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Oscar Wilde’s “False Notes”: Dorian Gray and English Realism

  • Julia Kent

…plus d’informations

  • Julia Kent
    American University of Beirut

Corps de l’article

The difference between English and French novels of the nineteenth century has often been understood in terms of character regulation. While French novels are known for representing transgressive individual desires—from adultery to the Balzacian pursuit of “l’or et la chair”—English novels are known for their tendency to stabilize desire within various social and moral economies. This difference has been examined in a number of comparative studies of French and English realism, since it implies that French and English novelists uphold different conceptions of the real or representative self. As Sharon Marcus has argued in her study of English and French Sapphism, for example, English novels yoke real desires to dominant sexual ideals, while French novels present a discrepancy between the real and the heteronormative ideal. [1] The problem has also been examined by Margaret Cohen and Franco Moretti, both of whom argue that nineteenth-century English novels more strongly subordinate the desires of individuals to collective and often domestic, values. [2]

How sensitive are novels themselves to such distinctions between English and French versions of the genre? From one perspective, it would seem that English novels often denigrate French characters as less real, because transgressive, than the English. [3] In the Victorian novel in particular, where mapping the social through the individual becomes a focused interest, persistent comparisons emerge between an English real and a French falsity. These tropes also seem to uphold the distinct models of character regulation described above: transparency and sincerity are accorded to English characters whose actions remain within dominant social values, while French characters are associated with unreliable surface. Next to the unreliable performances of French theater girls, for example—the murderess Laure in Middlemarch, and Rochester’s deceptive French lover, Céline Varens, in Jane Eyre—are placed the psychological depths of Dorothea and Jane. A French character that violates dominant social ideals is not only bad, it would seem; her desires lack the complexity given to her English counterparts. Yet we can also read the ubiquitous counter-posing of English character and French surface in a different way. While the comparisons I have described often do reflect Victorian commitments to upholding certain conceptions of representative desire, French characters and novelistic forms also undermine the reductive ways in which the representative is defined. As a number of critics have noted, Jane’s English interiority is often cast as a form of theatricality, linking her to Céline and the latter’s more overt seduction of Rochester; [4] similarly, Dorothea’s submerged wish that Casaubon might die is brought to the surface by Laure’s intentional killing of her husband. [5] This pattern does not limit itself to the mercenary or duplicitous sexuality of the Frenchwoman. In Dickens’s Little Dorrit, Blandois, the gentleman with a “theatrical air,” acts his commitments to everyone and no one at all, and his theatrical self underscores the capitalism-driven motivations of various English characters (Dickens 23). [6] To varying degrees, these French actors register the ambivalence of Victorian novelists toward treating transgressive individual desires as unrepresentative or unreal. On the one hand, French characters represent the dangers of radical independence from various social and moral codes; on the other, they also represent the Victorians’ appreciation for the power and value of individual self-fashioning. [7]

If mid-century Victorian novelists express ambivalence toward the reality of French transgressions, then we might expect Oscar Wilde to express strong affiliations with the French model. Indeed, Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, prominently features a French novel that offers a nearly limitless, and tantalizing, conception of self-fashioning, the well-known “yellow book.” It is under the influence of the book that Dorian, imitating the book’s Parisian main character, widens his appetites and aims to make his life a work of art. The yellow book is also repeatedly credited for leading Dorian to question the limited real from which he escapes while reading. The first goal of this paper is to locate Wilde in relation to the problematic I have just sketched, noticing the striking parallels between mid-Victorian treatments of the unreal French self and Wilde’s fin-de-siècle experiment. While Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, and Eliot make theater the dominant trope of French character, Wilde uses the themes of a markedly French Decadence— the denaturalization of the body, and the reinvention of the self through consumption—to question English characterological ideals. These Decadent tropes can be understood to take to extreme limits the attractions of self-fashioning found in earlier Victorian versions of the theatrical French self. At the same time, a further examination of Wilde will show that he does not simply invert the nationalized, and evaluative, distinction between English reality and French unreality, or between the stabilization of English character within moral codes and the free self-fashioning of the French. As I will argue, Dorian Gray expresses a divided reaction, locating in the French self a challenge to English models of real character while also exploring its limitations. This is a version of cultural comparison that is quite different from the kind found in Wilde’s treatments of England and Ireland, the culture which Wilde most consistently owned. While France and England are represented as distinct cultures possessing characteristic aesthetics, Ireland is represented, as many critics have shown, as a nation defined by internal division and contradiction. [8] For Wilde, what is unique about the French character is that it possesses many of the instabilities found within the Irish imaginary while also remaining bound by some of the restrictions that attend any homogenous cultural category. French self-fashioning thus becomes a way of testing the limitations of English conceptions of the real, but it remains restricted, as does Englishness, by its own characteristic forms.

I. English readers, French novels

Wilde is well known for his critiques of realism, which emphasize art over life, masks and lies over truth, surface over substance. An important and unremarked aspect of these critiques is a tendency to invoke comparisons of English and French aesthetics. In his most extended critical treatment of English aesthetic productions, “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” English reading practices are compared with English habits of consumption and production; the world of capitalism absorbs the aesthetic so that the latter looks like a form of producing or consuming. As many other Victorian aesthetes following Ruskin view the problem, English industrial culture leaves no place for the individual imagination at either the level of artistic production (art is produced like any other manufactured object) or at the level of artistic consumption (the public acquires a taste for the kind of art produced under such conditions). In both “The Soul of Man under Socialism” and “The Critic as Artist,” Wilde holds up French aesthetic culture as a counter-example to this distinctly English problem. The terms of this comparison are nationalized versions of oppositions found in aestheticism more generally, between the artistic and the mechanical, the original and the mass-produced. While the English impose upon artists standardized criteria of professional writing, the French protect the artist’s unique powers of individual expression from the commercial world. In “The Soul of Man,” for example, Wilde writes that “[i]n France […] they limit the journalist, and allow the artist almost perfect freedom. Here we allow absolute freedom to the journalist, and entirely limit the artist” (277; Wilde’s emphasis). While English culture evaluates art according to these professional standards, France makes a deviation from these standards the mark of artistic success. And while true art exists for its own sake, English literary professionalism is tied up in the end-driven productions of mass culture. In France, by contrast, the Académie Française helps guarantee an aesthetic standard that remains independent of popular taste. “There is not a single real poet or prose-writer of this century,” Wilde writes in “The Soul of Man,” “on whom the British public have not solemnly conferred diplomas of immorality, and these diplomas practically take the place, with us, of what in France is the formal recognition of an Academy of Letters, and fortunately make the establishment of such an institution quite unnecessary in England” (273). In ironically equating the English practice of condemning art with the French practice of conferring aesthetic value, Wilde credits French literary circles for appreciating precisely those original aesthetic forms from which the English public shrinks in distaste.

The general terms of Wilde’s critique underwrite a more specific claim, that French and English readers occupy different relationships to novelistic realism. Throughout both his critical and literary texts, Wilde puts forward the idea that the English possess a taste for social realism chronicling the quotidian habits of the working and middle classes. [9] When, for example, Dorian Gray invites Lord Henry to watch Sibyl Vane in her six-thirty performance of Romeo and Juliet, Lord Henry responds, “What an hour! It will be like having a meat-tea, or reading an English novel.” [10] The treatment of English reading as a kind of mechanical feeding also occurs in “The Soul of Man,” where Wilde complains of what he calls the English public’s “want of taste” (270): “They swallow their classics whole, and never taste them. They endure them as the inevitable, and, as they cannot mar them, they mouth about them” (272). In both instances, Wilde critiques more than the “commonplace” subject matter of English art, since these metaphors collapse preferred literary subject matter into models of repetitive consumption. A dull literary diet, consisting either of an unvaried standard of literary value (the classics) or a repetitive, and therefore essentializing, real (meat-teas), engenders a limited perception of value or reality.

It is within this phenomenology of English literary consumption that Wilde imagines French literature’s power as antidote. Putting forward his argument for the value of “Lying in Art,” Vivian declares that a dose of Flaubert’s fiction could disrupt distinctly English patterns of habitual aesthetic perception: “The solid stolid British intellect lies in the desert sands like the Sphinx in Flaubert’s marvelous tale, and fantasy, La Chimère, dances round it, and calls to it with her false, flute-toned voice. It may not hear her now, but surely some day, when we are all bored to death with the commonplace character of modern fiction, it will hearken to her and try to borrow her wings” (“Decay of Lying” 318). In Flaubert’s tale, La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, the Sphinx remains rooted in the desert, stubbornly and mechanically recording alphabets in the sand while the Chimère enjoys a freedom of movement that leads to new possibilities in the clouds, “félicités lointaines” (Flaubert 240). It is telling that Wilde does not choose Flaubert’s more sexually provocative tale to describe this seduction. Even though Madame Bovary declares a radical separation between the ethical and the aesthetic, the novel’s focus on the mundane makes the novel look closer to the forms of literary realism Wilde tends to dismiss. What Flaubert comes to stand for here is a dramatic move away from a real defined by the habitual round of work and consumption. [11] As suggested by the “false” note—painful in the present, pleasurable in the future— this text jars the English reader’s sense that these processes constitute the real.

II. Fashioning the Real in Dorian Gray

This context sheds new light on the prominent scenes of fantasy reading in Dorian Gray. Just after the death of Sibyl Vane, the actress whom Dorian has loved and abandoned, Lord Henry sends Dorian two texts which together constitute a choice about how to apprehend the relationship between art and life. The first is an edition of The Saint-James Gazette which announces that the post-mortem analysis of Sibyl’s body has concluded “death by misadventure” (97). As a piece of journalism reporting on a scientific investigation, the newspaper is placed in the realm of a tedious real. Dorian recoils from the newspaper’s report and his response indicates that he has adopted Lord Henry’s view that an excessive commitment to life inhibits aesthetic appreciation: “How ugly it all was! And how horribly real ugliness made things!” (97). Dorian’s response also indicates a shift in his sense of the relationship between conventional mores and art, since the portrait, an image charged with the homoerotic desire of its producer for its subject, had once led Dorian to shrink in fear. It is at this point that Dorian turns to the “yellow book,” which immediately distracts him from the scandal of Sibyl’s death and his own ambiguous role in bringing it about.

More than constituting a simple choice between life and art, however, these texts also present two different, and nationalized, models of novelistic representation. More precisely, the English newspaper is tied to the English novel’s form in Lord Henry’s comment that “there is no literary public in England for anything except newspapers, primers, and encyclopaedias” (38). Like the novel as meat-tea, the novel as newspaper is consumed in a quotidian ritual and enforces limited conceptions of the real or natural self. Not only does the newspaper imagine that Sibyl’s body can be reduced to an objective scientific conclusion, but it also suggests that this conclusion might hold Dorian accountable to a model of desire that is both stable and heteronormative, and thereby implicate him in her death. Meanwhile, the French novel is conceived in a language of fantasy and dreaming that broadens the category of real desire. Dorian’s attraction to this alternative is clearly evinced by the free indirect style: “Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed” (97). The French novel presents a real in motion, denoting the Parisian character’s action with the active verb “realize,” a pursuit that seeks after new “modes of thought”:

It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belong to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have wisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jeweled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes.


Next to the heteronormative and stable bodies in the English real emerges the French real of evolving self-realization, since the book prompts Dorian to seek out new and often homoerotic experiences.

Yet from Dorian’s very first encounter with the yellow book, the narration offers equivocal descriptions of the French novel. On the one hand, the opening sentence of chapter 11, which is devoted to the book’s influence, presents the French novel as an object that threatens Dorian’s freedom: “For years, Dorian could not free himself from the influence of this book” (98). The concluding sentence of the chapter also seems to take distance from this influence, offering a strongly evaluative view: “Dorian Gray had been poisoned by a book. There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful” (114-15). Yet while these sentences formally highlight the independence of chapter 11 from the rest of the novel, the narration also aligns itself with the French text’s seductions: while it cites the newspaper’s inquest, setting it apart from its own narration, the chapter incorporates the description of the yellow book into its own prose. Thus while Wilde clearly and unsurprisingly marks his novel as un-English, he also contains the French novel’s relation to the rest of his own novel.

Wilde’s refusal to fully endorse French models of self-fashioning must be understood in different terms from the refusals of earlier Victorians, however. Whereas other novelists limit the degree to which characters can incorporate non-English cultures, Wilde limits the degree to which characters can become excessively attached to any single cultural form. Wilde avoids idealizing any such form because to do so would be to prevent the free cultivation of the self in relation to diverse cultural products. The restrictions of the French literary form are marked even at the moment that they are appreciated: even though this form promotes uninhibited self-fashioning, it also possesses a characteristic style: “The style in which it was written was that curious jeweled style […] that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes” (97). This idea also emerges when Wilde describes his incorporation of J.-K. Huysmans, since he insists that his novel does not merely transpose the preexisting forms of the French novelist. More specifically, Wilde later denigrates Huysmans’s text as a type of realism that he has subjected to his own “fantastic” adulteration. Writing in a letter dated 15 April 1892, he describes his yellow book episode as “a fantastic variation of Huysmans’s over-realistic study of the artistic temperament in our artistic age” (qtd. in Cevasco 69; emphasis mine). Giving us yet another, but related, definition of the term, “realism” becomes a form of novelistic representation that remains stabilized within anything that can be identified as a form, “fantasy” a shift away from such form. Even though this is the achievement that Huysmans’s novel would seem to accomplish when it is compared with English versions of the genre, Wilde does not idealize it in any abstract way, avoiding the potentially essentializing limits of form itself. Dorian Gray’s attempt to strain away from any national generic category is felt at the only other moment in the novel when literary realism is invoked, when Lord Erskine suggests that Lord Henry write a novel and the latter declares, “I should like to write a novel certainly, a novel that would be as lovely as a Persian carpet and as unreal” (38). [12] To truly resist novelistic realism, this remark suggests, one would have to break free from the conventions of national novel traditions altogether.

This position allows Wilde both to endorse and critique the French tradition from which he draws, which is also, we may notice, critiqued for the particular constraints it imposes. The yellow book does not, as we might expect, completely oppose the English and French models of self around the axis of personal freedom from social norms. Instead, the chapter’s nationalized codes of realism engage with two poles of a self whose freedoms are restricted by consumption in different ways: while the English self is constituted by a literary diet that is habitual and unchanging, the French self represents a homo economicus who becomes a slave to his appetites. [13] The consumer’s lack of control is also a problem in Huysmans’s A Rebours, the French novel which bears striking similarities to the yellow book and upon which Dorian Gray was, Wilde once suggested, “partly” based. [14] Both Des Esseintes, the hero of the yellow book, and Dorian Gray are enthralled to an exhausting search for new forms of consumption. And throughout the episode on the yellow book, Dorian is himself turned quite literally into an object, in the sense that he is “poisoned by a book” rather than remaining actively in control of his own self-development. Even while Wilde values the French novel’s capacity to challenge models of real desire, then, he also attributes to the French novel some of the most problematic aspects of a self-fashioning based on consumption. In marking the foreign text as distinctly French, Wilde thus also takes distance from the particular problems of self-fashioning that complicate Dorian’s power to fashion himself.

For Wilde, self-fashioning doesn’t deserve the name unless the individual—and we might add, the individual novelist—remains highly independent of all of the cultural forms through which he temporarily passes. Yet here, Wilde marks this independence in very different affective terms than he does at other moments in the novel, where freedom from national cultural forms is associated with the eclectic tastes of the collector. Up to this point, Lord Henry, Basil, and Dorian have taken pleasure in a diverse array of international aesthetic objects that adorn their individual drawing-rooms. Contrasting with the discrimination, self-control, and pleasure evinced in these scenes of international décor is the more complex interplay of attraction and repulsion marking Dorian’s consumption of foreign objects in the yellow book chapter. One of the remarkable aspects of the yellow book is that it inspires a series of negative affects that “trouble the brain”; even Lord Henry joins Dorian in defining his relationship to the yellow book in negative relationship to pleasure. When Lord Henry tells Dorian, “‘I thought you would like [the book]’” (98), Wilde concludes the chapter with the following, grave exchange:

“I didn’t say I liked it, Harry. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.”

“Ah, you have discovered that?” murmured Lord Henry.


The marked distinction between “liking” and “fascination” sets this reading experience apart from these characters’ earlier appreciations of the exotic.

The negative affects inspired by the yellow book directly relate to Wilde’s critique of English realism in so far as they register an attack on engrained perceptions of the real. This problem emerged in Wilde’s treatment of the “false note,” which is implied to cause discomfort as it draws English readers away from their limited perceptions of reality. Here, there is a marked dissonance between the ornate style of the prose and the “monstrous” objects it describes— both the “hideous” foreignness of the instruments as well as their homoerotic novelty to Dorian:

At another time he devoted himself entirely to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts in which gypsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums, and crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass, and charmed, or feigned to charm, great hooded snakes and horrible horned adders.


Of course, such a passage is capable of producing affects of displeasure in more contemporary readers, since the chapter often describes foreign male bodies in orientalist and racist terms. At the same time, the passage also attempts to elaborate a form of desire that would not be unreflectively mechanized as it is in Wilde’s conceptions of the English social body. An aesthetic characterized by the grotesque, and an aesthetic consumption marked by negative affect in the presence of a supposedly unnatural otherness, incorporates a distinctive formal pattern in A Rebours, where Huysmans lavishes sumptuous detail on forms that deviate from bourgeois standards of beauty. More precisely, Huysmans uses the radically foreign (non-Western) as the occasion for showing that the discriminating observer can desire and regulate his body differently from the vulgar, inartistic bourgeois. Radically opposing himself to the tenets of Zola, for whom deviant desires characterize the “bête humaine,” Huysmans treats deviance as the heroic attempt to triumph over nature. In experimenting with the color scheme of his apartment, for example, Des Esseintes seeks out colors more subtle than those enjoyed in “bourgeois optics” (29). Meditating on the preference for certain colors, he reflects that the “hearty, blustering type…the handsome, full-blooded sort, the strapping he-men who scorn the formalities of life and rush straight for their goal” prefer “the vivid glare of the reds and yellows” (29-30). Des Esseintes, by contrast, is one of the “gaunt, febrile creatures of feeble constitution and nervous disposition” whose eyes prefer the more subtle and unnatural hybridity of red and yellow combined, “that most morbid and irritating of colours, with its acid glow and unnatural splendour—orange” (30). Of value here is not only “artificiality,” the term commonly associated with both French and English writers’ espousal of the tenets of “art for art’s sake,” but also the “irritation” that measures aesthetic experiences in strong contradistinction to bourgeois pleasure. [15] An exotic aesthetic, like an exotic color, challenges the senses’ ability to perceive in ways that nature has not made immediately available. For Wilde, it is also, of course, the mark that the literary consumer has registered an alternative version of the real.

In Dorian Gray, the sudden shift from pleasurable to self-disciplined consumption reflects a certain distinction between the ways in which French and English aesthetes and decadents define art and aesthetic experience. Throughout the middle-class revolutions of the nineteenth century, the French middle class tends to define its vitality through metaphors of health, and it’s against such a version of the body that French aesthetes and decadents promote the value of disease and corporeal decay. For writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Huysmans, the image of the decaying natural body is the distinctive modernist trope, the sign of art’s domination of nature. By contrast, English aesthetes and decadents tend to represent the English middle-class as a group constrained by work and self-discipline, values against which they define their own commitments to freedom and pleasure. What Wilde takes from Huysmans is an experiment in treating aversion and corporeal destruction as a form of willful artistry, a heroic desire to make one’s body available to the broadest range of experience possible—including those from which the body shrinks. It is for this reason, I would argue, that the chapter on the yellow book is characterized by formal tensions between an aesthetic experience based in pleasure or a retreat from work (the more dominant English model) and the rigorous forms of self-overcoming in the face of that which offends the natural body (the French). Both models are treated as routes to a higher form of pleasure, but they accent the role of the will to very different degrees. Thus Dorian’s response under the influence of the book is oddly marked as both a state of attenuated consciousness, a relaxing of constraints, as well as a hyper-consciousness, a state requiring mastery of the body’s natural and inferior inclinations. Dreaming, forgetting, and sleeping—pleasurable states that are more typically used to characterize aesthetic experience in Wilde—compete with states of shock, absorption, and obsessive scrutiny of that which is alien to the self.

Wilde’s version of Huysmans also preserves individual agency in a different way, by suggesting that this taste for alternative versions of reality and desire is acquired. For Huysmans, the taste for the grotesquely foreign is more innate, traced to Des Esseintes’s aristocratic origins. [16] Dorian’s consumption of objects that produce aversion, on the other hand, occurs in the context of a developmental narrative. [17] Wilde marks this difference between Dorian’s and Des Esseintes’s trajectories in the narrative description of the book itself. As Dorian’s own perception registers, the yellow book provides no trajectory of development: “It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own” (97). By contrast, Dorian’s reading program transforms him from the kind of individual who shrinks and blushes in the presence of temptations that “monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful” to one who makes himself available to the pleasures of what the body first registers as monstrous (20). Here and throughout the chapter on the yellow book, this chosen proximity to the “alien” is a project that is repeatable, and made further available to the reader who subjects himself to the odd dissonance between the delightful and the hideous. Reading such a book is the extreme opposite of mechanically taking in the quotidian news of the newspaper, which grounds its reader in a real that, for Wilde, is merely the national and the familiar.

Parties annexes