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.

Sensationalism and Satire

We have previously discussed some similarities between Wilde’s work and The Woman in White, the sensationalist novel by Wilkie Collins, and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” stood out to me exactly for that reason. The story definitely has the feel and themes of sensationalism, including several failed murder attempts with a variety of weapons and near misses with the police. But I think the reason the two feel so similar is not these plot points, but the voice of the narrator, Lord Arthur, and his quest to marry his lady love, Sybil Merton. This chase felt eerily similar to Walter Hartright’s goal to marry Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White. Both men have a certain stubbornness about their goals, and both have a wiliness to do illegal things in order to accomplish them. In Watler’s case, breaking Laura out of an asylum, and in Arthur’s, murdering Mr. Podgers.

However, in “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” it appears that Wilde is satirizing sensationalism to some end. It is Arthur himself who decides he needs to murder someone else in order to marry Sybil, nothing else in the greater world of the story requires it. He believes that he must murder because he believes that the fortune that Mr. Podgers gives him is unavoidable, and he wants to protect Sybil from his murderous acts. The irony here is that in order to save his marriage’s future wellbeing, Arthur decides to start his marriage on a bed of murder and lies, not to mention that the whole scenario is based on the outcome of one palm reading! This is much different than the narrative of A Woman in White, where Walter, although he may not be perfect, is attacking a legitimate problem facing both his own goal of marrying Laura, but a problem for women at large. I find this twist in genre fascinating and am curious about how it would’ve been viewed by readers during Wilde’s time.

Style in Poetry and Prose

Reading these poems, I was very interested in Wilde’s style of poetry writing, because of his belief in “art for the sake of art.” To me, especially in the context of poetry writing, this concept makes me think of poems with rapid fire imagery, creative uses of sound, and a lack of a real narrative thread. It was a surprise to me, then, that Wilde’s poetry was so structured, and often very narrative heavy. Most of the poems we read did contain sonic elements, but they were contained within very strict rhyme schemes. My reaction here is probably an effect of Wilde and me being born in different time periods, however, I thought it interesting because even as Wilde and his contemporaries are arguing for more creative freedom, these forms are imposing a different set of restrictions upon them.

The poems I thought that were the least restrictive were the prose poems. Even though they were heavily narrative based, I think they really challenged both the traditional narrative form and the messages surrounding the subjects they contained. Most of them involved themes of theology, mythology, and the historical figure of Jesus, who is depicted in several poems using only the pronoun “He.” I think the choice not to reveal Jesus’s name was a very cool one, as it made the reader draw the connection for themselves while allowing the prose poems to wander into more “dangerous” subject matter. For example, in “The Doer of Good,” the “He” wanders around the city, encountering people who “He” had saved. However, after being saved, these people did not follow the traditional motif of living a holier life, but instead spent the time relishing their salvation. What’s more, “He” seems powerless to change their minds, not even attempting to. This departure from traditional Biblical themes is a challenge to the time Wilde was writing in, however, because of the form, the challenge is partially disguised.

Through an Opera Glass

I was really intrigued by Symon’s comparison of Decadence to an opera glass in his piece “The Decadent Movement in Literature.” The Decadents’ whole ethos is an emphasis of style, cleverness and beauty over substance.  The opera glass is “a special, unique way of seeing things” (138), particular to the closer examination of an art form. As a tool of vision and perception, the opera glass is a really helpful analogy, a way of articulating how the Decadents viewed their whole movement. They were creating a particular way of experiencing art and understanding beauty, a special and unique way of seeing things, of seeing art and of rendering “our ideas, our sensations… a personal language, a language bearing our signature.” (139) Even further, the idea of particular perception they are articulating dovetails really nicely with this analogy because perception is so subjective and hinges fundamentally on the way the individual reacts to stimuli in their environment. That the opera glass is a perceptual tool further reinforces the Decedents’ assertion that what the individual sees in a work of art is a reflection of that individual and that individual alone, divorced from the emotional or perceptual effort of the artist. 

That it is specifically an opera glass is also really informative. Opera is a performative, often inaccessible art form with a reputation for elitism that typically doesn’t resonate with those who are unfamiliar with or haven’t been exposed to the language and cultural experience tied to opera. Similarly, if you don’t hold with or share the experiences of the Decadents, their work becomes all that much harder to parse and understand — what is jest, what is truth, what do they actually believe. They are interested in “a desperate endeavor to give sensation, to flash the impression of the moment, to preserve the very heart and motion of life” (138). You have to use their opera glasses, their understanding of the world to get a close enough look to understand what they are getting at.  It is interesting to note that Symons is using an analogy for viewing visual art to discuss the Decadent movement in Literature specifically, and to think about what that means for how he or other Decadents viewed the distinctions between different art forms. While I don’t buy into the idea of art for art’s sake personally, the analogy of the opera glass is easy to hold onto as a measure of the way the Decadents viewed themselves, their perception of their movement.