Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Working Through Wilde

Carl V. of Stainless Steel Droppings stopped by and expressed a hope that I would give other works by Oscar Wilde a try [see his comment here]. He recommends Wilde's plays to me and, for what it's worth, Carl, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed many of his plays. I have read The Importance of Being Ernest multiple times since I was in middle-school and have read An Ideal Husband and Lady Windemere's Fan with equal enjoyment.

I rather suspect that I simply need to give Dorian Gray a second read. Based on my brief foray into the context of Wilde's novel, he was making a point and to be fair to him as an artist, I need to review and re-evaluate whether he succeeded. Some interpretations of Dorian Gray propose the idea that Gray makes a Faustian bargain and that Lord Henry is simply the figure of Mephistophiles. As I've thought about this book the past two or three days, I have decided that Lord Henry most likely represents the knowledge we have about the universe based on our own investigations and observations. Basil, as the great artist, represents that which we know in other ways -- what we strive for, what we want to believe, what we hope to be true. Dorian's story (and Wilde's) is best understood as the author trying to work out through fiction the difficulties of balancing the two ways of understanding the world around him. Yes, one needs to be aware of Wilde's sexual appetites and the trouble such behavior represented in Victorian society. That element, only obliquely referred to in the text, is part of what makes Dorian Gray's stunted understanding and self-destruction so vivid. Gray never finds a comfortable way of living in his world (hence his constant need to rush home and reassure himself as to the condition of the portrait) and neither apparently did Wilde ever come to accept his own divided life. It's a most painful book viewed in that context. My negativity was a response to that pain coming through on the page.

I need to know more both about the book itself and about Wilde's experiences as an author. As I understand it, the publisher insisted on Wilde making certain revisions to The Picture of Dorian Gray so as to make the final text more palatable to the marketplace and it would be useful to know exactly what sections were added or modified before making any final judgment. It would make sense for me to seek out a decent biography of the man.

So it isn't really that I don't *like* Oscar Wilde or that I truly believe that Elizabeth Gaskell was a nicer person than he was. They were two people living fifty years apart in time with different experiences of life. She was a vicar's wife and largely comfortable in her situation; he was something else entirely. I need to get a better handle on the man and the context of the novel.

Which raises another question that some of you may find interesting -- should judgment of a novel be based solely on the reader's experience of it, without reference to the context of the work? Or ought we to try to get as complete an understanding of that context as possible, ie. by investigating the author's personal situation and intent? Any thoughts? I'm talking about leisure reading, not reading as part of a formal educational process.