautiful? At what point does his outer beauty become a sham too, the beauty of his form robbed of the beauty of his soul? Is he fascinating simply because he is beautiful or because of the juxtaposition of the perfect exterior and corrupt, rotting interior and the way it is hard to reconcile those two?