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ARTICLES STYLE AND ART IN WILDE'S THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY: FORM AS CONTENT JOHN G. PETERS University of Wisconsin-Superior NIany readers have seen a disparity between ihe "Preface" to The Picture of Dorian Gray and the novel itself. For example, Richard Ellmann has said, "Wilde the preface-writer and Wilde the novelist deconstruct each other."1 Similarly, Robert Keith Miller has commented, "Both in its theme and in its style the book is marked by that inconsistency that springs from an inadequately defined purpose."2 These comments voice a common perception of disparity between the amoral purpose of art posited in the "Preface" and the novel's moral plot.3 In contrast, I would like to resolve this seeming paradox and argue that Wilde in fact deliberately juxtaposes the art and morality in die novel in order to emphasize their relationship as outlined in Ûie "Preface." Wilde has argued that his sole purpose in writing the novel was to create a work of art, and he clearly believed die "Preface" to be the novel's philosophical manifesto. In a letter responding to a negative review of the book, he wrote, "My story is an essay on decorative art It reacts against the crude brutality of plain realism. It is poisonous if you like, but you cannot deny that it is also perfect, and perfection is what we artists aim at"4 Wilde's aesthetic theory was different from that of many of his contemporaries, as he discussed it in his "Preface" and elsewhere.3 As is well known, Wilde rejects the "instruct" half of the "delight" and "instruct" criteria for art that most had accepted since Horace's Ars Poética. Instead, Wilde argued, "There is no such tiling as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. ... No artist has ediical sympadiies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style."6For Wilde« ethical actions or ideas may form the raw materials for art but art's purpose is to delight with the beauty of the work's creation, not to persuade the Victorian Review 25.1 (Summer 1999) Victorian Review reader ofa particular moral idea.7 Linked to tiiis idea is Wilde's assertion mat life imitates art radier man art imitating life.8 According to this dieory, art takes life "recreates it and refashions it in fresh forms."9 The primary target of Wilde's aesdietic is realist art Nineteenthcentury realism sought to accurately represent reality so mat whoever experienced an artist's finished product would recognize it as sometiiing from his or her own experience — in otiier words, sometiiing realistic. If the work of art were successful, the objects, events, ideas, and people should all concur witii die audience's personal experience. In so doing, realism yoked togetiier morality and representation, because it advocated a moral stance based upon representation of reality, so tiiat the moral ideas, like die objects, events, and people, represented commonly held opinions. In contrast Wilde argued for an art of invention not representation, an art "dealing witii what is unreal and non-existent."10 Art should present an idealized creation tiiat may have some relationship or similarity to reality but was not to represent reality. Even criticism, Wilde felt, should strive to be an art of perfection not representation. In "The Critic as Artist" he argues that "the primary aim of the critic is to see die object as in itself it really is not"11 Wilde found "die prison-house ofrealism"12 to be restricting because it was limited to commonly held morality and representation of reality; it was also imperfect, because reality can never achieve the perfection of the ideal (which perfection was Wilde's goal for art). As a result art cannot imitate life if it is to be an invention of the ideal. This rejection of realist criteria for art is precisely die philosophy Wilde defends in a letter to die St. James Gazette: Your critic . . . states tiiat die people in my story have no counterpart in life; tiiat they are . . . "mere catchpenny revelations of the nonexistent " Quite so. If diey existed diey...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 1-13
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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