‘Language […] is the parent, and not the child, of thought […] Men are the slaves of words’: Art and Life in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Olly Teregulova received her BA and MA from Durham University and is the volunteer representative at The William Morris Society. She is currently in the process of applying to study a PhD on the subject of language and culture in the early works of H. G. Wells. She can be found on Twitter at @OllyTeregulova.

Sir William Rothenstein noted that Oscar Wilde was ‘a unique talker and story-teller— I have never heard anyone else tell stories as he did’.[1] Similarly, in his review of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray,[2] Walter Pater also marvelled that ‘[t]here is always something of an excellent talker about the writing of Mr. Oscar Wilde; […] by its being really alive.’[3] For Wilde, the function of the arts of language was, as he argues in ‘The Critic as Artist’:

to create, from the rough material of actual existence, a new world that will be more marvelous [sic], more enduring, and more true than the world that common eyes look upon, and through which common natures seek to realize their perfection.[4]

Unlike his contemporary Friedrich Nietzsche, who expressed scepticism concerning the ability of words to signify their referents in his essay ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,’ Wilde was not as concerned with the distance of the Lacanian gap between the signified and signifier. ‘For,’ as he believed, ‘try as we may, we cannot get behind the appearance of things to reality. And the terrible reason may be that there is no reality in things apart from their experiences.’[5] Language, therefore, just as any art forms— since for Wilde, as Gomel argues, ‘different kinds of art are essentially similar in their underlying dynamics of production and consumption’[6]— is not an artificial construct, but a facet of existence in its expression of living experience. Gagnier argues that Dorian Gray ‘is about the relationship between the image and the real, between art and life.’[7] Wilde’s novel portrays art as being alive, and copyright as stagnating it into artificiality.

Dorian Gray repeatedly affirms the living nature of its eponymous artwork. Even before Basil’s painting begins to alter along with the sins of its model, Dorian objects to Basil’s resolve to destroy it, crying ‘Don’t, Basil, don’t! […] It would be murder!’ (p. 27). Similarly, in chapter ten, when Dorian decides to hide the picture that has now come to visually represent his iniquity, he acknowledges that it ‘would breed horrors and yet would never die […] the thing would still live on. It would always be alive’ (p. 99). Yet while the portrait’s animation results from Dorian’s fateful wish to exchange places with it: ‘If it were I who would always be young, and the picture that was to grow old!’ (p. 25), the novel’s presentation of art as being alive is not isolated to the eponymous portrait. Dorian, rejecting Basil’s offer to paint him again, states that ‘[t]here is something fatal about a portrait. It has a life of its own’ (p. 97).

The notion of art being alive is further conveyed through the character of Sybil Vane— the actress with whom Dorian is initially infatuated. ‘Lips that Shakespeare taught to speak have whispered their secret in my ear. I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth’ he exclaims of his relationship with her (p. 66). Denisoff argues that ‘[a]s soon as Sybil confesses her devotion to Dorian, he realizes he only loved her as an artificial construct of his own imagining.’[8] Yet these imaginings are not Dorian’s, but rather those of Shakespeare, of the playwright’s sources, and of all the editors, set designers, directors and so forth that have influenced the construction of the characters Sybil plays out upon the stage. The reason Dorian rejects her is because ‘she was absolutely self-contained. It was simply bad art. She was a complete failure’ (p. 71-2, own emphasis). It is because Sybil rejects art as a living reality, refuting her relation to her artistic predecessors as well as her place in its lineage that Dorian spurns her.

The idea of art, like life, having an ancestry is further reinforced in the novel, as seen during Dorian’s ‘stroll through the gaunt cold picture-gallery of his country house’ in chapter eleven. Looking up ‘at the various portraits of those whose blood flowed in his veins’ (p. 119), he is filled with a sense of his own heredity: ‘Yet one had ancestors in literature, as well as in one’s own race, nearer perhaps in type and temperament […] He felt that he had known them all […] It seemed to him that it some mysterious way their lives had been his own’ (pp. 119-121). It is through a family tree of artworks, leading up to Basil’s painting, that Dorian views his predecessors. A living time-line of art is additionally suggested symbolically through the characters themselves, as shown in Nasaar’s detailed analysis. He argues that the novel’s ‘main characters are meant to be personifications of Victorian art movements’.[9] ‘Sybil Vane’s death, for example, is shown as representing the art of Tennyson and the Hellenic ideal of innocence giving way, in her suicide, to Zola’s Naturalism, with the decaying life of Sybil’s mother representing the dying art of Victorian Melodrama. Basil Hallward’s murder, in turn, figures the replacement of the Pre-Raphaelites and Ruskin’s ‘Moral Aesthetic’ by the Decadent movement—symbolised in the character of Dorian Gray and in his painting. Art, like life, is suggested in the novel as being in a state of perpetual change and self-renewal.

The living nature of art is also portrayed in Wilde’s novel through the character of Dorian. Gomel argues that the protagonist’s ‘invulnerable picture is the immortality of discourse, and that the end of the novel shows it being freed from the taint of materiality.’[10] For her, through ‘exchanging places with his own portrait, Dorian becomes an image pretending to be a man’.[11] Yet the character of Dorian is not just a pseudo-artwork, a displacement of his own painting, but also represents the living quality of both the written and the oral traditions of literary art— as conveyed through his relationship with Lord Henry Wotton. In the preface added by Wilde to the 1891 edition of the text, one of the maxims reads: ‘Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art’ (p. 3). This statement is realised in the novel through Wotton’s use of language to mould Dorian. As Nassaar notes, ‘Basil is an artist who uses a brush, but Wotton is an artist who uses words.’[12] In pondering how Dorian ‘could be fashioned into a marvellous type […] There was nothing that one could not do with him. He could be made a Titan or a toy’ (p. 23), Wotton’s expresses his conscious awareness of this role. Similarly, he muses how ‘[t]o a large extent the lad was his own creation’ and how the result ‘was indeed, in its way, a real work of art’ (p. 51). As Manganiello notes, Lord Henry is ‘a lord of language, a linguistic Pygmalion who, through what Rimbaud called the alchemy of words, can mould a new creature out of formless matter.’[13]

Yet Dorian is not just moulded by language— he specifically represents the living quality of the literary arts, of language coming to life. This is seen in the distinction between his and Lord Henry’s relationship, and that of the Miller and Hans in Wilde’s fairy tale ‘The Devoted Friend.’ Just as Lord Henry loquaciousness, the Miller’s power lies in his use of language. As he says, ‘Lots of people act well […] but very few people talk well, which shows that talking is much the more difficult thing of the two, and much the finer thing also’.[14] Hans, the Miller’s sympathetic protégé, idolises him like Dorian does Lord Henry:

So little Hans worked away for the Miller, who said all kinds of beautiful things about friendship, which Hans took down in a note-book, and used to read over at night, for he was a very good scholar.[15]

Rather than writing down Wotton’s senteniae, Dorian, unlike Hans, lives them. As he tells Wotton prior to Sybil’s performance, ‘I don’t think I am likely to marry, Harry. I am too much in love. That is one of your aphorisms. I am putting it into practice, as I do everything that you say’ (p. 43). Dorian, as noted by Manganiello, ‘translates Lord Henry into a living book of proverbs that he must put into practice’. [16] Further on in the text, Dorian also brings to life the words of the yellow book gifted to him by Wotton. ‘For years [he] could not free himself from [its] influence. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it […] And indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it’ (p. 105). Thus Dorian acts as a metaphor for the living nature of the art of both oral and written language.

The plays of Shakespeare, and the tattoos of Jim Vane are free to evolve through inspiring other works of art. Even the poisonous novel of chapter eleven is active within the literary marketplace of exchange through editions and reprints not purchased and commissioned by Dorian. Yet both Dorian and his painting have been copyrighted out of their roles with the literary tradition. Although Basil ‘wrote his name in long vermillion letters on the left-hand corner of the canvas’ (p. 24), it is Dorian who owns the rights to his portrait, and decides to hide it in his schoolroom (p. 100). When in chapter nine Basil asks Dorian to let him see his artwork and to exhibit it in Paris in the coming autumn, the latter refuses (p. 94-7). ‘You know the picture is yours, Dorian. I gave it to you before it existed’ Basil had told him (p. 27).

Similarly, Lord Henry owns the rights to Dorian’s life. The protagonist expresses his sense of being bound to Wotton’s aphorisms when he says: ‘Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them’ (p. 20). Dorian is specifically referring to Wotton’s misinterpretation of Walter Pater’s conclusion to The Renaissance: ‘[t]o burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,’[17] is altered by Wotton into ‘[t]he only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with the things it has forbidden to itself’ (pp. 19-20). While Pater’s flame metaphor implies a permanent state of continuous change and self-renewal, as figured in the novel’s presentation of the living nature of art, Wotton’s version entails stagnation due to its disciple’s inability to learn from experience. As Manganiello observes, ‘Dorian attempts to divorce himself from life and history through an image impervious to experience, an attempt to live “aesthetically.”’[18] Yet as Wilde writes in De Profundis, ‘to regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experience is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. […] For the artistic life is simply self-development.’[19] Wotton’s copyright is a force of permanence, and he applauds Dorian’s inability to create anything new: ‘I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art’ (p. 179). Wotton has prevented Dorian from ever evolving as a human being, or adding anything novwl to the tradition of art.

Likewise, Dorian is also unable to experience anything new. For example, his observations during the ride to the opium dens in chapter sixteen are screened through another text. ‘Lying back in the hansom’ (p. 153) as they ‘passed by lonely brickfields’ (p. 154) Dorian notes how ‘most of the windows were dark, but now and then fantastic shadows were silhouetted against some lamp-lit blind.’ (p. 154). The passage describing the way these people ‘moved like monstrous marionettes, and made gestures like live things.’ (p. 154), is a paraphrase of a scene from Wilde’s poem ‘The Harlot’s House.’ Rather than an original work of art, adding something to the tradition before him, Dorian is more of a reproduction, ‘a verbal image or “echo”’ of Lord Henry.’[20] Even his immunity to the ageing process, which he was willed into desiring by Wotton, results in his separation from life. As Armstrong notes, Dorian trades his ‘individuality— which by definition deviates from the norm— for the stereotype of ideal masculinity. In renouncing this brand of individuality [he] also disowns the characteristics he shares with the rest of humanity and so produces a stranger with all the resources and none of the constraints of a citizen-subject.’[21] Wotton’s doctrine of permanence has stilted Dorian’s development, resulting in, as Murray notes, ‘a vast area of life [being] ‘missed out’ of the novel.’[22]

Furthermore, this permanence results in objectification of other living things. For example, Wotton tells Basil, speaking of Dorian, that ‘[s]omeday you will look at your friend […] and he will seem to you a little out of drawing, or you won’t like his tone of colour, or something’ (p. 20). Basil complains that Dorian also treats him like an object d’art, as ‘an ornament for a summer’s day’ (p. 20). Dorian similarly expects this objectification from others, as expressed when he tells Basil that ‘[y]ou like your art better than your friends. I am no more to you than a great bronze figure’ (p. 26). Indeed, according to Denisoff, Dorian ‘cannot admire Sybil Vane as a woman but only as an actress, an artificial object designed for aesthetic consumption. Dorian’s vanity then extends this conundrum to the consideration of the individual himself as an object of art’.[23] Thus, being copyrighted by Wotton and his maxims, Dorian is not only unable to evolve as metaphor for the living art of language, but repeatedly figures life into the inanimate stasis.

‘What Basil precipitates,’ as McCormack argues, ‘is a drama of appropriation’.’[24] By having its rights owned by Dorian, who hides it away from other spectators, the painting is unable to participate in the living tradition of art. Gomel notes that ‘in the novel the fatal picture is revealed as an independent and autonomous object d’art only when its creator and its model are dead.’[25] After Dorian’s death, the painting belongs to no one, and thus is freed from the stagnating copyright to which it was subjected— becoming available to outside observers. Similarly, it is Dorian’s rejection of his permanent state by stabbing his portrait that frees his life from copyright. It is his escape from his artificial existence through death that allows his story to enter the public domain through Wilde’s text.

___________________________

Primary Bibliography

Pater, Walter, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, ed. by Matthew Beaumont (Oxford

and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Wilde, Oscar, De Profundis (London: Methuen, 1908).

— The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. by Isobel Murray (London: Oxford University Press, 1974).

— The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde: The Plays, the Poems, the Stories and the Essays including

‘De Profundis’ (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2007).

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edn, ed. by Michael Patrick Gillespie (London and New York: Norton & Company, 2007).

— The Complete Short Stories, ed. by John Sloan (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

_______________________

Secondary Bibliography

David, Deirdre, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Ellmann, Richard, ed., Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, Twentieth Century Views, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970).

Gagnier, Regenia, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1986).

Gomel, Elana, ‘Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the (Un)Death of the Author’, Narrative, 12.1 (2004), 74-92.

Manganiello, Dominic, ‘Ethics and Aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 9.2 (1983), 25-33.

Marshall, Gail, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Fin-de-Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Nassaar, Christopher S., Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

Raby, Peter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Woodcock, George, The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (London and New York: T. V. Boardman, 1949).

________________________

Works Consulted

Altick, Richard D., Victorian People and Ideas: A companion for the modern reader of Victorian Literature (London and New York: W. W. Norton, 1973).

Bristow, Joseph, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Calloway, Stephen, and Lynn Frederle Orr, eds, The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900 (London: V&A Publishing, 2011).

Craft, Christopher, ‘Come See About Me: Enchantment of the Double in The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Representations, 91.1 (2005), 109-36.

Dawson, Terrence, The Effective Protagonist in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel: Scott, Brontë, Eliot, Wilde (Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004).

Denisoff, Dennis, Aestheticism and Sexual Parody, 1840-1940, Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture, 31 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Dollimore, Jonathan, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Dowling, Linda, Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).

Dryden, Linda, The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles: Stevenson, Wilde and Wells (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).

Ferguson, Christine, ‘Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist” (1891)’, Victorian Review, 35.1 (2009), 64-8.

Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed., The Victorian Age, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 9th edn (London and New York: W. W. Norton, 2012).

Hanson, Ellis, Decadence and Catholicism (London and Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

Holland, Merlin, Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial Of Oscar Wilde (London and New York: Fourth Estate, 2004).

Baker, Houston A., Jr., ‘A Tragedy of the Artist: The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 24.3 (1969), 349-55.

Joyce, Simon, ‘Sexual Politics and the Aesthetics of Crime: Oscar Wilde in the Nineties’, ELH, 69.2 (2002), 501-23.

Killeen, Jarlath, The Faiths of Oscar Wilde: Catholicism, Folklore and Ireland, Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

—, Oscar Wilde (Dublin and Portland, OR: Irish Academic Press, 2011).

Knights, Ben, Writing Masculinities: Male Narratives in Twentieth-Century Fiction (London and Houndsmill: Macmillan, 1999).

Losey, Jay and William D. Brewer, eds, Mapping Male Sexuality: Nineteenth-Century England (London and Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2000).

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, ed. by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs, trans. by Ronald Speirs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Riquelme, John Paul, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Gothic: Walter Pater, Dark Enlightenment, and The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Modern Fiction Studies, 46.3 (2000), 609-31.

Saint-Amour, Paul K., ‘Oscar Wilde: Orality, Literary Property, and Crimes of Writing’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 55.1 (2000), 59-91.

Sinfield, Alan, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Movement (London: Cassell, 1994).

Sloan, John, Oscar Wilde, Authors In Context (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Stiles, Anne, ‘Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Double Brain’, Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 46.4 (2006), 879-900.

White, Chris, ed., Nineteenth-Century Writings on Homosexuality: A Sourcebook (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

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[1] Quoted in George Woodcock, The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (London and New York: T. V. Boardman, 1949), p. 11.

[2] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) in A Norton Critical Edition 2nd edition ed. by Michael Patrick Gillespie (London and New York: Norton & Company, 2007), 5-184. All references subsequently from this edition. From this point referred to as Dorian Gray outside parentheses.

[3] Walter Pater, ‘A Novel by Mr. Oscar Wilde’, in Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, Twentieth Century Views, ed. by Richard Ellman (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), 35-8, at p. 35.

[4] Oscar Wilde, ‘The Critic as Artist’, in The Collected Works of Oscar Wilde: The Plays, the Poems, the Stories and the Essays including ‘De Profundis’ (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2007), 963-1016, at p. 982

[5] Quoted in Thomas Mann, ‘Wilde and Nietzsche’, in Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays, Twentieth Century Views, ed. by Richard Ellman (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1970), 196-171, at p, 169.

[6] Elana Gomel, ‘Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the (Un)Death of the Author’, Narrative, 12.1 (2004), 74-92, at p. 80.

[7] Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1986). p. 51.

[8] Dennis Denisoff, ‘Decadence and aestheticism’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Fin-de-Siècle ed. by Gail Marshall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 31-52, at p. 50.

[9] Christopher S. Nassaar, Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde (London and New Haven:

Yale University Press, 1974), p. 37.

[10] Elana Gomel, ‘Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the (Un)Death of the Author’, Narrative, 12.1 (2004), 74-92, at p. 80.

[11] Elana Gomel, ‘Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the (Un)Death of the Author’, Narrative, 12.1 (2004), 74-92, at p. 80.

[12] Christopher S. Nassaar, Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde (London and New Haven:

Yale University Press, 1974), p. 43.

[13] Dominic Manganiello, ‘Ethics and Aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 9.2 (1983), 25-33, at p. 28.

[14] Oscar Wilde, ‘The Devoted Friend’, in The Complete Short Stories, ed. by John Sloan (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 89-99, at p. 97.

[15] Oscar Wilde, ‘The Devoted Friend’, in The Complete Short Stories, ed. by John Sloan (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 89-99, at p. 96.

[16] Dominic Manganiello, ‘Ethics and Aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 9.2 (1983), 25-33, at p. 29.

[17] Walter Pater, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, ed. by Matthew Beaumont (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 120.

[18] Regenia Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1986), p. 51.

[19] Wilde, Oscar, De Profundis (London: Methuen, 1908), p. 84.

[20] Dominic Manganiello, ‘Ethics and Aesthetics in The Picture of Dorian Gray’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 9.2 (1983), 25-33, at p. 28.

[21] Nancy Armstrong, ‘When gender meets sexuality in the Victorian novel’, in The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel, 2nd edn, ed. by Deirdre David (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 170-90, at p. 186.

[22] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. by Isobel Murray (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. ix.

[23] Dennis Denisoff, ‘Decadence and aestheticism’, in Gail Marshall, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Fin-de-Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 31-52, at p. 40.

[24] Jerusha McCormack, ‘Wilde’s fiction(s)’, in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, ed. by Peter Raby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 96-117, at pp. 112-3.

[25] Elana Gomel, ‘Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the (Un)Death of the Author’, Narrative, 12.1 (2004), 74-92, at p. 76.

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