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.”