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87 T Disraeli and Wilde’s     The Picture of Dorian Gray D espite his increasingly self-destructive lifestyle, Oscar Wilde not only read voraciously but remembered much of it. His notorious The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) has been persuasively linked to that omnivorous reading, but in only one case did Oscar ape the author as well as his work. Curiously, that writer was prime minister when Wilde was a university student in Dublin and then Oxford, and decades earlier had abandoned the flamboyant manner that both intrigued and influenced Wilde. Although Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881) seems to have left his posthumous mark on one of the most influential and controversial books of the English 1890s,Wilde’s interpreters, almost without exception, have rushed to point to other sources.1 Joris-Karl Huysmans’s A Rebours (1884), often called “the breviary of the decadence,” furnished Wilde’s dank atmosphere of depravity and became the model for the exotic and depraved French (and “yellow”) book that would corrupt the susceptible Dorian.2 Oscar’s London acquaintance Edward Heron-Allen, whose palm reading fascinatedWilde , published a curious novel in 1888, just before The Picture of Dorian Gray was begun, which appears to provide another link. In Ashes of the Future: The Suicide of Sylvester Gray, a handsome young man living only for pleasure is tormented, finally, by a guilty conscience and the worthlessness of his life. “Your own history,” the narrator of the novel charges Gray, “viewed … merely as a work of art, will lose its importance, [even] its horrors, for you.” And for good reason, Sylvester Gray, like Dorian, becomes afraid of mirrors. Wilde may have also found mirrors that reveal hidden guilt in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Edward Randolph’s Portrait” (1834; revised 1842) and in a story by Edgar Allan Poe. Hawthorne’s tale even includes a character named AliceVane, possibly echoed in the SibylVane ofWilde’s melodrama of moral disintegration. The deadly picture, perhaps borrowed from Hawthorne by his compatriot, is crucial to Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” (1842), where the Farewell,Victoria! 88 painter obsessively subjects his young wife to the exhaust­ ing discipline of sitting for her likeness throughout days that become weeks, unaware that he is draining her of vitality. “This is indeed Life itself !” he cries out triumphantly as he applies the last stroke. But his model has died with the final application of his brush.3 Wilde seems to have borrowed Dorian’s goal of eternal youth—he offers his soul to remain in the flesh like his portrait by Basil Hallward—from a Gothic novel by his great-uncle, Charles Maturin.The Faustian Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) even furnishedWilde with a postprison pseudonym appropriate to his self-exile, “Sebastian Melmoth.” Maturin’s hero, another character in the novel, observes: “though … considerably advanced in life, to the astonishment of his family he did not betray the slightest trace of being a year older than when they last beheld him.” For someone as familiar with German writers as Wilde, the divid­ ed and destructive self that plagues Dorian may have come from the greatest of all Fausts. Goethe’s Johann Faust wails, much like Dorian finally under­ stands about himself, “Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust!” (Two souls live, alas! in my breast.) Yet Wilde’s major debt in The Picture of Dorian Gray to German literature seems to be the doppelgänger theme. He could have found it first in E.T. A. Hoffman’s Die Elixiere desTeufels (1816), and again in Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839), in which Wilson stabs his double and, in effect, wounds himself mortally. “In me didst thou exist,” says the double, “and in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” There were other accessible doppelgänger stories, including one by Dostoevsky (1846) thatWilde knew in translation, as well as Robert Louis Stevenson’s then-popular novel about dual personality, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).There was also a familiar doppelgänger drawing, How They Met Themselves (1860), by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Wilde favorite (Fig. 1). “Dorian” suggests Greece, and what was thought of as “Greek love,” and it is likely that antecedents of Wilde’s Gray go beyond literary proto­ types to real people in Wilde’s circle, one of them John Gray (Fig. 2), a handsome , dandified homosexual then a librarian at the Foreign Office. (After the break­ up of the...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780944318478
Related ISBN
9780944318256
MARC Record
OCLC
830023703
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-18
Language
English
Open Access
No
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