A Man Without Substance – Lord Henry Wotton

Meet Lord Henry Wotton, a living, breathing epigraph machine. If there is something clever and cold to be said in The Picture of Dorian Gray, then Lord Henry will probably say it. He appears to be the surface that Wilde alludes to in the Preface, but there is something a little troubling and problematic about Lord Henry that does not quite fit this theory. Throughout the text, people poke fun at Lord Henry for not practising what he preaches. It is possible that the deep hypocrisy and envy of a particular kind of youth and beauty is at the core of his desire for power and destruction over his fellow man.

Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton
Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton
Text: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, 1890/1891
Does he survive the novel? Yes
Family: Wife is Victoria Wotton, separated by the end of the novel

Motivation:

In the beginning, we can easily dismiss Lord Henry’s motivation as being curiosity, but as we are drawn deeper into the story it becomes apparent that there is a kind of dark voyeurism and the desire to dominate that governs Lord Henry’s actions. He is determined to exact an inescapable influence over Dorian Gray. But this desire to control is unsustained after he opens the door to Dorian’s corruption and the damage is done he just leaves him to his own devices. As a gothic villain, Lord Henry falls right into the category of the tempter, see also Dracula.

 

DoriangrayLord Henry as the Creator

Whilst Victor Frankenstein and Lord Henry are quite dissimilar in nature they both undertake the process of creating a “monster”. Lord Henry talks of scientific experiments on Dorian’s psyche, and his he bombards the young man with dangerous ideas that foster this the corruption of this naive man. He builds the creature that is Dorian Gray by appealing to his vanity and desire for sensation. His tools of creation are indeed sensation and ideas. There is no one to hold Dorian’s hand as he navigates his way through the consequences of his diabolical pact and his debaucherous lifestyle. Sir Henry has created a monster and has then let him roam the world unchecked.

 

Favourite Quote:

“It is only the sacred things that are worth touching, Dorian,” said Lord Henry, with a strange touch of pathos in his voice. “But why should you be annoyed? I suppose she will belong to you some day. When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

 

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A Quick Word with Mr Wilde

The PREFACE

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. 

To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.

The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.

Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.

Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable

mannerism of style.

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.

Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.

From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.

When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.

We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

Oscar Wilde.

 

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas By Apollomelos~commonswiki – http://www.web.apc.org/~jharnick/cemetary.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64045

This gorgeous epigraph at the beginning of The Picture of Dorian Gray might be my favourite part of the whole book. It performs the same function as the modern day disclaimer that we are all so familiar with. This is Wilde getting in the first and hopefully the last word in a hypothetical debate with his contemporary literary critics. Wilde’s work was not by any means universally popular. In fact, there were several critics who took particular delight in eviscerating his works. The mere cheek and eloquence of this epigraph make it one of the most endearing defences of aestheticism in literary history.

Wilde today is acknowledged as being one of the most influential writers of the aestheticism movement that advocated art for art’s sake. Art that does not provide us with commentary or allegory, art that is just beautiful and enjoyable.

This epigraph dares critics to find fault with the narrative that follows, because if they do they will be guilty of the flaws they see in the text.

In summary, fuck you. It’s art and if you don’t like it then that’s your problem.

Calling literary criticism autobiography certainly has its merits for there are as many readings of a text as there a readers. We, as readers, bring the full scope of our life experience along for the ride when we read a book.

A small child can read a Disneyified version of Cinderella in a very different way to an adult.

The small child sees a lady who is sad and lonely, who gets to go to a party, and, through a series of intervening events isn’t lonely or sad anymore.

As we grow up our understanding of the book changes, it becomes more complex and potentially, as in my case, less uplifting and more problematic. And very discriminatory against people with large feet.

So too does our understanding of more complex gothic stories like the tale of Dorian Gray.

There is no one right way to understand The Picture of Dorian Gray.

 

And now it is confession time…

This is a poorly worded epigraph or preface to a conversation I would like to have in the future, a conversation that Wilde may have hated.

Can The Picture of Dorian Gray be read as an allegorical cautionary tale?

A tale about the hubris of man wanting to interfere with nature?

A story about the creation of a monster?

Can we compare The Picture of Dorian Gray to Frankenstein?

 

References:

The Picture of Dorian Gray on Project Gutenburg

Paradise Lost in The Poetical Works of John Milton on Project Gutenburg