Monday, August 31, 2009

decadent horror

I found the Oscar Wilde's preface for The Picture of Dorian Gray quite interesting and, as Natalie mentioned, a fun "shove-it" to his critics.

Wilde was widely criticized for writing an "immoral" novel, and in his preface, responds that art cannot be moral or immoral, it can only be well or badly written. The art itself is only art. It cannot prove anything or have any ethical sympathies, or it is no longer art.

In Wilde's day of Victorian literature, however, art was supposed to prove something. It was supposed to teach some ethical or moral lesson. The point of art should be clear and uplifting to the viewer/reader/listener.

Wilde's view was, rather, those who look for meanings and symbol do so "at their own peril." That there should be a diversity of opinion about it.

I find this so fascinating because Wilde strongly believed, from what I can tell, that art should not have a moral point or express some ethical truth. Yet the novel reads much like a cautionary tale, warning readers of the dangers or living a life without thought to the consequences, or of valuing beauty too much.

In the beginning, the painting of Dorian was exactly as Wilde thought all art should be -- beauty for the sake of beauty, with no moral point or lesson involved. Both Basil and Harry thought it his best work. It was pure art.

It's an interesting debate if Basil's obsession began with Dorian himself or the painting. But the art which was so pure, as Wilde thought it should be, is what brought about the downfall of both Dorian and Basil in Wilde's novel.

I find it ironic that the preface and the novel seemed to be almost perfect opposites. Wilde thought art should be admired only for its beauty rather than its moralistic point; yet too much admiration of beauty destroyed his characters, which is in itself a moralistic point. It makes me wonder if the whole novel was satire aimed at the Victorian aristrocacy.

Monday, August 10, 2009

how did I miss this?

So I read Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I thought I "got it." Then I read Showalter's essay, and realized I had missed the entire point of the story.

For some reason, homosexuality, even in the repressed Victorian era, never occurred to me. Looking back, I'm not sure how, as the moment the light bulb went on, it seemed that the theme appeared on every page.

But the really interesting fact is that it entirely changed my impression of both Jekyll and Hyde. Hyde was described as animal, or demonic, something dark and out of our world. In modern terms, it's not how you would describe a homosexual man. Instead, I was thinking more along the lines of a sociopath. Someone violent simply for violence's sake, someone willing to injure and kill without a thought.

But after reading Showalter's article, I went back and re-read Jekyll's confessional letter. He describes himself as "the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high" (pg. 34) and "I concealed my pleasures" and "hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame." Later, he writes, I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering."

In the re-reading, in understanding that the shame and urges Jekyll refers to are those of homosexuality rather than some random, mindless violent urges I previous assumed, changes entirely how I feel about both Jekyll and Hyde. It also gives a clearer image of Hyde, and more meaning to the frequently repeated concept of him appearing deformed without any obvious deformation. It makes me think less of him as monstrous, and more as someone misunderstood and feared.

That isn't to say that Hyde wasn't evil (he did, as far as I can tell, unless I'm really misunderstanding even more of the story!) murder Carew. Though now I wonder how Hyde's telling of that story might differ, and what might have been said or occurred between the two men.

I think both men, with this view in mind, are infinitely more sympathetic. The shame Jekyll refers to seems all-encompassing, something which he could hardly stand to live with. His experiments, while ultimately his downfall, seem more necessary and understandable.

At first, when reading, I felt like Jekyll was a victim of himself, mostly. That he should have never given in and let Hyde "emerge." Upon re-reading, however, it seems much more like Jekyll was a victim of society itself, of the Victorian repression and their views of homosexuality.