Is "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde a "negative Bildungsroman"? Differences and similarities in relation to the typical British Bildungsroman in the 19th century

Term Paper, 2014

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The <<negative Bildungsroman>>

3. Differences and similarities between The Picture of Dorian Gray and the typical British Bildungsroman in the 19th century
3.1. Narrative Perspective
3.2. Childhood
3.3. Passivity

4. Dorian’s deformation
4.1. The Beginning of the End
4.2. Dorian <<in Love>>
4.3. Further deformation
4.4. Basil’s murder
4.5. Dorian’s death
4.6. Evaluation of Dorian’s development

5. Conclusion

Works Cited
Primary Literature
Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

Bildungsroman : A term heard and used very frequently in circles of literature; a genre broad and continental; a multitude of different variants, produced during approximately two centuries of genre development.

The term Bildungsroman was coined in 1819 by Karl Morgenstern (Boes 233) and refers to a type of narrative that focuses on the development of its protagonist. This development usually concentrates on both the psychological and physical growth of the protagonist by depicting his maturation as well as his physical growth through the transition from childhood to adulthood. The character’s progress from immaturity to maturity is achieved due to encounters with difficult social or moral issues, changes in the environment of the protagonist, and, of course, education. The progress also involves one or several cross-road situations where the protagonist can move in one of two opposite directions. The decisions made at these possible turning points play an important part in the shaping of the character’s personality. At the end of the novel, the protagonist is usually at harmony with himself and well-integrated into the society that surrounds him (see Broich 199). The narrative perspective is typically either autodiegetic or homodiegetic; therefore, the narrative perspective coincides with the perspective of the protagonist so that the reader has knowledge of the feelings and thoughts of the protagonist but not of the other characters, which evokes a feeling of close proximity to the protagonist and the events happening.

Having its roots in Germany, the genre’s model is considered to be the novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre by Goethe and since its establishment as such, published novels everywhere have been compared with the traditional model of the Bildungsroman.

One of those novels is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which differs from the traditional model in two ways. As a British Bildungsroman written at the end of the 19th century, it is part of the British genre variant of the German Bildungsroman, but it also does not fit into the definition of the typical British Bildungsroman itself. It is, as Broich calls it, a “negative Bildungsroman” (Broich 197). Characteristics of the British Bildungsroman, as well as the negative Bildungsroman, and possible reasons for the use of this terminology will be discussed in the following pages with a distinct focus on Dorian Gray’s development.

2. The <<negative Bildungsroman>>

Soon after the genre of the Bildungsroman had found its model in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, English novels partly influenced by this model were created, which basically fit into the general definition given earlier. However, the genre evolved in England as well as in Germany and other European countries and due to the existing dissimilarities concerning the historical, social and political circumstances, the genre development also differed between countries (see Moretti 181). A general change of the British Bildungsroman took place during the Victorian era. The harmonistic tendency mentioned in the definition given above can be found “in frühviktorianischen Bildungsromanen wie Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849/50), William Thackerays Henry Esmond (1852) oder […] Thomas Hughes’ […] Tom Brown at Oxford (1861) […]” (Broich 200), because early-Victorian literature “hatte die religiösen, gesellschaftlichen und wirtschaftlichen Grundlagen ihrer Zeit akzeptiert” (Broich 198). The typical British Bildungsroman has the effect of enjoyment on the reader, with “plenty of certainties, but no way of addressing problems” (Moretti 213/214), and can in fact be described as fairytale-like (see Moretti 185). The nearer the 19th century came to its end, the more the literary tendencies changed. In the 1890s, “war [Literatur] durch eine sehr viel radikalere Fragestellung gekennzeichnet” (Broich 198). In the genre of the Bildungsroman, this transfers into a new lack of harmony in the ending due to the failure of the protagonist in the type of Bildungroman that was produced in the second half of the 19th century, starting with George Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859) and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) (see Broich 200). Referring to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Broich states that the lack of Victorian morality in the novel is typical for the time frame around the turn of the century (see Broich 211), which suggests that the decreasing interest in writing a traditional Bildungsroman also reflects the decreasing agreement of society with the Victorian virtues. The negative Bildungsroman is thus a variant of a variant of the traditional Bildungsroman – it is the late-Victorian version of the British Bildungsroman (see Broich 204).

The term negative Bildungsroman generally describes a novel like The Picture of Dorian Gray as “not Bildungsroman” (Moretti 15), which points out the existence of features that differ greatly from novels characterized as a classic British Bildungsroman. These can be oppositional and therefore a negation of the genre’s typical characteristics.

The term also hints at the negation of the Victorian morals; indirectly through deviation from the early-Victorian pattern of the Bildungsroman, but also directly through the content of the novel. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Victorian morals are mainly negated through the speech and actions of the three main characters Lord Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray, who are all aesthetes. Lord Henry and Basil, as well as a <<yellow book>> which is a manifest of embracing a life of pleasure and sin, are also the educational influences which decide Dorian Gray’s development (see Broich 213), which is negative, as he deteriorates and becomes a criminal during the plot.

Therefore, the attribute “negative” also refers specifically to the character development in the negative Bildungsroman. It is opposite of the development in a traditional British Bildungsroman and naturally falls into the general category of oppositional features, but the character development being oppositional also means that it is literally a negative one. The hero of the traditional Bildungsroman rises and then reaches a steady high; he learns from his mistakes, grows as an individual, and is usually rewarded by experiencing a happy ending. His development can therefore be described as positive. Contrary to this, the protagonist of the negative Bildungsroman may rise at first, but overall experiences a downward development, which cannot lead to a happy ending, but inevitably leads to an ending characterized by the protagonist’s loss of luck, identity and faith, as well as his death (see Broich 203/204).

3. Differences and similarities between The Picture of Dorian Gray and the typical British Bildungsroman in the 19th century

3.1. Narrative Perspective

The first difference between The Picture of Dorian Gray and other Bildungsroman novels one notices is the narrative perspective. Bildungsroman novels like David Copperfield and Jane Eyre fit into the traditional pattern, not only in their direction of character development, but also because the protagonist himself narrates his story. The story of Dorian Gray, however, is told by a heterodiegetic narrator. This has the effect that the intimacy and maybe even attachment that can be felt by the reader as a result of an autodiegetic perspective is replaced by the opposite: distance and detachment. The usual choice of narrative perspective is a direct result of the protagonist’s “most typical function[, which] lies […] in making [his] world recognizable for any and all readers” (Moretti 189). The choice of a heterodiegetic narrator suggests that this is not the intended function of Dorian Gray and is supported by the fact that Dorian with his extraordinary beauty and exceptional life is someone who is anything but ordinary, because usually “[t]he more the hero himself is ‘anybody’, […] the more easily will [the] process of identification take place” (Moretti 189). Therefore, the reader is not supposed to identify with Dorian and, as an outsider looking in, the reader can see and understand

Dorian’s life and deterioration more clearly than Dorian himself is able to, which may result in the reader learning more from this novel than Dorian could ever learn from his life. A narrative perspective coinciding with the protagonist’s perspective also has the capacity to show the reflection of the past and the self that is typical for a Bildungsroman hero and a necessity for his positive development. Dorian Gray rarely reflects upon his actions and when he does, it is not a deep but a very superficial, egotistical way of thinking in which he does not take responsibility for his deeds (see Wilde 253). For this reason, an autodiegetic or homodiegetic narrative perspective is not necessary and the heterodiegetic perspective is a formal aspect supporting the content.

3.2. Childhood

Usually in the British Bildungsroman “the heroes’ childhood, if not always their birth, is granted an emblematic and lasting prominence” (Moretti 182). Contrary to this, Dorian is not introduced during any point of his childhood. Instead, Dorian’s body is already the body of a young man and during the plot, his body constantly stays the same because Dorian’s enchanted portrait changes instead of him. But even though Dorian’s body may be mature his mind is not and, while he is “a young man of extraordinary personal beauty” (Wilde 7), he lacks personality; thus, Dorian can be described as showing signs of childhood due to the prematurity of his mind. This is shown in his resulting, child-like behavior (“Dorian […] made a little moue of discontent […]”, Wilde 24) and the way Dorian is introduced to the reader and Lord Henry. The full-length portrait of him, painted by Basil Hallward, is presented before the actual character Dorian Gray is introduced. The introduction of the portrait states that, at this stage, Dorian is more of a passive object, a patient, instead of an agent. To introduce the portrait before the actual character seems fitting, because he is a lot like the portrait, i.e. with a nice outward appearance, but with nothing more behind it. He has not yet formed ideas about the world and is naively unaware of his exceptional beauty and his effect on others, which makes him easily impressionable and manipulated. Dorian is therefore presented as a sort of innocent child in the first chapters, but his actual childhood and origin is only mentioned a couple of times. He has had a similar difficult childhood as the usual protagonist of the British Bildungsroman, who “[…] more often than not [grows up] orphaned or at least fatherless” (Buckley 19). Dorian is also an orphan and grew up living with his grandfather. He certainly has not forgotten about his childhood, for “[h]e [winces] at the mention of his grandfather. He [has] hateful memories of him” (Wilde 137), but his early experiences and acquaintances certainly do not have the same degree of importance concerning his development as the childhood experiences of a typical British Bildungsroman hero have. Also, the fact of the protagonist’s lack of roots is usually used in favor of his rise, but is used here as another accelerator for Dorian’s downfall, because without any other rolemodels, he accepts Lord Henry’s mentorship quickly and completely, without any reservations.

3.3. Passivity

Another characteristic of the typical Bildungsroman is the passivity of its protagonist. Moretti states that “[s]ince the prescriptive vocation of the fairy-tale novel is already totally entrusted to its structure […] there is really not much left for the protagonist of the English Bildungsroman to do” (Moretti 189). As already established, The Picture of Dorian Gray certainly does not follow the mentioned fairytale-pattern, but it coincides with the typical Bildungsroman in making the protagonist more of a patient than an agent for a large part of the plot, especially due to the dominance Lord Henry has over Dorian, as will be shown later on.

The presented differences between The Picture of Dorian Gray and the typical British Bildungsroman all show that it is most certainly a very different Bildungsroman. The mentioned similarities to the British Bildungsroman are used in a non-traditional way that only fuels the negativity of the novel, i.e. Dorian’s negative development.

4. Dorian’s deformation

4.1. The Beginning of the End

Dorian Gray’s negative development is the most important reason why it is adequate to call The Picture of Dorian Gray a negative Bildungsroman. His development is characterized by moral decay instead of moral growth, it is a character deformation instead of a formation. During the plot, there are many times during which Dorian could have prevented his further deformation by making a different choice. These incidents will be discussed in the following.

Dorian Gray can be called a “sleeping beauty” that awakes in the second chapter due to Lord Henry’s speeches about the importance and the inevitable fading of beauty and youth. Lord Henry’s words bewilder ("you bewilder me", Wilde 26) and fascinate Dorian in a way that leads him to wishing the picture painted by Basil would grow old and ugly in his place. This wish which becomes reality is the first in a line of many actions which gradually lead to Dorian’s downfall.

Another choice that Dorian makes in the second chapter is the choice between the company of Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton, which is essentially the choice between a life of virtue and a life of pleasure. Both Basil and Henry are aesthetes, but differ in their way of living this aestheticism. Basil is an artist; he sees life through art and when he describes his friendship to Dorian, he repeatedly describes the effect Dorian has had on his art and his admiration for Dorian as a beauty ideal (see Wilde 17). Art is the most important aspect of Basil’s life, but in his quest for beauty the good-hearted Basil would not cross moral boundaries and has no intention of influencing Dorian in any way (see Wilde 21). He consequently would have had a positive impact on Dorian. Lord Henry, on the other hand, formulates his philosophies and preaches them to Dorian with the intention of forming his character. He also has no concern for morals and lacks understanding as well as appreciation for human relationships (see Wilde 15), which makes him a negative force. When Dorian decides to go to the theatre with Lord Henry (see Wilde 38), he chooses Lord Henry instead of Basil as his future mentor. Throughout the story, Dorian makes this choice several times and neglects his friend Basil in the process (see Wilde 54, for example). The meeting and the influence of Lord Henry are important factors for Dorian’s negative development, because Dorian shapes his way of living after Lord Henry’s aesthetic views of life. As the story progresses, Dorian lives these views more and more consequently and extremely.


Excerpt out of 13 pages


Is "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde a "negative Bildungsroman"? Differences and similarities in relation to the typical British Bildungsroman in the 19th century
University of Constance
Proseminar: The British Bildungsroman
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ISBN (Book)
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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian Gray, Bildungsroman, Development, Negative Bildungsroman
Quote paper
Silvia Schilling (Author), 2014, Is "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde a "negative Bildungsroman"? Differences and similarities in relation to the typical British Bildungsroman in the 19th century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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