Category Archives: Week 4 Reviews: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature

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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