The Act of Reading "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

Research Paper (postgraduate), 1999
48 Pages




2. 1. Methodological Framework
2. 2. Analysis of The Picture of Dorian Gray


4. 1. Primary Sources
4. 2. Secondary Sources


The present study is a shortened version of a MAS thesis which addresses the study of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, from the perspective of Wolfgang Iser’s Reception Theory. The analysis of the act of reading Oscar Wilde’s novel renders itself very useful because of thre main reasons. First, it sheds some light on the nature of Wilde both as a public performer and as a writer, stressing the fact that theses two parts cannot be separated if we want to achieve a complete understanding of Wilde’s works. It offers some relevant insights into the way in which Wilde’s opinions about the receiver of a work of art and his attitude towards him are reflected on his writings. Second, it gives coherence to Wilde’s literary criticism because the novel works out and complements Wilde’s critical theories about the act of reading, and it contributes to interpret the rest of his narrative and dramatic works, in which Wilde maintained the same conception of the reader and the audience. Third, it is worthy of note that the analysis of Wilde’s concern with the role of the reader that is undertaken in the present study serves to show that there are remarkable similarities between Wilde and the contemporary literary critics who have emphasised the individuality of the reader in the interpretation of a work of art. To a certain extent, Wilde’s critical position on the reader can be associated with the main proposals of the major advocates of “Reception Theory” (Rezeptionsästhetik), particularly with Wolfgang Iser’s writings. Although Wilde’s approach to the role of the reader may differ significantly in its final form to Iser’s, both of them are interested in the reader as an individual and stress the reader’s active participation in producing the meaning of the literary work.

The Picture of Dorian Gray occupies a central position among Oscar Wilde’s writings. The novel was published on 20th June 1890, as pp. 3-100 of the July issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, and it appeared in book form with additional chapters and a preface in April 18911. Chronologically, The Picture of Dorian Gray stands approximately in the middle of Wilde’s literary career: Wilde’s first work had been his book Poems, published in June 1881, and the last one would be The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which was written and revised between July and October of 897. Nevertheless, Wilde’s novel is a central work for other – and, in my opinion – more significant reasons. The Picture of Dorian Gray is unique in Wilde’s production because it is his first and last novel; before it, Wilde had only written short fiction and after this novel he would turn to theatre2. Moreover, a greater part of the significance of The Picture of Dorian Gray lies in the fact that it is the apex of the themes and patterns of thought developed by Wilde in his short stories, fairy tales and poems in prose, and that it anticipates certain elements which would be characteristic of his plays.

The aim of the present study is twofold: on the one hand, it attempts to provide evidence that in The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde puts in practice the ideas he expounded in his critical writings about the interaction between the artist, the reader and the work of art; on the other hand, it tries to demonstrate that the role which Wilde assigns to the readers of his novel is intended to make them become aware of the problems underlying Victorian assumptions about society and art.

Regenia Gagnier (1987 and 1997) offers the most influential examination of how Wilde’s relation with the audience was influenced by the emergence of a consumerist economy and culture, and she focuses on the relationships between discourse, power and ideology. As regards The Picture of Dorian Gray, Gagnier (1987: 51ff) suggests that the strong attacks to the novel from the press have to be understood in the context of public images and self-advertisement. She introduces the idea that with their violent reactions the journalists were promoting their self-image of sincerity and particular kinds of morals and thus advertising themselves as the guardians of public morality. In her opinion, Wilde as well as the journalists were so caught up in their own images of advertising during the debate after the publication of the novel that they presented contradictions.

Gagnier (1987: 3ff, 1997: 18ff) asserts that the only way to understand the contradictory messages in Wilde’s works is by reference to his audience, and her insights into the interaction of Wilde with his audience are significant. Gagnier proposes to read each work “from the point of view of […] the different publics that, in different ways consumed it” (7). Read in this way, she interprets The Picture of Dorian Gray from the perspective of two distincts audiences: journalists who attacked it on moralistic grounds and members of the homosexual community who read it “sympathetically” because the characters of the novel “were a staple of their literature” (61). The inadequacy of Gagnier’s view lies on the fact that she ignores that the readings for separate publics that she advocates must be understood within the wider scope of a commodity market which was addressed to a multiplicity of audiences. Gagnier’s praise of Wilde’s “commercialized talent” (11) seems to be at odds with her claim that his work was limited to restricted special-interest groups, above all when Wilde’s position in his debate with the Press after the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray shows that this was not the case. However, I agree with Gagnier’s belief that:

He [Wilde] mercilessly exposed his audiences’ superficiality and lack of moral substance while he simultaneously presented to them images of themselves so glamorous and powerful that they could not help but forgive, even lionise, him. (1997: 27)

In my opinion, this is an important key to understand Wilde’s attitude towards the audience, and it constitutes a starting-point for the analysis of the act of reading The Picture of Dorian Gray which shall be carried out in the following chapter.

Rachel Bowlby (1987) discusses the relationships between Aestheticism and advertising in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Bowlby (1987: 147ff) suggests that Wilde’s novel reflects the influence of the marketplace changes, and she studies it as a product of commodity culture. She asserts that Dorian, who devotes himself to the production of the self as an aesthetic artefact, is a subject engendered by a mass-culture society of image consumption. His narcissistic fantasies about the portrait are seen by this author as inspired by the dream-world of contemporary advertising. Bowlby also studies the ways in which Wilde promoted The Picture of Dorian Gray in the market at fin-de-siècle, by selling the kind of sophisticated images which appealed to the public, and argues that Wilde’s novel echoes advertising language.

Jonathan Freedman (1990) describes the complex interaction between Aestheticism and commodity culture, and he analyses Wilde’s literary career to illustrate his views. Freedman (1990: 6ff) claims that Aestheticism is defined by its desire to embrace contradictions, and that this is the clue to understand its relation to commodity culture by denying the world of commodities themselves. He asserts that Wilde is the first literary figure who consciously publicised himself in the mass-circulation newspapers while at the same time he argued against the popularisation of high culture in them, and he sees Wilde as an outstanding example of an artist who appeals to both an elite and a mass audience successfully (170).

Freedman contends that in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde revises and rewrites the aestheticist tradition by proposing a dialectic between body (Dorian) and commodity (portrait) as “the ultimate ground of humand identity” (1990: 42). Freedman does not discuss Wilde’s attitude towards the readers of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I think that the following lines in which he refers to the position Wilde adopted in relation to his readers in “The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist” can also be applied to Wilde´s novel:

[…] By exploring the aesthetic and moral stances of the common Victorian reader and his aestete antagonist, Wilde is able to play the two off against each other, to weigh their relative merits, and to suggest their unexpected affinities and commonalities as well as to limn their divergences.” (73)

Freedman’s assertion casts light into Wilde’s attitude towards his readers and it constitutes one of the basic ideas which underlie the analysis of the role of the reader in our study in the following chapter.

Finally, Desmond Dewsnap (1997) discusses the position of Oscar Wilde and his literature in the fin-de-siècle market. He (1997: 195ff) examines the boundary between a “high culture” literary tradition and the modern marketplace, which played a decisive role in determining if and how artists made their living. Dewsnap asserts that Wilde used his status as a celebrity to secure his participation in the systems of production and publicity that created mass audiences. He depicts Wilde as a commercial artist who manipulated the marketplace and thus was able to maintain a position for his work in his time.

Dewsnap considers The Picture of Dorian Gray as the result of Wilde’s encounter with the commodity culture within which, he wrote and was read (224). He analyses the relationship between the novel and the commercial discourses which surrounded it, and suggests that Wilde’s novel invoked biography-oriented readings because at that time they were encouraged by commodity culture. In Dewsnap’s opinion, the characters and the world depicted in the novel were intended to engage the commercial press’s interest in wealth, aristocracy, in artists and above all in Wilde himself. He sees Dorian’s secrets as an evident proof that the novel was intended for a mass audience as they are never revealed, each audience added their own meaning and no audience was excluded. Dewsnap is the only critic who emphasises the significance that the novel was firstly written for an American audience, and he suggests that Wilde took into account the image Americans had of him in his composition of the novel.

This examination of the studies devoted to the interaction between Wilde and his audience has shown the tendencies within this field of research. Even though they do not concern themselves with the role of the reader specifically, they are very helpful insights which are at the basis of the present work and their findings will be complemented with the results of the analysis of the act of reading The Picture of Dorian Gray which will be carried out in the following chapter.

As far as the role of the reader in Oscar Wilde’s writings is concerned, it must be noted that this field has been barely studied. There are few critical studies which are wholly or partially devoted to Wilde’s critical position on this matter, because critics tend to analyse other elements of Wilde’s literary criticism3. Nevertheless, the brief accounts provided by Bashford (1977 and 1978) and Wilburn (1987)4 are illuminating, because they suggest that Wilde’s theory on the role of the reader can be related to the present concern in literary criticism with the reader as an individual. According to Bashford (1977: 16 and 1978: 218), the proposals of reader-centered criticism can be traced into Wilde’s literary theory:

We should examine Wilde in our time [...] Some of the most exciting work in contemporary criticism is now focusing on the reader's competence, response, and subjectivity. I know of no figure in the history of literary criticism in English more useful for assessing the significance and the promise of this shift in critical fashion than Wilde. (1977: 186)

In fact, the study of Wilde’s critical insights into the receiver of a work of art shows interesting parallels with Iser’s theory of reading: Like Iser, Wilde believes that the process of reading is an interaction between the literary writing and the reader, who participates actively in the production of meaning. In Wilde’s own words, "the meaning of any beautiful thing is, at least, as much in the soul of him who looks at it as it was in his soul who wrought it" ("The Critic as Artist", 1129). As Iser, Wilde thinks that the reader must act as a co-creator of the work in order to "fill with wonder a form which the artist may have left void" ("The Critic as Artist", 1127). Iser contends that good literature allows several meanings which remain unformulated in the text, which seems to echoe Wilde’s belief that a real work of art "make all interpretations true, and no interpretation final" ("The Critic as Artist", 1129).

Wilde applied his literary theories to his works, which led Roditi to claim – rightly, in my opinion – that “most of Wilde’s creative works can be analysed, to some extent, as critical works” (1947: 56).

There is ample proof of that in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Wilde put his literary theories into practice and even proclaimed openly his aesthetic principles in the Preface. Wilde’s conception of the role of the receiver of a work of art is clearly stated in it:

All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. (DG, 17)


1 For the first edition to include both the 1890 Lippincott ’s version and the 1891 book version, see Lawler (1988).

2 Wilde had previously written plays without much success. He had written and published Vera in 1880 and The Duchess of Padua 1883. Both were produced in New York. The former was withdrawn after a week’s run and the latter (under the title Guido Ferranti) was run for only three weeks.

3 Critics who explore Wilde’s critical writings generally focus on aspects such as the opposition of ethics and aesthetics (Edward Watson, 1984; William Buckler, 1989), or the autonomy of art (Hilda Schiff, 1965; Herbert Sussmann, 1973; Edward Said, 1983). For a detailed account of the trends in the study of Wilde’s literary criticism, see Small (1993: 182ff).

4 Wilburn’s article is not theoretical but practical. Wilburn undertakes the analysis of Wilde’s conception of the audience in “The Canterville Ghost”.

Excerpt out of 48 pages


The Act of Reading "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde
Third-Cycle Education / Tercer Ciclo
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
The present study is a shortened version of a MAS thesis which addresses the study of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, from the perspective of Wolfgang Iser’s Reception Theory.
English Literature - Literatura Inglesa
Quote paper
PhD Cristina Pascual Aransáez (Author), 1999, The Act of Reading "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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