In A Picture of Dorian Gray, the preface is a list of paradoxes and aphorisms for the reader to mull over before entering the novel that seems to (appropriately and thematically) contradict the famous opening around every narrativized turn. By the end of the novel it becomes irrefutably apparent that all art is not useless, but instead can have a very significant impact on the lives through which it is valued and interpreted. This realization forces the reader to revisit the preface and wonder whose voice it ought to be read in. Are the aphorisms the pontifications of “Prince Paradox,” Lord Henry? Or are these the thoughts of Wilde himself, picking apart the ideas of Aestheticism and placing his own philosophies in the forefront of his novel? Does it matter? This novel prompts the reader to, as referenced in a previous post, pull apart the paradoxes and ideas in the work as though it were a Matryoshka Doll. As we play with the novel, we seem to be constantly seeking the most-inward figure of the Russian doll and continuously asking the question: Is the significance of art is in its origin, in the art itself, or in the interpretation of the art?
A primary example of the struggle to establish the significance of artistic origin in the novel is evident in the relation between Basil, Dorian, and the painting. While Basil insists that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter” and remarks on multiple occasions that there is “too much of [himself]” in it, Hallward is not the most important character related to the portrait. Instead, Dorian gives it meaning through the Faustian act of selling his soul to the canvas. In this sense, Basil Hallward may be the originator of the art, but the significance of the art—especially in this narrative as it is focused on the sensory experiences of Dorian more so than any other character—belongs to Dorian. The portrait puts his soul at stake. Therefore, it seems that the significance of the art is not in its origin but in its effect. The portrait is also clearly not merely “art for art’s sake,” because its initial beauty degrades into a poisonous influence, and it has a violent impact on the lives of the characters throughout the book. Therefore, we readers are left to believe that regarding the portrait, the significance of the art piece is in the interpretation of the art, in how it is used by Dorian.
To briefly bring up another example of attributing the significance of a piece of art to its interpretation rather than its origin, we can look at the influence the Little Yellow Book has over Dorian in Chapter 11. Because of this book, Dorian falls into a morally degrading lifestyle and succumbs to a life of pleasuring the senses with lack of ethical consideration. Dorian recognizes the interplay of origins and identities as he finds personality in the art that came before him. As Wilde describes, “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.” An important point to realize about this quotation is that it is Wilde telling us about Dorian’s reading of the text and not the intention of the text itself. In fact, although we have learned during our seminar that the Little Yellow Book is À rebours, its title is never once mentioned in the novel. The author of our novel chooses not to acknowledge the origin of the novel that he uses to develop his character’s interpretation of its significance, which we as the reader then interpret in the context of the author’s narrative. Again, it is like Matryoshka doll.
While I think elements of this complicated task of seeking significance in both origin and interpretation can be found in many other areas of the novel’s plot (for instance, the art of Sybil Vane’s perpetual performances), it can also be looked at from a broader context: our consumption of the novel as art. The Picture of Dorian Gray is certainly a work of art, but given the nature of the novel, recognizing it as such brings up a seemingly infinite amount of thematic questions. In Gary Schmidgall’s introduction to the text, he quotes Wilde to have said, “I think [Dorian Gray] will ultimately be recognized as a great work of art with a strong ethical lesson inherent in it,” and also, “It is my best piece of work.” Here, we see that the author’s original intention was to create a work of art that is beautiful and morally meaningful. However, we as readers are left with the task of assuming what the “strong ethical lesson inherent” in the work is. Alternatively, if we did not know about the historical context and feelings of the author, we also would have the option to appreciate the novel simply for being a beautifully written story and find significance in words themselves instead of through the assumed intention of the queer author. Then, we as readers must choose how to place the significance of the author’s artistic decisions and artistic statements within the novel. As we consider different arguments for placing the significance of art either in its origin, in the art itself, or in the interpretation of art we can also entertain the idea that these three possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, as we take the initiative to ask such questions, the mere act of our inquiry proves that only the final option (significance is in the interpretation) is the only one that can be proven true. This is because by answering that the significance of art is in its origin, we are interpreting that to be the case; to decide that the answer to our question is A (the significance of art is in its origin) suggests that the answer is B (the significance of art is in the interpretation).
Now, I can’t tell you what Oscar Wilde would think of all of this, but I am certain he’d say that Lord Henry would be delighted with the paradox—says the reader.