Presentation: Influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Part I: Influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray

1926 Translation of Against Nature, with the caption: “the book that Dorian Gray loved and that inspired Oscar Wilde”

As illustrated by our paired reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature, Wilde’s work owes a certain debt to “the yellow book” of Huysmans (96). Wilde’s reviewers immediately made this connection, disparagingly noting the influence of “the garbage of the French Décadents” (Beckson, 69) and “the leprous literature of the French Décadents” (Beckson, 72). Dorian’s fascination with “the yellow book” begins at the end of chapter ten (96-97) and occupies all of chapter 11 (97-109). Now that we have read part of Against Nature, Wilde’s description of “the yellow book” does sound remarkably familiar:

It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. (96)

As Lucius Cook puts it in his study of the French influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray, “No other book answers so clearly to this description” (31).

Like des Esseintes, Dorian develops a variety of eclectic, passing obsessions, including a superficial interest in Catholicism (100-101), perfumes (101), concerts of exotic music (101-102), jewels (102-103), and embroideries and tapestries (104-105). Not only does the content of chapter 11 mimic the episodes of Against Nature in miniature, but Wilde also mimics Huysmans’ style. Even if the reader were not familiar with Against Nature, chapter 11 has a distinctively different style than the rest of the novel, with dialogue and witty one-liners being replaced by exhaustive descriptions of objects and scenes.

In his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joseph Bristow points out that although “the yellow book” inspires Dorian to pursue an aesthetic life, he does so in a rather unoriginal manner: “Instead of taking independent-minded inspiration from this unique French novel, he pursues the bluntest imitation of it” (xvi). Given the fact that Wilde’s imitation of Husymans’ style parallels Dorian’s imitation of des Esseintes’ life, we could charge Wilde with the same criticism that Bristow applies to Dorian. Yet, Dorian explicitly (and Wilde implicitly) expresses the “anxiety of influence,” as when he acknowledges that des Esseintes is “a kind of pre-figuring type of himself” and that the novel is “the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (97). This awareness starts to sound particularly like the concern of an author when Dorian contemplates his family’s portrait gallery:

Yet one had ancestors in literature, as well as in one’s own race, nearer perhaps in type and temperament, many of them, and certainly with an influence of which one was more absolutely conscious. There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions. He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world and made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety. It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own. (108, emphases mine)

Rather than being swallowed up by his predecessors, Dorian responds to the presence of literary and historical ancestors by appropriating them. In his mind, he upends the sequence of history; rather than his life being a repetition of past lives, he considers past lives to be an imitation of his own. I would venture that Wilde is doing something similar with chapter 11 and perhaps throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although chapter 11 provides the most intense section of allusion to Against Nature, Huysmans’ text looms throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray. By confining a concentrated imitation of Against Nature to a single chapter, however, Wilde seems to contain Huysmans’ influence to a certain extent and wield it for his own purposes (I hope we’ll get a chance to discuss what exactly these purposes might be in class: see discussion questions).

Faust, etching by Rembrandt
Faust, etching by Rembrandt
An illustration (A.D. McCormick, 1898) based on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Poe
An illustration (A.D. McCormick, 1898) based on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Poe
Title page of Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance
Title page of Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance

Huysmans is only one of the myriad influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray that critics have identified. Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance was another prominent influence (Bristow, xxvii). Lord Henry Wotton in particular quotes, paraphrases, and even misquotes Pater (Monsman, 1). Scholarly reviews of studies on Wilde’s sources sound like a Huysmans-esque list of Western literary history, with other potential influences including Poe, Balzac, Bulwer-Lytton, Disraeli, Suetonius, Walpole, GibbonGoethe, Radcliffe, Maturin, Tennyson, Arnold, D.G. Rossetti, Symonds, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and journalist George Augustus Sala (McCormack, 110). In her essay “The Origins of the Aesthetic Novel: Ouida, Wilde, and the Popular Romance,” Talia Schaffer provides convincing evidence of the striking similarities between the popular romances written by Ouida (the pen name of Maria Louise Ramé) in the 1860s-1880s and Wilde’s novel, from thematic similarities (the cynical, apathetic, and tasteful dandy figure; homoeroticism) to stylistic ones (epigrammatic dialogue). An even more obscure source study suggests that The Picture of Dorian Gray belongs to a Gothic subgenre dubbed “‘magic portrait’ fiction” (Powell, 148).

I personally noted resonances with Faust, specifically Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (although critics generally seem to refer to Goethe’s Faust). In terms of general plot parallels, Dorian refers to his portrait as his “soul,” suggesting a kind of Faustian bargain in which he has exchanged his soul for eternal beauty (116). More specifically, Basil’s desperate attempt to get Dorian to repent for his sins is quite similar to the end of Dr. Faustus, when Faust’s fellow scholars exhort him to ask God for mercy, but Faustus insists that it is too late (just as Dorian says, “‘It is too late, Basil’” [116]).

Part II: Discussion Questions

1. In the Preface, Wilde writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” (17). Towards the end of the novel, when Dorian blames Lord Henry for having poisoned him with a book, Lord Henry echoes the principles of the Preface: “‘As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all’” (156). When Dorian fears that James Vane is haunting him for his connection with Sybil’s death, he reassures himself that the immoral are only punished in fiction, not in life:

Actual life was chaos, but there was something terribly logical in the imagination. It was the imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin. It was the imagination that made each crime bear its misshapen brood. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak. That was all. (144) (note the similar “That is/was all” ending to both Henry’s line and Dorian’s narrated thoughts)

Yet, Dorian is “punished,” in the sense that he dies at the end of the novel in an attempt to destroy what he believes to be the source of his guilt. Furthermore, the language of Dorian and the narrator becomes increasingly religious in the final chapter, as Dorian wavers back and forth between guilt and indifference. How do we reconcile the disjunction between morality and art proclaimed by the Preface, Lord Henry, and Dorian  himself with the ending of the novel? How does Wilde’s (a)morality compare to that of Huysmans or Rachilde?

2. Throughout the novel, Wilde uses free indirect discourse to narrate Dorian’s thoughts. Wilde frequently becomes so immersed in free indirect discourse that Dorian’s thoughts begin to sound like the narrator’s own proclamations. The most pronounced example of this stylistic device comes at the end of chapter 11, when Dorian muses on the importance of aesthetics:

For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that make such plays delightful to us. Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.

Such, at any rate, was Dorian Gray’s opinion. (107, emphasis mine)

The “I think not” is particularly jarring—who is the “I”? Although the following paragraph announces that the “I” is Dorian, the passage in which it occurs feels more like something the narrator might say (particularly in light of the statement that insincerity is a method to multiply one’s personality). Similar moments of free indirect discourse that turn into narratorial dictums occur on p. 137 (“One had to pay over and over again, indeed. In her dealings with man Destiny never closed her accounts”) and p. 157 (“Not ‘Forgive us our sins,’ but ‘Smite us for our iniquities,’ should be the prayer of a man to a most just God”).

What is going on in these moments? What do we make of the ambiguity generated by Wilde’s slides between free indirect discourse and overt narration?

3. Why does chapter 11 so closely mimic the style and content of Against Nature? Is it an homage, a parody, an appropriation, mere imitation, or something else? What purpose does it serve in the novel? And what of all the other allusions and potential sources that crop up throughout the novel (Faust, Poe, Pater, etc)? How does Wilde interact with his “ancestors in literature”? Considering the proliferation of allusions in Against Nature and even Monsieur Vénus, can we formulate a Decadent theory/approach to allusion?

4. Alan Campbell is quite a mysterious presence in The Picture of Dorian Gray. His name first appears more than halfway through the novel (at the end of chapter 13, p. 119), and he disappears almost without any notice (Lord Henry mentions “Alan Campbell’s suicide” as a kind of afterthought on p. 151). Furthermore, we never learn what exactly Dorian threatens him with in order to convince him to dispose of Basil’s body (125). Should we consider the secrecy surrounding Alan Campbell to be an example of Eve Sedgwick’s concept of preterition, of absence as an indicator of presence (i.e. the secret history of Gray and Campbell suggests that they were lovers)? Yet, the way the reader learns of Campbell’s suicide is so bizarre that it seems to require further explanation—why is it so buried within the text? On a related note, how does homoeroticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray compare/contrast with representations of sexuality in Monsieur Vénus?

5. “‘You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram,’” Dorian comments, in a particularly epigram-heavy chapter (147). Parts of The Picture of Dorian Gray read more like a play than a novel (particularly chapter 18, when Dorian makes this quip). The narrator, whether in moments of free indirect discourse or in overt narration, is also partial to epigrams. In his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joseph Bristow notes that Wilde recycled his favorite epigrams in several of his works, linking one of Lord Henry’s epigrams to a quote from Wilde’s play Vera; or, the Nihilists and Lady Windermere’s Fan: “It became Wilde’s habit to reuse his favourite epigrams, which he frequently compiled in notebooks, sometimes on more than one occasion” (xxix). What effect does Wilde’s epigrammatic style have? How does the proliferation of epigrammatic dialogue change the form of the novel? To connect back to question 3 (on the link with Huysmans), how does Wilde’s epigrammatic style differ from the style he adopts in chapter 11? Does the effect of an epigram differ when voiced by a given character (i.e. Lord Henry) vs. the narrator?

From Kate Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant"
From Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant”

Works Cited

Beckson, Karl. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1970. Print.

Bristow, Joseph. Introduction. The Picture of Dorian Gray. By Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Cook, H. L. “French Sources of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.” Romanic Review 19 (1928): 25. ProQuest. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Mccormack, Jerusha. “Wilde’s fiction(s)”, The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 96-117. Cambridge Companions Online. Web. 04 February 2014.

Monsman, Gerald. “Pater’s Portraits: The Aesthetic Hero in 1890 (Part II).” Expositions [Online], 3.1 (2009): 23-40. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Powell, Kerry. “Tom, Dick, and Dorian Gray: Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction.” Philological Quarterly 62.2 (1983): 147. ProQuest. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Schaffer, Talia. “The Origins of the Aesthetic Novel: Ouida, Wilde, and the Popular Romance.” Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 212-229. Print.


Against Nature cover:

Rembrandt’s Faust etching:,_Faust.jpg

Arthur Gordon Pym illustration:

Pater cover:

Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant:


Word Count: 2059

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