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Oscar Wilde wrote about his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray that: "My story is an essay on decorative art. It reacts against the crude brutality of plain realism. It is poisonous is you like, but you cannot deny that it is also perfect, and perfection is what we artists aim at" (Letters 264). Although the author claimed to have written a complete invention, reading his novel, we cannot avoid asking the question: "Was Oscar Wilde writing indeed a simple invention, as he calls it, or was he in fact recording his own life, thoughts, and emotions?
The novel reflects occurrences and attitudes that used to characterise the period to which Oscar Wilde belonged. The author famously wrote about the three main characters from The Picture of Dorian Gray in the following way: "Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages perhaps" (Letters 352). Comment upon this quotation with references from the book. Indeed, reading about Wilde's life, we discover that the connections between himself and his characters are accurate. Lord Henry resembles Walter Pater in many respects through his influence on Wilde that has been, according to the author, poisonous. However, Oscar Wilde also identifies with Lord Henry in that Wilde like his character plays an important role in the corruption of young impressionable disciples such as John Gray. Thus, the novel is self-referential on two levels: Wilde both identifies with Dorian Gray corrupted by the poisonous influence of Walter Pater and Lord Henry Wotton, the mentor who corrupts his disciples.
Dorian confuses art with life on purpose, hoping at the beginning that art will bear the punishment for his lifestyle and eventually becoming aware of the price he has to pay for such confusion. Oscar Wilde writes about Dorian Gray that: "Each man sees his own thoughts and his own sin in Dorian Gray. What Dorian Gray's sins are no one knows. He who finds them has bought them" (Letters 267).
"Bad people are, from the point of view of art, fascinating studies. They represent colour, variety and strangeness. Good people exasperate one's reason; bad people stir one's imagination" (Letters 259). "The function of the artist is to invent, not to chronicle. Life by its realism is always spoiling the subject-matter of art. The supreme pleasure in literature is to realize the non-existent" (Letters 259).
At the beginning, Oscar Wilde belonged to the generation of Oxford Aesthetes who, under the influence of John Ruskin, had first embraced his Christian and Pre-Raphaelite enthusiasms and his desire for "Truth to Nature" in art, only to be later seduced by the more indulgently Renaissance-inspired, decadent and rather dangerously glamorous teachings of Walter Pater.
Walter Pater's "Conclusion" to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance deeply influenced Oscar Wilde. Walter Pater considered life as a drift of momentary acts and, therefore, each event should be lived to the full and each moment dignified. In his viewpoint, life should be lived for the instant and each individual should seek not the fruit of the experience, but the experience itself. Oscar Wilde absorbed Walter Pater's words and let himself be influenced by their charm and power. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, at the outset of the novel, Dorian Gray is corrupted by the Pateresque sermons of Lord Henry. Like Oscar Wilde cannot avoid being influenced by Pater's philosophy of life, Dorian Gray cannot resist being attracted by Henry Wotton's words: "'Stop!' faltered Dorian Gray, 'stop! You bewilder me. I don't know what to say. There is some answer to you, but I cannot find it. Don't speak. Let me think. Or, rather, let me try not to think'" (Wilde, 26). Dorian accepts Lord Henry's position declaring in a direct quotation from Pater's "Conclusion" that he was seeking "not the fruit of experience, but experience itself" (Wilde 151). Practising what Lord Henry, or Walter Pater advocated leads Dorian to disastrous and murderous consequences.
Oscar Wilde told a "Morning News" reporter that he was extremely moved by a book A Rebours, a novel written by J. K. Huysmans. Its enormous influence can be revealed in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde admitted that the "yellow book" which had such a strong effect on Dorian Gray in his novel is in fact Huysmans' A Rebours. The impact of the yellow book on Dorian Gray was similar to Oscar Wilde's own reaction when he first read Huysmans' novel:
After a few minutes he [Dorian] became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he has ever read. It seemed to him that the exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed. (Wilde 145)
The hero of the novel, "a certain young Parisian" impresses Dorian through his courage "to realise all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own [. . .] loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men unwisely have called virtue as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin" (Wilde 145).
Thus, the protagonist of the yellow book becomes more than the archetype for Wilde's Dorian Gray: "The hero, the wonderful young Parisian became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it" (Wilde 147). For the following years, the strange yellow book would hang over Dorian Gray like an ominously dark cloud and lurk inside him like a mirror of his darker self showing Dorian his true character:
For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it. He procured from Paris no less than nine large-paper copies of the first edition, and had them bound in different colours, so that they might suit his various moods and the changing fancies of a nature over which he seemed, at times, to have almost entirely lost control. (Wilde 147)
To a degree, he becomes the archetype of Oscar Wilde himself as he regularly remarks in the company of his friends that "I am mad just like des Esseintes [the young Parisian]" (Mikhail 195).
Another crucial aspect that links Oscar Wilde's life to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is his attraction to dandyism. The dandy-aesthetes above all honed their senses and cultivated the rarest of sensibilities. Their first concern was the exquisiteness and the cultivation of extraordinary notions of taste that lie beyond mere considerations of fashion, and that operates outside all the conventional canons of morality. Peter Raby in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde indentifies Wilde's approach to dandyism with the transitional period between about 1883 and 1889, during which his earlier, simpler aestheticism underwent a change into something darker and more decadent as a consequence of his increasing exposure to the richer veins of European, and in particular French, literary and artistic theory and activity. The strong influence that Dandyism had on Oscar Wilde's life is revealed in cultivating the theme of the primacy of beauty and of senses in his writings, which represents the basic principle of the Dandyism of Aesthetic Response.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian laments the period in which individuals did not acknowledge their senses and tried to suppress them: "As he looked back upon man moving through History, he was haunted by a feeling of loss. So much had been surrendered! And to such little purpose!" (Wilde 150). As a matter of fact, Dorian Gray celebrates the primary importance of the cultivation of senses and their positive effects for artistic purposes: "He sought to elaborate some new scheme of life that would have its reasoned philosophy and its ordered principles, and find in the spiritualising of the senses its highest realisation" (Wilde 150). And because Dorian "knew that the senses, no less than the soul, have their spiritual mysteries to reveal" (Wilde 154), he begins to study perfumes "seeking to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes" (Wilde 154), to devote himself completely to music and instruments: "the fantastic character of these instruments fascinated him, and he felt a curious delight in the thought that Art, like Nature, has her monsters, thing of bestial shape and with hideous voices" (Wilde 156), and to develop a special interest in the study of jewels, embroideries and tapestries: "he was almost saddened by the reflection of the ruin that Time brought on beautiful and wonderful things" (Wilde 158). Thus, Dorian's concern with the exquisiteness and with the cultivation of sophisticated notions of taste coincides with Oscar Wilde's interest in Dandyism.
Autobiography is also evident in a description of Dorian Gray's earlier attraction to the Catholic liturgy:
It was rumored of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awfully really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of the elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolise. (Wilde 153)
However, later on, Dorian renounces his attraction to Christian faith believing that any formal acceptance of creed or system would arrest his intellectual development: "But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night" (Wilde 153). Subsequently, he passed through mysticism to the materialism of the Darwinists where he "found a curious pleasure in tracing the thoughts and passions of men to some pearly cell in the brain, or some white nerve in the body, delighting in the conception of the absolute dependence of the spirit on certain physical conditions, normal or healthy, normal or diseased" (Wilde 154). In the end, Dorian also rejects philosophical Darwinism convinced that all intellectual speculation is barren. As a result, he focused only on action and experiment, aware of the fact that "the senses, no less than the soul, have their spiritual mysteries to reveal" (Wilde 154).
Dorian's intellectual research coincides with Oscar Wilde's own position at the period in which he was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray. Like Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde has long been attracted by Catholicism and by its creed. Furthermore, Joseph Pearce in his critical work The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, points out that Oscar Wilde too was fascinated by the philosophical content of Darwin's theory, although the author never left any evidence of the fact that he ever accepted and practised any of its philosophies. Pearce also argues that Dorian's idolatry of the senses was Wilde's own fetish at the time he was working on his novel.
The name and the position in the novel of the protagonist Dorian Gray is very much bound to Oscar Wilde's life. Oscar Wilde's biography mentions the existence of a certain young man of whom the author was very fond. This figure who fascinated Oscar Wilde was John Gray and it is said that he was the model for the physical beauty of Dorian Gray in Wilde's novel. And maybe there is a strong connection between Basil Hallward's first impressions of Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde's own impressions of John Gray:
Well, after I had been in the room about ten minutes, I turned halfway round and saw Dorian Gray for the first time. When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself. (Wilde 13)
In the novel, Basil Hallward first sees Dorian at a party. The writer Frank Liebich points out that Oscar Wilde and John Gray first met at a dinner party in 1889 and that John Gray became Wilde's disciple. There is a reflection of the relationship between Oscar Wilde and John Gray in the description of Basil and Dorian's friendship:
I know he [Dorian] likes me. Of course I flatter him dreadfully. I find a strange pleasure in saying things to him that I know I shall be sorry for having said. As a rule, he is charming to me, and we sit in the studio and talk of thousand things. Now and then, however, he is horribly thoughtless, and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain. Then, I feel, Harry, that I have given away my whole soul to someone who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer's day. (Wilde 19)
Thomas Mann identifies with his protagonist of Death in Venice. The changes in Aschenbach's personality after he meets Tadzio, manifested by rejecting the psychological analysis and understanding he practised in his early work, simplifying morality and abandoning himself to the dark emotions he no longer even wants to control, parallel the Nazist political regime adopted by Germany in a period very close to that in which Thomas Mann was writing his novella. This political regime was characterised through violent attacks on reason and intellect, the whipping up of atavistic mass feeling, and the collective unreason of enthusiasm for Hitler. As Thomas Mann confessed that Gustav Aschenbach's problems and temptations have been his own: "I had these things in me as much as anyone," we are allowed to believe that the author had embodied the coming politics of his age through his writing of Death in Venice.
Within two years, the war that looms in that opening sentence "It was a spring afternoon in that year of grace 19-, when Europe sat upon the anxious seat beneath a menace that hung over its head for months" (Mann 417) had broken out and Mann was carried away, like most intellectuals in the combatant nations. Thomas Mann employs a technique that half-hides myth under a realistic surface in Death in Venice. The author gives the diabolical elements an always plausible mask: the devil is presented in the novel as part of the hero's mind, while the traditional twenty-four years of the pact coincide with the term of the disease. In writing The Death in Venice, Thomas Mann was uncovering, tackling the issues that had always preoccupied him and been the substance of his work, the threatening tendencies of his age. He was in fact consciously writing what he called the "novel of my epoch," epoch in which Germany had sold her soul to an evil power, to Nazism, associated with the disease that took hold of Venice.
The novella is a meditation upon the historical and social pressures bearing upon the modern individual.
Thomas Mann autobiography acknowledges the fact that, like Gustav Aschenbach, the author visited Venice. While staying in Venice with his wife and brother, Thomas Mann, like his fictional Aschenbach, was fascinated by a handsome Polish boy whom he watched playing on the beach. In fact, this 'personal and lyrical experience', as Mann later described it in a much quoted confessional letter, prompted the story Death in Venice.1 And just as Mann's protagonist Aschenbach is inspired by the sight of Tadzio to write 'a page and a half of exquisite prose' on an unspecified problem of taste and culture (viii, 493), so Mann wrote a short essay on his changing attitude to Wagner. Having idolised Wagner for many years, he confessed, he was now turning away from the composer's steamy Romanticism and towards a new classicism.
When the story begins, Aschenbach is already a classic writer, in two of the senses which Goethe gave the term. First, he represents the type of 'classic national author' His paternal ancestors were soldiers or administrators in the service of the Prussian state which formed the core of a united Germany. And in one of his major works, dealing with Frederick the Great, Aschenbach has evoked a national subject from Prussian history. Second, he is an exemplary writer. Extracts from his works are reproduced in school readers so that schoolboys may model their style on his. It represents the 'pure style appropriate to its subject' (G xii, 243) which Goethe considered classical. In addition, Aschenbach is a classical writer in the obvious sense of emulating the classics. He admires, and tries to imitate, the order, balance, harmony, and restraint deemed characteristic of classical literature. Mann himself followed this precept to the extent of emulating the classic prose of Goethe.
In the essay 'Sweet Sleep' (1909), Mann defines the morality of the artist:
The artist's morality is composure ['Sammlung'], it is the power of self-centred concentration, the commitment to form, shape, limitation, corporeality, the rejection of freedom, infinity, dozing and drifting in the limitless realm of feeling - in a word, it is the will to produce a work. But how ignoble and immoral, how bloodless and repulsive is the work that is born of cold, calculating, virtuous, self-contained artistry! The artist's morality is self-abandonment, straying and self-loss, it is struggle and hardship, experience, insight and passion ['Erlebnis, Erkenntnis und Leidenschaft']. (xi, 338)
In this declaration, and in his critical portrayal of Aschenbach, Mann is affirming the artist's duty to inquire, to probe, to reach what will often be uncomfortable insights into human character. One inadequate, answer is that Mann actually encountered such people in Venice:
Nothing in Death in Venice is invented: the traveller by the Northern Cemetery in Munich, the gloomy boat from Pola, the aged fop, the dubious gondolier, Tadzio and his family, the departure prevented by a mix-up over luggage, the cholera, the honest clerk in the travel agency, the malevolent street singer, or whatever else you might care to mention - everything was given, and really only needed to be fitted in, proving in the most astonishing manner how it could be interpreted within my composition.
The wanderers who cross Aschenbach's path likewise derive their disturbing aura from his emotional projections. Not only are these figures wanderers, like Aschenbach, but they also share some of his traits: the slight build, the loose mouth and the short nose. They represent the unacknowledged and unwelcome shadow-side of Aschenbach himself, the rootless, bohemian aspect which he has done his best to repress.8 Jung has shown that the heightened sensibility accompanying a mid-life crisis can generate precisely such visionary embodiments of psychic forces. The story gradually reveals what Aschenbach is repressing - his power to love, his capacity for homosexual love, and the areas of experience it opens up. His repressed emotions appear just where he thought he was safest: amid his devotion to classicism.