Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

November 19, 2010

You get much more than you pay for these stories as they are free from multiple sources for your e-reader. Oscar Wilde’s wit lightens these comically sinister tales. In the title story, for instance, we get such lines as:

Early in life she had discovered the important truth that nothing looks so like innocence as an indiscretion; and by a series of reckless escapades, half of them quite harmless, she had acquired all the privileges of a personality.

The proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding.

No one cares about distant relatives nowadays. They went out of fashion years ago.

The story itself begins with a dinner party attended by Lord Arthur Savile. The hostess invites a fortune teller as entertainment.

“Oh, I see!” said the Duchess, feeling very much relieved; “he tells fortunes, I suppose?”

“And misfortunes, too,” answered Lady Windemere, “any amount of them. Next year, for instance, I am in great danger, both by land and sea, so I am going to live in a balloon, and draw up my dinner in a basket every evening. It is all written down on my little finger, or on the palm of my hand, I forget which.”

“But surely that is tempting Providence, Gladys.”

“My dear Duchess, surely Providence can resist temptation by this time. I think every one should have their hands told once a month, so as to know what not to do. Of course, one does it all the same, but it is so pleasant to be warned.”

Lord Arthur Savile has his palm read and is told of something dreadful in his future. To tell more is to spoil the many delightful twists along the way, but I will say that this amusing story puts in play issues of rationality, fate, and, an Oscar favorite, the power of secrets. This is the longest of the five stories and, perhaps, the best.

“The Canterville Ghost” is a twist on ghost stories that plays off British stereotypes (good and bad) of Americans. “The Sphinx without a Secret” is a miniature piece examining the seductive power of secrets. And the saccharine “The Model Millionaire” manages to engage despite being so terribly predictable to a 21st century audience.

I found most enjoyable, however, the final story: “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” My enjoyment came not only from Wilde’s barbs and the story’s plot, but from the fact that it seems a clear progenitor of Nabokov’s Pale Fire which is, perhaps, my favorite novel.

Wilde’s story revolves around the theory that the Mr. W.H. to whom Shakespeare’s Sonnets were dedicated was actually a boy actor named Willie Hughes who specialized in playing female actors. The theory is first brought into the circle of characters by Cyril Graham, a firm believer. His attempts to persuade his friend Erskine are initially futile due to a lack of historical evidence. The entire theory hangs on enigmatic lines in the Sonnets, such as puns on “will” and “hews”. When viewed in light of Cyril Graham’s theory:

“things that had seemed obscure, or evil, or exaggerated, became clear and rational, and of high artistic import, illustrating Shakespeare’s conception of the true relations between the art of the actor and the art of the dramatist.”

The fun in this story is reminiscent of Pale Fire, if less involved and less of an artistic achievement. “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” relies both on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an actual theory (that of Thomas Tyrwhitt) regarding the identity of the dedicatee of those Sonnets. Nabokov wrote his own 999 word poem and turned his protagonist’s textual interpretations into a complete novel. But Nabokov clearly owes a debt to this work, I think:

“…the surname was, according to him, hidden in the seventh line of the 20th Sonnet, where Mr. W.H. is described as

A man in hew, all Hews in his controwling

“In the original edition of the Sonnets “Hews” is printed with a capital letter and in italics, and this, he claimed, showed clearly that a play on words was intended, his view receiving a good deal of corroboration from those sonnets in which curious puns are made on the words “use” and “usury.” Of course, I was converted at once and Willie Hughes became to me as real a person as Shakespeare. The only objection I made to the theory was that the name of Willie Hughes does not occur in the list of the actors of Shakespeare’s company as it is printed in the first folio. Cyril, however, pointed out that the absence of Willie Hughes’s name from this list really corroborated the theory.”

The comedy of these characters taking this theory so seriously, and taking absence of evidence as definitive proof, is wonderful, as is the traipsing through the Sonnets themselves. The story is interesting and the underlying themes serious, dealing as they do with secrets and mysteries and homo-eroticism (Shakespeare and Willie Hughes), all themes with which Oscar Wilde seems obsessed.

I lack the time and depth of recollection to undergo any deep comparison of Pale Fire and this work; though I think the hall-of-mirrors effect that would result from using textual analysis to prove that these two artistic works are related would be amusing. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe, the comedy of textual analysis was sufficiently obvious in 1950s literary society that Nabokov did not need his inspiration from this work. However, the fact that a few minutes of searching provides no confirmation of my theory tends only, in my mind, to solidify the truth of my conjecture…..

Wilde is, to me, a treasure. I may even have to read some plays as I am running out of his prose. This and a growing appetite for poetry? The debaucheries of literature may overwhelm me yet. But as for whether you should indulge the pleasures of Wilde, I have nothing to say.

It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

May 4, 2010

Lord Henry Wotton has to be in the running for the greatest fictional dinner guest. He is incredibly charming, provocative, and sharp. I am half-inclined to believe that The Picture of Dorian Gray was conceived as a vehicle for Harry’s witty persona. Comparatively, Dorian and his picture are rather drab.

“What of art?” she asked. [Gladys, Duchess of Monmouth]

“It is a malady.” [Harry]

“Love?”

“An illusion.”

“Religion?”

“The fashionable substitute for belief.”

“You are a sceptic.”

“Never! Scepticism is the beginning of faith.”

“What are you?”

“To define is to limit.”

“Give me a clue.”

“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.”

The book is full of delicious exchanges like this, and I’ve cut this one short. While, in some ways, Harry is the villain of the story, he is the most pleasant character with whom to spend time, in this or any other novel that comes to mind. “Harry spends his days in saying what is incredible and his evenings in doing what is improbable.”

Among Harry’s “incredible” sayings are some enviable zingers:

[S]he is a peacock in everything but beauty.

[S]he tried to found a salon, and only succeeded in opening a restaurant.

“You must admit, Harry, that women give to men the very gold of their lives.”

“Possibly,” he sighed, “but they invariably want it back in such very small change.”

While Harry is busy entertaining, Dorian descends into a darkness without conscience. I was taken by the extent to which Wilde anticipates Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence in The Fall:

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

Camus builds his novel around this insight, while for Wilde it seems to register as little more than one of Harry’s provocations. Or, maybe Wilde just examined the proposition from another angle. Dorian Gray could be put forward as a counterexample to Clamence. Clamence avoids the judgment of others through self-reproach, but Dorian is unable to do so.

The overt message to the story is that, after all, one cannot escape the consequences of action, even with the help of a supernatural painting. As I am learning about Wilde, he likes to put forward in his writing both a proposition and its opposite, perhaps the better to inoculate himself from criticism. It could be that, instead, his proclamations, as in the introduction to this work, that he has a love of artistic beauty above everything are the true key to his work. His “no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” gives him license to make a well-written book without answering for any deeper meanings within. I believe that his warning that “those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” is apt.

I am not sure what I pull from the work other than a delight in Wilde’s dialogue and playfulness. Dorian could serve as a warning against vanity, lack of conscience, or the destruction of art. But I do not think he is a warning. I think that Dorian’s ultimate punishment is not for his vanity, but for his effort to try to destroy art.

There are other possible readings. Wilde, of course, was a homosexual at a time it was dangerously illegal to be openly so. Like Dorian and his painting, Wilde necessarily kept a portion of himself hidden from prying eyes. But that part, like Dorian’s painting, could not be destroyed without obliterating Wilde himself. This view seems a little too convenient and too focused on Wilde to be convincing to me, though the theme of duplicity and split-selves is certainly recurrent. My point is only that there is a wealth material for speculative (half-baked, in my case) interpretation if one is so inclined.

Wilde, of course, says it best: “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.”

There is an abundance of shiny surfaces in which to gaze. Harry’s goading statements should stir readers:

The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play.

or

I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.

And, so too, will the beauty of the prose and the construction of the narrative. There is an early passage in which Dorian Gray focuses on a bee as a distraction from Harry’s “strange panegyric on youth.” Later, a bee returns.

A bee flew in and buzzed round the blue-dragon bowl that, filled with sulphur-yellow roses, stood before him. He felt perfectly happy.

Dorian picks up the thread of the thought ignored many pages before. It is excellent craftsmanship on Wilde’s part and something I had not noticed until re-reading the quotes I had marked (I love the Kindle for this) while on my first time through.

Remember, Wilde’s highest praise is that a book is well-written. This one is and exquisitely so.

(Sarah reviewed this same work recently at her blog, A Rat in the Book Pile. I definitely recommend a trip over there for another perspective.)