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.
I’ve had an interest in the life and works of Oscar Wilde for a while, but I had never read any of his works until taking this class. I found the essays of the Decadent writers to be challenging, yet interesting, and I appreciate the wit and humor of the works of Wilde we’ve read so far. However, there’s a common feature in the Decadent writers’ and Wilde’s works that bothers me immensely: the blatant classism.
I didn’t think that classism and elitism would be such a common occurrence in these writings, but it is such a glaring feature in some of these writings that it sours my opinion on the work as a whole, even if the work manages to make some good points in other places. For instance, in Arthur Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” he speaks highly of the French poet Mallarmé and his style of writing. Symons also speaks of how Mallarmé “always looked with intense disdain on the indiscriminate accident of universal suffrage. He has wished neither to be read nor to be understood by the bourgeois intelligence, and it is with some deliberateness of intention that he has made both issues impossible.” In this statement, Symons makes it seem as if only the aristocracy are worthy of comprehending Mallarmé’s works, and that the intelligence of the middle class will always be lacking. This is such an annoying sentiment to me. It just seems ridiculous to deliberately make your writing more complicated so that people you arbitrarily deem unworthy can’t understand it. It also seems like a way to shield yourself from criticism because if someone were to critique your writing for being difficult and overwrought, you can just say that they’re just too pedestrian to truly get it.
This classism is also glaring in “The Critic as Artist.” In the dialogue, Gilbert states, “Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the lower and middle classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more to the eye, and less and less to the ear.” The use of the words “fatal development” in regards to literacy becoming more widespread is particularly egregious to me. The entirety of this work centers around the importance of the impression of art on the viewer. However, since middle and lower class people reading is apparently a “fatal development,” this work makes it seem like only people whose opinion on art matters are members of the aristocracy.
“The Critic as Artist” posits that art will stagnate if it’s created without criticism, however, I would also like to add that art will stagnate if only the elite are allowed to create and critique art. Letting a variety of different people with different opinions create and critique art is beneficial for its development.