Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: Reading questions

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The following questions are meant to guide your reading of the novel a bit, and to help you think about important aspects of the work.

▪                Preface:  Oscar Wilde was a proponent of Aestheticism, the 19th-century movement that promoted “art for art’s sake”—not art for conventional morality’s or any utilitarian social sake. The Preface of this novel is one of the most famous programmatic statements of the belief that art should not be measured by any other rod but by “beauty”—not necessity, morality, truth to life, politics, education, romantic metaphysics, etc.  In some ways, it proliferates the belief in the artist—in Wilde’s case, also the critic—as a creative genius removed from modern life.  And yet, art is not a neutral term here by any means; in fact, the Preface is full of direct or indirect value statements about art.  Which can you detect?  What seems to be the Preface’s purpose, audience, characteristics, relation to life, etc.?   How does its epigrammatic, often paradoxical form contribute to its contents?

▪                From reading the first few chapters of the novel, what impressions do you get of Wilde’s style and language?    How would you describe the novel’s style, the dialogue, the characters, the fictional universe that it depicts? This novel often seems like a mix of genres and styles.  What are some genres and styles whose influence you can detect here; for example, the gothic novel?

▪                Pay special attention to Lord Henry Wotton—he is an example of the quintessential 19th-century dandy. What is he like, what are his values (or more precisely, what things or traits in people and especially in himself does he seem to value), what is his position in society, his morals, etc.?

▪                What possible homoerotic elements do you detect in this novel?  What role do language and style play for such homoerotic elements or suggestions in the novel?

▪                What are the relationships between the principal characters, especially Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, and Dorian Gray?  How can we think of theirs as a triangular relationship?What indirect or direct comparisons can you draw between this novel and Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus? (Similarities, differences, echoes of similar themes or other influences?)

▪                What about the question of class in this novel?  It plays an important role here.  How does class intermingle with the other major themes of the novel, such as art or (homo)sexuality?

▪                What function does Sybil Vane have in this novel?  What kind of character is she?  How is her relationship with Dorian used as one of the ways in which Wilde depicts Dorian’s “development,” and his ideas?  Does it matter that Sybil is an actress, and as such, a representative of art as well?  How does Dorian’s idea of Sybil clash with reality?

▪                In many ways, one can characterize this novel as a novel of ideas, especially ideas about art, morality, and the nature of individuality. Pay special attention to, and mark, any statements about “beauty” and ideal art that you find in this novel, as well as remarks on the role of individualism (the stress on the individual, rather than society) or hedonism (especially highlighted in the second half of the novel).  They will give us important clues to Aestheticism’s philosophy of art,  connections to Decadence, and the ways homoeroticism was simultaneously signaled and concealed in late-19th-century fiction.

▪                This novel centrally features a portrait—itself a work of art.  Given Wilde’s philosophy of art, how odes the portrait’s role within the narrative reflect back on art and art’s role in life?  How is Dorian himself ‘a work of art, and a decadent one at that?  An important question!

▪                Paradoxically, this novel by the proponent of “art for art’s sake” (a phrase that goes back to one of Wilde’s teachers, the philosopher and art critic Walter Pater, the “founder” of English aestheticism) is very much a novel about good and evil.  Is there perhaps still a “moral” we can detect in this novel, and what could it be?  Who carries the main moral responsibility for Dorian’s development in the novel, and why?

▪                Early readers criticized the novel’s “decadence” and immorality.  What are some possible reasons and evidence for their views, as we find them in the novel?

▪                You may be familiar with the tale of Dr. Faustus (Marlowe, Goethe).  How could or couldn’t one compare The Picture of Dorian Gray with the story of Faust?  Similarities?  Differences?

▪                In many ways, Lord Henry has tried to make Dorian his “work of art.”  As the end of the novel shows, he has both tragically succeeded, and tragically failed.  How so?

▪                Critics have said that the end of the novel—and especially the role of the portrait as a certain indicator of Dorian’s moral development—can be seen as eventually undermining Wilde’s own philosophy of aestheticism.  How so? Is there a moral at the end, in your view?  And if so, what could that moral be?

And finally:

▪       How does the following quote (from the novel) help us think about, and also complicate, Dorian’s Gray character, his “culpability” as well as possibly his sexuality?

“[Dorian Gray] used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence.  To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.”

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