That’s a Wrap, Folks

On the very first day of class this semester, we read the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. The first few lines were, “The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim” (27). My main takeaway from this class is how wrong that statement is. Over the course of this semester, through analyzing Wilde’s work, Wilde as a person was revealed to us. Because of the society Wilde lived in, he had to conceal his queer identity, but Wilde’s queerness shines through in his work. 

My research paper focuses on how Wilde was able to identify with Plato’s Symposium—a work that focuses on how the relationship where an older man mentors a younger man is the highest form of love—in a time when there wasn’t any other form of queer representation. Identifying with the Symposium allowed Wilde to see his queer identity being represented as beautiful in a time when homosexual acts were reviled. Therefore, Wilde enacted the relationship dynamics of the Symposium in his relationship with Bosie and other young men, where the younger men would inspire him and he would mentor and praise them. However, even if we didn’t learn anything about Wilde’s biography this semester, we’d learn a lot about Wilde and his connection to the Symposium just by examining his work. 

Although The Picture of Dorian Gray was meant to “conceal the artist,” Wilde very much reveals himself and his ideas in this work. The Symposium isn’t referenced in Dorian Gray, but the inspiration is apparent. The relationship between Basil and Dorian is one where an artist is inspired by the beauty of a younger man. Basil says, “Dorian, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated soul, brain, and power by you” (89). This relationship seems to mirror Wilde’s relationship with Bosie, but Dorian Gray was written before this relationship. Dorian Gray is actually a representation of the relationship dynamic put forth in the Symposium as the highest form of love. Basil and Dorian seem to prefigure Wilde and Bosie. Through analyzing Wilde’s work, we can see how Wilde places himself in the tradition of Plato by connecting the Symposium to Dorian Gray and then to himself. However, even though Wilde and his characters were acting out the “highest form of love,” Wilde still lived in a time that didn’t accept queerness, and both his characters’ and his own life ended in tragedy. 

Wilde is a fascinating and tragic figure, and I really appreciated being able to learn about him over the course of the semester. Despite Wilde’s efforts to conceal himself in his art, being able to analyze his works this semester really enabled me to understand Wilde as a person. In turn, since I know more about Wilde as a person, I can appreciate his works even more.

Working with Wilde

Sitting down to write this final post, I was thinking about how the idea of a dedicated course to Oscar Wilde almost necessarily belies his own adage that the art is separate from the artist. The project of studying one author, for a whole semester and over the course of their work and its changes and nuances over time, begs questions of context, continuity, and change in the life of the artist himself — what developments in their life changed and influenced their work?  For Wilde in particular it feels extremely hard to separate the two, thinking, as we have in class, about the way the course of his life feels prefigured in almost every work we read. I of course have been most interested in Wilde’s complicated identity as an Irishman in Victorian England. For me Dorian Gray, “The Happy Prince,” and “The Nightingale and the Rose” index his complicated understanding of himself as an Irishman, from a particularly Anglo-Irish vantage point and informed by the consolidations of Irish culture being performed by the Ascendancy class at the time. But there are so many facets of his identity to read into these works and each allows us to stake some different claim on how they influenced, changed, or structured his work. 

My favorite part of class then was totally separate from any of the work I did on my own; I loved learning how everyone thought of Wilde differently and read his texts differently. And, of course, that is true for most of literature, that each person has a unique and personally subjective reading, but it feels especially poignant in a class on Wilde — his person and works were calculated to defy definition and be contradictory, despite the fact that everyone wants to put Wilde in particular boxes. To then have a class dedicated to sharing, discussing, and perhaps disagreeing on what versions and readings of Wilde they see, feels like the best way to tease out the fullest vision of Wilde you could, to try on all the various Wildes for a text. Returning to the preface to Dorian Gray, because Wilde always seems to be contextualized by his own text, Wilde writes that “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde, 17). To take Wilde at his word for once, our engagement with and diversity of opinions about the works we read for class seems indicative of the lasting influence, interest, and vitality of Wilde’s works. That they continue to ask interesting questions of us and the author. That, to Professor Kinyon’s framing of the class towards Modernism, they seem to help usher in an era of text that grounds itself in subjectivity and that exact difficulty of definition. They are as complex and interesting as the author himself. 

So by way of an inconclusive conclusion, I think the best way to read Wilde is to allow for contradiction, to let that be an organizing thought, rather than trying to pin him to one thing. Then, instead of frustration, you can marvel at the multiplicity, allow yourself to be confused, allow his works to be classist and attune to prison reform (and be critical of that), see how they critique Bosie and not himself, and allow his work to be both funny and biting, charming and tragic, without losing either. Holding all those together is the balancing act of reading Wilde to his fullest, and from this class and with everyone in it, I think we’ve been able to accomplish something pretty close. It’s been a wonderful, stimulating semester.

Oscar Wilde and Lil Nas X

The discussions we have had in this class have led me to some surprising places, but none more surprising than the number of times I have thought about Lil Nas X, A.K.A Montero Lamar Hill. Although Lil Nas X has not made any mention of Wilde (at least, that I am aware of), his place as a queer black rapper and singer in the contemporary American context does remind me a lot of Oscar Wilde’s place in Victorian society. Of course, Lil Nas X did not serve two years in prison for gross indecency, but he has received his share of criticism for being queer.

This connection is interesting to me because I think it shows us something about queer art in society, particularly art that can be considered ‘mainstream.’ As we have talked about in this class, as much as the ways in which society treats queer people has changed, much of it has still stayed the same. While this is most graphically shown through acts of violence and hate such as what happened to Matthew Shepard, it also shown through pop culture and art. And while representation in these areas is getting better, it is still laughably bad. As a bisexual woman, I am still surprised every time I hear an earnest song about queer love or queer experience on popular radio stations.

But Lil Nas X and Oscar Wilde are both mainstream and both of their art speaks to queerness. Both artists also include an element of subversion in their work: Wilde kills Dorian Gray because he cannot conform to societies heterosexual expectations, and Lil Nas X depicts himself as a sinner descending into hell for just the same reason in his MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) music video. It seems like this subversive element is what allows there art to succeed in the hostile times and spaces it occupies. This leads me to wonder if there is a future for non-subversive queer art in a mainstream context, or if it is stuck on the outside.

Salomé and Choices

What I found most interesting about Salomé is how Salomé’s choices have complete control over the direction of the play, and how this control directly comes from her attractiveness. At the beginning of the play, she is able to manipulate Narraboth into bringing out Jokanaan because he desires her. When she meets Jokanaan, she pursues him. She tells him how much he admires his appearance and asks him to let her kiss him. This is an interesting reversal of gender roles because it is usually the man who pursues the woman and tells her how beautiful she is. This reversal of gender roles happens in Wilde’s other works as well, such as in An Ideal Husband when Lady Chiltern is invested in politics while Lord Goring is interested in fashion. However, Jokanaan wants nothing to do with her, and for once, Salomé is unable to get what she wants. 

Salomé is also shown to have the ability to exert control over Herod. Like with Narraboth, Herod seems to desire Salomé, and Salomé is able to get what she wants because of this. There’s an interesting contrast between Salomé and her mother Herodias. While Salomé is able to get what she wants from Herod, Herod never listens to Herodias when she asks him to stop looking at Salomé. This could be because Herod desires Salomé over his wife, and so Salomé can sway him to do things. He offers her anything if she dances for him, including half his kingdom. However, instead of asking for half the kingdom, she asks for the head of Jokanaan. Herod tries to offer her other things, but she refuses them all. Her mother approves of Salomé’s choice. 

What’s interesting about Salomé asking for Jokanaan’s head in the play is that in the original Bible story, it’s her mother that asks her to ask for Jokanaan’s head. However, in the play, Salomé asks for the head of her own volition. This gives her more agency in this narrative. It’s like she’s punishing Jokanaan for being the one man who won’t give her what she wants. After she’s presented with Jokanaan’s head, she laments about how much she loved him. This reminded me a lot of how Dorian mourned Sibyl in The Picture of Dorian Gray and how Sibyl became more perfect to him after her death. 

At the very end of this play, however, power is returned to Herod when he has Salomé killed for her actions. This reminded me a bit of the end of An Ideal Husband when Lady Chiltern goes back on what she wants when Lord Goring tells her to so her husband can keep his career. No matter how much power Salomé had in the play, power always reverts back to the man.

Dorian’s Final Moment

One of the biggest outstanding questions I still have for The Picture of Dorian Gray is in regard to the end and what it all means. Where does this story leave us? What are we left with?  When Dorian stabs his portrait, Dorian the man dies and the portrait reverts back to what Basil had initially painted. But what does that release signify? What does it mean for how we understand the relationship between Dorian and the portrait and who, of the two, was the real, or more real, entity? I asked this question in class and was really intrigued by the variety of different interpretations we all had — from postulating that Dorian was committing suicide to suggesting that this was his last displacement of responsibility for his actions onto the portrait. It is a compelling space to think about what the separation of body and soul means, and I’m inclined to think that in stabbing the portrait Dorian has released his soul from it, and in death at last body and soul were reunited.

Thinking more about the end, something about the very last paragraph of this story has always bothered me. It feels like less than it should be, somehow unfinished or at least unresolved, maybe a little spare compared to the rest of the text. After Dorian’s mad dash for the painting, the deep and twisting personal reflection that leads to the end, the sort of direct resolution of the text feels out of joint, or as if it hasn’t caught up with exactly what happened. Part of this effect comes from the fact that Dorian’s name is not to be found in the final paragraph. Dorian’s servants don’t find Dorian, they find “a dead man,” under a “portrait of their master.” (159) Even though we know who it is and that those that find the body eventually figure it out, Dorian himself seems sort of absent from these lines: “It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was” (159). That sentence, to me, feels like it’s missing its natural pair: It was Dorian Gray. Perhaps, the irresolution clues us further into the relationship between Dorian and the portrait, that the lack of identity at the very end suggests that neither the portrait or the man was anything at all, without the other.

The Preface to Dorian Gray

As I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I kept thinking back to its preface. As we’ve discussed in class, what Wilde writes in the preface seems to contradict the content of the novel itself. There are many potential reasons for this discrepancy. It could, as we focused on in class, be a means to protect Wilde from the content of the novel. The Picture of Dorian Gray is very personal and it does reveal Wilde in a variety of ways. Although Wilde’s queer identity was not my main focus as I read the novel, it is clear that Wilde’s queerness made its way into the story and shaped it in a revealing way. Perhaps the preface is a means of protection, a way for Wilde to tell a story of himself without being damaged by it.

That reasoning is compelling to me, but I think that there is another key value for the preface. In my opinion, the preface is intentionally ironic. It praises the values of aestheticism in order to open a story about a man whose obsession with his beauty leads to his downfall. Dorian values his beauty above anything else, to the point where he sacrifices his soul in order to stay physically beautiful together. More than anyone else in the story, Dorian lives the values of aestheticism. He buys into “art for art’s sake” so much that he starts to view his life as a kind of art. He considers joining the Roman Catholic Church because “the Roman ritual had always had a great attraction for him.” He loves Sybil because of her artistic talent, and as soon as that talent is gone, he loses interest in her. He says he would “give everything” for the portrait to grow old as he continues to be young and beautiful, and he does.

Dorian actively believes in the aesthetic values listed in the preface, unlike a character like Lord Henry who constantly contradicts himself and seems more interested in entertaining himself than anything else. Rather, Dorian embraces the value of beauty above anything else until it corrupts him so thoroughly that he ends up dead in his attic. To commence The Picture of Dorian Gray with a preface about art being valuable for its own sake and the danger of looking beneath the surface seems to poke fun at aestheticism in general and at the audience for taking what Wilde says seriously. How can it be that the artist’s aim is to conceal himself when the greatest art Basil ever did revealed too much of himself? How can there be no such thing as an immoral book when Dorian is corrupted by a book? Perhaps we are not meant to take the preface seriously, but to use it as a reminder of what aestheticism states and where it falls short.

Just Guys Being Dudes, Dudes Being Guys

In my blog post last week, I talked about how the references Wilde made to the Symposium in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” and at his trial were used as a defense for having close relationships with men and admiring their beauty. In class on Wednesday, we talked about homosocial relationships between men and how that featured in The Picture of Dorian Gray. To me, it seems like this use of homosocial relationships in Dorian Gray is used as a defense for Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian’s relationship in the same way that the Symposium is used as a defense for Shakespeare and Willie Huges’ relationship in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”

In class, we talked about how certain homosocial behavior is viewed as acceptable only if all the participants in this behavior are straight. For instance, during a men’s basketball game, it’s perfectly acceptable to give your teammate a butt pat. However, if either of those players isn’t straight, the act is viewed with entirely new meaning. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry and Basil being completely obsessed with Dorian’s beauty can just be viewed as, to use a colloquial turn of phrase, dudes being guys, guys being dudes. Straight is often seen as the default, even today. Therefore, unless explicitly stated, Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian can be read as completely straight, and the admiration of Dorian’s beauty is just perfectly acceptable homosocial behavior. In fact, if you see anything queer about their relationship, you’re probably the weird one. 

This can all tie back to the Preface of Dorian Gray, where Wilde says that this work is just meant to be a thing of beauty, and if you find anything off with it, there’s something off with you. He’s saying that no one should try to look past the surface level of Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian’s relationship with each other. They’re all just good buds, and it’s perfectly cool for good buds to be obsessed with each other. What’s interesting to me is that this defense actually worked for a while, because as mentioned in class, for years, queerness wasn’t even mentioned when studying The Picture of Dorian Gray. Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian were just viewed as friends, albeit friends who corrupted each other, but just friends nonetheless. I just think it’s interesting how for so long, no one really wanted to peer beneath the surface of Dorian Gray.

The Dangers of Exposing One’s Soul

I never read Dorian Gray before this class, and while I anticipated Dorian would psychologically deteriorate after Lord Henry’s remarks, I did not expect him to kill Basil. I think the fact that Basil was murdered by his greatest source of artistic inspiration is an interesting way for Wilde to explore the relationship between an artist and his muse, and more deeply, the dangers of putting one’s “soul” into a work of art. While Basil refused to exhibit the portrait because it exposed too much of his soul, it is really the portrait’s representation of Dorian’s soul that is the downfall of the two men. Wilde warns us in the preface about searching for meaning in art; he says, “to reveal art and conceal the artist is the art’s aim” (17). In considering Dorian not only a source of inspiration but a form of art itself, Basil reveals both himself and Dorian in the portrait. Given the fact that the portrait contains pieces of both men, it is significant that Dorian describes the portrait as motivating his violence: “Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips” (117). As I re-read this passage, perhaps this suggestion by the canvas is another layer of commentary on looking for meaning in art because clearly the portrait did not actually whisper in Dorian’s ear. The portrait simply reflects, and as a result, intensifies, what Dorian already thinks and feels, more specifically, the growing wickedness of his character.

            I finished this chapter with a few questions in mind. The first and more superficial is what will Dorian do with the body, but also how did the portrait change if Basil did not paint the grin in the first place? Is it possible that so much of the identities of Basil and Dorian are in the painting that they are hallucinating the same thing, and the picture is actually unchanged? I am suspicious of Lord Henry even though he is not a painter. Logistics of the painting aside, when I read the first few chapters, I thought this book could be read as a psychological study of the relationship between artist and muse and the toll that being one’s source of inspiration can take on a person. I think that element is still important, but in these last 50 pages, I’ve begun to think the novel could be read as a cautionary tale as well.

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.

Power and Art in Dorian Gray

One of the many fascinating aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the immense power Dorian and Lord Henry wield in the narrative, especially compared to Sibyl and Basil.  It’s particularly curious because Basil and, more minorly, Sibyl, are the text’s artists, but are simultaneously the ones most under Dorian’s spell and are relatively powerless to save their art from contact with him. Basil says that Dorian is “all my art to me now” and that “the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life” (23). He places a power and personal weight in Dorian’s beauty, noting the control it has over his art.  When Dorian will no longer sit for Basil, Basil claims that in refusing, Dorian will “spoil [his] life as an artist” (91).  This personal investment in Dorian, as his artistic ideal, eventually becomes his downfall.  In a similar way, Sibyl’s love for Dorian comes between her and her art. After she kisses Dorian, she proudly loses her ability to act — in finding real love for Dorian, all of her stage love seems to her a sham and Dorian is “more to [her] than all art can ever be” (71). As we know, however, Dorian values the Sibyl of the stage more, the ideal she portrays through her art, and so her investment in Dorian also becomes her downfall. Each is robbed of their life and ability to make the art that made them special, one because Dorian was art’s ideal and the other because Dorian became more real than art could ever be.  

It sort of echoes our class conversation on “The Ballad of a Barber,” that perhaps there’s a limit to what the artists can make more beautiful or perhaps that there’s something maddening about true natural beauty, despite the fact that Basil says “there is nothing that Art cannot express” (23).  This raises another question for me however — is Dorian really beautiful? Obviously he is physically beautiful and seems at first to have a sort of naive beauty of spirit too.  But as his soul degrades, does he stay beautiful? At what point does his outer beauty become a sham too, the beauty of his form robbed of the beauty of his soul? Is he fascinating simply because he is beautiful or because of the juxtaposition of the perfect exterior and corrupt, rotting interior and the way it is hard to reconcile those two?