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The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde and Artistic Identity

2023 words (8 pages) Essay in English Literature

08/02/20 English Literature Reference this

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First published in July 1890, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was featured in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine[1]– an American periodical which provided writers, more well-established than Wilde, like Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling with a means of publication for some of their works. After widespread controversy, Dorian Gray was republished in 1891 by Ward, Lock & Co.[2] as a single volume with revisions and additions that gave Wilde’s novel a new life. There is no doubt that both the 1890 and 1891 versions of Dorian Gray make for a completely different reading experience as the revisions shape the 1891 work. The most striking difference is the addition of a preface to the 1891 version, which goes on to alter the reading experience – especially of the first chapter. Wilde’s preface is a succession of aphorisms that reads as a justification of art. It is not surprising that, after reading the 1891 preface, one is made aware of the several instances in which references to Basil Hallward’s have been revised to instead label him as ‘the painter’.[3] The reception of Wilde’s initial 1890 text led to the 1891 version absorbing the criticism and becoming a lengthy comment on the nature of art itself.

               Critic Bristow[4] notes that Wilde’s preface itself was also published twice; in February 1891, he published ‘A Preface to “Dorian Gray”’ in a ‘liberal-minded journal’ called Fortnightly Review, which was edited by his friend Frank Harris. This first iteration of the preface formed the majority of the version printed in the April 1891 publication of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s aphorisms are meditations on the nature of art that seemingly intend to defend his novel as it follows. The preface opens: ‘The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is the art’s aim.’[5] Wilde establishes within the first sentence that the preface is comprised of his musings on art. Readers are made to consider the role of the artist and the materiality of the work as a result of Wilde’s choice to make us aware of the artist. Wilde’s addition of this preface establishes the relationship between the artist and the art – despite the contents of the preface claiming the artist’s purpose is to ‘conceal’[6] themselves. We are unable to detach our reading experience, especially in the first chapter which follows the preface, from the fact that it is a constructed text. We are made aware of the fact that Wilde, as an artist, is responding to criticism and that the 1891 publication of the novel that we are reading is the product of his hand as an artist. This new sense of awareness sets the tone for the changes we see to Basil’s characterisation as the artist now has a more established role and the text becomes a comment on art and the artist. Wilde makes use of irony here in his description of art as something which must ‘conceal the artist’ as its ‘aim’[7] as this statement is within a work of non-fiction thus being formed solely of the artist’s aim. Moreover, Wilde’s presence as an artist is undeniable in that he was active in responding to his critics; Wilde wrote a letter to the St James Gazette in June 1890 as a method of ‘self-defence’ against public opinion.[8] Wilde engages with the media in order to justify his art, which filters through into our understanding of Basil as an artist. The revision history of the text only serves to elucidate Basil’s purpose as a parallel to what we learn of Wilde through the preface and his responses to the media. Although we may not see autobiographical features within this work, that does not eliminate the plausibility of Wilde’s presence as an artist. The mere fact that there have been changes suggest intentions which are indisputably linked to Wilde, we can see the text taking on a new life form as a result of the addition of a preface as Wilde seeks to clarify his intentions. Whilst Wilde’s preface reveals something of his authorial intentions, Basil’s character is altered and his role is established as less concerned with his own autonomy as a ‘person’ but more consumed with his identity as an artist.

 Within the first chapter of Dorian Gray, there are several instances in which Basil’s name or pronouns, present in the 1890 version, have been substituted for ‘the painter’[9] in the 1891 text. Wilde’s choice to remove personal pronouns and Basil’s name becomes a noticeable element to his characterisation as we begin to associate his character with his role as an artist. Basil becomes his occupation and his identity is consumed by the fact that he is a painter. The reader starts to consider the function of Basil as ‘the painter’[10] and clarifying his position as an artist; the reader is drawn to the fact that Wilde orchestrates Basil’s role to be more closely associated with art and therefore considers Basil as a mouthpiece for the artist’s struggles. When considered in conjunction with Wilde’s preface, we can see that Basil’s identity as a painter serves the purpose of representing the pressures of society on the artist. Wilde himself notes the importance of being aware of the artist when consuming their art: ‘All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate. No poet sings because he must sing. At least, no great poet does. A great poet sings because he chooses to sing’.[11] The autonomy of the artist is clearly important to Wilde’s criteria which constitute great art, therefore it is not surprising that, after the reception of his 1890 version of Dorian Gray, Wilde chooses to solidify Basil as a character defined by his craft. The 1891 revision of Basil’s characterisation serves to elucidate our understanding of the work of an artist spectating as their art takes on a multiplicity of life forms as a result of the responses of external parties. The significance of Basil’s identity being firmly rooted as an artist can be seen in the changes in nineteenth century society, in which capitalism was rife. Grounding Basil as an artist and drawing the reader’s attention to the artist’s importance allows Wilde to promote the importance of the individual within art. As critic Sammells[12] notes: ‘style […] is that which prevents art from becoming merely a commodity, bought and sold in the capitalist market-place’. To Wilde, the artist is paramount in ensuring that art has integral features – namely stylistic – which cannot be bought. Wilde’s choice to revise Basil’s role, primarily as ‘the painter’[13], brings to the forefront the notion that one’s identity resides within one’s art. Basil, and all artists alike, must place ‘too much of [themselves] into it [their art]’[14] as a means of preserving their art, and indeed all art’s, integrity – untouched by capitalism. The revisions made by Wilde in 1891 characterise Basil as a mouthpiece for the artist and the individual in a shifting culture where art is deemed to be less important than other professional fields which contribute towards the building and expanding of empire. The artist’s identity, therefore, required strength and confidence to commit – giving Basil a reason to be protective and reluctant to share his art with the world when Wilde writes: ‘I won’t send it anywhere […] I really can’t exhibit it’.[15]

 Wilde’s 1890 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray is of great importance to the scholar; by disregarding the previous textual life of the final 1891 version, we miss some very significant subtleties that elucidate our understanding of the work and its cultural context. Whilst not a subtle addition, the preface added to the 1891 publication of Dorian Gray reveals to the reader Wilde’s philosophy of art and its application to his work. The reader is made aware of Wilde’s active role in responding to the critic and how that has affected the outcome of the version of the text that has been settled on as the final iteration of the novel itself. In light of reading the preface, in conjunction with the 1890 version of Dorian Gray, the reader’s awareness is made more sensitive to the subtle changes to Basil’s character that alter the work’s narrative. Considering both editions of the novel is necessary as it illuminates the readers understanding that a work is not a static, monolithic ‘text’, but rather something with a life that takes on multiple forms in its existence. A literary work is constantly evolving as a result of the process of reception; Wilde’s Dorian Gray is a prime example of this as its second, revised version is a known response to its controversial reception. Our criticism of a work must take into consideration additions, revisions and deletions in order to form a holistic view of a piece of writing. Our understanding of the existence of a work is challenged by considering other publications and even draft material intended for the same work as consideration of the aforementioned assists us in teasing out ideas that would have gone unnoticed.

Bibliography

Primary Sources:

  • Wilde, Oscar, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, July 1890.
  • Wilde, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1891).
  • Wilde, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. by Joseph Bristow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Secondary Sources:

  • Danson, Lawrence, Wilde’s Intentions: The Artist in his Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • Sammells, Neil, Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde (Pearson Education Limited, Essex, 2000).
  • Wilde, Oscar, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 4, Criticism: Historical Criticism, “Intentions,” “The Soul of Man,” ed. Josephine M. Guy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[1] Oscar Wilde, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, July 1890, pp. 3-12.

[2] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1891), pp. v-21.

[3] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.2

[4] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. by Joseph Bristow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.xxvi.

[5] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.v.

[6] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.v.

[7] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.v.

[8] Lawrence Danson, Wilde’s Intentions: The Artist in his Criticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.165.

[9] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.2

[10] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.2

[11] Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, vol. 4, Criticism: Historical Criticism, “Intentions,” “The Soul of Man,” ed. Josephine M. Guy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 143

[12] Neil Sammells, Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde (Pearson Education Limited, Essex, 2000), p.45

[13] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.2

[14] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.3

[15] Wilde, Dorian Gray (1891), p.3

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