- Borrowed Sins: Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Plagiarisms in The Picture of Dorian Gray
“Of course I plagiarise. It is the privilege of the appreciative man.”(Wilde, qtd. in Beerbohm 36)
In an apocryphal story, Oscar Wilde dogged at the heels of his sometime-friend and rival, the painter James Whistler, at a Paris salon. Jealous of a witticism that Whistler made, Wilde expressed that he wished to have said it, to which Whistler devastatingly replied, “You will, Oscar, you will” (Ellmann 133). Regardless of its accuracy, the story, which has been repeated in multiple memoirs, articles, and even a Monty Python sketch, exemplifies a major element of Wilde’s reception as an artist as well as the truth of his own magpie style. In his poems, plays, essays, journalism, notebooks, and novel, Wilde often made use of found objects, whether they were his own reused lines or others’. In some cases he transformed his sources, but in others he did not.1 A widely recognized hallmark of his style, Wilde’s use of sources runs the gamut from playfully allusive to outright plagiaristic, often in the same work.
However, in matters of narrative interpretation, Wilde’s source use and, in particular, his most transgressive plagiarisms tend to be ignored. Wilde’s plagiarism is frequently viewed as a game of “spot the appropriation” important only to pedants or editors of scholarly editions. Given that Wilde is famous for his iconoclastic style, his appropriations can seem deeply hypocritical. Despite, or perhaps because of, this apparent contradiction, [End Page 137] very few have dwelled on some of Wilde’s most overt appropriations: the lengthy descriptions of musical instruments, precious stones, and embroideries in The Picture of Dorian Gray. These passages, without cues of allusion or irony, incorporate lightly-edited phrasing and structure drawn from museum catalogues. For instance, Dorian lists his stone collection as including:
Olive-green chrysoberyl that turns red by lamplight, the cymophane with its wire-like line of silver, the pistachio-colored peridot, rose-pink and wine-yellow topazes, carbuncles of fiery scarlet with tremulous four-rayed stars, flame-red cinnamon-stones, orange and violet spinels, and amethysts with their alternate layers of ruby and sapphire.(113 )
In this passage, all of the underlined words indicate direct borrowing from various sections of A. H. Church’s museum guide, Precious Stones Considered in Their Scientific and Artistic Relations, including that of the color-changing chrysoberyl “appearing of a raspberry red hue by candle or lamplight” and amethysts that contain “alternate layers of ruby and sapphire” (72, 54). These plagiaristic techniques tend to be addressed in footnotes and curious asides, rather than foregrounded as a signature device of Wilde’s aesthetic style rich with interpretive potential. In what follows, I argue that Wilde’s plagiarisms in The Picture of Dorian Gray constitute an intentional aesthetic strategy, exemplifying a rare genre of intertextuality that embraces its own transgressive nature; often misunderstood and mis-named, this technique is best described as aesthetic plagiarism.
To many, “aesthetic plagiarism” would seem to be an apparent contradiction. Wilde’s early volume, Poems, was rejected from the Oxford Union with Oliver Elton denouncing the collection both aesthetically and ethically on the grounds of plagiarism (Ellmann 146). In more recent scholarship, Averil Gardner echoes the sentiments of the Oxford Union, calling Wilde’s plagiarism of Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and many other well-known poets “barefaced” and “tasteless” (53). Similarly, Harold Bloom’s psychoanalytic labeling of Wilde as a “weak poet” who “lacked the strength to overcome his anxiety of influence” serves to dismiss Wilde’s identity and the value of his artistic work in a way related to [End Page 138] his derivative techniques.2 The Picture of Dorian Gray has been the target of a similar criticism despite the fact that it is of a more serious nature. Arthur Ransome, an early biographer of Wilde, notes the author’s borrowings in Dorian Gray, and, though appreciating the work as a whole, concludes that Wilde’s imitative style is “not a virtue” (98).
Plagiarism has been used as grounds for aesthetic dismissal in cases other than Wilde’s. Artistic production that contains...