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Lecture Notes and Discussion Questions: Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”

Wilde published story in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1889, but a definitive version of it did not appear before his death.

The story came up during Wilde’s trials and formed part of the network of legal interest in Wilde’s writings there—Edward Carson, Counsel for the Marquess of Queensberry and a skilled (some would say vicious) questioner, was trying to weave a network of “evidence” via Wilde’s writings, alleging that Wilde’s perversion was evident in his work as well as in his life.  See the following exchange from April 3, 1895, during Wilde’s trials at the Old Bailey courthouse, London:

Carson: I believe you have written an article to show that Shakespeare’s sonnets were suggestive of natural vice?

Wilde:  On the contrary, I have written an article to show that they were not.  I objected to such a perversion being put upon Shakespeare. 

(qtd. from Danson, 81)

Lawrence Danson explains:  “It was one of the most daring paradoxes, the idea of a love between men that is not ‘unnatural,’ not ‘a perversion’: in 1895 it was a contradiction almost beyond the reach of language.  What would you call it?  Words that made sense in the Old Bailey, ‘sodomy’, buggery’, and their cognates, were words of legal condemnation, implying ‘disgust, disgrace, vituperation.’ The prison house of language wasn’t all you had to fear if your love used those words to speak its name.  There were other possibilities.  The word ‘homosexuality, for instance, had been coined by a Swiss doctor in 1869.  But in England in the nineties, ‘homosexuality’ belonged to the discourse of science; it named a medical problem, and its truth was not yours.  ‘Urning’,  ‘inversion’, even Whitman’s term ‘adhesiveness’ were neologisms, ‘suggestive of’ something strange and new.  Was there any language that would not falsify your desire—and Shakespeare’s and Michelangelo’s and Plato’s—in the process of speaking it?”  (Danson, 81)

“Wilde’s story or essay or hoax—one hardly knows what to name it—poses a question about the representation of homosexual desire that is only partly bound to the particular circumstances of Victorian reticence and fear.  […] it is necessary to ask what ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is about because the obvious answer  (it’s about Shakespeare’s love for Mr. W.H., ‘the onlie begetter’ of his sonnets) is radically undercut by the very narration that proposes it.” (Danson, 82)

Jerusha McCormack writes: “What one believes in this story relies on the impact of its performance, forged in the heat of inspiration, and carrying conviction only within the context of its utterance.  Its oral nature dictates the fiction’s contingent and arbitrary nature and offers the premise of its own erasure; here lies a fiction writ in hot water.” (McCormack, 108)

“Locating the impulse of Shakespeare’s own creation in the performance of an actor, Wilde returns the literary text of the Sonnets to their source in his own performance of their interpretation. At every level, that performance subverts the authority of the text, and the ‘forged’ reputation of its author, William Shakespeare.”  (McCormack, 109)

Some questions we’ll consider, among others:

How does the story compare to the other”portrait” fiction by Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray and to the other “forgery” text we’ve read, “Pen, Pencil, and Poison”? (Note that “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” is more or less contemporaneous with both of these.)  What are some obvious (or not so obvious) overlapping themes and concerns?

What is the role of authorship and the printed versus the oral tradition of storytelling in “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”?

This story could be described as a palimpsest, or a Chinese box of textuality.  Forgery, oral discourse, written discourse, hearsay, truth, lying, death, survival, tale and teller, physical and intellectual desire, inspiration, intent, and accidental events … what are some effects of this complex textuality and layers of meaning on you as a reader (its attractions and difficulties)?

How does our previous discussion of Wilde’s interest in truth and lying continue and extend with regard to this story?

What role does the notion of  text as performance (which we’ve pointed out is very important for much Decadent writing) play in this story? How does it compare to the other hyper-performative texts we’ve read (such as Huysmans’ A rebours or Flaubert’s La tentation de Saint Antoine?

How is homoeroticism (as allusion, implication, indirect discourse) part of the textual performativity here, especially with regard to the oscillations of meaning because of dazzling multiplicity of textual layers?

What do you know about the status of Shakespeare for middle-class culture in Victorian England, and the contemporary regard for his Sonnets?  Why may it have been especially provocative to attach this particular “theory” to Shakespeare in Wilde’s time?

Works cited

Danson, Lawrence.  “Oscar Wilde, W.H., and the Unspoken Name of Love.” In Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays.  Ed. by Jonathan Freedman. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.  81-98.

McCormack, Jerusha.  “Wilde’s Fictions.”  In The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde.  Ed. by Peter Raby.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.  96-117.

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Brainstorming Interpretation Questions for “Pen, Pencil and Poison” by Oscar Wilde


Today’s brainstorming is not about initial statements or opinions about the text we’ll be discussing, but instead about questions.  Please think of one or two excellent question(s) you think we should ask of this text today in order to investigate and discuss it as fully or deeply as possible.  Time: 2 minutes.

Here are the questions students came up with spontaneously, at the beginning of class: 

How does one classify this essay?  Is it biography? A form of creative nonfiction? How does Wainewright relate to Wilde? –KJO

Why did Oscar Wilde choose to write about this particular man, Thomas Wainewright?  -CAN

Why is the subtitle “Study in Green”? –IPN

Are Wilde’s appeals to “truth” in the essay meant to refer to an objective truth?  -MP

On what grounds can art be defined and judged?  -YG

Why does Wilde choose to write about Wainewright given that his literature alone is not worth remembering? –LN

Why is the biography of Wainewright, especially the discussion of his poisoning others, juxtaposed with his ideas about art and passages about art in this paper?  -ER

In what manner is Wainewright’s art affected by his dark past?  -?

Are the critic and description of works of art somehow similar to prose poetry? What about the art of poisons?  -RC

Why is it that Oscar Wilde puts poisoning or murder on the same artistic pedestal as writing or painting? –MCR

Why does Wilde leave the description of Wainewright’s crimes to the very end of the essay?  -LH

Why is the revelation of the poisoning so casually inserted and given little significance? –DF

What is the relationship between art and criminal activities, specifically, Wainewright’s criminal activities?  -MG

To what extent does Wilde believe the act of writing or or creating art is just as poisonous as the act of poisoning?  -JSW

Why construe this piece as a “memoir” that claims “facts” (p. 1106) rather than as a more overtly fictional work, as he did in “Decay of Lying”? –AA

What does Wilde mean when he suggests that the aim of art is to have “a style so gorgeous that it conceals its subject”?  -Alcibiades

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Reading questions: Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony

  1. Gustave Flaubert’s works (especially The Temptation of Saint Anthony and his historical novel Salammbô) demonstrated for Wilde the potency of vivid literary representations of eroticism couched in terms of metaphysical longings, fears, and fantasies, creating imagery that fused sensuality and even sexual lust with a desire of the divine, and vice versa.  Pay special attention to the ways in which erotic and religious imagery merge in this novel, and how asceticism is presented.
  2. What do you think about the form of this text (often described as a prose poem or prose play, but really a mixture of play, novel, poetry)?  What are its various stylistic elements–including the many visual descriptions–and how are they mixed, combined, and paced here, and what is the overall effect of this mixture on you as a reader?
  3. Make sure you look up some information on Saint Anthony.  What (about Saint Anthony) seems to have captured Flaubert’s imagination here, and how does he present the saint (as well as his “temptation[s]”)?
  4. How can this hybrid text be seen as participating in the cultural and literary discourse of decadence we’ve been considering throughout the course?
  5. How would you compare the representation of and play with a religious topic in this text, as compared to other texts we’ve read in the course, e.g. Against Nature, Monsieur Vénus, Baudelaire’s poetry (and later on in the course, Wilde’s Salomé)?
  6. Find at least one passage that has impressed or interested you, and be prepared to talk about it in class this week.  (Voluntary, but an excellent conversation and participation starter, especially for those of you who are more on the quiet side in class.)

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Reading questions: Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against the Grain/Against Nature

Against Nature was not the starting point but the consecration of a new literature … the novel is free at last.”

-Remy de Gourmont, in Le Livre des masques

How does the novel exemplify the style and main themes of literary Decadence?

What does the narrative and the plot seem to value, and what doesn’t it value (things, events, people)?  In other words, what’s “good” and what’s “bad” in Des Esseintes’ self-created universe?

What kind of a “hero” is Des Esseintes?  What’s your idea of a hero, and does he fit this or not, or does he fit it partly?  Why?

What role does sensuality play in Des Esseintes’ fantasy life and in his real life, and what forms does it take?  (Pick a few memorable examples.)

The tortoise has been interpreted as the perfect symbolic embodiment of the cult of artificiality and art that unites Symbolism, Aestheticism, and Decadence.  How or why so, do you think?

Why do you think this novel could have been both exciting and infuriating to readers when it first came out?

Pay special attention to Des Esseintes’ fantasies of Salome (in Moreau’s paintings, which hang in Des Esseintes’ study) in Chapter five.  How does the sublime get redefined in Decadent ways, in this example?  It may help to do a quick online image search for the Moreau paintings—they are called “L’Apparition” and “Salome Dansant”.  Also take a quick look at some Odilon Redon images online to get some idea what painting styles Huysmans is talking about in this chapter.

What role does conventional religion play in this novel? What do you make of the ending?

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Reading questions: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

  • Preface:  As you already know at this point, Oscar Wilde was a proponent of Aestheticism, the 19th-century movement that promoted “art for art’s sake”—not art for conventional morality’s sake–and who took important clues about art’s and art criticism’s role from Walter Pater (see the Conclusion to his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, which we read earlier in the course). The Preface of this novel is one of the most famous programmatic statements of the belief that art should not be measured by any other rod but by “beauty”—not necessity, morality, truth to life, politics, education, romantic metaphysics, etc.  (In some ways, it continues the belief in the artist—in Wilde’s case, also the critic—as a creative genius removed from modern life.)  And yet, the Preface is full of direct or indirect value statements about art.  Which can you detect?  What seems to be the Preface’s purpose, audience, characteristics, relation to life, etc.?   How does its epigrammatic, often paradoxical form contribute to its contents?
  • In many ways, one could characterize this novel as a novel of ideas, especially ideas about art, morality, and the nature of individuality. Pay special attention to, and mark, any statements about “beauty” and ideal art that you find in this novel, as well as remarks on the role of individualism (the stress on the individual, rather than society) or hedonism (especially highlighted in the second half of the novel).  They will give us important clues to Aestheticism’s philosophy of art, and connections to Decadence.
  • From reading the first few chapters of the novel, what impressions do you get of Wilde’s style and language?    How would you describe the novel’s style, the dialogue, the characters, the fictional “universe” that it depicts?
  • How does this novel compare to some of the other works by Wilde we’ve read already, such as “The Harlot’s House,” “The Canterville Ghost,” “The Remarkable Rocket,” and various other poems we discussed?
  • Pay special attention to Lord Henry Wotton—he is an example of the quintessential 19th-century dandy. What is he like, what are his values (or more precisely, what things or traits in people and especially in himself does he seem to value), what is his position in society, his morals, etc.?
  • What possible homoerotic elements do you detect in this novel?  What role do language and style play for such homoerotic elements or suggestions in the novel?
  • What are the relationships between the principal characters, especially Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, and Dorian Gray?  How can we think of theirs as a triangular relationship?What indirect or direct comparisons can you draw between this novel and Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus? (Similarities, differences, echoes of similar themes or other influences?)
  • What indirect or direct comparisons can you draw between this novel and Huysmans’ Against the Grain? (Similarities, differences, echoes of similar themes or other influences?)
  • What other “French influences” can you find in this novel (mentions or allusions to other French authors or their works [e.g. Baudelaire], French culture, etc.), and what seem to be their functions?
  • What about the question of class in this novel?  It plays an important role here.  How does class intermingle with the other major themes of the novel, such as art, as well as with sexuality?
  • What function does Sybil Vane have in this novel?  What kind of character is she?  How is her relationship with Dorian used as one of the ways in which Wilde depicts Dorian’s “development,” and his ideas?  Does it matter that Sybil is an actress, and as such, a representative of art as well?  How does Dorian’s idea of Sybil clash with reality?
  • This novel centrally features a portrait—itself a work of art.  Given Wilde’s philosophy of art, how odes the portrait’s role within the narrative reflect back on art and art’s role in life?  How is Dorian himself ‘a work of art, and a decadent one at that?  An important question!
  • Paradoxically, this novel by the proponent of “art for art’s sake” (a phrase that goes back to one of Wilde’s teachers, the philosopher and art critic Walter Pater, the “founder” of English aestheticism) is very much a novel about good and evil.  Is there perhaps still a “moral” we can detect in this novel, and what could it be?  Who carries the main moral responsibility for Dorian’s development in the novel, and why?
  • This “novel” often seems like a mix of genres and styles.  What are some genres and styles whose influence you can detect here, for example, the gothic novel?
  • Early readers criticized the novel’s “decadence” and immorality.  What are some possible reasons and evidence for their views, as we find them in the novel?
  • You may be familiar with the tale of Dr. Faustus (Marlowe, Goethe).  How could or couldn’t one compare The Picture of Dorian Gray with the story of Faust?  Similarities?  Differences?
  • In many ways, Lord Henry has tried to make Dorian his “work of art.”  As the end of the novel shows, he has both tragically succeeded, and tragically failed.  How so?
  • Critics have said that the end of the novel—and especially the role of the portrait as a certain indicator of Dorian’s moral development—can be seen as eventually undermining Wilde’s own philosophy of aestheticism.  How so? Is there a moral at the ending, in your view?  And if so, what could that moral be?

And finally:

▪       How does the following quote (from the novel) help us think about, and also complicate, Dorian’s Gray character and the question of his “culpability” in the novel?  “[Dorian Gray] used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence.  To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.”


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Reading questions: Rachilde

I didn’t post any timely reading questions for Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus last week (my apologies–I was traveling), but here are some areas of inquiry to ponder when writing about the novel this week , for those of you who are writing blog posts, and those members of the public who are interested in interacting with the Stanford students in the comments section.  Students’ blog posts for Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus can be found easily via this link.    -petradt

  • How does the novel present gender and gender roles?
  • How does the novel present sexuality?
  • What is the role of cross-dressing, S/M role play, and violence (e.g. Raoule’s, Raittolbe’s towards Jacques and Marie–think also of verbal violence)?
  • What role does homoeroticism play for the relationships, rivalries, and desires between the “queer love triangle” of Raoule, Jacques, and Raittolbe?
  • What role does sado-masochistic imagery play throughout?  How does the relationship between dominant/submissive change at times, and to what effect?
  • What other relationship triangles are there in the novel besides that one?
  • What other “pairs” of protagonists function as foils here, and for whom?  As a reminder, the other important figures in this novel are Marie Silvert, Aunt Ermengarde, and Martin Durand.   What are their functions and purposes in the novel?
  • Some typically Decadent themes appear prominently in this novel.  They include (and this is not an exhaustive list): death and sex, a love of art and collecting (pay attention to what kind of art and objects are featured repeatedly throughout the novel, and what their significance might be), unorthodox sexual practices and tastes, challenges to organized religion and morality, extreme individualism, pathological imagery, organicity versus artificiality, etc.
  • What are some of the major allusions to mythology, history, and literature here, and what is their role and function, in each case?  Do some of these allusions work together to create and support certain themes?  Which ones?
  • role of religious imagery in the novel (especially the ending)
  • Look again at the censored passages–mainly the first few paragraphs of chapter 2, the whole of chapter 7, and parts of the penultimate sentence of the ending (see my Rachilde lecture notes for more information on this).  What could have made them so shocking, and why?
  • You may already know (or remember from class) that Rachilde was actually a staunch antagonist of the women’s rights movement of her time (she disdained it).  How can this novel nevertheless be read as a quasi-feminist text?  And what arguments from within the text might possibly speak against such a feminist interpretation?  (pro/contra)
  • Is the shocking ending ironic or not, in your view?  Why? (pro/contra)
  • How does this 1884 novel compare to contemporary theories and cultural views of gender and sexuality, in your view?

As we are looking forward to next week’s discussions of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Huysmans’ Against the Grain, please keep Rachilde’s novel in mind as one of the reading foils for Wilde’s novel.  (Wilde read both Rachilde’s and Huysmans’ Decadent novels before writing his own, and there is scholarly evidence that he was influenced by both, as well as many other sources, French and other.)  What reminds you of Rachilde’s decadent universe in Wilde’s novel, if anything?

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Oscar Wilde’s Short Fiction: Reading Questions

“The Canterville Ghost”: 

  • relationship to the gothic
  • look up subtitle “hylo-idealism” and think about its possible relationship to story
  • portrayal of Americans vs. the British
  • role of irony and humor here
  • role of the ghost
  • theme of old/new, tradition/presentism, role of class and capital
  • What “serious” points seem to be made in this story, despite (or through) its humor, and what are they?
  • Can we compare the ghost to the artist (in Wilde’s prose poem “The Artist”)? How so (or not)?

“The Remarkable Rocket”:

  • a fairy tale–how is it one, how is it not a typical one?
  • what “serious” points are made in this story, despite (or through) its humor, and what are they about?
  • comparison with “The Canterville Ghost” on points of irony/humor, and also on serious aspects
  • individualism, artificiality
  • realism vs. illusion
  • “the remarkable rocket” as an artist, a dandy, or deluded and naive dreamer?  How so (or not)?
  • Can we compare the rocket to the artist (in prose poem “The Artist”)? How so (or not)?

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