27/9/06 Dorian Gray (Wilde); Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson)
The proposer of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde had first encountered the book in France, when he had been so mesmerised that he had sought to translate it into French (and emulate it in lifestyle). Re-reading it many years later he found it more tedious. Whereas the language and wit had once entranced him, it now seemed heavier. Wilde could not resist being clever, and, although the epigrams still brought a smile, they conveyed little of substance, and distracted from the rest of the book. The lack of convincing characterisation was also a weakness
Nevertheless, it was an interesting comedy of manners, with some Gothic elements, which reflected Wilde's aesthetic philosophy of art and life. It was his only novel, his first serious work, and was first published in 1890. In the light of public controversy about its immorality, it was re-published in 1891 with an introduction, six new chapters and many other amendments. Amongst other things these changes eliminated nearly all the homosexual connotations, and introduced the James Vane character. Within five years Wilde would be in prison, and within ten years dead. Some critics had argued that the novel reflected Wilde's affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, but that must be wrong, as that affair did not start until 1891.
Others who were re-reading the novel also found it had paled compared to reading it in their youth. Perhaps it was a young man’s book. It no longer seemed sophisticated. It was florid, and not as tight as Jekyll and Hyde – for example, in its endless descriptions of the jewels Gray had bought. But it was enlivened by the melodrama, for example getting rid of the body of Campbell and the opium-den scene.
By contrast, those reading “Dorian Gray” for the first time found plenty of interest and intrigue to commend it. It was deeply original, and had an enjoyable freshness. It was essentially a fable, a myth. Its central Faustian story - of the picture which took on Gray's sins and age - had great vividness and archetypal resonance. It had a film-like power, with real tension surrounding Dorian’s fear of his painting being discovered. It also had an excellent ending, with the crescendo of the knife being plunged into the painting. The enduring popularity of the book was shown by the fact that it had proved impossible to obtain the book in a second-hand hardback copy, and, indeed, one member of the group had resorted to reading the book on-line.
However, the novel's three elements - wit, decadence, and gothic melodrama - were not fully unified. Wilde was less interested in the secondary characters as people than in them as vehicles for his views (in the absence of an authorial voice). The book was also misogynist.
Which of the characters was based on Wilde himself? An obvious candidate was Lord Henry, with his cynical wit and his love for Gray. However, one of us had gone on to read Wilde's "De Profundis", and had noted the similarity between Wilde's recriminations to Bosie (Lord Douglas) and those of Basil (the artist) towards Gray in the latter part of the novel. Basil therefore reflected Wilde’s personality too (though we were unconvinced by a critic who saw the novel as a meditation on the relationship between the artist and life, and gave the epigrams of the introduction more philosophical weight than they could bear). Dorian's hedonism also reflected part of Wilde's outlook, and we concluded that different aspects of Wilde's personality were reflected in all three characters.
We debated whether it was a “moral” novel. The ostensible moral - that happiness could not be gained without virtue - reminded the proposer of Diderot. Some of us felt that Wilde had put this moral into the story for the benefit of his Victorian audience, and was more attracted by pure hedonism than the plot by itself suggested. The novel’s world was one of decadence where beauty excused all. Gray was able to live in great wealth without any purposeful activity. In this context it would have been interesting to read the novel in its original “less moral” version, and it was surprising that no publisher seemed to have republished the original text. Some felt that "Dorian Gray" suffered from the Victorian constraints on actually describing any of the debauchery that was central to the plot. On the other hand, the lack of any such restraint was arguably a flaw in "The Line of Beauty" by Alan Hollinghurst, a contemporary treatment of the theme of gay hedonistic pursuit of beauty.
We read "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson alongside Dorian Gray for purposes of comparison (and indeed they had been the subject of comparison after first publication).
Jekyll and Hyde was published five years earlier in 1885, prior to the publication of “Kidnapped” and Stevenson’s other best-known works. The proposer of Jekyll and Hyde pointed out that the first version of the story (which Stevenson said had come to him in a dream) had been thrown into the fire after his wife had been invited to give her criticism. She had encouraged him to bring out the "dualism" theme more clearly, which he does in a very explicit, rather didactic passage. It was interesting that Jekyll and Hyde were not completely different characters, as Jekyll admits he was already conscious of feelings and desires for the vices that Hyde indulged in.
He re-wrote the story in just three days, which may help to explain its pace and the unrelentingly oppressive, gothic atmosphere of the London setting – there was no beauty in this story. The atmosphere was such that it was unsurprising that the book was written just three years before the first of the Jack the Ripper murders. The description of London was partly based on Edinburgh, and Stevenson, despite his respectable background, had consorted with the working classes and prostitutes in his early Edinburgh days. Conan Doyle had also used his experience of Edinburgh in writing the Sherlock Holmes stories set in London. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had been the great era of the short story, and it was intriguing that Stevenson, in particular with Jekyll and Hyde, and Doyle, were amongst the few still widely read today.
Jekyll and Hyde and Dorian Gray had much in common. They shared the Faustian theme and the gothic approach. Both stories involved having an objective correlative for moral turpitude - an alter ego in one case, and a degrading picture in the other. Both stories were sufficiently powerful for their titles to have entered the language as metaphors.
However, the plot of Jekyll turned on science, whereas Gray turned on magic. Jekyll was tauter and better structured, but was less moving and had less depth. Dorian Gray went beyond the Faustian myth in a way that Jekyll did not. The former was a novella, but the latter a short story. Stevenson, like Wilde but even more so, seemed constrained by Victorian mores to give no description of the debauchery that Hyde is enjoying. (However, we were quite unconvinced by the attempt of one critic to find homosexuality hinted at in Jekyll and Hyde).
It was impossible for a modern reader to approach the story of Jekyll and Hyde without knowing the ending because the title had become a metaphor, and therefore you could miss the fact that the story had been a real page-turner for the original audience. Despite that, we felt the story was not so exceptionally good that it had become a byword in the language simply because of its intrinsic quality as a story. Rather, it had become the most famous short story in the English language because it was the perfect metaphor to express the fact that everyone has a darker side - a Hyde - within them. Jekyll and Hyde had also been filmed many times, although an advantage of the original story format was the marvellous vagueness about what Mr Hyde actually looked like. (However, it was odd that Hyde was described as smaller than Jekyll – would you not expect the evil version to be bigger?)
Noting Stevenson’s interest in science, we wondered if he had been influenced by any contemporary medical descriptions of bipolarity or schizophrenia. A more obvious source of his interest in dualism was his personal experience of revelling in Edinburgh low life. The dualism of man was also a theme in literature and ideas which went back as far as Plato – and included Calvinism. The story of Edinburgh's Deacon Brodie, which Stevenson wrote up separately, was another source, although the Deacon Brodie tale was not extraordinary –a “strange case” - in the way that Jekyll and Hyde was.
Finally, we discussed the fact that both books had originally disturbed their audiences, but were no longer disturbing today. Was this because of the Victorian language, or because post-Freud we now all accepted we had a Hyde within us, or because homosexuality was now so openly discussed? Another factor was that there was in Victorian times a moral consensus, based on religion, which did not apply in today's plural society. Dorian Gray’s hedonism was not going to disturb a contemporary audience, half of whom might readily subscribe to hedonism as a philosophy. Moreover, in today's society the visual media of film and television had taken over from the printed word much of the role of shocking and disturbing people.
See also the Monthly Book Group's new web-site at: http://www.monthlybookgroup.com/