The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde’s Form over Function

In architecture and design, there is a principle that compares the form and function of a structure or object. That is, the aesthetic nature and qualities of an object versus its utility. Given that the wondrous Oscar Wilde was one of the great writers of the Aestheticism movement, it is only natural that his sole novel focuses more heavily on his ideas, luxurious prose, and numerous allusions to great works of art and literature. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a unique book—-no other author could’ve written it. There is a sense of richness, opulence, beauty, and pleasure throughout the novel, but it is also tempered by a sense of the sinister. The central theme of the book is aesthetics, and how they relate to life and death: the contrast of Beauty and Death/Evil.

The hallmarks of Wilde are certainly present throughout the book. It is full of his famous witty dialogue and aphorisms: “A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her”, “… his work was that curious mixture of bad painting and good intentions that always entitles a man to be called a representative British artist”, and (my favorite) “Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.” There are long descriptive passages of sheer detail and beauty, right from the opening of the book and all throughout it: “Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow…” or “Delhi muslins, finely wrought with gold-thread palmates, and stitched over with iridescent beetles’ wings; the Dacca gauzes, but from their transparency are known in the East as ‘woven air,’ ” to quote but a few passages.

While on the surface everything seems beautiful, lurking underneath are dark forces that drive Dorian to murder and madness. Once we scratch the surface of stunning beauty, we find horror underneath. We first see this in the death of Sybil Vane. In short, the love struck actress’s artistry is no longer compelling enough for Dorian to love her. Spurned, she takes her life. Her love for him is not enough; he wants her dramatic power and creativity that seduced him. He murders the artist Basil Hallward, who immortalized Dorian in paint, for the portrait has caused him great anguish in his life. Dorian Gray himself dies an aesthetic death: despite his eternally youthful looks, his undiscovered sins, and his wealth, the portrait has caused him too much misery in his life, and so he must destroy a work of art in order to free his soul. Thus we see a trajectory of murders: first for the death of artistic love, next the death of the actual artist, and finally, the death of a work of art (which is really Dorian himself). Art is the driving impulse behind Dorian’s life; art is the motive behind all of his dark actions. This is so uniquely Wilde, an idea no other author could have ever expressed. Its very existence was novel and scandalous (as were the homoerotic dynamics between Dorian and other men).

Countless allusions pepper the book, from Shakespeare to French writers to Marco Polo to Catholicism to Chopin and beyond. It is perhaps a dazzling display of Wilde’s knowledge and love of high culture. Wilde is an aesthete’s aesthete: no stone is left unturned when it comes to great works of art. A sense of voluptuousness pervades The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is reflected by the rich language. Wilde was no mere emotional lover of the beautiful; he was incredibly well read and traveled.

But Wilde, by nature, is not a novelist. He is best known as a playwright, and perhaps the novel reflects why. The pacing is often irregular, and the way in which events unfold is not always entirely smooth. Long passages are devoted to describing things that do not necessarily move the story forward. Transitions are sometimes a bit awkward and clumsy. Naturally, the dialogue is strong, given Wilde’s strengths in writing for the theater. But sometimes the dialogue runs over into extended soliloquies that sound unnatural (even if we factor out our modern linguistic sensibilities). Yes, we understand that Basil and Lord Henry wish to sing the praises of the beautiful Dorian, but the author sometimes loses the reader in endless odes to the title character. Long passages often serve as moral essays on human nature and character, and these also can become tedious to the reader from time to time. The novel does not always stay true to its purpose and its form; rather, it lapses into essays and plays.

Wilde’s descriptions of *things* are very developed, but his descriptions of characters’ inner lives or their motives are sometimes lacking. As a result, the characters can sometimes seem a bit flat. Again, I suggest that this is due to Wilde’s strengths as a playwright, as a play relies on the actors to bring the story alive and to show the audience a more rounded portrayal of what is on the page. While to an extent the reader has to use his or her imagination to conjure up the characters, Wilde expects a bit too much from him or her. There is a flatness to the novel that is a little disappointing, given Wilde’s keen understanding of human dynamics. These, perhaps, come out best in his comic lines, but in a dark, even tragic novel such as this, the reader feels that there are more layers that the author needs to explore. One could argue that Wilde lets tragedy shine best through comedy, rather than through straight-on, pure tragedy itself. The novel is sufficiently, abundantly dark in its subject matter, in the manner of a gothic tale, and yet Wilde does not manage to go deeper than the divertissement of a parlor novel.

As I mentioned above at the beginning of this essay, Wilde stresses form over function. But would we have it any other way? Would we not forgive Wilde of his sins of slightly sloppy, erratic structuring, knowing that he has taken us on an artistic ride in a way that no one else could have done? Can we not forgive him his endless descriptions of furnishings, knowing that these are the things that he holds dear? The Picture of Dorian Gray is, say, that beautiful vase we have on our table that does not quite hold the flowers properly, and yet it is so visually and emotionally appealing that we can’t bear not to display it. That beautiful vase that is one-of-a-kind, made by a potter who normally makes bowls. And would we not forgive Oscar Wilde all of his literary sins throughout the book when he gives us that (pardon the pun) picture-perfect ending where Dorian stabs the painting, and thereby stabs himself? That metaphor alone is worth the whole book.

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Thank You, Wodehouse: The Comic Genius of Jeeves and Wooster

I just recently finished reading Thank You, Jeeves by the English writer P.G. Wodehouse, and I must confess, it was my first Wodehouse novel. For some reason, in my experience as an American, Wodehouse is not so widely read or popular or well known. Perhaps it is because he is not considered one of the heavyweights of English literature whom we read, such as Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, or even the modern master, Ian McEwan. However, I found it an extremely enjoyable experience, and would like to offer some praise for Wodehouse. Let me first add the disclaimer, though, that the whole blackface incident in the novel is by current American standards very backward, offensive, and racist. No modern American—-or even British—-writer would dare to do such a thing today. Let me also mention, to those highbrow literary types, that yes, I do find there is a certain flat, cartoony quality to the characters in the book. The characters are there to serve a purpose in Bertie’s story, and we do not know their inner workings or inner lives. We scarcely see anything of Jeeves, except that which is shown to us through dialogue.

But let us evaluate Thank You, Jeeves for qualities other than bad racial stereotypes and popularity, and we shall see that he is quite a brilliant writer; there is a reason his novels are still read today around the globe. First of all, the novel is funny. In a world where novels are often grim, dealing with terrorism, family dysfunction, mental illness, or trauma, here, there is a lighthearted sense of humor that pervades. Once the reader gets into the particular rhythm of Wodehouse’s language, s/he might find her/himself actually laughing out loud: when was the last time you actually laughed out loud when reading a novel? Writing comedy is not an easy task, as numerous comedians, script-, and screenwriters will tell you. Wodehouse’s output is extremely large, as he was a prolific writer up to the end of his life. He had even written screenplays, and so the structure of his book follows very traditional plot lines. Just when one episode or character arc seems to be resolved, some sort of crisis arises that creates more tension in the story. The fact that Thank You, Jeeves was serialized meant that it had to keep the readers entertained for each episode, and then leave them waiting for the next. This understanding of how to write structure is an extremely important skill for any fiction writer to have.

The prose is clear and it flows smoothly; I read the novel over 3 or 4 days. Wodehouse’s dialogue is also a marvel, seemingly representative of its era. Naturally, there is a rather mannered nature to his language that seems quaint or a bit stilted today, just as the language in films from the 1930s and 40s. But Wodehouse has mastery of language; he uses it with great skill to generate humor through convoluted descriptions of things or people. We know that Bertie finds Master Seabury (even this name is quite comic, given the character’s youth) to be a repulsive brat with ears that stick out through his verbose descriptions of the little boy: “He continued to regard me with that supercilious gaze which had got him so disliked among the right-minded. He was a smallish, freckled kid with aeroplane ears… In my Rogues’ Gallery of repulsive small boys I suppose he would come about third…” With a description like that, who can’t laugh?

But if we take it for what it is, and are aware of the time period in which it was written, we must admire its merit. It’s like watching a good old-fashioned 1930s or 40s screwball comedy (or perhaps an Ealing Comedy?) full of slapstick, errors, mixups that fortunately get resolved in the end. And therefore, we have to keep in mind the tradition of the English Comedy of Errors, from the time of Shakespeare through to modern era. I would even argue that Thank You, Jeeves also follows in the vein of earlier English novels such as Fielding’s Tom Jones or Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, with clever narrators and comic mishaps. Bertie Wooster also plays the role of the bumbling fool that we see featured in English popular culture with such personages as Mr. Bean, Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or even the awkward Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. And if we were to step outside of the English tradition, we might relate Bertie and Wooster to none other than Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they go through a series of scrapes together, the latter ever loyal to the former. Panza helps the Don through all of his mishaps, just as Jeeves always comes to the rescue with a better idea for Bertram Wooster.

Naturally, there is always the issue of class differences, which are so prevalent in British society. Though Jeeves is quite intelligent and appears well read, he is still in the subservient position of the butler. Wooster, in order to escape, has to pretend he is one of the black minstrels who are entertaining the aristocrats’ party. Master Seabury seems to be a sort of urchin that the Dowager Lady Chuffnell has picked up somewhere and is not therefore positioned to be the heir to a title or fortune. And certainly, the central financial problem of the book is Lord “Chuffy” Chuffnell’s inability to maintain his ancestral home, and the need for the American Stoker to purchase it and thereby relieve him of his monetary woes. Wodehouse had lived in America for much of his life, and so he was able to render the differences between the cultures to humorous effect.

True, Thank You, Jeeves is not a work of literature that will change one’s life or leave a profound impact upon the reader. But one must give due credit to the craft of writing in the book, and also admire Wodehouse’s great wit. It is not a serious work à la One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but sometimes a cheery tonic in the form of a comic novel is exactly what we need.

The Italian Sensibility

This post is a natural complement to a post I wrote several months ago on the French sensibility.

When one thinks of Italian, probably the first thing that comes to mind is sound and the aural. Italian culture is a very auditory culture: it thrives on sound. The Italian language is very mellifluous; its pure vowels make it a singer’s delight, and the intonations up and down indicate the rise and fall of a person’s emotions. This is not an easy task for those who learn Italian as a foreign language, especially those who come from languages that are not intonation-heavy. The doubled consonants add pauses, creating a wonderful rhythm to the language that makes for interesting emphasis. And of course, naturally, with the Italian language goes the use of the hands: Italians are born with eurhythmy in their blood. The hands themselves speak an entire language of their own, frankly, though they served to highlight or underscore what’s being said.

Along with the Italians’ love of language goes the love of music, which is another aspect of sound. The Italians are naturally musical people. Their love of music is not something only formally cultivated; no, the average Italian can burst into song, or hum a well known melody with natural spontaneity from the soul that no amount of musical training could produce. This is, after all, the country that created opera! Think of opera but also of popular Neapolitan songs that have endured over centuries and have traveled all around the world. Mozart himself was probably the greatest “Italian” composer: his musical sensibility maintains all of the joy and grace of Italian culture, and his text setting of Da Ponte’s spectacular texts reveal his unbelievably nuanced understanding of the language. Don Giovanni is the ultimate Italian masterpiece. And the violin culture of Cremona, home to Stradivari and co., is yet another example of the Italians’ love for and understanding of music, through the making of complex string instruments.

As above, the Italians’ use of the hands gesticulating wildly speak leads to another facet of the culture—-the love of the physical, the kinesthetic, the body. The body is immortalized in countless Italian statues and sculptures over the millennia, admired openly by men on the street, and celebrated in fashion. Perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the body is Michelangelo’s David, the colossal sculpture of the epitome of male beauty. The Catholic faith as we know it (also anchored in Italy) addresses both the sins of the flesh as well as the holiness of the body: think the Eucharist ritual enacted at every mass. Think, also, of the trope of the whore in Italian film or literature—-her significance is larger than the mere fulfillment of male pleasure. One need only cite the brilliant Camille Paglia here, for her extensive writings on images of women in Italian art, literature, and history.

Needless to say, drama is a key element of Italian culture, be it on a personal level or an artistic one. Witness a shouting match at a Milanese supermarket when the cashier decides to go on break just when it is a customer’s turn to pay. Imagine “Ridi, pagliaccio” being sung as a child throws himself on the floor after being refused a cookie by his mamma. Marvel in the art form of opera, which includes such elements as blood and guts, lust, murder, death, passion, forbidden love, scandal, seduction, and intrigue, to name a few. The southern Italians have a reputation for being more passionate and dramatic than the reserved Northerners, but still, the latter are still more expressive than the average American or Northern European.

This passion and love for language is also reflected in the Italians’ love of debate, philosophy, and intellectualism. Since the Roman times, there runs a critical, analytic, even cerebral streak in many Italians. This is evident in those who feel tired of the cultural and political shenanigans of their country, who have a lot of commentary. Think of all the great Italian writers and philosophers: Eco, Gramsci, Dante, Lampedusa, et cetera. Perhaps this concrete, practical side of Italians was the inheritance from the Romans, for it was they in their practicality who drained the swamps, built the infrastructure, and created an empire. Chances are, the Italian intellectual is not so much of an abstract, spiritual thinker, but one who relates to his or her society and social circles.

This relating to people is also at the root of Italian society, for familial and personal ties take precedence over all else. The Anglo-Saxon sense of individualism and the quality we find here in the US or Britain or other Anglophone countries is not held to the highest ideal. Rather, one’s priorities lie with those in one’s circles; this probably makes Italy one of the most psychologically healthy countries in the developed world. One’s personal life matters: it is at the core of one’s being, it is one’s sustenance in a country where the government is unreliable and the political situation eternally unstable. In America, the personal is political; in Italy, the personal trumps the political—-no self-respecting Italian would completely forgo his or her personal life for the sake of a successful career, as is all too common here. This is not to say that there are not successful Italians or that there is not a professional work ethic in Italy. Bear in mind Italy’s financial prowess and economy, which can only have resulted from hard work. But an abstract sense of what is “professional” is replaced by a sense of meaningful relationships with others. And if one dares to succumb to clichés, the love for the familial ties is ever-present in the Italian man’s love for his mother.

Finally, one cannot discuss Italy without discussing the love of beauty. Something unpleasant or disagreeable is described as “brutto” or ugly. The purpose of everything is to serve as a work of art, be it one’s wardrobe, appearance, or living space. “Fare la bella figure”—-to cut a fine figure—-is a worthy goal the high and low aspire to. Art is what redeems the challenges of living in Italy, with its crumbling buildings, corruption, unstable government, and dubious infrastructure. Rome itself is a living museum, full of beautiful things to see and explore. Art historians for centuries have spent time in Italy, and in the olden days of the Grand Tour, Italy was a must for the wealthy and art-loving people. Textiles, silks, painted pottery, blown glass, luthiers—-these are but a few examples of craftsmanship present in usable objects, where form takes precedence over function.

This essay could continue endlessly to extol the virtues of Italian culture (and, perhaps also criticize its faults). But as a final note, perhaps Italy’s best contribution to the world is its FOOD!