Seminar Paper, 2003
13 Pages, Grade: 2,3 (B)
II. Victorian values and literary standards
III. Reception of The Picture of Dorian Gray
IV. Critical analysis of different opinions and society in context to the story
This paper will be separated into three main parts. The first examines late-Victorian moral values, literary standards as well as Oscar Wilde´s view of art and its criticism.
The second part explores reactions of the audience, especially the press, to Wilde´s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray..
The third part then critically analyses these arguments and explains the role Victorian values and the resulting literary expectation played in the criticism.
This Chapter analyses both the era and the societal norms that influenced the creation of The Picture of Dorian Gray as well as the expectations Victorian readers had towards literature. It will also explore the principles of Aestheticism as a possible alternative to these standards, and explain how Wilde used them to defend his book .
Victorian society is “conventionally regarded as a time of prudery, Puritanism, sexual repression and moral strictness in nineteenth century England” (http://doriangray.cjb.net) This era is connected with the reign of Queen Victoria I, who led the British empire through a period of economic and technological growth as well as significant shifts in moral attitudes. The importance and influence of religion especially in the nascent middle class rose quickly in this period and soon “churches became the centre of Victorian culture” (Brooks, IX) and “religion occupied a place in the public consciousness, a centrality in the intellectual life of the age, which it had not had a century before”. (Altholz, 58). As the influence of religion rapidly grew the moral expectations of society changed as well. The Bible and the Prayer Book used by the British High Church suggested virtues which “ (Bolt) were not just for guidance, they were for obedience” and Victorian Society accepted and strictly followed them.
Cleanliness, health, sincerity, earnestness, morality and manliness were virtues, expected of good British citizens. Furthermore “family values” (Cambridge Companion, 18) were adopted. Cleanliness became a virtue, which could easily be practiced whereas health was hardly in their own hands.
Sincerity, as a synonym for truth can be regarded in two different ways as Prof. Altholz does on his internet article on The Warfare of Conscience with Theology:
One of the moral virtues most frequently inculcated (and regarded as distinctively English) was the virtue of truth. Now truth is a two-edged sword. For one thing, there was a fundamental confusion in the Victorian concept of "truth." In one sense the word refers to objective truth, the factual reality; in another sense it means truthfulness, that is, the honesty of a person. It is characteristic of the Victorians that they were more interested in truthfulness than in truth; they were more concerned with the moral character of the speaker than with the factual correctness of his statement.
Victorian earnestness was precisely the intellectual seriousness and sincerity that was expected by educated man. In their quest for earnestness, clergymen even avoided the theatre ( vgl. Altholz) in order to keep off pleasures, which might influence their thoughts.
The catchword of Victorian Society which was already mentioned in the introduction and which will become a reoccurring theme from now on is morality. One of the most significant topics in the discourse on morality was the relationship between men or as Foldy says “same sex passion” (68).
At the beginning of the Victorian Age not much interest was paid to the way men behaved towards each other, at least sexually. “Men could be much more affectionate and could be seen to be more affectionate, without causing suspicion or innuendo.” (Samuelson). As timed passed, however, these types of relationships gained attention. Foldy suggests the words “homophobic and heterosexist” as a description of the emerging “cultural climate” (67). This fear or panic of relationships between persons of the same sex spread quickly in Victorian Society and produced a “deeply ingrained prejudice” (Sinfield, 187).
This strongly developed bias was at first preceded “by a certain tolerance and even pity, which might be attributed to widespread public ignorance about both the act and the actors, as well as by a circumscribed Christian sympathy for the sinner” (Foldy, 68)
This attitude was reinforced by a fear of losing one´s moral identity. Victorian morality was also influenced by the humanitarian ideology of helping others. “They preached the duty of active benevolence; they freed the slaves and improved the conditions of factory labor” (Altholz, 65).
Victorian manliness required men to have a number of virtues, including being keen, brave, upright, energetic and sporty with a fighting spirit and practicing fair play. That was the identity a man had to fulfill.
Family values basically reflected the wish for a harmonious and peaceful family.
The expectation for literature during the Victorian Age was to be decent and to always have a moral. The “morality play” for example was a story where good fought against evil (or life against death). In the end good always triumphed. Not surprising, Shakespeare was considered morally indecent. Thomas Bowdler, reflecting tzhe morality of the period, wanted to get rid of every thing that could give offence to the religious and virtuous mind. "His name lives on in the term Bowdlerization (adjective Bowdlerized), to describe the process of censorship by arbitrary deletion of "objectionable" material from a work of literature to "purify" it, rather than banning the work outright.” (http://www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Bowdler).
Also it was expected that “the main characters undergo a process if initiation which leads them to greater self-awareness and helps them to establish a new personal and social identity” (Kohl, 161). This process is called “Bildungsroman”, in which “the hero’s personality develops from selfish egotism to compassionate maturity” (Kohl, 161)
In contrast to contemporary moral values and its resulting literary criticism, Oscar Wilde was an advocate of the “Aestheticism.” It was his belief that “the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist” (Mason, 17) and “was incapable of understanding how any work can be criticised from a moral standpoint” (Mason, 35). The aim of Aestheticism is to place aesthetic values over all others, “from moral to material ones” (Ojala, 13). Wilde therefore “demanded that literature should have ´distinction, charm, beauty and imaginative power´” (Kohl, 166). In the Preface to the book version of the Picture of Dorian Gray, which Wilde added in order to “take weapons out of the hands of the critics” (Lawler, 3), he explains his attitude towards art and “an epigrammatic formulation of his aesthetic ideas:
There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written . That is all. (Wilde)
This statement is very important for the following Chapters as it also states his opinion about criticism.
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