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.

2 thoughts on “Poisonous Books”

  1. Earlier, I was contemplating Wilde’s stance on whether art can corrupt, and I think this really solidified how I viewed it. Though it seems that the book directly influenced Dorian Gray, he simply yielded to temptation and curiosity, and could no longer free himself after he got a taste of gratification.

  2. Really interesting take on the corruptive influences in the book. I think it’s accurate to say that the novel’s stance seems to be that art cannot corrupt, but rather drag forth aspects of our being that already exist. It’s easy to see Dorian as a pure innocent young man who is corrupted by art, but given how quickly he takes to abandoning his humanity, one must wonder if he is the corrupter, or the corrupted.

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