Category Archives: Week 2: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray, literary criticism, and use

This blog post takes as its ambitious guiding star the wholesale interpretation and explication of The Picture of Dorian Gray (whatever this could even mean), and the work’s preface as its humble starting point. There is, of course, no prima facie justification that can be given for an interpretive tactic; the strategy’s merit will have to show itself in the readings for which it allows. But we may innocuously note that Picture is a work of art about a work of art, and that its preface (written by the author temporally last, experienced by the reader temporally first) is itself about works of art. What it has to say about art, then, may provide us a starting point for discussing the novel. Let us begin with its last sentence: “All art is quite useless.”

The past fifty years of literary criticism have been dominated by an academic approach quite at odds with this statement. The so-called Yale School, influenced by Jacques Derrida and emblematized by Paul de Man, expressly viewed literature as a space for radical political action, and was as such pejoratively deemed responsible for “the politicization of the humanities”. We would do well to quickly review the philosophical underpinnings of the Yale School, that we might acquire a sense of how to begin to approach Wilde’s assertion.

Jacques Derrida published his first three major works in 1967, and continued to write just up until his death in 2004. Scholars usually use “Deconstruction” to refer to Derrida’s thought (though he was said to have expressed puzzlement over why this particular conceptual term was singled out amongst others—and for Derrida naming is never a neutral gesture). Deconstruction can be thought of as an extension of the critiques of Platonism initiated by Nietzsche and developed further still (with a phenomenological and hermeneutic influence) by Heidegger. Derrida diagnosed the entirety of “the history of Western metaphysics” with an ideological bias toward something that he called logocentrism. Logocentrism may be summarized as the belief that the entities that compose the world all possess an essence of some sort that they either accurately represent or fail to accurately represent, and that entities that successfully represent their essences are normatively superior to entities that do not. Derrida thinks that this bias expresses itself throughout the history of thought primarily in the form of conceptual binaries (good vs. evil, man vs. woman, white vs. black, speech vs. writing, same vs. other, etc.) in which inhere a normative hierarchy (here, the former in each pair being privileged). His strategy is then to take the texts that compose this ethnocentric canon and “deconstruct” them by isolating those binaries, showing how the texts allow a reading that inverts the normative hierarchy, and finally showing how the texts allow a reading that shows the paradoxes of the binary itself.

This is the context in which to understand Barthes’s proclamation of the death of the author and Derrida’s related statement that “there is nothing outside the text”. The danger of author-driven approaches to literature is that they can violently close off discussion, with the assumed intention of the author serving as a type of “essence” of the work of art. Barthes, Derrida, and others like them wanted to permanently open literature up to new use. They also wanted us to become conscious of the ethnocentric nature of “the canon”—whose language was privileged in our culture, and whose language was silenced.

We then seemingly confront a difficulty in our reading of Picture’s preface. For, Wilde proclaims that:

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. (4)

This, by itself, would seem to cohere very well with Deconstruction, with all of its talk of “endlessly deferred meaning”, the “free play of signifiers”, and the “excess of the signifier over the signified”. There is no ultimate meaning in the work of art that somehow correlates with the “life” that art is meant to mirror (this is Aristotelian mimesis); rather, art is pure artifice—all signifier, no signified. Anything that the spectator reads into the work of art is the spectator’s doing, not the creator’s. Wilde also refers to art (and thus literature) as “an imperfect medium” that attains this status of pure surface when the artist attains “perfect use” of it—and, last but not least, the preface is intertextual, with two references to The Tempest’s “Caliban” (3).

The absence of use evoked at the end of the preface, then, would seem to be a kind of present absence, much like that kind of spectral presence spoken of by Derrida in much of his work (see especially Specters of Marx). We may think of Derrida’s diagnosis of Western metaphysics as “being in force without significance” (see Agamben in Homo Sacer), that is, as being present only in virtue of its absence. It is as if essence maintains a zero-relation with us—and we are as such eternally inadequate (this is the source of Derrida and many others’ labeling of Western metaphysics as “nihilism”).

But, just as de Man and others saw in this emptiness at the center of thought a space for political action, it would seem that Wilde too affirms in the preface a space for the reader. And consider the novel’s first sentence:

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn. (5)

It is almost too easy to read here the image of present absence, with the studio “filled” with nothing but smells, that is, sensory experiences of absent sensory objects. We may just as easily read the portrait itself as a cipher for the artistic essence, or as the essence that supposedly inheres in one’s identity (in the form of an ‘image’, a social projection of oneself). The fact that Dorian feels he must constantly hide the picture then corresponds again to the absent presence of the ultimate explanatory principle that defines a given domain of discourse and supposedly gives it its justification for existing. (The end of the novel is, then, a very interesting artistic gesture—we will get to that later.)

But that’s just it—isn’t this almost too easy? And boring? It would seem that as art in postmodernity increasingly takes on pastiche and self-reference as its dominant tropes we become increasingly capable of reading ‘whatever we want’ in works of art, especially those works in the canon or at its margins (e.g. finding an ideology in a work ‘avant la lettre’). It is not that any of this is bad per se—Derrida and de Man, in fact, would love the critical space opened up by postmodern art. But I think of Giorgio Agamben’s sparsely scattered remarks concerning Deconstruction. He worries that if Deconstruction limits itself to infinitely repeating its gesture of isolating the aporias necessarily implicit in any metaphysical system it might calcify in a sense, taking its “arche-concepts” like trace and différance and turning them into new concepts in a new metaphysical system.

Agamben urges us (with inspiration from Walter Benjamin’s reflections on history) to read the texts of the past with an eye to their utility in the present. I would argue that we may conceive of Agamben’s work as the production of historical re-narrativizations of the present in the form of what he calls “paradigms” that are designed to shock us into seeing our present in the context of history in a new way. We thus begin to see that things other than what we had thought possible are at least not impossible, and new use becomes possible. Now, Agamben’s hope seems to be that we could think a kind of life that was characterized by “pure use”—and his hope for achieving this seems to be through continuing to actualize things but keeping within them the capacity to not be, or within our necessities containing contingencies. In the context of literary criticism, we could say that that means we shouldn’t feel like Deconstruction means we have to conclude that every text says the same thing, which is nothing. We can still further unique theses on works without claiming that they are the “truth” of those works. (To be fair, Derrida himself was very good about doing this; Agamben seems to be worried about his followers.)

I would say, then, that our class is a wonderful example of the utilization of literature’s capacity to affect positive social change, and that Dorian Gray itself may very easily be “used” for a cause (such as sexual liberation) regardless of whether or not Wilde intended it to be (or at least wrote it to be). Our class’s exemplary status is fairly obvious—we are reading less-canonized authors, discussing oppressed parts of society and what may be done about that oppression; all that is left now is for us to truly seize this opportunity and make great things happen!

And as far as the book, I will end with a reading of its end. If we accept my earlier suggestion that the portrait is a cipher either for the “artistic essence” or for identity, then we may draw both of these together under the preface’s suggestion of emptiness, and say that the portrait shows that identity is itself empty. Dorian Gray may himself be thought of us as one who denies the true, purely potential nature of human existence (that is, existing absent a necessary essence) and instead tries to impose the necessary conditions on living of his particular identity—for, he holds onto his past self, he desires his portrait and fears changing. This would be akin for Benjamin or Agamben to historical writing that remains totally remote from our time, in fact doing nothing to push the boundaries of what we think is possible. His life was a reading of a text that refused to open it up to free use. But Wilde’s gesture, then, in having Dorian stab himself (or the painting?) at the end of the novel, is quite significant. Dorian destroys the present absence, in a sense (here his lost youth); that is, he abolishes the law, he destroys identity. But this was accomplished only after having sank deep down into the depths of narcissism. The novel, by turning tragic, seemingly also turns sacrificial, with Dorian as the offering. This would seem to give the novel a definite meaning, insofar as throughout literary history form has in some sense conferred the context in which the content ought to be viewed, and so then uselessness of the art is diminished somewhat, insofar as a constraint on how the work can be interpreted is introduced. But this gesture is perfectly symmetrical to the gesture of taking a meaningless work of art and giving it a particular meaning as Derrida and Agamben both intimate. Wilde, then, is engaged in an incredibly clever political gesture, and one with human agency at its core. Note that we, in fact, don’t care whether or not Wilde actually intended this—we can use the work to say it. And, as long as we remain within the constraints of criticism and logic that are dictated by the text we are given, it would seem that we can reasonably call these new interpretations “new truths”.



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The Picture of Oscar Wilde?

We began our class with a look at Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” in which we were asked or perhaps challenged to look at a piece of literature or work of art without allowing our reading of that piece of art to be influenced by what we know of the person who created it.  In the preface of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde states, “To reveal art and conceal the artist is arts aim”.  It seems as if Wilde in fact agrees with Barthes, or at least is hoping that his work is examined and read as a freestanding piece and not alongside his reputation.  Yet, like many of Wilde’s statements it is easy to find contradictions in his work.  We see these contradictions arise first with Basil and the portrait he has painted of Dorian.  Basil tells Lord Henry, “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist not the sitter.  The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion.  It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.” It is easy to make Oscar Wilde or any writer Basil Hallward.  When a writer creates a piece of literature in which there is feeling, than the writer is freely revealing himself to the reader.  It is then clear that Wilde is in fact revealing part of himself to the reader when he allowed The Picture of Dorian Gray to be published.

Even so Wilde does not do a great job at concealing himself as the artist.  In the introduction, Gary Schmidgall points out that Wilde seems to infuse the novel with parts of himself, making it almost impossible to separate the two.  Wilde uses “several of his well-known and luxurious tastes in fashion: capes with satin-lined wings, elaborate floral buttonholes, gold-tipped cigarettes, and exotic jewellery.  Even the suspiciously frequent appearances of the word wild- over twenty-five times serve to stamp the novel with the author’s character”.   So has Wilde in fact tried to conceal himself?  It would appear that if he did it was not a full-hearted effort on his behalf.  Yet the fact that he did such a poor job makes one wonder about whether or not he wanted to reveal himself.  Lord Henry seems to look down upon the fact that works of art cannot be separated from their artist when he states, “we live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography”.  This phrase alone however, has a double meaning.  Lord Henry might in fact be looking down upon the artists who choose to make the works of art about themselves, or he might be criticizing the readers who cannot separate the art from the artist.

Just as is his style Wilde leaves us questioning how he felt about infusing the book with so much of himself.  Of course he must have known people were going to read it with the author in mind, yet he states that art must not be about the artist.  He contradicts himself in only a way Oscar Wilde could, leaving us confused about his motives.  If he tried to conceal himself it was to no avail yet if he did not try to conceal himself why would he state that to be the aim of art?


Basil Hallward

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The Significance of Art: Origin vs. Interpretation

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.


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Matryoshka Doll Of Contradictions

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a continuous paradox, constantly contradicting itself in both the plot of the novel as well as in the characters themselves. Lord Henry is completely based of the idea of paradox, coming up with one line sentences that portray two opposite ideas as true: “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”. But the most overarching paradox is in the art of the book itself, as well as the art piece that the novel revolves around. Wilde’s aestheticism ideas on art claim that art should be made just for art sake. It is meant to be beautiful and that is it, nothing more. Art should not incorporate any morals or any part of the artist himself.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the portrait of Dorian has two sides to it that make it a contradiction to the idea of aestheticism. One side of it is that Basil has “shown in it the secret of [his] soul”, completely eradicating the idea that the artist should be completely separate from their art. The other side is that the art shows all the ugliness of Dorian’s soul which is inconsistent with Wilde’s belief of “beauty”. It show the realism of life, which contradicts “art for arts sake” and Wilde’s belief that art should not be too realistic and honest. Along with that, it is also not visually appealing to people’s eyes.

However, the real work of art in the novel is Dorian Gray in some ways. He is pure beauty in its most refined form and nothing he does (until the end) can change the way he looks, which is similar to true art. If art is not supposed to convey any emotions or morals, then it should be able to live on forever and not be changed by the outside ideas of society. True art that follow the aestheticism theory should be interpreted in the same way, no matter when it is looked at, because it has no depth to it, nothing to interpret. Dorian Gray is as unchanging as beautiful art should be. Dorian is also portrayed as a shallow character, youthful and innocent in the beginning of the book, consistent with the idea that “all art is at once surface”, as Wilde claims in the preface.

There is still a contradiction even within Dorian’s character in that if he is considered beautiful art, he should not be able to influence the people around him. But Dorian corrupts many people around him and gains a reputation for it. Basil tells Dorian “you corrupt every one with whom you become intimate”, showing that Dorian does, in fact, have great influence over others, which is not a trait of “beautiful” art. However, this deviation from beautiful art seems to start when Dorian is “poisoned by a book”, perhaps making him a no longer “beautiful” work of art. Dorian was the epitome of what aestheticism stands for up until he is “corrupted”. But even this contradicts itself, because as the preface claims, “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book”. However, within Wilde’s writing, he ignores this ideology of aestheticism by having the main plot of the novel be centered around the effect the yellow book has on Dorian.

Wilde claimed later that he was like Basil but he strives to be like Dorian. Basil is, according to Wilde’s own ideas, the exact opposite of what a good artist should be, because he puts too much of his own life into his art. Therefore, Wilde is implying that he himself does not even follow the ideas of aestheticism. He claims he strives to be like Dorian, perhaps implying that he is striving towards the pure aestheticism of art that he is always advocating. However, Dorian does have an influential side to him that does not follow these ideals. The last, overall contradiction that is made by Wilde is that his work of art, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is seemingly a moral teaching book, expressing the lesson that you cannot escape the sins of your soul. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a Matryoshka doll of contradictions; a contradiction within contradiction ranging from the actual book itself to individual plot points.

– A.C.T.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Alternate Ending

[note: In this alternate ending, Dorian did not murder Basil]

He went in quietly, locking the door behind him, as was his custom, and dragged the purple hanging from the portrait. A cry of pain and indignation broke from him. He could see no change, save that in the eyes there was a look of cunning and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome–more loathsome, if possible, than before. Frozen in terror at this terrible creature, his head turned quickly toward the door when he heard a loud knocking. It was Lord Henry and Basil Hallward.

“Dorian, please let us in. Your beauty is youthful but this childish behavior is unbecoming!” cried Lord Henry. Dorian looked at the door where his friends stood behind. What was he to do? If they witnessed the wretched painting they would become privy to his tainted soul. No, he could not let them see his soul, his essence sodden with maladies. This was all Basil’s fault. If he hadn’t painted this mirror of terrors, his consciousness would never have been corrupted…

Dorian picked up a knife, let his friends inside, and locked the door behind them.

“Dorian, what is the matter with you?” asked Basil. He had never seen Dorian’s beauty so disturbed. His face still looked like the work of Michelangelo yet was drunk with madness that somehow chipped away at his angular features. The men then noticed the painting, which had changed from a portrait of an Adonis to that of a Satyr.

“What you see before you is what you cannot see,” Dorian said quietly. “You both have been drunk with my appearance and blind to my soul. Your infatuation has sickened my spirit, weathered my whole. I cannot live knowing that you are privy to the darkness of my beauty. Basil, you created this monster. You must destroy it.”

“You are speaking nonsense. Art cannot be created nor destroyed, especially by an artist” said Lord Henry.

“Then you must alter it,” said Dorian. “Basil, you must draw a new painting of my soul, or else I will strike my face and take away your muse.” Dorian raised the knife to one of his delicately rosy cheeks.

“I will do as you command, my friend, but this will not assuage your dissonance” Basil warned. Dorian took a seat while Basil began to work on the picture. The picture frightened him, his hand trembling as he worked to alter the monstrosity. As he tried to repaint his Adonis, he noticed something was off. He was using the same materials he used to paint the picture before, but the paint was reacting strangely on the canvas. The yellow he had used to glorify Dorian’s youthful locks was vibrant on the brush, but when it met the canvas it spoiled. His hand trembled uncontrollably as he tried to paint the contours of Dorian’s face, causing them to be crooked rather than majestic.

“Dorian, you complete me like the creatures of Aristophanes and all I want is to please you. But your demands are corroding my art. I can only create art when it comes from Beauty itself, which is how I created the original portrait of you. Your demands have defiled the artist, the art. You are asking me to create an Art for ulterior motives, which I cannot do for it would no longer be Art.”

“Oh, Basil! You simple, pathetic man. You are the reason for my degradation!” shouted Dorian. In a swift movement, he sliced his rosy cheek and a strange, dark liquid streamed down his face like tears of an ugly, scorned woman. He then cut his hair, which fell to the floor like course hay.

“Look!” cried Basil. The men looked at the painting. The rosiness in Dorian’s cheeks and the brightness of his locks had been restored.

“This is the only way,” said Dorian. “I must leave behind a legacy of untouched beauty, for it is all I have achieved. No one must see the blackness of my soul. No, my beauty must be immortal, and only Art can immortalize beauty.” Dorian plunged the knife into his heart and he fell to the floor. Like a wilted lilac, his body lost its youthful glory that was only memorable in its prime.

The picture’s beauty was restored to its original magnificence. An onlooker
years from now would certainly appreciate its beauty, but would never understand its genesis.



  • I did my best to channel Wilde’s style (alliteration, diction (e.g. “strange”), homoeroticism (“wilted lilac”) and also tried to retain the character’s personalities (e.g. when Lord Henry says “You are speaking nonsense. Art cannot be created nor destroyed, especially by an artist”
  • Like Sybil, Basil loses his talent as an artist because of Dorian
  • I tried to amplify Wilde’s beliefs in Aestheticism in Basil’s line: “But your demands are corroding my art. I can only create art when it comes from Beauty itself, which is how I created the original portrait of you. Your demands have defiled the artist, the art. You are asking me to create Art for ulterior motives, which I cannot do for it would no longer be Art.”
  • Also, the last line hints that the picture of Dorian Gray will only be remembered for its beauty and not its “genesis,” another nod to Aestheticism
  • Dorian’s last words “my beauty must be immortal, and only Art can immortalize beauty” are another nod to Aestheticism
  • This alternate ending is not terribly different than the original, but it’s meant to be less ambiguous than the original by echoing the preface instead of suggesting some moral imperative



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