The high school English curriculum is coveted real estate among teachers, parents, school principals, and state legislators. Oscar Wilde is a giant literary figure, evident by the numerous biographies and critical articles in existence, but he has not been sufficiently represented in courses and canon at the high school level1. Wilde and his contemporaries were the dime on which the 19th century turned to the 20th, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is as relevant in the 21st century as it was in the fin de siécle. To say that Oscar Wilde was the formative ancestor of modern culture is, admittedly, a large stretch. Dorian Gray, however, offers insight into the origin of 21st century culture because it asks questions of readers that speak to discussions and controversies that continue over a century later. Through a study of Oscar Wilde, high schoolers in American classrooms will form cross-discipline connections related to the Victorian era and LGBTQ history, and discover deeper understandings of morality, personal influences, vanity, and identity at a crucial point in their development. In many ways, The Picture of Dorian Gray has effectively set the stage for modern culture, and is an ideal text for any Western literature classroom.
1. THE APPROACH & THE STRATEGY
Wilde’s contribution is vast, and the real estate of high school English curriculum is limited. Teachers will not be able to teach the subject in fullness, and a thoughtful strategy for covering Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray is necessary. One undergraduate instructor from the University of Southern Maine, Shelton Waldrep, gives advice for teaching Oscar Wilde at the college level. He writes, “The best way to approach [Dorian Gray] is to allow for a variety of perspectives […] The book itself can function as an appropriate text for a wide variety of classes, from an introduction to fiction to a course on the most subtle points of hermeneutics,” (52-53). As suggested by Rick Warren and René Wellek in Theory of Literature, studies on the “extrinsic approach,” or a focus on the historical and cultural context surrounding a text, and the “intrinsic approach,” or a detailed study of the text itself, are both valuable methods of interpreting literature, and provide an array of study topics, which will be detailed below. Although a singular approach to literary analysis won’t be sufficient for full comprehension of a sophisticated text like Dorian Gray, teachers are able to strategically select from any of these avenues of study à la carte to form deeper connections to other material within their high school course.
As teachers select from this menu, they should carefully consider the demographics of their school community. Dorian Gray was an infamously controversial book for over 100 years2, and reading this book in class may warrant parental permission. Strategy based on the students’ backgrounds is vital to productive discussion in any classroom. Many great books are censored and banned by well-intentioned authority, but a smart teacher will navigate these concerns with sensitivity.
2. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY AS AN IDEAL TEXT
Not only is Oscar Wilde a giant literary figure who has provided noteworthy contributions to the development of Aestheticism and Decadence3, he is especially relevant to today’s youth. According to the book Language and Reflection, the main historical purposes of English instruction include “to improve morality,” “to produce good citizens,” and “to foster personal growth” (Gere 2-3). In addition, Dorian Gray can be used to fulfill several of the Texas Education Agency’s standards for the high school english curriculum, the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS4. Important and current topics for adolescents entering 21st century adulthood, like LGBTQ rights, media literacy, morality, vanity, identity, and celebrity, can all be extrapolated from the life of Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Through both intrinsic and extrinsic study, this novel fulfills the mission for the English classroom.
2.1 Ideal Extrinsic Elements
The Picture of Dorian Gray in particular is an ideal text for teaching because it is exceptional for extrinsic literary criticism. In order to engage with the text appropriately, the context must be understood first. Peter Rabinowitz offers a set of vocabulary that are useful in his essay, “Actual Reader and Authorial Reader.” Wilde’s target audience, the “authorial readers” of The Picture of Dorian Gray, are the citizens of 1890’s Victorian England, with their distinct set of moral values, laws, and history. The “actual readers” include a classroom of 21st century American teenagers, for whom the hindrances that Wilde suffered in his lifetime don’t exist as they did. The wide gap in understanding between these two readerships necessitates establishing an accurate perspective of Victorian culture in the classroom.
To provide the right context for understanding Dorian Gray, a student must first be introduced to Victorian England as a whole. Undergraduate instructor Shelton Waldrep spends his first class day on the history of the Victorian period when teaching Dorian Gray (53). He does this to focus the class on connections to “cultural and historical milieu,” prior to reading the novel itself5 . This method is suitable for the high school classroom, as well, because it does not assume prior learning, and establishes the “authorial reader” in the students’ minds.
Aside from providing access to Victorian history, the life of Oscar Wilde as a gay celebrity, and the scandal of Wilde’s infamous trial, introduces the history of LGBTQ culture and is the basis for productive classroom dialogue about public portrayal and media literacy. Biographer Barbara Belford writes: “[Wilde] was the bravest of men in his refusal to pretend to be other than what he was and in his insistence that he would not run away” (251), and Shelton Waldrep writes Dorian Gray could be interpreted as, “the moment when homosexuality moved from being defined as an activity to an identity” (56). In this way, Wilde is an historical figure in gay rights, and can be related to 21st century events regarding LGBTQ legal rights and laws. The narrative of LGBTQ history is relevant to bring into the classroom in the current socio-political climate. It can be traced through the 20th century by a brief study on the Gay Liberation Movement6 of the 1970s, and by connecting it to current cases like the recent Bathroom Bill controversies7. This discussion creates cross-disciplinary connections between government, history, current events, and literature, which is aligned to the TEKS8. Topics like these are essential to producing citizens who are knowledgeable about American history and are informed in current events, regardless of the students’ personal beliefs about these events.
In addition, studying the life of Oscar Wilde alters students’ perceptions of heroes and villains in media, and increases media awareness and literacy. Although Oscar Wilde was a villain to Victorian moralists, Wilde is now considered a revolutionary hero. His celebrity status was not only limited to England, but he was also popular in America as well, thanks to his lecture tours and big personality. Jonathan Goldman writes, “Wilde’s self-fashioning helps us understand [Dorian Gray]. Viewed alongside Wilde’s lecture tour, Dorian Gray constitutes a treatise on celebrity […] in the way the novel draws heavily on the negotiations between subject, boy, and image that characterize Wilde’s own celebrity,” (Goldman 33). Wilde was so popular, in fact, that the book he was holding when he was arrested was incorrectly thought to be The Yellow Book, which increased the popularity of the publication without actually being in Wilde’s possession at the time, nor having published any of Wilde’s work (Belford 255).
Perception of Wilde has evolved over time. Melissa Knox writes, “Until the 1950s, most critics offered moral evaluations of Wilde, and many saw him as a minor figure… This attitude began to change in the 1960s, and […] his reputation as an artist and a thinker grew,” (xiv). Wilde took risks with his work, and underestimated the legal system by bringing the libel charge against the Marquess of Queensbury to begin with. Biographer Barbara Belford states, “those in the [homosexual] community were more fearful than pleased when Wilde drew attention to their covert behavior […] Dorian Gray was […] daring and made him vulnerable to attack” (174), and, “his trial tested not only the standards of indecent acts […] but the extent to which private sexual behavior could become publically regulated” (256). His case is a landmark in history.
In his day, Wilde was divisive at best, and a criminal at worst. He was disliked among other gay men, brutally imprisoned and abandoned for two years, and the effects of his trial made the situation worse for gay men of the time. After he was arrested, “no one reached out to help Wilde. The evil joy that feeds on a scandal and a man’s downfall increased in intensity,” (Knox 257). One of the most important literacy skills necessary for future U.S. citizens is news and media literacy. This includes the ability to analyze and evaluate how reliable a source is, and to understand events using a global perspective. Through a study on Wilde’s public perception and trial, a classroom can analyze how the media portrayed Wilde, which then leads into discussing fallacies in interpreting news media, such as “bandwagon, glittering generalities, and testimonial” fallacies (“TEKS” 9). These are valuable topics to consider in today’s news climate, and are crucial to students navigating news and propaganda today.
Finally, Dorian Gray is ideal because it is surrounded by secondary sources that solidify authorial intent for the student and teacher. Comments, responses to criticism, and other secondary texts are available from Oscar Wilde himself, a rare treat for a classroom compared to the limited availability of commentary from other canonical authors. In 1962, Rupert Hart-Davis published a collection of letters written by Wilde that give insight into Wilde’s personal thoughts concerning The Picture of Dorian Gray. Included in the Norton Critical Edition of Dorian Gray, edited by Michael Patrick, are critical articles published on the text, accompanied by Wilde’s reaction to those articles. This type of authorial commentary is helpful in the search for meaning in the novel, and especially insightful for a high school classroom.
2.2 Ideal Intrinsic Elements
A hybrid approach that studies the intrinsic content of The Picture of Dorian Gray alongside the extrinsic elements will further fulfill the purposes of English instruction suggested by Language and Reflection and the TEKS. Shelton Waldrep states: “Dorian Gray is a fascinating text for students [because] it is difficult to define. [… It keeps] you guessing as to what the novel is really about, at the same time allowing readers to enjoy the hunt for a foundational moment” (52). Not only is Dorian Gray an adventurous departure from the classic high school canon, but it can introduce topics relevant to modern-day adolescence, like morality, vanity, and personal influence, and will spark discussions that lead to personal growth.
The content of The Picture of Dorian Gray causes students to engage in critical thinking regarding moral systems and influences, and is a stepping stone into metacognition. The concept of “good” and “bad” is often defined for younger children by parents, teachers, peers, and other influences. By late adolescence, however, unpacking these moral systems coincides with other timely events during this stage of development (Arnett 94). In Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton’s influence on Dorian corrupted him from the beginning. Lord Henry tells Dorian that “to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul” (19). We see this concept played out, as Dorian follows Lord Henry’s advice, accepts his influences, and destroys his own soul. As students analyze these characters’ relationship, they should identify the ways in which Lord Henry’s influence affected or created Dorian’s growing madness. Wilde himself says: “The [Christian critic] regards [Dorian Gray] as an ethical parable” (Letters 268), and: “My difficulty was to keep the inherent moral subordinate to the artistic and dramatic effect, and it still seems to me that the moral is too obvious” (292). The Picture of Dorian Gray is rife with opportunities to discuss the influence of family, friends, and society on the lives of students. Instruction in morality does not have to be explicit, but an introduction to these topics is in alignment with the TEKS10, and opens a door to students’ personal growth.
The Picture of Dorian Gray also instigates conversation on other topics, such as vanity and the fleetingness of beauty. In Dorian Gray, “the painter, Basil Hallward, worshipping physical beauty all too much, as most painters do, dies by the hand of one in whose soul he has created a monstrous and absurd vanity” (Letters 259). Dorian’s beauty is exalted by Basil and Lord Henry, and Dorian responds by also exalting his own youth. In Dorian Gray, he says:
‘I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. […] If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that […] I would give everything! […] I would give my soul for that!’ (25)
Dorian’s vanity ultimately ends in obsessive self-preservation, to the extent of murder. Self-obsession is also a feature of the adolescent life stage of heightened self-awareness and low self-esteem (Arnett 153), especially thanks to millennials’ selfie-driven culture of social media. Discussing these ideas in class will be beneficial to students’ growth by asking them to evaluate their views on beauty and vanity, and perhaps engage in productive self-reflection.
Adolescence is also a crucial period of identity formation (Arnett 160). The concept of identity can be explored extensively through The Picture of Dorian Gray. In his letters, Oscar Wilde writes, “Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps” (Letters, 352). Wilde uses the book to explore the various versions of his own identity. Then, he steps further by removing Dorian’s soul or conscience from his body, which forces the reader to ask: “Which is the real Dorian?” According to the theory of “postmodern identity,” our identity is a fluid structure that changes based on context (Arnett 165)– much like Dorian’s personality changes depending on his companions, and changes between the portrait and the body of Dorian. Wilde also speaks to the relationship between Dorian’s life and art, yet another layer of identity for a classroom to explore. Breaking down these psychological components allows a student to study the elements of identity, both Dorian’s and their own.
A final teaching point to be gleaned from Dorian Gray is the concept of celebrity. At this time in history and in modern society, celebrities are used to sell everything from food and shoes to presidential candidates, like Hillary Clinton’s U.S. presidential campaign in 201611. Navigating a world of hype and media commands much of modern teens, and Dorian Gray offers an interesting perspective. The case of Dorian’s romantic interest, Sybil Vane, highlights the disparity between the actress and the human. As an artist, Sybil is talented and beautiful, and she captivates Dorian’s interest from the distance of the stage. However, as soon as Dorian peeks beneath her mask and sees the girl underneath, the spell breaks and Dorian rejects her. The modern celebrity is also a façade, an actor wearing a mask. The humans behind the propaganda don’t possess the same magic that lights, makeup, and image alteration creates. To disambiguate the celebrity also contributes to the previously discussed media literacy that is vital to the classroom.
For an English classroom intended to educate and empower high school students, The Picture of Dorian Gray is more than fitting. This novel inspires open dialogue about topics that develop character and identity in teens, and opens the door for cross-disciplinary study. As the introduction to a collection of 1990s critical essays on Wilde states: “We return to Wilde’s fin de siécle as a key to understanding our own; we attempt to define his identity as a way of understanding who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going,” (Knox xvi). This is as true for postgraduate English scholars as it is for developing high school seniors.
- I have found only a handful of Texas school district reading lists that include Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest is usually the only work from Wilde included, occasionally accompanied by The Picture of Dorian Gray. (“Reading Lists,” “TEKS…,” “High School Reading List”)
- For almost 120 years after publication, Dorian Gray was challenged, banned, and censored. Although still not widely accepted as reading material suitable for young students, Dorian Gray does not appear on the American Library Association’s Banned and Challenged Books lists for the last 20 years (“Frequently Challenged…”), and uncensored publications of Dorian Gray have been celebrated (Flood, Marche).
- See Belford Chapter 4 for more on Wilde’s “budding aestheticism” and decadent influences.
- See “TEKS” sections 110.32:B.5.B, 110.34.B.5.B,
- Shelton Waldrep teaches Dorian Gray alongside complementary texts such as Dracula, Emma, Jane Eyre, and other pre-Victorian, Victorian, and gothic texts.
- See Levy “Gay Rights Movement”
- See Grinburg “W.H. Issues…”
- See “TEKS” sections 110.31.B.2-8, 110.32.B.2-8, 110.33.B.2-8, 110.34.B.2-8.
- See “TEKS” sections 110.48.B.4, 110.50, 110.62, 110.63,
- See “TEKS” sections 110.32.B.5.B and 110.34.B.5.B.
- See Bryant, Jackson, and Roberts.
- Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. “Ch. 6: The Self.” Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach (5th Edition). New Jersey: Pearson Higher Ed., 2013. N. pag. Print.
- Belford, Barbara. Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.
- Bryant, Kenzie. “Did Celebrity Endorsements Contribute to Hillary Clinton’s Presidential Upset?” Vanities. Vanity Fair, 21 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.
- Flood, Alison. “Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray Published.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 Apr. 2011. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
- “Frequently Challenged Books.” Banned & Challenged Books. American Library Association, 14 Mar. 2017. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
- Gere, Anne Ruggles, Colleen Fairbanks, Alan Howes, Laura Roop, and David Schaafsma. Language and Reflection: An Integrated Approach to Teaching English. New York: Macmillan, 1992. Print.
- Grinberg, Emanuella. “W.H. Issues Guidance on Transgender Bathrooms.” CNN. Cable News Network, 14 May 2016. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.
- “High School Reading List.” Teaching and Learning. Round Rock ISD, 25 Aug. 2015.
- Jackson, David. “Do Celebrity Endorsements Really Matter?” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, 24 Oct. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.
- Knox, Melissa. Oscar Wilde in the 1990s: The Critic as Creator. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2001. Print.
- Levy, Michael. “Gay Rights Movement.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 July 2015. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.
- Marche, Stephen. “Everyone Should Read This List of Banned Books.” Esquire. Esquire Magazine, 13 Feb. 2015.
- “TEKS, Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for English Language Arts and Reading, High School.” 19 TAC Chapter 110, Subchapter C. Texas Education Agency, 22 Feb. 2010.
- Rabinowitz, Peter. “Actual Reader and Authorial Reader.” Falling into Theory [:] Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2000. 257-267.
- “Reading Lists.” Reading Lists. Texas Library Association, 16 Mar. 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.\
- Roberts, Dan, and Ben Jacobs. “Hillary Clinton Deploys Army of Celebrities as Election Day Approaches.” The Guardian. 05 Nov. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.
- Smith, Philip E. II. Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.
- Waldrep, Shelton. “Gray Zones: Teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray as a Victorian Novel.” Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.
- Warren, Austin, and René Wellek. Theory of Literature. PDF. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949. 65-283. Internet Archive. Web. 31 Mar. 2017.
- Wilde, Oscar. The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Hart-Davis, 1962.
- —. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Michael P. Gillespie. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2007.