Reading Questions

Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony

  1. Gustave Flaubert’s works (especially The Temptation of Saint Anthony and his historical novel Salammbô) demonstrated for Wilde the potency of vivid literary representations of eroticism couched in terms of metaphysical longings, fears, and fantasies, creating imagery that fused sensuality and even sexual lust with a desire of the divine, and vice versa.  Pay special attention to the ways in which erotic and religious imagery merge in this work.
  2. What connections can you find to Wilde’s and Huysmans’ aestheticism in this work?
  3. What do you think about the form of this text (often described as a prose poem or prose play, but really a mixture of play, novel, poetry)?  What are its various stylistic elements–including the many visual descriptions–and how are they mixed, combined, and paced here, and what is the overall effect of this mixture on you as a reader?
  4. Make sure you look up some information on Saint Anthony.  What (about Saint Anthony) seems to have captured Flaubert’s imagination here, and how does he present the saint (as well as his “temptation[s]”)?
  5. How can this hybrid text be seen as participating in the cultural and literary discourse of Decadence we’ve been considering throughout the course?
  6. How would you compare the representation of and play with a religious topic in this text, as compared to other texts we’ve read in the course, e.g in .Against NatureMonsieur Vénus, Baudelaire’s poetry, The Picture of Dorian Gray (and later on in the course, Wilde’s Salomé)?
  7. Find at least one specific passage that has impressed or interested you, and be prepared to talk about it in class this week.

Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (À rebours)

“Against Nature was not the starting point but the consecration of a new literature … the novel is free at last.” -Remy de Gourmont, in Le Livre des masques

  • How does the novel exemplify the style and main themes of literary Decadence?
  • What does the narrative and the plot seem to value, and what doesn’t it value (things, events, people)?  In other words, what’s “good” and what’s “bad” in Des Esseintes’ self-created universe?
  • What kind of a “hero” is Des Esseintes?  What’s your idea of a hero, and does he fit this or not, or does he fit it partly?  Why?
  • What role does sensuality play in Des Esseintes’ fantasy life and in his real life, and what forms does it take?  (Pick a few memorable examples.)
  • The tortoise has been interpreted as the perfect symbolic embodiment of the cult of artificiality and art that unites Symbolism, Aestheticism, and Decadence.  How or why so, do you think?
  • Why do you think this novel could have been both exciting and infuriating to readers when it first came out?
  • Pay special attention to Des Esseintes’ fantasies of Salome (in Moreau’s paintings, which hang in Des Esseintes’ study) in Chapter five.  How does the sublime get redefined in Decadent ways, in this example?  It may help to do a quick online image search for the Moreau paintings—they are called “L’Apparition” and “Salome Dansant”.  Also take a quick look at some Odilon Redon images online to get some idea what painting styles Huysmans is talking about in this chapter.
  • What role does conventional religion play in this novel? What do you make of the ending?
  • Take a look at chapter 11 in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  How does Wilde present Huysmans’s novel and its protagonist Des Esseintes here? What kinds of things get highlighted as impressive/important/noteworthy about À rebours? How does Wilde use readers’ likely knowledge of this novel (and its scandalous reputation) for his own devices in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

  • Preface:  As you already know at this point, Oscar Wilde was a proponent of Aestheticism, the 19th-century movement that promoted “art for art’s sake”—not art for conventional morality’s sake–and who took important clues about art’s and art criticism’s role from Walter Pater (see the Conclusion to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, which we read earlier in the course). The Preface of this novel is one of the most famous programmatic statements of the belief that art should not be measured by any other rod but by “beauty”—not necessity, morality, truth to life, politics, education, romantic metaphysics, etc.  (In some ways, it continues the belief in the artist—in Wilde’s case, also the critic—as a creative genius removed from modern life.)  And yet, the Preface is full of direct or indirect value statements about art.  Which can you detect?  What seems to be the Preface’s purpose, audience, characteristics, relation to life, etc.?   How does its epigrammatic, often paradoxical form contribute to its contents?
  • In many ways, one could characterize this novel as a novel of ideas, especially ideas about art, morality, and the nature of individuality. Pay special attention to, and mark, any statements about “beauty” and ideal art that you find in this novel, as well as remarks on the role of individualism (the stress on the individual, rather than society) or hedonism (especially highlighted in the second half of the novel).  They will give us important clues to Aestheticism’s philosophy of art, and connections to Decadence.
  • From reading the first few chapters of the novel, what impressions do you get of Wilde’s style and language?    How would you describe the novel’s style, the dialogue, the characters, the fictional “universe” that it depicts?
  • How does this novel compare to some of the other works by Wilde we’ve read already, such as “The Harlot’s House,” “The Canterville Ghost,” “The Remarkable Rocket,” and various other poems we discussed?
  • Pay special attention to Lord Henry Wotton—he is an example of the quintessential 19th-century dandy. What is he like, what are his values (or more precisely, what things or traits in people and especially in himself does he seem to value), what is his position in society, his morals, etc.?
  • What possible homoerotic elements do you detect in this novel?  What role do language and style play for such homoerotic elements or suggestions in the novel?
  • What are the relationships between the principal characters, especially Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, and Dorian Gray?  How can we think of theirs as a triangular relationship?What indirect or direct comparisons can you draw between this novel and Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus? (Similarities, differences, echoes of similar themes or other influences?)
  • What indirect or direct comparisons can you draw between this novel and Huysmans’ Against the Grain? (Similarities, differences, echoes of similar themes or other influences?)
  • What other “French influences” can you find in this novel (mentions or allusions to other French authors or their works [e.g. Baudelaire], French culture, etc.), and what seem to be their functions?
  • What about the question of class in this novel?  It plays an important role here.  How does class intermingle with the other major themes of the novel, such as art, as well as with sexuality?
  • What function does Sybil Vane have in this novel?  What kind of character is she?  How is her relationship with Dorian used as one of the ways in which Wilde depicts Dorian’s “development,” and his ideas?  Does it matter that Sybil is an actress, and as such, a representative of art as well?  How does Dorian’s idea of Sybil clash with reality?
  • This novel centrally features a portrait—itself a work of art.  Given Wilde’s philosophy of art, how does the portrait’s role within the narrative reflect back on art and art’s role in life?  How is Dorian himself ‘a work of art, and a decadent one at that?  An important question!
  • Paradoxically, this novel by the proponent of “art for art’s sake” (a phrase that goes back to one of Wilde’s teachers, the philosopher and art critic Walter Pater, the “founder” of English aestheticism) is very much a novel about good and evil.  Is there perhaps still a “moral” we can detect in this novel, and what could it be?  Who carries the main moral responsibility for Dorian’s development in the novel, and why?
  • This “novel” often seems like a mix of genres and styles.  What are some genres and styles whose influence you can detect here, for example, the gothic novel?
  • Early readers criticized the novel’s “decadence” and immorality.  What are some possible reasons and evidence for their views, as we find them in the novel?
  • You may be familiar with the tale of Dr. Faustus (Marlowe, Goethe).  How could or couldn’t one compare The Picture of Dorian Gray with the story of Faust?  Similarities?  Differences?
  • In many ways, Lord Henry has tried to make Dorian his “work of art.”  As the end of the novel shows, he has both tragically succeeded, and tragically failed.  How so?
  • Critics have said that the end of the novel—and especially the role of the portrait as a certain indicator of Dorian’s moral development—can be seen as eventually undermining Wilde’s own philosophy of aestheticism.  How so? Is there a moral at the ending, in your view?  And if so, what could that moral be?

And finally:

▪       How does the following quote (from the novel) help us think about, and also complicate, Dorian’s Gray character and the question of his “culpability” in the novel?  “[Dorian Gray] used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence.  To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.”

Rachilde, Monsieur Vénus

  1. How does the novel present gender and gender roles?
  2. How does the novel present sexuality?
  3. What is the role of cross-dressing, S/M role play, and violence (e.g. Raoule’s, Raittolbe’s towards Jacques and Marie–think also of verbal violence)?
  4. What role does homoeroticism play for the relationships, rivalries, and desires between the “queer love triangle” of Raoule, Jacques, and Raittolbe?
  5. What role does sado-masochistic imagery play throughout?  How does the relationship between dominant/submissive change at times, and to what effect?
  6. What other relationship triangles are there in the novel besides the central one mentioned above?
  7. What other “pairs” of protagonists function as foils here, and for whom?  As a reminder, the other important figures in this novel are Marie Silvert, Aunt Ermengarde, and Martin Durand.   What are their functions and purposes in the novel?
  8. Note that some typically Decadent themes appear prominently in this novel.  They include (and this is not an exhaustive list): death and sex, a love of art and collecting (pay attention to what kind of art and objects are featured repeatedly throughout the novel, and what their significance might be), unorthodox sexual practices and tastes, challenges to organized religion and morality, extreme individualism, pathological imagery, organicity versus artificiality, etc.
  9. What are some of the major allusions to mythology, history, and literature here, and what is their role and function, in each case?  Do some of these allusions work together to create and support certain themes?  Which ones?
  10. role of religious imagery in the novel (especially the ending)
  11. Look at the censored passages (passages the censors excised)–mainly the first few paragraphs of chapter 2, the whole of chapter 7, and parts of the penultimate sentence of the ending.  What could have made them so shocking, and why?
  12. Rachilde was actually a staunch antagonist of the women’s rights movement of her time (she disdained it).  How can this novel nevertheless be read as a quasi-feminist text?  And what arguments from within the text might possibly speak against such a feminist interpretation?  (pro/contra)
  13. Is the shocking ending ironic or not, in your view?  Why? (pro/contra)
  14. How does this 1884 novel compare to, speak to, or rub up against, contemporary theories and cultural views of gender and sexuality, in your view?

Oscar Wilde, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”

  1. Wilde is famous for his epigrammatic and paradoxical wit.  What are some good examples of such verbal wit in the story (even early on), and how does it extend into hilarious plot machinations? How does this wit temper and change the genre of the crime story?
  2. What do you make of the subtitle, “A Study in Duty”?
  3. Note the many wanderings of Lord Arthur through London, especially at night. He can be thought of as an instance of the flaneur (a concept we discussed as being “invented” by Baudelaire). Later in the course, we’ll make a connection to Dorian Gray’s wanderings, and contrast both of these figures’ wanderings with the Baudelairean flaneur. Just something to keep in mind.
  4. How does this story indirectly mock the foundations of Victorian society, such as marriage and family, and Victorian values such as practicality, sacrifice for others, “common sense”?
  5. It may surprise you to know that roughly around the time of writing the story, both Oscar Wilde and his wife Constance were personally in touch with, and using the services of, a noted chiromantist, Edward Heron-Allen.  Does that change your view of the story in any way, or about Wilde’s approach to the topic in a literary work?
  6. What are some of the most important points of comparison (similarity/dissimilarity, points of contact between concepts and ideas) that you would make between this story by Wilde and the two stories by Jean Lorrain we’re reading?

Wilde’s Poetry

Assigned poems by Oscar Wilde include “The Harlot’s House” (p. 867), “Phèdre: To Sarah Bernhardt” (835), “Impression du Matin” (862), “Hélas!” (864), “Symphony in Yellow” (872), “La Dame Jaune” (873), “Remorse” (873).

Please don’t forget to bring the Baudelaire to class again this Monday–we will finish up discussion of “Beauty,” “Hymn to Beauty,” and possibly others.

1. “Harlot’s House”: What is this poem about, and how does the form of the poem mirror and support the contents? (Read it aloud; listen to the rhythm.)  Look up “danse des morts”.

2. Look up who Sarah Bernhardt was and see if you can find something on Wilde’s special admiration of Bernhardt.

3. The color yellow was strongly identified with Decadence.  Why? See if you can find anything out online.

4. In all the poems, which imagery strikes you as especially decadent, in the sense we discussed Decadence in Baudelaire?

Baudelaire’s Poetry

Assigned poems from Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil):“’I love the thought …’” (pp. 18-21),  “The Sick Muse” (24 f.), “The Venal Muse” (26 f.), “The Enemy” (28 f.), “Ill Fortune” (28-31), “Beauty” (38 f.), “The Ideal” (38-41), “The Giantess” (40 f.), “Hymn to Beauty” (44 f.), “The Swan” (172-77), “The Metamorphoses of the Vampire” (252-55), “A Voyage to Cythera” (254-59), “The Death of Lovers” (276-77), “The Death of Artists” (278 f.)

  1.  What seem to be some common themes and topics across these poems?  Start and add to a list as you read.
  2. What is Baudelaire’s conception of Beauty, and how is it different from typical notions of beauty?  Similarly, how does he describe the artistic Muse, and what is noteworthy here?
  3. What are some notions of femininity that you notice in these poems?
  4. Make sure you look up the classical names/allusions in poems such as “The Voyage to Cythera” (there are also explanatory notes at the back of our edition).
  5. Are there any lines or themes in these poems that remind you of our discussion of Wilde’s “Helas” on Monday? How/why so?
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