Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is just the sort of book that made Victorian England shiver. This decadent masterpiece is anything but a vehicle for the propagation of middle-class morality. We have in Wilde the ultimate aesthete, a disciple of Walter Pater, a dandy who in his personal life seems to have lived out Pater's quiet injunction to "burn with that hard, gemlike flame" in experiencing art and, no doubt, other things. How could Wilde's book, given its affinities with the age's decadent manifestoes--Stèphane Mallarmé's symbolist poetry, Huysmans' À Rebours (Against Nature), Aubrey Beardsley's drawings, The Yellow Book, and so on--serve as a cultural critique every bit as scathing, and perhaps more acute, than those of Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold? I suggest that Wilde accomplishes this task by making his characters enact the philosophy with which he himself was nearly synonymous and, in the same gesture, connecting this very philosophy with the logic of capitalistic exploitation that underlay the aristocratic façade of Dorian's England. By Wilde's time, the aristocracy could do little more than serve the capital-owning class as a kind of enhanced mirror image of its own behavior. The worst tendencies of Wilde's wealthy characters are none other than the selfishness, isolation, exploitation, and brutality that made the most perspicuous Victorians condemn capital. In Wilde's aristocracy, we see rich, idle, and decadent characters reveal from their lounge chair and clubroom perspective the worst flaws in the system upon which they are parasitic. They are the dressed-up doubles, the insignificant others, of Britain's industrial class. Grown refined and idle, Wilde's aristocrats are free to expose, both in their words and deeds, the "sins" of those indulged with mammonism.
Let's try to draw out the element of cultural criticism, then, in The Picture of Dorian Gray. If we wanted to pursue a moralistic, depressingly middle-class reading, we might think of this novel as having the structure of a tragedy. In a tragic play, of course, the hero commits some intellectual or spiritual error that leads to his destruction. Once the error is committed, the consequences play themselves out inexorably, and the only thing the hero ("protagonist") can do of value is recognize the mistake he has made and the necessity of the bad effects that follow from it. If he should fail to do so, we wind up with a moral comedy. For example, Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus never comes to grips with the sinfulness of the pact he has made with the devil. As the play progresses, he begins to look more like a stage villain than a tragic hero--even if Faustus understands that he is doing evil, the playwright makes him constantly, and perhaps consciously, commit the same mistake over and over again until he is justly caught and punished. It is difficult to sympathize with such a depraved character. At the simplest level--the plot--The Picture of Dorian Gray surely follows this moralistic scheme. Each time Dorian sees the bad effects--on others as well as himself--of his prideful, arrogant behavior, his solution to the problem is not to repent permanently, but instead to go off and do something even more depraved. The whole episode with actress Sibyl Vane shows the moralist reader that Dorian isolates himself, hardens himself, into little more than a stage villain rather early in the novel. As for his very last act--his attempt to stab the picture that mirrors his sins--that, the same reader would say, is no more than a sordid attempt literally to kill his conscience so that he will not feel remorse for what he has done. To our moralist's satisfaction, the attempt fails.
If we want to get beyond this bourgeois reading, however, we must examine the quality of the error that Dorian Gray commits. Since Dorian falls into this error with a little help from his friends, we should first examine those friends and their relation to him. First of...
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