- Imperialism, Aesthetics, and Gothic Confrontation in The Picture of Dorian Gray
In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) Oscar Wilde offers his readers a glimpse of what the downfall of British imperialism might look like if art were entirely to fall victim to excess and degeneracy. Wilde suggests that the nineteenth-century quests for both empire and hedonism could intermingle to brew a dangerous aesthetic—one with the potential to prey on the vulnerable aspects of British sensibility and culture, and to collapse even the most conventional of Victorian ideals. England’s colonial enterprises in both Ireland and India haunt Dorian Gray as repressed subplots that surface sporadically within Wilde’s more overt illustration of aesthetic and imperial insatiability. His use of colonial references, particularly those involving Ireland, work as codified tools of cultural subversion.
To underscore the subversive narrative, perhaps ironically, Wilde engages the strategies of gothic fiction, establishing a series of doubles that consists of characters, objects, and concepts. In “Oscar Wilde: The Artist as Irishman,” Declan Kiberd points out that “Wilde’s entire literary career constituted an ironic comment on the tendency of Victorian Englishmen to attribute to the Irish those emotions which they had repressed in themselves.” 1 Many of those pairs meet in climactic moments of confrontation that threaten the necessary distance maintained by the trope of the gothic binary.2 John Paul Riquelme has emphasized the importance of gothic tropes to Wilde’s novel, particularly narrative doubling, arguing that Dorian Gray “proceeds against the background of Walter Pater’s aesthetic writings, but also against Pater in a stronger sense. It provides in narrative form a dark, revealing double for Pater’s aestheticism that emerges from a potential for dark doubling and reversal within aestheticism itself.”3 Wilde is [End Page 131] writing “against” Paterian aesthetics in many ways, yet Riquelme’s assertion— that the gothic trope of doubling is the medium through which Wilde exposes the dangers of aestheticism—highlights the importance of the gothic style in Dorian Gray. Through the gothic convention, according to Jim Hansen, Wilde “converts the political unconscious of a popular aesthetic form . . . into an aestheticized political consciousness.”4 The novel’s confrontations between art and artist; reality and art; and spectator and art each mirror the imperial confrontation between the classic positions of the colonizer and the colonized Other.
In this framework, Wilde’s Irishness becomes another force that illustrates the degenerate aspects of British imperialism, including the Famine of the 1840s. In “Impressions of an Irish Sphinx,” Owen Dudley Edwards argues “the Great Famine and its revelation of human responsibility for human suffering were probably the greatest individual legacies in creative response which Wilde inherited from his parents.”5 Following his parents’ legacy, Wilde suggests that humanity shares responsibility for the suffering of its own members through the gothic doubling in the novel, where Dorian must confront those characters who he has forced to suffer in order for his own suffering, and ultimately his self-destruction, to ensue. Just as Victor Frankenstein cannot survive the struggle he faces with the monstrous Other he creates in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the confrontation between Wilde’s depiction of a dominant self and a marginal Other ultimately results in both the death of the title character and the end of the novel’s ability to sustain its narrative.
In her 1831 introduction to Frankenstein, Shelley recounts a dreamlike vision that ultimately led to the construction of her novel. She describes the uncanny feeling evoked when the accepted limits of humanity’s creative powers are stretched beyond human control to a supernatural level. In Shelley’s words, “the successive images that arose in [her] mind” carried “a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.” Her memory of the “acute mental vision” she used to conjure the story of Frankenstein emphasizes the fear and horror that ensue when any human creator, through the uncanny aspects of his or her creation, seemingly mirrors the omniscient powers of an almighty being: “Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the...