Date of Award

5-2012

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Legacy Department

English

Advisor

Chapman, Wayne

Committee Member

Paul, Catherine

Committee Member

Bushnell, Cameron

Abstract

In the preface to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde remarks that 'it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors' (2). Wilde complicates this mirroring in his novel, for Dorian's portrait reflects its subject through its decay. Furthermore, Dorian also reflects the painting through his immortality. In such state, Dorian, his crimes, and his art become unified. The idea that art reflects its spectators, however, hardly ends with Dorian. Both Wilde's novel and his short story 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime' prove reflective of the Victorian society and their fascination with both art and crime. More specifically, Wilde utilizes the concept of phrenology--the belief that criminals could be identified by physical attributes--to illustrate how his criminals are either the result Aesthetic pursuits or the result social influence. This juxtaposition of phrenology, art, and crime allows Wilde to voice his criticism on Aestheticism itself. His exploration of the movement in both texts suggests that Aestheticism inevitably becomes crime through the conflict between morality and indulgence, and he purports the value of inaction when seeking to avoid such moral decay.
This decay is best studied through the treatment of the physical bodies within both texts, for both crime and art manifest themselves on the bodies of the criminals. As such, this thesis examines Wilde's characters through the lens of contemporary body theory. The writings of Elizabeth Grosz, Judith Butler, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson provide insight into how the Victorian society inscribes bodies through social influence. A close examination of Wilde's texts reveal how marked bodies were viewed as monstrous in the context of this society, but abstaining from desire on behalf of social norms results in an equally monstrous division between body and mind. Though such abstinence acts as a solution to the inevitable descent of indulgence into criminal behavior, it is also an insincere and unnatural solution because of how it fractures the individual. In such state, Wilde's protagonists cannot completely escape their monstrous nature; either they become monsters through their indulgences in Aestheticism, or they become monstrous because their abstinence alters them.

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