Terry Eagleton pp 142-161 | Cite as

A Picture of Oscar Wilde?

  • David Alderson
Part of the transitions book series (TRANSs)


The Picture of Dorian Gray is a crucial text in Oscar Wilde’s output, not simply because it is his best known work after The Importance of Being Earnest, but because of the role it has played in our understanding of Wilde himself. Far from there being any sign of the death of the author in critical studies of Wilde, one of their distinguishing features has been a tendency constantly to treat life and work as commentaries on each other, sometimes in rather crude ways. In the case of Dorian Gray, the temptation has been to discuss the narrative as almost allegorical, and therefore as remarkably prescient of Wilde’s own eventual fate: Dorian’s defiance of his portrait’s increasingly degenerate and reproachful physiognomy is made to parallel Wilde’s own apparently outrageous willingness to court his own doom, a doom which may even be regarded as having been brought about by his own hand when he decided to take the Marquess of Queensberry to court for the libellous card he left at Wilde’s club. That kind of treatment of text and life has a lengthy history, but its most influential incarnation must surely be Richard Ellmann’s biography, which from Wilde’s early days at Portora Royal School discerns in him a masochistic desire for punishment. At Portora, Wilde apparently became fascinated with the trial of Rev. W. J. E. Bennett for publishing a book defending the real presence of Christ. Ellmann quotes uncritically from the dubious source of Frank Harris’s biography that Wilde claimed he wanted ‘to go down to posterity in such a case as “Regina versus Wilde”‘ (Ellmann, 1987, 23). Such anticipatory moments litter the biography, and there are even suggestions that Wilde’s contemporaries saw parallels between his fiction and his demise. It’s not clear where Ellmann gets the information for the following incident which apparently occurred during exercise in prison one day:

Wilde was walking the round when he heard somebody mutter, ‘What are you doing in this place, Dorian Gray?’ ‘Not Dorian Gray, but Lord Henry Wotton,’ said Wilde. The man whispered ‘I was at all your first nights, and at all your trials,’ as if they were comparable dramatic performances. (Ellmann, 1987, 487)


Male Homosexuality Leisure Class Evolutionary Determinism Authoritarian Power Lengthy History 
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© David Alderson 2004

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  • David Alderson

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