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.
As we discussed the first third of The Picture of Dorian Gray in class on Wednesday, I found myself struck by two details. First, the way in which Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) kept coming up in conversation felt notable because so many people saw him in the story. Second, the fact that Oscar Wilde did not meet Lord Alfred Douglas until the year after Dorian Gray was published would indicate that Bosie could not have been in the story in any intentional way. I was somewhat surprised by the way in which, even after we learned the chronology of their meeting–something I did not previously know–Bosie continued to be central to our conversation. It felt as if we were so tied to what we know of Wilde’s life that we see it in all that he does, regardless of whether or not we should.
This conversation felt like a good representation of a point that has been brought up throughout the semester: we project onto the past using what we know about the present. I am a history major, so I spend a lot of time–probably most of my day while school is in session–thinking about events of the past and the way in which we try to understand them in the present. Every historian has a different answer to the question, “why does history matter,” and their answer shapes the way in which they contextualize the past. For me, history is a study in compassion. I believe that most of history can be summed up by saying, “people tried to do what they believed was good and failed.” That failure comes from a variety of factors from prejudice that blinded historical actors to the true cruelty of their behavior to an inability to see the side effects of a decision. Of course, there are exceptions to this narrative, but I think that it works as a general rule. For that reason, it is important to study and understand the past in order to build empathy in the present. We must look at historical actors with compassion in the hopes that the people who come after us view us the same way. Part of that process is actively studying the way in which one event led to another, and remembering that historical actors did not have the full picture that we now do.
When it comes to talking about Oscar Wilde, it is important that we remind ourselves that he did not know the trend his life would take before it happened. It is easy for us to view Wilde with compassion, but it is sometimes hard to get the idea of inevitability out of our heads. When Dorian Gray was published, Wilde had not met Bosie and did not know what the long term effects of that meeting would be. For that reason, I believe that we should try to read The Picture of Dorian Gray with the chronology of Wilde’s life in mind. After we do that, we can take the next step and try to explain why Dorian Gray was used against Wilde at his trial without using that fact as indication enough that Bosie is–even accidentally–in the text.
As I was reading the selection of poems for this week’s class, I found myself intrigued by how many darker poems were woven into the collection. With all the talk of beauty and art for art’s sake, it is interesting how many of these poems have more sinister undertones. “The Ballad of a Barber” ends with a murder and the subsequent hanging, “The Masquerade” imagines a world where people are forced to dance, and “Candlelight” contains “delicate flowers of death” (4). But the two poems that struck me the most were “The Dead Poet” and “Nihilism.”
“The Dead Poet” was written by Lord Alfred Douglas about the death of Oscar Wilde. I the thing that stood out to me about this poem is even though the language of the poem itself is describing the beauty of Wilde’s life, there is no part of the poem that doesn’t feel sad. Because of the title, and to some extent because of the last line (“And so I woke and knew that he was dead” (14)), the poems normally cheerful language takes on a somber, more desperate tone.
On the other hand, “Nihilism,” written by Lionel Johnson, does not use the same language strategies. Instead, this poem’s language is very abstract, and comes together in short lines, marked frequently by commas. This makes the lines really powerful, despite their abstractness (“of life I am afraid” or “The pausing from all thought!” (4, 10)).
Thought these two poems use different techniques, they both thematically touch upon the theme of death and our reactions to it. They are interesting to read write after the Happy Prince stories because while those stories have a certain playfulness to them that we read as the closest we had come to pure decadence, these poems do not have that same feeling. Death is a pretty strong opposite to playfulness, but it is also something all human beings, decadent or not, have to face.