The Ambivalence in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and its relation to Postmodernism


Dissertation data:

Title:  The Ambivalence in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and its relation to Postmodernism
Author: Koen Van Cauwenberge
Promotor: Prof. Dr. Marysa Demoor
Academic Year: 1995 - 1996
University: Universiteit Gent Germaanse talen




The mass of books and critical essays, of scholarly articles, of acta and dissertations produced each day in Europe and the United States, has the blind weight of a tidal wave.  In the 'humanities' -a general rubric which I will take to encompass literature, music, the arts together with the totality of hermeneutic and normative argument which they occasion- enumeration verges on the grotesque.

George Steiner[1]

Why should I bother you with a dissertation on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray?  Every scholar knows that the comment on this novel is out of proportion and countless dissertations on Oscar Wilde have  already been written.  I do not deny this, but compare this issue to the problem of buying Windows 95.  You do not really need this program to run your personal computer, but it is up to date and it has all the attractions of the future.  In the same way, I would like to present my dissertation as a modest upgrade of existing commentaries or at least as a personal summary of current insights. 

         How may my dissertation be an upgrade?  Like many others, I believe that every researcher is influenced by the dominant insights and prejudices of his or her time.  Yet, this lack of objectivity does not jeopardise possible scientific research.  In his study Beperkingen, Oversteegen[2] argues that every 'objective' theory of literature is grounded on the 'subjective' concept of literature in which the researcher believes.  The researcher's concept of literature is determined by what (s)he has read.  When a new 'kind' of literature emerges, it brings about a new concept of literature which gives birth to a new theory of literature.  Each new theory of literature then offers not the but a point of view which may be fruitful for certain types of literature. 

         The New Critics, for example, asserted that every literary work was a closed unit and that they should only study the relations within the text.  Their theory of literature coincided with the hermetic poetry of modernism.  Their methods like close reading, were very successful for the interpretation of complex poetry like that of modernist authors or of the Metaphysical Poets, but less productive for the interpretation of long novels.  Although Structuralists have proved the value of seeing a literary work as a system which functions within larger systems like society, the results of New Criticism cannot be denied.  Even if its methods failed in the study of prose, New Criticism added new productive methods and insights to the theory of literature in general.  In other words, every theory has its short-sightedness which proves to be useful for studying certain types of literature.

         I am now indebted to the insights or prejudices (as Oversteegen would put it) of what has been generally called postmodernism.  It is my intention to demonstrate in my dissertation that the 'short-sightedness' of postmodernist practice and theory of literature gives an interesting viewpoint on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I explain why.  After having read the novel for the first time, I was confused by its ambiguity.  I could not understand why Wilde, the notorious aesthete, wrote a novel in which he, like a puritan, condemns his own cherished aestheticism.  Particularly, when one takes into account that he wrote a number of epigrams in which he vigorously defended his aestheticism and which he added as a preface to the book version[3] of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1891.  Whereas these epigrams proclaim that art and ethics belong to separate spheres, the central image of the novel is paradoxically a moralising work of art (a portrait) that depicts the immoral life of Dorian Gray.  Each sin of Dorian Gray mars the beauty of his portrait.  As Richard Ellmann, Wilde's main biographer, remarked with respect to the contradictions in this novel:

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a critique of aestheticism, which is shown to bring Dorian to ruin; yet readers have been won by Dorian's beauty and regretful, rather than horrified, at his waste of it, so that he has something of the glamour of a Faust rather than the foulness of a murderer and drug-addict.  And Wilde, feeling that the book had too much moral, subverts it with a preface which expounds sympathetically some of that aesthetic creed by which the book shows Dorian corrupted.[4]

Moreover, the more I got involved with Oscar Wilde, the more I was struck by the subversive ambivalence of his life and his work as opposed to the caricatures to which literary history and gossip reduced him after his imprisonment for homosexual offences. 

         I shall employ this ambivalence as the "Open Sesame" of The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Many critics who have looked for the essence of Wilde's work, have been troubled by his inconsistency, paradoxes and posing, which some critics have attributed to "a lack of seriousness" or even to his homosexuality.  Yet, from a postmodernist viewpoint, one does not have to look for what a literary work really means, but may mean.  A literary work is an open structure, an opus apertum[5] as Umberto Eco calls it, and may have multiple meanings (according to its reader) even if these contradict each other.  I, therefore, assume that an understanding of Wilde's work may benefit from the postmodernist view of literature.

         I admit that every text is to a certain extent open to various interpretations, but not all texts foreground their polyinterpretability.  Fiction in the realist tradition, for instance, suppressed the ambiguity of interpretation, by claiming a direct relation to a 'reality' outside the literary text.  In contrast, postmodernist literature undermines the presumption that a text reflects a part of reality in a direct and spontaneous way, by stressing the role of the writer, who transforms reality into art, and by emphasising the role of the readers, who interpret the text according to their background and their imagination.  In my dissertation, I hope to show that like most postmodernist works, The Picture of Dorian Gray is an anti-realist text which focuses on the absence of a normative interpretation. 

         In the first part of my thesis, I intend to examine the reception of The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I shall discuss in which way the homosexual community and the literary establishment have received Wilde's only novel.  At the same time, I try to disclose the causes of its ambivalence.  In the next part, I want to situate Wilde's relativist way of thinking and dandyism in its historical context and to explain it in relation to postmodernist relativism.  Wilde's method of inversion and paradox shall be compared with the contemporary strategy of deconstruction.  In the final part, I confront Wilde's decadent aestheticism with postmodernism.  By pointing out the affinities between Wilde's aestheticism and postmodernism, I wish to highlight the continuity of an aestheticist literary tradition and to point out Wilde's role in the history of literature.  Of course, I shall also outline in which way Wilde's perspective differs from the postmodernist one.  The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, contains no metafiction, which is an important characteristic of postmodernist literature. 

         Finally, I would like to remark that I shall not restrict myself to British writers and critics, but I shall often refer to Dutch literature.  As a matter of fact, I must confess to my shame that I mostly know postmodernism through the writings of Dutch critics like Stefan Hertmans.  I, however, trust that this comparative approach can be justified, since fin-de-siècle art and postmodernism are international art movements which do not stop at the borders of Great Britain. 

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[1]George Steiner, Real Presences, London: Faber and Faber, 1991, p. 24.

[2]J.J. Oversteegen, Beperkingen. Methodologische recepten en andere vooronderstellingen en vooroordelen in de moderne literatuurwetenschap, Utrecht: Hes uitgevers, 1982.

[3]According to Mason's Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (1914), The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in the July number of Lippincott's Magazine in 1890.  In the next year, Ward, Lock & Co published the novel in book form, after Wilde had made some alterations in the text and had added six new chapters and a preface of epigrams to the original thirteen chapters.

[4]Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987, p. 95.
Wilde, as a critic, believed that true art could not have not a final interpretation, as he writes in The Critic as Artist (p. 1129):  "You see, then, how it is that the aesthetic critic rejects those obvious modes of art that have but one message to deliver, and having delivered it becomes dumb and sterile, and seeks rather for such modes as suggest reverie and mood, and by their imaginative beauty make all interpretations true and no interpretation final."