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Additional Notes on Wilde and the Woman’s World


Dressing for the Occasion: Wilde’s Journalism, Decadence and Ethical Aestheticism

Introduction to Wilde’s Journalism

  • 1885-7 – Wilde writes more than 70 anonymous reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette
  • 1887 – Wilde becomes editor of The Lady’s World: A Magazine of Fashion and Society
    • Changes the name to The Woman’s World
    • Aimed to differentiate it from other women’s magazines
      • Moved fashion articles to the back
        • Often discussed dress reform
    • Removed the “gossipy section which had originally opened The Lady’s World” (Clayworth, 93)
  • Intermittently writes pieces for the magazine titled “Literary and Other Notes”
  • 1888-9 – Wilde’s commitment to The Woman’s World declines
  • 1889 – Wilde quits writing the magazine
  • 1890 – The Picture of Dorian Gray is published in serialized form

Ambivalence in The Woman’s World: Decadence versus Proto-Feminism?

“Under Wilde’s editorship, The Woman’s World embodies the tensions between Ruskinian ethical aesthetics and Paterian decadence – those postures of escapism espoused by Wilde’s Lord Henry Wotton and occasionally by Wilde himself” (Maltz, 193)

Decadence (Walter Pater) Ethical Aestheticism (John Ruskin)
Aestheticism Philanthropy
Articles about art Articles about poverty
Articles about art on its own rightArt for art’s sake Articles about how art reflects external conditions
(ex: anthologies of female poets)Responsibility of Art
(ex: dresses should not “injure” women)

Art for the sake of others

While many of the contributors manage to be both aesthetes and social reformers, Wilde appears to be more ambivalent about the role of social reform. Of Wilde’s editorship of The Woman’s World, Diana Maltz writes, “Most interesting, it seems, is Wilde’s ambivalent accommodation of such missionary-aesthetic feelings and pursuits in his magazine. On the one hand, he had brought communities of reformers and artists together in print, intent on transforming The Woman’s World into an inclusive journal of social and artistic issues. On the other hand, Wilde remained deeply suspicious of the climate of conscience of the 1880s, its potential for hypocrisy and its trivializing art” (Maltz, 206). Does the notion of ethical aestheticism appear in his later works? Or in any other decadent author’s works?


How and why does Wilde’s proto-feminism affect his aesthetics in the selected pieces from The Woman’s World, “The House Beautiful” and “Woman’s Dress”? Does proto-feminism or aestheticism seem to take precedence? What does this mean for his views on art? For his relation to decadence?

In “The House Beautiful,” Wilde argues against the corset by claiming that, when women do not wear corsets, “there is more health, and consequently more beauty” (Wilde, 945). Is this reconcilable with the decadent interest in sickness (for instance, Huysman’s syphilitic flowers)? Or does this concern for women’s health prevent him from sharing this decadent interest?

What is the “beauty of effect” Wilde refers to in “Woman’s Dress” (Wilde, 946)? Is this effect the same thing as Wilde’s claim in his discussion of Constance Naden’s poems that art is “a matter of result?” (Woman’s World, 81). How does this inform our understanding of Wilde’s ideas about art?

How do these discussions about objects inform Wilde’s definition of art? Is art here reconcilable with art as he presents it elsewhere, like in “The Decay of Lying?” And why?

Why don’t the progressive discussions of dress reform and other progressive ideas appear in Wilde’s other works?

Works Cited

Clayworth, Anya. “‘The Woman’s World’: Oscar Wilde as Editor: 1996 Vanarsdel Prize.” Victorian Periodicals Review. 30.2 (1997): 84-101. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

Stokes, John. “Wilde the Journalist.” The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Ed. Peter Raby. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 14 November 2012.

Maltz, Diana. “Wilde’s The Woman’s World and Aesthetic Philanthropy.” Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Toronto: Published by the University of Toronto Press in Association with the UCLA Center for Seventeenth-and-Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 2003.

Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. Glasgow: Harper Collins, 2003.

Wilde, Oscar. The Woman’s World. [New York]: Source Book Press, 1970.

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Oscar Wilde, the Critic’s Double Vision, and Ours


The first link leads you to a PDF of my handout with bibliographical references, the quote from De Profundis I used as a “way into” the reading for that day, Wilde’s “Pen, Pencil, and Poison,” a list of antinomies to be found, however implicitly, over the course of reading the essay, and some questions to stimulate further discussion.

Any of you who are curious about the text I wrote to use as a crutch for my presentation can ask me for it.


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Picture of Dorian Gray Part Two Presentation

The Picture of Dorian Gray Discussion:Presentation

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Huysmans and the Decadent Aesthetic of Madness: Boredom, Loneliness, and Psychoneurosis (Presentation handout)


Since 1884, the readers of À Rebours have been challenged not only because of its extremely long and quite painful catalogues and descriptions, but also and above all, the mysterious literary topoi and the symbolism of À Rebours call into question the decadent aesthetic of the end of the century. À Rebours is considered the bible of French Decadence. But more importantly, des Esseintes’ anxieties and deliria are, to some extent, fascinating and denote a sort of alienation and disenchantment vis-à-vis a world in mutation. Des Esseintes’s behaviours underline the psycho-pathological symptoms of an important historical moment in the unfolding of history itself, namely la Fin de Siècle (the end of the nineteenth century). This period is also characterized by what has been called in French le Mal du siècle, which could be roughly translated as “the malady of the century.” This term is used to refer to the ennui (boredom), disenchantment, and melancholy experienced by young adults of Europe’s early 19th century. It is also associated with the rising of the Romantic Movement in French poetry. Approximately at the same time, Sigmund Freud deals with various cases of hysterical women that are increasing in modern and industrializing Europe. It is actually in an attempt to find a palliative to some barbaric practices used at that time to treat psychoneuroses and hysteria that Freud made his ground-breaking discoveries regarding the structure of the unconscious. One could say that des Esseintes embodies quite well the masculine flip side of the coin, namely madness and neurosis (névrose) associated with delusions and hallucinations, as it is very clear in the second part of the book. In this short presentation —followed up by an open discussion— we’ll try to tackle the problematic of an isolated life cut off from the world (in Fontenay) as opposed to a materialistic and hedonistic way of life (in Paris), and the existential crisis these two antithetic inclinations yield in des Esseintes’s mind.


À Rebours is actually the second part of a trilogy whose first work is À vau-l’eau (1882) and the third is En Rade (1887). On February 1884, Robert Caze announced the upcoming publication of “a detailed study on pessimism” (une étude appronfondie sur le pessimisme) in a French literary publication entitled “Opinion.” The first title Huysmans wanted to use for his novel was indeed: “Seul” (Alone), but apparently he changed his mind for some reason. Before the publication of À Rebours, one could say that Huysmans belongs to the Naturalist Movement in literature. Zola himself, the head of the Naturalist school of French fiction, soon became a friend and mentor to the young Huysmans after the publication of his first novel in 1876 (Marthe, histoire d’une fille. English: Marthe, the Story of a Girl). However, Huysmans’ association with the Naturalist group lasted until the publication of À Rebours, which constitutes genuinely a statement of a rupture vis-à-vis a certain type of literature, and, on the other hand, this novel is a critique of the over-idealised conception of Bohemian life in Paris (decadence and debauchery). In À Rebours, des Esseintes seems to have decided to leave such a way of life and consequently he decided to exile in a quiet and austere retreat in the countryside, and that is probably what appealed the modern reader in the first place (Ch. I: des Esseintes quotes Baudelaire: Any where out of the world). Now, let’s take a look at some comments about that piece of decadent literature by contemporary literary critiques:

  1. Guy de Maupassant (popular 19th-century French writer): “Le romancier J.K. Huysmans, dans son livre stupéfiant, qui a pour titre À Rebours, vient d’analyser et de raconter, de la façon la plus ingénieuse et la plus imprévue, la maladie d’un de ces dégoûtés […] Je ne pourrais tenter l’analyse complète du livre de Huysmans, de ce livre extravagant et désopilant, plein d’art, de fantaisie bizarre, de style pénétrant et subtil, de ce livre qu’on pourrait appeler ‘l’histoire d’une névrose.’” (Guy de Maupassant in “Par delà,” Gil Blas, 10-VI-1884).
  1. Jules Destrée (Walloon lawyer, cultural critic, and socialist politician): “Tout ce qui avait été pensé, écrit, peint dans ce genre, il l’a résumé, condensé, fondu, discuté, dans une œuvre hantante, puissamment suggestive et profondément orginale. Elle correspond presque, en prose, aux Fleurs du mal de Baudelaire.” (Jules Destrée, Le Journal de Charleroi, 4-VI-1884).


  • X : L’Orgue à parfums (the perfume organ)

“[L]e doute ne pouvait exister ; la névrose revenait, une fois de plus, sous l’apparence d’une nouvelle illusion des sens.” (197) / “[T]here could no longer be any doubt, his neurosis had returned once again, under the guise of this new delusion of the senses.” (135)

Des Esseintes étudiait, analysait l’âme de ces fluids, faisait l’exégèse de ces textes ; il se complaisait à jouer pour sa satisfaction personnelle, le rôle d’un psychologue, à démonter et à remonter les rouages d’une œuvre, à dévisser les pieces formant la structure d’une exhalaison composée […].” (201) / Des Esseintes studied an analysed the essence of these fluids, carried out an exegesis, so to speak, of their texts; he delighted in playing, for his own personal satisfaction, the role of a psychologist, taking apart and re-assembling the mechanism of a work, unscrewing the pieces that formed the structure of a compound flagrance […].” (138).

Comment: L’Orgue à parfums (the perfume organ): the composition of perfumes construed as an Art (comparison between the composition of perfumes and poetry, as if the words themselves and their composition could yield some sort of flavour). The smell/odour of the perfumes allows des Esseintes to travel, as it is the case in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu through the theme of involuntary explicit memory (somehow related to the Platonic anamnesis), the flagrances des Esseintes create allows him to travel and escape out of the trivial and mundane existence he very much despises (see any where out of the world in chapter I). He also sees himself alternatively as a poet, a psychologist, or even as an architect (trying to order the chaos of his mind). External stimuli (coming from his sensations, in particular olfactory perceptions) trigger hallucinations and waking dreams. Ultimately, too overwhelmed by those ‘transports,’ Des Esseintes collapses and passes out, as if dying, on the window sill (end of the chapter X). On a more general level, it seems to me that des Esseintes wants to turn his back on the material and tangible world (Nature), and sort of dedicate all his time to spiritual contemplation, stimulating his senses by various means.

  • XI : First visit of the Doctor of Fontenay and des Esseintes’ daydream in Dickens’ England

En somme, j’ai éprouvé et j’ai vu ce que je voulais éprouver et voir.” (226) / “In short, I’ve experienced and seen all I wanted to experience and see.” (160)

Comment: First visit of the Doctor of Fontenay (he prescribes Des Esseintes sedatives and rest), and interestingly enough, he reports all over the village how eccentric and strange the house’s interior design is. One recalls how des Esseintes choose the furniture and the colours for his house of Fontenay in a very elaborate manner (it takes almost two chapters for Huysman to describe that).

In chapter XI, Des Esseintes starts reading Dickens, and once again, through Art, he is transported in some sort of daydream wherein our anti-hero finds himself projected into the England of Charles Dickens, and meet some of the characters of this literary world created from scratch. In a sort of introspective delirium, Des Esseintes thinks of other travels, in Holland/Netherlands. When he comes back to the everyday reality, Des Esseintes pretty much feels like he just took a long journey.

  • XII : Catalogue of books and des Esseintes’ beloved Baudelaire

Baudelaire était allé plus loin ; il était descendu jusqu’au fond de l’inépluisable mine, s’était engagé à travers des galleries abandonnées ou inconnues, avait abouti à des districts de l’âme où se ramifiait les végétations monstueuses de la pensée.” (230) / “Baudelaire had gone further; he had descended to the very bottom of the inexhaustible mine, had penetrated abandoned or unexplored passage, had ended up in those regions of the soul that branch out into the monstrous growths of thoughts.” (163).

Et plus des Esseintes relisait Baudelaire, plus il reconnaissait un indicible charme à cet écrivain qui, dans un temps où le vers ne servait plus qu’à peindre l’aspect extérieur des êtres et des choses, était parvenu à exprimer l’inexprimable, grâce à une langue musculeuse et charnue, qui, plus que tout autres, possédait cette merveilleuse puissance de fixer avec une étrange santé, les plus tremblés, des esprits épuisés et des âmes tristes.” (231-232) / “And the more des Esseintes re-read Baudelaire, the more he recognized the indescribable charm of this writer who, in an age when poetry served only to paint the external aspect of beings and things, had succeeded in expressing the inexpressible thanks to a muscular and fleshy language which, more than any other, possessed that marvellous power to capture, un curiously vigorous terms, the most fleeting, the most elusive states of morbidity in exhausted minds and despondent soul.” (165)

  • XIII : La Nausée

“[…] à ce moment là, la vue de la viande déposée sur la table, lui souleva le cœur ; il prescrivit qu’on la fît disparaître, commanda des œufs à la coque, tenta d’avaler les mouillettes, mais elle lui barrèrent la gorge ; des nausées lui venaient aux lèvres ; il bu quelques gouttes de vin qui lui piquèrent, comme des pointes de feu, l’estomac. Il s’étancha la figure ; la sueur, tout à l’heure tiède, fluait, maintenant froide, le long des tempes ; il se prit à sucer quelques morceux de glace, pour tromper le mal de cœur ; ce fut en vain.” (254) / […] at that moment the sight of meat placed on the table made his stomach heave; he told them to remove it, ordered boiled eggs and tried to swallow some sippets, but they stuck in his throat ; waves of nausea rose to his lips; he drank a few drops of wine that picked his stomach like hot needles. He dried his face; the sweat that a moment earlier had been warm, now ran cold down his temples; he began to suck pieces of ice to relieve his sick stomach, but it was in vain.” (183-184).

Comment: Des Esseintes keeps brooding despondently, looses his appetite, and gets bad stomach cramps. This is a psycho-pathological symptom of his spleen, that fact that he sort of lost his joie de vivre. Nightmares, illusion of the senses, delusions, hallucinations, in short all the symptoms of des Esseintes’ neurosis. He even tried to install hydrotherapeutic equipment in his house (see chapter 9. How can one deal with hysteria and psychoneurosis in the nineteenth century without proper treatments or drugs?). New problem: anemia. Des Esseintes can’t eat anymore. Who or what will redeem this tormented soul?

  • XIV : Secular books (livres profanes, œuvres laïques, la littérature française, moderne, et profane: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, de Goncourt, Stendhal, then Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and finally Aloysius Bertrand, Poe, and Baudelaire).
  • XV : The malady resumes its course with new and unexpected symptoms (nightmares, olfactory and auditory hallucinations, burning fevers, involuntary memories coming from des Esseintes’ childhood). Des Esseintes has recourse to a famous physician of Paris who prescribes him to get back to Paris. The doctor also mentions the hydropathic treatments (hydrotherapy), which were used in the 18th and 19th centuries to treat neurosis.
  • XVI : End: Conversion? Pessimism? Disenchantment? Irony? Deus ex machina?


  • Concretely, what is wrong with des Esseintes? What are the cause(s) and the meaning of his ‘medical’ condition? In that regard, what do we learn from the doctor of Paris at the end of the book (chapter XV and XVI)? To which measure could one say that this information shed new light on des Esseintes’ existential crisis (cf. Bohemian life vs. Ascetic seclusion out of the world)?
  • From our previous discussion, how can we understand des Esseintes’s antipathy or esteem for those authors who are now considered classics of French literature (Balzac, Baudelaire, and Zola)? What does he like in Balzac as opposed to Zola (which are both supposed to belong to the Naturalist literary movement)? How could we envision the naturalism in the novels of Zola as opposed to what Huysmans seems to put forward in Against Nature? Is it a sort of anti-naturalism? What about Baudelaire?


Husymans, Joris-Karl. À Rebours. Paris: Gallimard, 1977. Print

Guyaux, André, et al. Huysmans: Une esthétique de la décadence. Paris: Éditions Slatkine, 1987. Print

Lair, Samuel et al. J.-K. Huysmans: Littérature et religion. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2009. Print

Livi, François., J.-K. Huysmans: À rebours et l’esprit decadent. Paris: A.G. Nizet, 1991. Print.

– R.C.

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Huysmans, Against Nature (Presentation handout)

Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

In-Class Presentation, October 17, 2012


Biographical Information:

Joris-Karl Huysmans was born as Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans on Februry 5, 1848 in Paris. His father, of Dutch origin, died when he was eight. After passing the baccalaureate, he took an administrative post in the Ministry of Interior. In 1870, he fought in the Franco-Prussian War. Following the war, he continued his work as a civil servant. He was made a chevalier in the Légion d’honneur in 1893 after 27 years as a bureaucrat.

Huysmans published Against Nature (A Rebours) in 1884 after having published several other works, which included Sac au dos, about his military service, and Marthe.  He continued to publish until his death, most notably La Cathédrale in 1898.

Huysmans died May 11, 1907. His funeral was held May 15, 1907 at Notre-Dame-des-Champs.

The Title:

The French title of the novel A Rebours does not translate. The phrase “refers to a contrary and paradoxical motion” (“Introduction” xiii). It is used in phrases such as “caresser un chat à rebours,” which means “to stroke a cat the wrong way” or “aller à rebours de la tendance générale,” which means “to run counter to the general trend.”

Miss Urania (pages 85-87):

Des Esseintes recalls a liaison with Miss Urania, an American acrobat, in Chapter 9. This coupling recalls the relationship between Jacques and Raoule in Monsieur Vénus. Masculine characteristics are attributed to Miss Urania. First comes her physical description, which includes “a sturdy body, sinewy legs, muscles of steel, and arms of cast iron,” all of which give her masculine or, more aptly, machine-like qualities.  He feels no intense lust for her but returns to the circus, “driven by a feeling that was difficult to define.” Her “feminine affectations became less and less apparent,” and “after toying with androgyny,” she becomes a man. Des Esseintes, perceiving this transition, redefines himself as the woman in their relationship. Their quick coupling ends when he resumes his “male role.” In what way does this relationship mirror that of Raoule and Jacques? What does this relationship reveal about Des Esseintes? Furthermore, how does this conversation about androgyny and reversed gender and sexual roles fit in the novels historical context?

Close reading: p. 85

Chapter 8 (pages 72-81):

In Chapter 8, Des Esseintes discusses his dislike of real flowers; he prefers artificial flowers. Flowers often serve as an example of beauty. Des Esseintes, instead, uses language associated with disease to describe flowers, transforming beauty into something grotesque. He is “dazzled” by the grotesque. Des Esseintes emphasizes the artificiality of flowers; he prefers the denial of their belonging to nature. In wanting to own flowers constructed artificially, he eliminates the fleeting beauty of flowers. Flowers become a tangible object to add to his collection for as long as he desires. How does the grotesque fit into Des Esseintes aestheticism? What role does artifice play in the novel? What do you make of the strange dream at the end of this chapter?

Close reading: p.74

Works Referenced

  • Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
  • “Joris-Karl Huysmans”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 24 Oct. 2012
  • <>.
  • White, Nicholas. Introduction. Against Nature. By Joris-Karl Huysmans. Trans. Margaret Muldoon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

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