Category Archives: Week 5 Reviews: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature

A Wilde Family

Reading “The Decay of Lying” through the point of view of Oscar Wilde’s children made me start to think about the role of family in some of the Decadent works we have read so far. The connection is hard to make in “The Decay of Lying” because it is unclear why Wilde chose his sons as the main characters or what the actual significance is. Looking back at The Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature the family theme is a little clearer.

In Against Nature, Des Esseintes’ family is described in the prologue before the book even really begins. Huysmans traces the Des Esseintes lineage through the family portraits. Huysmans writes, “It was obvious that the decline of this ancient house had followed an inevitable course; the males had grown progressively more effeminate; as if  to perfect the work of the time, for two centuries the Des Esseintes intermarried their children, thus exhausting, through inbreeding, what little strength they possessed,” (3). The Des Esseintes family has become weaker and sicker and the current Des Esseintes is no exception. Throughout the novel his weakness, illness, and neurosis are described. It seems that Des Esseintes is merely following a family trend.

Similarly, Dorian also traces through his ancestry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As Dorian examines the portraits of his predecessors, he sees pieces of himself in the various members of his family. He ponders whether he was, “bequeathed… some inheritance of sin and shame,” or influenced by past infamies (107-108). Dorian notes that he “had got from [his mother] his beauty, and his passion for the beauty of others,” (108). Like Des Esseintes, it seems that Dorian is just another link in a chain of similar family members. Wilde even writes, “There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life… It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own,” (108).

How unique are Dorian and Des Esseintes? Are they truly revolutionary or are they just members of eccentric families? Are their stories predetermined and inevitable? Both characters never have children, so is the line is severed. But Oscar Wilde had his two sons. Where does he see himself in this line of thought? Perhaps casting his sons in one of his witty and more pointed works is his way of expressing the hope that his legacy will continue.


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Des Esseintes’ Malady and the Tortoise

For this blog entry, I would like to come back on the chapter IV of À Rebours and, more particularly, on the anecdote of the tortoise. In this chapter, the reader learns that des Esseintes bought a tortoise near the Palais-Royal in Paris a couple of days before his departure for Fontenay. Indeed, while contemplating an Oriental carpet, des Esseintes thought that a magnificent moving object would embellish the carpet’s colours.

“[…] il serait bon de placer sur ce tapis quelque chose qui remuât et dont le ton foncé aiguisât la vivacité de ces teintes.” (118)

Unfortunately, when des Esseintes placed the tortoise on his Oriental carpet, the aesthetic effect he was aiming for was not achieved. The colours were still too dull, uniform, and brownish. Des Esseintes decided then to cover the tortoise’s carapace with gold. Still not perfectly satisfied, he decided then to encrust the carapace with various gems and precious stones. Turning the poor creature into a genuine work of art, des Esseintes adds more and more weight on the tortoise’s carapace. Des Esseintes gets his tortoise delivered to Fontenay and for once, he feels happy and good about himself: he eats with appetite and even decides to allow himself the luxury of drinking spirits, mixing them as they were various basic materials to compose complex perfumes (he uses what he calls his “orgue à bouche” that could clearly be compared with his “orgue à parfum.”) The taste of a whisky triggers an involuntary and quite unpleasant memory: that one time he got a tooth pulled out. By the time his daydream ends, des Esseintes notices that the tortoise is not moving anymore; the tortoise is dead because the extra-weight of the gems and precious stones crushed it.

It seems to me that the anecdote of the tortoise is quite similar to des Esseintes’ sad fate. In the case of des Esseintes, the gems and precious stones are the works of art (construed in a very broad sense) he loves so much: his authors (such as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Balzac for instance) and his painters (such as Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon). In Fontenay, des Esseintes is too absorbed by contemplation and meditation and gets into a neurotic state of inertia and apathy. He cannot distinguish between the real and the fictional, and becomes mad. As the tortoise, des Esseintes is being crushed by those precious stones that constitute the ‘high-culture.’ Eventually des Esseintes needs to leave Fontenay and come back to Paris because his ascetic seclusion out of the world is literally killing him. – R.C.

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Des Esseintes as a Catholic

Against Nature is an undeniably strange work of literature. It disregards a significant number of literary conventions of characterization. For example, Des Esseintes has no foils. There is little by way of plot development, so we don’t see his character develop over time of change in moments of crisis. Instead, we learn about Des Esseintes almost solely through his material possessions–we learn what kind of books he likes, what art he finds beautiful, what places he thinks are worth visiting, how he thinks turtles should be decorated, and so on and so forth. He rarely reflects on himself except in the context of material objects. Even some of his most internal characteristics–such as his various strains of crazy–are externalized and illuminated through his possessions and the attitude he has towards them. We spend all our time in his carefully constructed universe at Fontenay, but very little time actually in his head–except when he is discussing Catholicism. At the beginning of chapter 7, we are told he is living “on himself, feeding on his own substance” and that “The chaotic mass of readings and meditations on art that he had stored up during his solitude, like a dam to stem the flow of former memories, had been suddenly swept away , and the flood-tide was on the move, buffeting the present, the future, drowning everything beneath the waters of the past filling  his mind” (62). With all of his art drowning in the past, I expected him to reflect on his parents–not their portraits in the gallery, but his actual parents–and his childhood adventures. And he does–for about two paragraphs. The vast majority of this chapter, the self-substance on which he feeds, is about religion.

Although he insists that  his character is resistant to shaping, we learn that Catholicism has shaped the way he thinks and argues (65). He accepts Schopenhauer’s doctrine of pessimism, but not because Church doctrine is absolutely wrong. His view and the Church’s have a “common starting point,” but instead of justifying the evils of the world and holding the “vague hope” of an afterlife, he preaches the “nothingness of existence” and becomes a decadent hermit (69). He never questions the doctrine that human beings do have a soul and he acknowledges from his soul the Church’s “hereditary influence on humanity of centuries of time” (69). Is there a phenomenon in Catholicism of being “culturally Catholic” like there is in Judaism? Des Esseintes rejects original sin and considers God’s mercy extremely questionable, but he defines the substance of his soul as Catholic. He collects Catholic art and literature (which almost seems doubly significant, since he defines himself in such large part by the art on his walls and the books he reads), and he turns his bedroom into a luxurious monk’s cell. It’s not just fetishization of ritual. He fetishizes flowers, and when they die he throws them away. He doesn’t use Catholicism until it ceases to please his senses; he identifies in the most fundamental way as Catholic.

Which brings me to the ending. I don’t believe the conclusion is a standard conversion. He bristles at Catholicism in chapter 7 because he fears no longer being “absolute master” in his own house,  but at the end the doctor has already taken that agency from him (69). He is forced to leave his tiny, secluded, absolutely pure kingdom, surrender his absolute mastery, and return to the polluted world. He has to give up his strange proclivities and be normal, just like everybody else, which means he can no longer have an isolated half-Catholic, half-art cult religion of one. I don’t think he has suddenly begun believing in original sin and all the other dogma he disparages. He hasn’t suddenly begun trusting the Church as present in the world, which is corrupted and impure. I think the ending is his frustrated acceptance of the doctor’s command to stop being crazy, but he is still enough himself to want one of the few things left to him to be beautiful which–although this does not seem to be the case with flowers–seems to entail purity. Or at least purity of ritual. (No more potato starch!) And what more richly excessive and poetic way to purify a religion than to have a vengeful God rain fire from the sky (180)? And, if the pestilence must continue and he must be subject to it, at least he can pray for himself. He has such a low opinion of God’s mercy, I don’t think he believes God will give him faith or hope or guidance, but I think he’ll engage in the ritual anyway, because praying is what Catholic people do, and Des Esseintes has a Catholic soul. –LN

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Life as an Illusion: Embracing Absurdity in Against Nature

Des Esseintes lives in a world of his own artifice, where he imagines his own adventures, takes his mind on literary odysseys, and enhances his created world with smells and sounds.  Why this withdrawal from reality, this retreat into his own creation of a fake reality, this feeling that his own fabrications are superior and more worth his time than the world beyond?  At first, it seems as though pessimism plays a key role in the answer to this question, but perhaps the reason that Des Esseintes lives in his world of artifice has less to do with his pessimistic attitude toward society, and more to do with his recognition and embrace of absurdity.

After lamenting that “nothing remains that is pure and authentic…and the liberty we proclaim are both adulterated and derisory,” Des Essientes concludes, “I do not…consider it either more ridiculous or more insane to ask of my fellow men a degree of illusion barely as great as that which he expends each day for absurd purposes, to imagine that the town of Pantin is an artificial Nice, an imitation Menton.”  His critique of society is harsh, yet ultimately it is not the impurity and derision of society that drives him to his lifestyle, but rather it is that others are able to live so easily in the messy, corrupted world.  He states clearly that while he may chase illusions, he is no different than other people, who must create illusions in order to accept life in the absurdities of society.

Indeed, in his argument that he lives in no more of an illusion than anyone else, he suggests quite strongly that his illusion is superior.  He can create something better – if we’re to live in an illusion anyway, why not live in one where we have the power to make it the best it can be.  Des Esseintes creates perfumes more powerful and beautiful than the flowers whose scent he imitates.  His life is built upon the idea that his own artifices are superior to reality.

Yet then reality becomes blurred.  He begins imagining his scents, and cannot get them out of his nostrils even when he opens the window.  His artifice is more real to him than the actuality of fresh air.  Des Esseintes decides not to travel to London, because he feels like his imagination can take him there well enough, and then he doesn’t have to deal with the hassle of travel.  What then, is London at all?  What is fresh air?  Simply Des Esseintes’ imagination and creation.  And if indeed his life is no more of an illusion than anyone else’s, then the air people breathe is likewise their invention, their belief, what they expect to find in smells, and what memories and dreams they associate with it.  And London is the creation of each individual; its absurdities are created by the viewers.

Toward the end of the novel Des Esseintes “realized that the arguments of pessimism were incapable of giving him comfort, that only the impossible belief in a future life would give him peace.”  The very belief that would give him peace is “impossible,” and so it is truly in the absurd that he finds a degree of comfort.  His pessimistic views, which he certainly dwells on, are ultimately secondary to his acceptance that life is absurd, and that the only way for him to move through it is by living his own absurdity. -YG

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Hysteria in Huysmans

In Huysmans’ Against Nature, the protagonist, Des Esseintes suffers from an undiagnosed malady causing anxiety, among other things. At the end of the novel, his doctor, portrayed as amateurish at best, suggests he abandon his life at his country home of Fonteray and return to the bustling city of Paris. Although Des Esseintes malady is unclear, he appears to suffer from an inverted hysteria, the (often) woman’s illness popularly diagnosed in the late nineteenth century. Des Esseintes displays several of the hallmarks of hysteria: overstimulation of the mind, nervousness, paranoia. These symptoms emasculate him. The word “hysteria” itself derives from the same root as “uterus,” linking it clearly to women.

In many ways, Huysmans portrays Des Esseintes illness as an inverted hysteria. Des Esseintes leaves his busy life in Paris behind for a life of solitude at Fonteray, his family country home. It is at Fonteray that he encounters symptoms of hysteria. Most suffering from hysteria lives in cities and were prescribed extended visits to the country in order to calm their nerves. In the case of Des Esseintes, his prescription involves leaving behind his isolation in favor of the city. Des Esseintes mind is overstimulated simply by his own thoughts at Fonteray; perhaps his reimmersion in city life and interactions with others will calm his thoughts.

Hysteria, though diagnosed frequently during the period, has no basis on its own; it is an invented, catch-all illness for those suffering from anxiety disorders, generalized mental illness, and even stress. Des Esseintes does not ressemble the typical hysteria patient, though his behavior seems to point to underlying mental problems beyond sheer eccentricity. His distaste for social interactions, corruption of Auguste Langlois, and obsessive listing of knowledge and objects all point to greater issues. Nevertheless, the inversion of hysteria in the novel reinforces a femininity in Des Esseintes while underlining his peculiar, unique case.  -KJO

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A Moral in The Picture of Dorian Gray

The presence or lack of a moral in Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is a topic of uncertainty. In reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and in hearing conflicting thoughts about morality in the novel, I couldn’t help but create a mental division between two types of morals. One would be morals with direction, consisting of ones intended to lead the receiver of the moral to a particular action or inaction, and the other would be morals without direction, that are intended to demonstrate some element of life that might affect how a person formulates zir* own morals. I read The Picture of Dorian Gray as a novel that does indeed provide a moral, but of the second variety, without direction.

In one of our student presentations in class, the presenter showed us a quote by Oscar Wilde about the moral in The Picture of Dorian Gray. This quote was from a letter by Oscar Wilde to the editor of the St. James’s Gazette. Wilde wrote:

“And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment. The painter, Basil Hallward, worshipping physical beauty far too much, as most painters do, dies by the hand of one in whose soul he has created a monstrous and absurd vanity. Dorian Gray, having led a life of mere sensation and pleasure, tries to kill conscience, and at that moment kills himself. Lord Henry Wotton seeks to be merely the spectator of life. He finds that those who reject the battle are more deeply wounded than those who take part in it.”

It is unwise to take this, or perhaps any quote by Wilde, as the absolute Truth, especially as, in the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde writes, “No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.” However, I arrived to much the same conclusion as the first quote suggests, and so I think it is an interpretation with some support in the novel.

It is abundantly apparent that Basil Hallward reveres Dorian’s physical beauty to excess. When first describing Dorian to Lord Henry, Basil says almost nothing about Dorian as a complex person, though he repeatedly refers to Dorian’s “personality.” Rather, Basil describes how Dorian has become integral to his artistic expression, suggesting that Basil’s interest consists most essentially in Dorian’s physical beauty, since that can be represented in Basil’s art. As Basil is finishing the portrait and once he is done, almost everything that he says to Dorian is flattery of Dorian’s beauty. It is in this scene that Dorian becomes in love with the painting and with his own beauty. Basil is then killed by the person for whom he held this excessive admiration.

Dorian tries to renounce conscience by destroying the portrait after a life of hedonism in which the portrait was the only conscience he had. Dorian’s actions could be interpreted as excess in the amount of sensation and pleasure he sought, culminating in the final excess search for pleasure by destroying the one object in its way. His actions could also be interpreted as progressive renunciation of conscience, culminating in the destruction of the portrait. In either case, Dorian dies, and so experiences some punishment.

Both times that I read this novel I noted strange instances when Harry displays emotion that seem out of place with the image he creates of himself, such as a description of his “nervous fingers” during a conversation with Basil and the fear in Harry’s eye when he hears Dorian give a stifled groan and collapse in the next room. I had not before considered Lord Henry to be more deeply wounded than the others, as Wilde suggests he is. Regardless, Harry’s efforts to renounce an active role in his own life do not generate the carefree happiness one might expect from a character so bent escaping personal suffering.

The cases of these three characters seem, to me, strong demonstration that all excess and renunciation ultimately face their own punishment. However, I don’t see this demonstration as inviting any specific moral view. These characters have very different relationships with excess and renunciation, and all face punishment. Dorian’s actions could equally be interpreted as excess or renunciation and, in a way, so too could any of the characters’ actions. Excess can be a renunciation of the opposite idea, and vice versa. As a result, it’s difficult to extrapolate any directed moral from the story. It seems that no set of behavior is entirely safe. As a result, though I can’t help but be struck by the demonstrations of how characters suffer for their actions in The Picture of Dorian Gray and take this demonstration to be some kind of moral, I don’t think that it is a moral that compels a reader to any specific conclusion. Rather, it leaves us to decide for ourselves where to take our actions from here.

* I use “zir” as a possessive form of the generic, gender-neutral subject pronoun “ze.” This is used in order to be more inclusive than the traditional “she” and “he” pronouns allow, encompassing people who fall outside of gender binary as well as those who identify as women and men.


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Haunting and Madness in both The Picture of Dorian Gray and À Rebours

While reading À rebours and The Portrait of Dorian Gray side by side, I was struck by a sense of hysteric madness in both Dorian and des Esseintes. The psychological affects of des Esseintes are much more clearly plotted for us than those of Dorian as the words neurosis, hysteria, and psychology are repeated throughout the novel. Dorian’s condition is much more obscure.

It seems both men come from a childhood that have marked them negatively—Dorian is the child of “Love and Death” as Lord Henry calls him, and des Esseintes recalls his childhood with an acute morbid negativity. Des Esseintes refers to his childhood often “par haine, et par mépris” (À rebours 88), and later actually says that he develops almost sadomasochistic tendencies because of his upbringing: “un besoin de vengeance de tristesse endure, une rage de salir par des turpitudes de souvenirs de famille, un désir furieux de panteler sur des cousins de chair, d’épuiser jusqu’à leur dernière gouttes, les plus véhémentes et les plus acres des folies charnelles.” (ibid) Not only this, but des Esseintes seems to perpetrate and encourage the cycle “en garda[nt] les deux vieux domestiques qui avaient siogné sa mere […] un ménage habitué à un emploi de garde-malade.” (98) He treats himself as a sick man and therefore becomes one all the more. He has true symptoms of a Freudian hysteric—he has a “toux nerveuse” (À rebours 182), he is “torturé par d’inexplicables repulsions, par des frémissements qui lui glaçaient l’échine.” (À rebours 181), and “le doute ne pouvait exister; la névrose revenait, une fois de plus, sous l’apparence d’une nouvelle illusion des sens.” (À rebours 215).

Dorian’s childhood and his mother’s beauty certainly cast a shadow on his upbringing but the source of his darkness is not as clearly defined. Although it does shape him, it is des Esseintes who “became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself. And indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.” (Dorian Gray 97) Dorian begins to question his own behavior, “had some strange poisonous germ crept from body to body till it had reached his own? […] Were his own actions merely the dreams that the dead man had not dared to realize?”(Dorian Gray 107). His neurosis seems to grow as his obsession with his own beauty does; he begins to act like des Esseintes, he collects, he obsesses, he hallucinates, corrupts the young souls of others, all the while thinking he is exempt from any type of reprobation.

Finally the last connection to make is that of forced solitude, paranoia, and the ability to “travel” from one’s own home. We are fully aware of des Esseintes’s solitude, he talks about it incessantly, and he even goes so far as to say that “la solitude avait agi sur son cerveau, de même qu’un narcotique.” (À rebours 169). He is so fond of this isolation that he begins to sympathize with monastic life as a doctrine for his own life (À rebours 159). Dorian too begins to desire this sense of forced confinement, he starts to collect like des Esseintes and begins to change: “For these treasures and everything that he collected in his lovely house, were to be to him means of forgetfulness, modes by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to be borne” (Dorian Gray 152). Des Esseintes on his end demonstrates this by his innate ability to travel to the ocean from his own bathtub (À rebours 102-103) but also his fictional trip to London. Des Esseintes describes it as “il se procurait ainsi, en ne bougeant point, les sensations rapides, Presque instantanées, d’un voyage au long cours, et ce plaisir du déplacement […]” (À rebours 101).

Both men reach a point of no return, des Esseintes ends up by removing himself “[…] de plus en plus, de la réalité et surtout du monde contemporain.” (À rebours 296) while Dorian begins to become intensely paranoid: “The next day he did not leave the house, and indeed, spent most of the time in his own room, sick with a wild terror of dying, and yet indifferent to life itself.” (Dorian Gray 146). What started as a decadent pleasure, a love for collecting, indulging in the ugly beauty of solitude, quickly becomes a nightmare from which the two main characters can not disentangle themselves.








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