Explorations of emotional development, self-formation, and coming-of-age are universal and timeless themes in literature. They’re central to many outstanding works and can be traced from well before the Greeks and into the modern-day. However, examining personal growth and lived experiences within what was then still a relatively new canvas and genre, the Bildungsroman, provided post-colonial writers with an entirely new palate from which to draw insight and unique opportunities to portray widely different protagonists responding to distinctly modern challenges. Perhaps the most recognized features of the form, dealing with education, rebellion, and reconciliation, are exemplified in Oscar Wilde’s aesthetic gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the author so extraordinarily deconstructed the bildungsroman that his masterpiece fundamentally transformed the genre.
One of the most striking contrasts between Wilde’s book and more classic examples of the Bildungsroman is the “aesthetic gothic” style that the author leverages to frame the motifs in his story.
John Paul Riquelme describes this approach in his article Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Gothic: Walter Pater, Dark Enlightenment, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, writing, “The merger is possible, and inevitable, because of the tendency of Gothic writing to present a fantastic world of indulgence and boundary-crossing and the tendency of the aesthetic.”
Wilde’s bourgeois hero, Dorian, journeys through his development underneath a cover of darkness indicative of that style throughout most of the story arc. It creates a juxtaposition with the classical Bildungsroman because the character of Dorian Gray, while in the process of self-development, is simultaneously on a path of self-destruction through indulgence and decadence.
One of the most striking contrasts between Wilde’s book and more classic examples of the Bildungsroman is the “aesthetic gothic” style that the author leverages to frame the motifs in his story. John Paul Riquelme describes this approach in his article Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Gothic: Walter Pater, Dark Enlightenment, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, writing, “The merger is possible, and inevitable, because of the tendency of Gothic writing to present a fantastic world of indulgence and boundary-crossing and the tendency of the aesthetic.” Wilde’s bourgeois hero, Dorian, journeys through his development underneath a cover of darkness indicative of that style throughout most of the story arc. It creates a juxtaposition with the classical Bildungsroman because the character of Dorian Gray, while in the process of self-development, is simultaneously on a path of self-destruction through indulgence and decadence. Picture shocked the reader’s sensibilities by introducing at least partly unresolved, unhappy outcomes for its characters and by not outright condemning individual behavior considered inflammatory or immoral at the time. The ending to Wilde’s novel didn’t spare his protagonist, a perpetrator who died by his own hand, but Dorian Gray also never stood trial for any of his crimes. The author teases his indifference to morality, at least in the literary sense, right from the beginning, writing in the preface to the work, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well-written or badly written. That is all.”
Dorian’s trajectory does not follow the model of a protagonist facing temporary setbacks on a quest that will otherwise result in self-improvement. Instead, his formative years are mired with poor choices, justified by his defense of New Hedonism, leading to criminality and resulting in a negative rather than positive growth experience. Sylvia Schilling discusses this in her book,Is the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde a Negative Bildungsroman? She writes, “The hero of the traditional Bildungsroman rises and then reaches a steady high; he learns from his mistakes, grows as an individual, and is usually rewarded by experiencing a happy ending. His development can, therefore, be described as positive.” The counterpoint to that claim may be that while Dorian Gray’s descent and destruction are uncommon for the genre, his moral failings are ultimately judged as righteously as they might be in any other traditional example.
Wilde neither explicitly excuses nor rewards his protagonist’s behavior, thus transforming the reconciliation feature of the classical Bildungsroman into something original and open to interpretation. Though Dorian Gray cannot hope to reconcile, while living, his hedonistic values with society or return to social order the way another Bildungsroman hero might, his final comeuppance could also be viewed as a symbolical equivalent. Nonetheless, he treats reconciliation with innovative vagueness and breaks with convention. We can never be sure who or what is really at fault.
Reconciliation, or a lack thereof in Picture, is a theme that challenges our preconceptions of accountability. In chapter eleven, Wilde insinuates that his protagonist’s pursuit of a decadent lifestyle is influenced by his mentor, Lord Henry. Still, Dorian seems perfectly capable of processing the philosophy proposed to him. He writes, “Yes: there was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to recreate life and to save it from that harsh uncomely puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival.” Dorian Gray has the intellectual capacity to concur independently with Lord Henry’s viewpoint. Yet, while the assertion is made during the character’s descent, his ultimate fate doesn’t necessarily indict New Hedonism, which has encouraged Dorian to become immersed in studies of rare musical instruments, jewelry, embroidery, and the psychological effects of perfume. Ideas and philosophy aren’t to blame here for the protagonist’s later vicious killings or pain brings to others. It’s his actions. Wilde successfully blurs cause and effect in a way that disrupts reconciliation as a feature of the Bildungsroman form, proving it to be malleable.
Wilde demonstrates in Picture that he understands the elements and stages of the Bildungsroman so well that he can reinvent each of them. He incorporates the standard features of the form, making it appear as though they conform to the classical, but addresses the education and rebellion themes as uniquely as he does reconciliation.
The etymology of Bildungsroman is rooted in the German word for education, “Bildung,” but education is not limited to schooling. Some features of the genre, from a desire for self-mastery to a crisis in self-development, may be seen as different stages of formative or spiritual education. Education takes on various forms in Picture. To a lesser extent, Dorian’s mentorship by Lord Henry and Basil Hallward is one. Here Wilde has stripped down the process of moral instruction and guidance to its rawest form. He places an impressionable Dorian between two opposite teachers or influencers, essentially giving the character a choice of two paths in life, hedonism or virtue, in which the student chooses the former. Dorian is easily manipulated early in the novel, resisting opportunities to think independently or even critically and making choices based on what others think of him. He’s inspired by French literature and seeks new opportunities made possible by his supernatural condition. He’s becoming educated, but in ways never previously treated by the Bildungsroman genre.
The feature of rebellion is as derivative of traditional Bildungsroman as the overall theme of education. It pushes the envelope until the novel’s conclusion. Wilde treats this by scratching at the underbelly of the ills of Victorian society, going so far as to illustrate opium dens in vivid detail and sarcastically referring to Dorian as “Prince Charming” while he frequents one. The reference to the noble hero in Sleeping Beauty undermines and insults the Victorian social norms model as we struggle for empathy with our protagonist.
Also familiar to the Bildungsroman genre but twisted in Wilde’s contribution is rebellion against the father and the social values the father represents. Can we picture some of this in Basil? While there is some paternal instinct, he doesn’t actually fill this role literally. However, in killing Basil upon being confronted about his debauchery, we could draw a line to this feature of the classical genre. Again, Wilde’s execution is unique because the normative Bildungsroman sees this type of rebellion as an early stage that is reconciled or overcome. In Picture, Wilde goes in the opposite direction and destroys the father figure, metaphorically, that we see in Basil. Wilde alludes to this contempt for parental authority in a passage featuring Jim and Sybil. He writes, “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older, they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”
Subsequent novels, including James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, undoubtedly benefit Wilde’s unshackling of the form from its early German roots. The author unquestionably levels the playing field not just for the Irish writers who would follow him but also for today’s global formative fiction.
To read a modern bildungsroman, check out my new memoir, The Bastard of Beverly Hills, from JIA Publishing.
- Riquelme, John Paul. “Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetic Gothic: Walter Pater, Dark Enlightenment, and ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray.'” Modern fiction studies 46.3 (2000): 609–631. Web.
- Schilling, Silvia. Is the Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde a Negative Bildungsroman? Differences and Similarities in Relation to the Typical British Bildungsroman in the 19th Century: GRIN Publishing, 2017. Print.
- Wilde, Oscar, and Michael Patrick Gillespie. The Picture of Dorian Gray: Authoritative Texts, Backgrounds, Reviews and Reactions, Criticism. 2nd ed, W. W. Norton & Co, 2007.
RAFAEL MOSCATEL is the author of the number one best-selling business book Tomorrow’s Jobs Today and director of The Little Girl with the Big Voice, a critically acclaimed documentary. His second book, The Bastard of Beverly Hills, a memoir about hope, forgiveness, and redemption, will be published in 2023 by JIA Publishing.