Victorian England and The Picture of Dorian Gray Essay

Victorian England and The Picture of Dorian Gray Essay

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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 loungechair 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 exp...


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... of his own selfishness. Since Dorian is never much more than an empty container, largely filled up, or determined, by the values of the culture in which Wilde has immersed him, does it not follow that his behavior and punishment also indict the culture that has produced him? By the end of Wilde's novel, Basil the artist is dead, killed by Dorian, but that need not be taken to imply that Wilde considers art useless. Dorian's transgressions are those of an entire class, which in turn stands in for an entire economic order, an order that is not, of course, limited to the aristocracy. Ultimately, Wilde's novel concerns a sphere wide enough to encompass and criticize both the elegant circles within which Dorian and Lord Harry move and the grimy contours of Manchester. When all is said, The Picture of Dorian Gray is still with us to expose the "sins" of Victorian Britain.

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