Devils, Souls, and the Spectre of Matthew Arnold in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Ilona Urquhart

Abstract


The means by which the portrait of Dorian Gray gains its supernatural power is concealed in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the insinuation that Dorian has made a deal with the devil remains. This article demonstrates that in the absence of a devil character the devil function is taken on by art, which tempts Dorian to act in transgressive and ultimately destructive ways. When Wilde is read in the light of Matthew Arnold’s essays on literature and criticism, this characterisation of art and particularly literature can be understood as a reaction to the latter’s overvaluation of poetry and prediction that it would come to replace religion as a moral guide. The Picture of Dorian Gray, conversely, puts forward the view that art should only ever be enjoyed superficially, and that the only guide for conduct should be one’s soul—Wilde’s poetic representation of the individualist ideal.


Keywords


Oscar Wilde; The Picture of Dorian Gray; “The Fisherman and his Soul”; Matthew Arnold; individualism; soul; aestheticisml; 1890s

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