Saturday, June 25, 2016

It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him - looking for Wilde in Dorian Gray

My problem with The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) had been that one major character, Lord Henry Wotton, speaks in the voice of Oscar Wilde, the voice that Wilde would soon use so effectively in his great comedies, the voice of Wilde the celebrity.  Jokes and paradoxes.

“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”

“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know.”

“One should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.  Details are always vulgar.”

That stuff.  Sometimes really funny, sometimes chaff.  I fell into the trap of taking Wilde’s voice as representative of Wilde the author, the persona as the artist.

In A Woman of No Importance (1893), the single most Wilde-like man is openly a rake, and the villain of the play.  His name is Lord Illingworth, for pity’s sake.  Wilde sometimes pairs him with a different kind of comic figure, a woman who has no idea what he talking about.

LORD ILLINGWORTH. The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.

LADY HUNSTANTON. Ah! That quite does for me.  I haven’t a word to say.  You and I, dear Mrs. Arbuthnot, are behind the age.  We can’t follow Lord Illingworth.  Too much care was taken with our education, I am afraid.  Too have been well brought up is a great drawback now-a-days.  It shuts one out from so much.  (Act III)

Wilde repeats this joke several times, always after an especially empty quip of Illingworth’s, every one of which is, I will bet, a line that Wilde himself used at parties.  He is puncturing his own persona.

In Dorian Gray, he does it in a couple of different ways.  After the horror story gets going, Lord Wotton reappears after a long absence, and is given a long stretch of bantering with a new character.  What was fresh and lively in the first chapter is sour and tedious, and out of place, after the murder and sordidness of the book’s middle.  Now this seems like a deliberate effect of Wilde’s.  But even earlier, right from the beginning, he was doing something that makes me curious.  The line up above about the natural pose is followed closely by:

The sunlight slipped over the polished leaves.  In the grass, white daisies were tremulous.  (Ch. 1)


“I am quite sure I shall understand it,” he replied, gazing intently at the little golden white-feathered disk, “and as for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”

The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air.

Perhaps the narrator is introducing a pause while the reader laughs.  Or the narrator’s attention turns to the flowers, away from the vapid line.  The overcooked lyricism of the lines (“tremulous”) is suspicious.  If the details are always vulgar, well, what about these?

Now I am more inclined to find Wilde in the painter Basil Hallward, earnest, thoughtful, so in love with Dorian Gray’s beauty that he magically preserves it, a pure artist:

“Art is always more abstract than we fancy.  Form and colour tell us of form and colour – that is all.  It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him.”  (Ch. 9)

Which could itself be a paradox or misdirection.  It survives for other reasons, but this is a novel about aesthetics.


  1. Is Lady Hunstanton really that clueless?

  2. No, Lady Hunstanton is also scoring points in the cleverness game in her own way.