Update on Dorian Gray and a Question

I just finished The Picture of Dorian Gray last night and as promised, a review is in the works. In the meantime, I have a question for you.

In Oscar Wilde’s preface to the novel, he states:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.

My question is simply do you agree? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments.

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10 thoughts on “Update on Dorian Gray and a Question

  1. Oscar Wilde likes to challenge us with problems such as this, sometimes he is just trying to get a rise out of the reader, but there is always a deeper meaning. At a time when puritanical morality was stifling aesthetes such as Wilde, rebellion was a natural path to take. Dorian Gray certainly poses many moral questions but here Wilde is undermining the strong moral message of the book. But as a book alone, I agree that it cannot be moral or immoral as it is simply words on a page waiting to be read, it is how we interpret the words and the lessons we draw from them which shape our own morality. Books must be judged not on their morality, but on their worth as a work of art.

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  2. Reducing a book to simply “words on a page” is unhelpful and dishonest. The words did not just magically appear there of there out of nowhere – they were put there, written down by someone to communicate something. An objective meaning was intended by the author (even if the meaning was, ironically, that there is no meaning).

    This isn’t to say there’s no room for subjective interpretation. But books are more than simply what the reader makes of them. They must be. If subjective interpretation is all we have, then I can choose to interpret your question as asking “How many Heffalumps can dance on the head of a pin?” instead. You can say, “But that’s not what I asked,” and my response, if I’m consistent, would have to be, “Yeah, but who cares? That’s what I got out of it.”

    Authorial intent cannot be shelved in favor of postmodern subjectivism, nor can we pretend that art should only be judged for its artistic merits without any reference to a moral standard. A brilliantly-written, critically-lauded novel that glorifies, say, paedophilia is still, in the final analysis, a book glorifying paedophilia.

    I had a discussion on this point with the pastor of my old church, several years ago. He summed his position up very eloquently, I think, and I offer it contra Wilde:

    “To judge something on its own terms is really more in the vein of looking to the quality/excellence of execution. Was it well done? Does it portray its intended object well? But if it meets those tests, it still has to undergo the truth/beauty test, which of necessity flows from God’s Word. Truth and beauty are objective as they stand before Yahweh.

    It is possible, of course, to mess up the execution side so badly that truth and beauty can’t be seen, even if they are the object. But it is impossible to have excellent execution of something that is at its heart ugly and get anything but well-executed ugliness. The machine on display in some museum that takes in food and produces excrement may be a fabulous piece of techno-art. It still produces excrement. ‘Gosh, this looks cool and does it well, but man, the smell.'”

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    1. Exactly. That’s the problem with Wilde (one of the problems with Wilde, anyway): he espoused a sort of aestheticism that believes that art is only there to produce a certain emotional reaction in the reader/viewer and that’s all. It’s not supposed to have any deeper meaning beyond that, therefore it’s beyond morality, according to him. You would think that this means that Dorian Gray never reaches a higher conclusion than to be entertaining, but that’s not the case, which makes me think that even Oscar Wilde could see through his own theories.

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      1. “You would think that this means that Dorian Gray never reaches a higher conclusion than to be entertaining, but that’s not the case, which makes me think that even Oscar Wilde could see through his own theories.”

        Funny how that works, isn’t it? They can’t escape it, no matter how hard they try. 🙂

        I’ve always wished that Chesterton and Wilde could’ve had a fireside confab, and that it had been recorded for the rest of us to read. A dueling of the minds (even if I already know who the winner would be).

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        1. That would have been awesome. 🙂 I have heard that Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw debated each other formally and that the transcripts of those debates were published as a book. Have you read that one yet?

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      2. Yeah I definitely agree with this point, like I mentioned Wilde often said provocative things to get us thinking, even if he didn’t totally believe in them himself. For example calling fashion a form of ugliness, which he obviously did not really think!

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  3. A provocative question. Reminds me of the oft-misquoted biblical maxim that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Money itself is morally neutral, but the uses to which it is put possess moral elements. Likewise, in my opinion, a book (when defined as an assemblage of words on paper) may be ambivalent. However, the words (unless a random collection) possess some meaning, and that meaning is subject to moral evaluation.

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    1. My thoughts exactly. The problem, I find, with the analysis of many works of art is that people tend to assume that what’s there doesn’t really matter, it’s only the impression it makes on the reader/viewer that matters. Wilde, I think, might have believed this too, but that simply cannot be the case. If art can mean anything to anyone, then it means nothing.

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