Oscar Wilde: “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

1890/1891

Oscar Wilde’s only novel tells the story of the beautiful Dorian Gray, muse to painter Basil Hallward. After Dorian meets Basil’s friend Lord Henry, he becomes fearful of losing his beauty. Dorian wishes for Basil’s painting to absorb his years, leaving his body forever young, and as time passes and his sins accumulate, he conceals the increasingly hideous, bloodstained, and sneering portrait in the attic to hide its changes from the world. Among Dorian’s offenses are the seduction of a young actress, Sybil Vane, whom he rejects when her love ruins her art. Later, he kills Basil as his old friend begs him to change his ways, and Dorian must call in a favor from his estranged lover Alan Campbell (under threat of exposure, it seems) to ‘scientifically’ destroy all evidence of the body. The novel ends when Dorian attempts to escape his misery by stabbing the painting with the same knife he used to kill Basil. His servants hear an agonized cry and burst in upon an old man with a knife in his heart, dead before a portrait of exquisite beauty.

The original, “uncensored” version of the novel was published serially in 1890 and includes the few highly homoerotic passages excised in the 1891 “censored” version. The later, “censored” text is actually much longer, since it adds Chapters 3, 16, 17, and 18, filling in the family history of Sybil Vane and adding the part of the narrative where her brother, James Vane, tracks down Dorian in an opium den 18 years later and nearly kills him (his youthful looks save him). The ‘censorship’ is therefore largely by way of dilution and detraction.

There is less a mode of detection/genre fictionality or a sense of fear that Dorian will be caught in the original (it also eliminates the ‘novelistic’ lapse of time provided by James’ reappearance. Sybil’s suicide and Basil’s murder are given equal weight and treatment among Dorian’s sins, and Hetty and Alan are both innocents whom Dorian corrupts. It is almost as if for every minor female character, there is a corresponding male, and the fleshed-out characters are all men. Furthermore, without James, none of the men read as straight. 

In the less diluted text, the intense, homoerotic relationships of the central triad of characters are much more vibrant. Wilde said in a letter,

Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.

Certainly, this opens itself for psychological interpretation, but perhaps more interestingly, the (incestuous) intensity of the triadic relationship between Lord Harry, Basil, and Dorian might be read as that between writer, reader, and text. Hands-off Lord Harry, with his Kantian disinterestedness and almost literally Flaubertian ‘paring of the fingernails’ in the background of the text, acts as the figure of the writer, an agent who places Dorian in queer, experimental situations and cruelly pushes his narrative development along. Though Basil is a painter, he acts not as a figure for authorship in the novel, but in fact for the reader. His solipsistic projections of himself onto and into the surface of the painting he creates, as well as his adoring sensation of being led by Dorian’s will, make him both as powerful and as powerless as the consumer of the text itself. Finally, Dorian, as the text, fascinatingly divides himself between form and content when he divests himself of his ‘soul’ in the portrait and makes the art of his life ‘pure form,’ pure beauty – albeit one that fails.

As he ceases to discern between sensory experiences, Dorian devolves into indiscriminate hedonism, and he begins to lose the ability to discern between the pleasing presentation of beauty to the senses (aesthetic consciousness) and the mere sensations themselves This represents a loss of conscious experience (German aesthetics via Arnold and Pater). Without this discernment, Dorian can no longer aestheticize nonmaterial things, as his many lists of things  and acquisitions in Chapter 11 suggests. He must constantly use these objects like drugs to retain their pleasure, also linked to a proliferation of capitalist language as the novel progresses.

In contrast to the visual and plastic arts, Wilde insists on music as the least “imitative” art and the language of literature as freer from the tired constraints of mimesis (depict vs describe) – there could be no “song” or “novel” of Dorian Gray, as it were, but there could be a sculpture or a theatre performance. (The novels’ preface suggests that the 19th century detests realism as Caliban does his own reflection in the glass.)

Like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Dorian’s zealous, self-cancelling commitment to his ‘philosophical’ ideals has an ‘ominous’ twinge from the start, and does eventually lead to his ruin (where Marlow would function as the passive ‘writer’ figure, and the simple, adoring Russian is more like Basil, a ‘reader’ of ‘greatness’).

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Theodore Dreiser: “Sister Carrie”

1900

Dreiser’s bulky naturalist novel follows Caroline Meeber, or “Sister Carrie,” from her smalltown home in Wisconsin to the metropolis of Chicago, and eventually to New York City as well. Dissatisfied with her life at home, Carrie travels to live with her sister and her brother-in-law, Sven Hansen, a working-class couple who are satisfied to labor incessantly to preserve their small way of life and to save for a meager house in the future. Though Carrie is originally employed at a shoe factory, she quits and runs away to live with Charles Drouet, a flashy traveling salesman she meets on the train from rural Wisconsin. Eventually Charles introduces her to George Hurstwood, manager of Fitzgerald and Roy resort, with whom Carrie takes up while Charles is out of town. George arranges for Carrie’s somewhat impressive debut as an actress, and soon after his wife Julia discovers his affair, as does Charles (who tells Carrie George is married). George takes her first to Montreal (by trickery), then to New York, where she becomes dissatisfied and is introduced to art over materialism by Robert Ames. As Hurstwood declines and falls, Carrie leaves him (with a note and twenty dollars) to ride the wave of her acting and chorus girl work. Hurstwood kills himself in a flophouse; Carrie meets with great material success but realizes she will always be unhappy, dreaming “of such happiness as [she] may never feel,” for “Not evil, but longing for that which is better, more often directs the steps of the erring.”

Originally titled The Flesh and the Spirit, Sister Carrie is a move away from the purely moralist Victorian novel towards a more realistic or ‘naturalistic’ depiction of human tendencies and desires. Carrie, who in a traditional moralist novel would likely receive punishment for her sinful lifestyle (as in Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets) is instead here rewarded, and it is her lover who meets a tragic end.

Carrie is not a particularly fascinating or developed character at the outset, though the novel turns her status as cipher into her art when she becomes an actress. In making Carrie, an “average middle-class American girl,” a constantly changing reflection of different narrative possibilities, Dreiser enables any reader to project him- or herself into Carrie’s position.

The text is notable for its attention to surfaces and its exploration of female power through consumerism, though the narrator’s comical implications of female susceptibility to materialism are often jarring. Its contrasts between real poverty and wealth do not infantilize the poor by suggesting that their condition is acceptable; rather, the novel implies that there are very real benefits to the spirit of having access to more than rudimentary resources.

In 1930 Nobel Prize Lecture, Sinclair Lewis said, “Dreiser’s great first novel, Sister Carrie, which he dared to publish thirty long years ago and which I read twenty-five years ago, came to housebound and airless America like a great free Western wind, and to our stuffy domesticity gave us the first fresh air since Mark Twain and Whitman.”

Henry James: “The Turn of the Screw”

1898/1901

In The Turn of the Screw, an unnamed young governess attempts to defend her young wards, Miles and Flora, from the eerie apparitions of two dead staff members at the family’s lonely estate: first the former employee Mr. Quint, and later the previous governess, Miss Jessel.

The governess feels that the children are aware of Jessel and Quint and desire to commune with them, but that they are conniving about it, and wish to conceal their desires from her. Jessel and Quint had an affair, and may also have abused or corrupted the children. The children often contrive ways to be left alone or apart from the governess together – in her mind, so that they can be drawn in to the ghosts. In one scene, the governess wakes to Flora staring out at Miles on the lawn, whom the governess is convinced must be staring at Quint. In the final scene, the governess finally confronts Miles about his expulsion and all of the other ‘secrets,’ when suddenly Quint appears to her in the window behind the boy. As she embraces him and tells him he is free of Quint (the name alarms Miles), the boy dies in her arms.

The frame is that of an unnamed narrator reporting the tale told to him one evening by Douglas, himself reading the manuscript version of a story told him by the governess, which he claims she committed to print before she died.

It seems vital that Douglas have the manuscript mailed to the party so that he can read it from the governess’ written account – also that we are reading the version the narrator claims to have his own manuscript copy of. One might consider the governess herself not just as the writer of her tale, but as a reader, and our interpretation of her as vacillating between surface and paranoid readings of the text’s possible implications.

• the narrator says that Douglas “read with a fine clearness that was like a rendering to the ear of the beauty of the author’s hand” (6).

• The uncle actively halts the governess from writing, leaving her to interpret the events where she is largely in solitude – or at least without an ‘equal’ around. When Miles is expelled, the uncle writes the governess, “Read him but don’t report” (10).

• Miles reads the letter illicitly and uses the excuse of finishing his book to derail the governess. Also, his seeming awareness of his fictional position: “the true knights we love to read about never push an advantage too far” (66).

• Flora, too, “appeared to read and accuse and judge me” (71).

• the governess reads books, sometimes to trick other characters (17, 40, 46, 47, 28) and reads letters (78, 85). She calls reading “an unavowed curiosity of my youth,” particularly “last century fiction… of a distinctly deprecated renown” (40).

• the governess wonders about Jane Eyre and The Mysteries of Udolpho (17), as well as Fielding’s Amelia (40). She is in the position of only knowing what Mrs. Grose tells her about Jessel and Quint, and her analeptic/proleptic pasting-together of clues, her proof, “so I saw him as I see the letters on this page” (17) is double-edged: both totally clear (legible) and wholly imagined (since language is not visual and offers no proof).

• Mrs. Grose, unlike the governess, cannot read, which is “dreadful” (11)

• Much of her reading also involves, of course, her interpretive work, which might verge on a paranoid, exploitative interpretation of her surroundings (worth thinking about how that reflects upon us as readers, too). She even admits her own paranoid reading of the situation at times: “I had restlessly read into the facts before us” (27), “I only sat there on my tomb and read into what our young friend had said to me in the fulness of its meaning.” (57), and “I suppose I now read into our situation a clearness it couldn’t have had” (84).

• the word read appears by itself or within in other words 97 times in the text: in readily, ready, already, thread, bread, etc. Read is used in the past tense each time, making it shine through and rhyme with the other words in which it is embedded. Particularly notable is the repetition of dread and dreadful (26 times), which includes both the words dead and read within it.

Especially interesting is the substance the governess tries to give to the purely visual ghosts, especially by explaining her depth perception of these surface apparitions.

Critical interpretations long focused on the mutually exclusive implications of the story (some even suspecting that the governess remains unnamed because she might be based on Henry’s ‘hysterical’ sister Alice). Edmund Wilson was among the first to suggest that the governess was insane and had imagined the ghosts altogether.

Eric Solomon claims in “The Return of the Screw” that Mrs. Grose is the villain or killer based on the line “Someone had taken a liberty rather gross.”

Mark Spilka, in “Turning the Freudian Screw,” addresses the erotic ambiguities of the tower and the lake, embedded in a tale about the Victorian obsession with asexual, childish innocence (and the implication that one or both of the now-ghosts molested the children, ‘infecting’ them, as critic Craig Raine insists).

John J. Enck (“The Turn of the Century”) praises the craft of James’ prose and places the story’s irony and uncertainty in “the reader’s intelligence” and compares his writing to Nabokov.

Shoshanna Felman