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Socio-Literary Contexts of Oscar Wilde's ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One's Own’

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Wilde’s claim that ‘life imitates art more than art imitates life’ may well suggest that reading literature as a historically objective view of reality is fundamentally flawed. One may suggest that Wilde wishes to convey that art, rather than being a medium by which to convey realism or create true interpretations of the world, should be a medium for the exaggeration and romanisation of a dull or harsh reality. Indeed, within the first pages of Wilde’s ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’, one can not fail to notice vibrant descriptions of the flowers within Lord Henry’s garden. Although the idea of art imitating life is extremely prevalent in both ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890) and Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1927). As both texts were influenced by major events that happened in both authors private lives that were then put into their ‘art.’ Oscar Wilde was an author in the late Victorian society living as a homosexual man while homosexuality was outlawed, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is filled with themes of aestheticism and the value of art which allows us to understand the context that influenced the text. The essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was published a year before women were given the vote, the essay is often seen as an attack on the patriarchal society that Woolf was addressing, although the twentieth century brought around huge change for sexual equality and women’s rights, Woolf carries the theme of women and society all throughout the essay. This shows the importance of reading texts within their social and literary context as it gives new meaning to the audience the texts are relayed to. As social context is dependent on culture and has different dependents such as social class, gender and religion, the struggle that Wilde faced as a homosexual man in a society that deemed his lifestyle one that would corrupt traditional Victorian values and Woolf as a woman in a society that had only just started to become somewhat progressive, both authors texts shine light on typically suppressed voices in a late Victorian period.

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ continuously highlights the theme of life versus art, within the preface of the book Wilde claims that “all art is quite useless” suggesting that art adds nothing in the practicality of life and is a distraction to life. Wilde’s novel is an insight to his idealistic idea of the world he wants to live in where he can indulge in what he pleases and face no consequences for it, this idea is mirrored in the Character Dorian as he wants to remain eternally youthful without consequences. The character Basil intensifies Dorians vanity with his obsession with him amplifying the theme of aestheticism “he is all my art me to now”. Basil’s character is used to critique the aestheticism movement, reading ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ with its literary context draws on the importance of doing so to further understand the text. Wilde often tried to live up to the phrase “art for art’s sake” from the French philosopher Victor Cousin which he was criticized for. Critics would often criticize Wilde for largely presenting the aestheticism theme in his works “critics find it easier to laugh rather than read his work”, here Walter Hamilton’s critical wring suggests that society was dismissive of the aestheticism movement. Wilde incorporates the idea that we cannot take literature as truth when Dorian becomes obsessed with a book that Lord Henry sends him “the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed… a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming”, the content of the book almost possess Dorian, suggesting that art or in the case of Dorian literature relies on the reader or audience to piece the fiction together in order to create an idea that will speak some truth, as fiction is an invention of the author. ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ has been called a criticism on the Victorian society that looked down on overindulgence and criminalised Wilde for engaging and acting on his own feelings of lust and love with members of the same gender, Fritz suggests that while Wilde used his novel to criticize the Victorian society he also used it to present his idea of “concrete utopianism”, where society and individuals can overindulge in whatever they want without any consequences.

During the Twentieth Century the theme of Modernism was extremely popular in literary writing, Virginia Woolf is considered one of the greatest Modernist writers. Woolf would use modernism in her essays to allow the reader to explore the Characters minds. Woolf based her fictional characters on real people which allow us to see by exploring contextual themes we gain a deeper knowledge of literature. The Character of Judith Shakespeare is a clear example of this by conjuring a character based on a real-life author advances her feminist argument by giving women’s issues real life perspective “It would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare”, this passage is of extreme significance because it goes against the common opinion that women produced less impressive literary works because Women were less capable but the reason women could not write to the same level that men did was because the opportunities to gain an education were not the same. Woolf disguises her own problems that she faced with sexual inequality within the character of Judith, a character who was purely fictional became a representation for women and a voice for them against the unlevel playing field they had against men. Women writers such as the Brontë had to use a male names to get their works published hiding their female identity Woolf communicates this injustice of Women not being allowed to exist in literature where men flourished and women remained invisible, according to Saloman they are, “the women who didn’t make it into the history books”. Woolf creating an imaginary woman along with a nameless narrator to tell the story of other women in literature speaks volumes on the patriarchal society she was criticizing in her in her essay, by shifting her own voice through nameless women Woolf creates a universal voice for all women and emphasizes the struggle of women being nameless in a society that does not value their voices or art.

The idea of representing one’s own struggles through fictional characters can also be seen in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray”, although Wilde does not use the first person to create a feeling of closeness to the characters like Woolf and instead uses a first person narrative. When understanding the social context behind ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ we can understand how Wilde’s own experiences influenced his characters and their experiences. Wilde uses the character Basil to speak to the readers “it often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him’ as the character Basil is an artist it would be easiest for Wilde to represent himself through him. The character Basil is infatuated with Dorian, Basil represents Wildes homosexual alter ego as he is attracted to handsome men, Basil also represents Wilde and his own art as they both have a deep appreciation for the aestheticism movement and fine art. According to the critic Oates Basil wears the mask of the artist to convey the truth of his devotion; he is the painter of Dorian Gray, just as Wilde is the painter of the story. Wilde writes the novel through his own experiences using different characters to explore and show a different part of his own persona through his art.

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In both ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘A Room of One’s own’ the characters face internal conflict as they navigate through societal norms. Woolf believed that some women often moved away from truly presenting themselves in literature in fear that it would change societies views on their femininity, this idea is presented in the narrators struggle with her struggles of her public and private self. According to Restuccia Woolf believed that women “decided to make the message of sexual inequality palatable, in order to make it easier for society (men at large) to digest”. This shows that even when women tried to give themselves a voice, they had to water down their message so the patriarchal society would even consider their views and the changes women wanted. This is still a problematic issue in today’s feminism, women and men argue over the idea that can women still have the ideal idea of femininity whilst speaking out against the social constructs that hold women back at place them at a disadvantage. This is grounds for Woolf’s idea for women to have their space to write and create art freely and enable their art exclusive from men even when Woolf shows the narrator trying to find her own space in public amongst the public she is thrown out and placed somewhere where women are “locked up, beaten and flung about the room”. This is further evidence that the essay is dependent on Woolf’s own experiences as a woman who wrote during the twentieth century, this particular part of the essay shows the sexual inequality that forced women to not try and join in public spaces in fear of being ridiculed which effected women externally.

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ mirrors Wilde’s own internal conflict with his sexuality as a homosexual man in a society where being gay was a criminal offense, Dorian keeps the portrait of himself locked away from the public view, a portrait that once showed his beauty now showed his sin “the terrible pleasure of a double life”. The use of the word pleasure hints at sexual connotations which relates to Wilde living his own double life with a wife and children but pursuing an affair with a young man at the same time. Dorian becomes involved with sandals and an illicit lifestyle under the influence of Lord Henry and Dorians reputation becomes ruined, while his physical appearance remains, his reputation and the portrait start to slowly decay. Wilde continues to contrast his theme of aestheticism with descriptions of the ugliness of London comparing the city to insects “streets like the black web of some sprawling spider”. Compared to the description of the studio room at the beginning of the book the description if the city is a huge contract, this represents Wilde’s internal struggle with not being allowed to be who he truly was, it can also be viewed as Wildes own criticism and the Victorian society that valued beauty on the surface but did not see the ugliness surrounding their views. The imagery of London that is presented in the novel is a representation of Dorian’s own internal conflict as he embodies the society in which he lives, during the nineteenth century London was viewed as a city with a huge class divide as the city was inhabited by some of the most powerful families in the world who profited of industrial revolution and the east part of London that was inhabited by the working class and filled with opium dens which Dorian frequently visited to go ’slumming’. London in the novel is not just a physical location but a representation of Dorian’s internal struggle. Wilde had a unique perspective of London as he was from Ireland and did not become involved with the elitist social circles in London giving him an outsider’s perspective and allowing him to scrutinise these elitist groups through his work.

Both ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘A Room of One’s Own’ both were written around huge changes in society for women for Woolf this was largely relevant to her essay, although Wilde’s novel is not centered around women it can be said the changes that women called for affected the way he presented women.

In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ the character Sibyl Vane is used to represent femininity and women in a Victorian society, Sibyl is shown as a woman who works and earns her own money, instead of taking on a passive domestic role that would have been expected from women in a Victorian era, she values Dorians love and attention more than practicing her art “I saw through the hollowness, the shame, the silliness of empty pageant in which I had always played”. Vane claims that her acting career is worth nothing compared to the feelings between her and Dorian, Vane’s inability to pursue her career because of her feelings for Dorain eventually leads to her downfall, it is possible that Wilde is hinting at the disadvantage women are put at because of the societal norms that they are expected to follow. The Victorian era saw the start of change for Womens rights, the Suffragette movement began in 1848, although no drastic changes happened for the beginning of the movement it started a conversation and moved away from the narrative that women should be passive and abide by the rules men set for them. According to Kerrie Powell that in Victorian fiction the actress was a tragic figure torn between domesticity and a career. Wilde presents Vane as the ideal women as she leaves her career for Dorian but shows the downfall of both characters once she does follow traditional Victorian gender roles, Lord Henry represents sexist views during the Victorian era as he asks Dorian if he wants his wife to work “will want his wife to work”, Lor Henrys influence over Dorian suggests that even if individuals did not see a problem with their wives working they would not be able to voice their opinions as society as a whole did not think it was suitable for women.

To conclude it is extremely important to read literary works with thier social and literary contexts to gain a further understanding of the authors true intent of writing their literature, social context allows us to understand what drove the author to write about particular experiences. In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ we can see how Wilde’s own experiences with him sexuality and the elitist London society effected the way he portrays his characters and uses them to voice his own experiences without understanding the social context behind the characters he created his novel would just remain a piece of fiction and not a piece of influential literature that allows us to understand a Victorian society. The same can be said for Virgina Woolf in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ as she adopts the voice of the narrator to voice her own truth and how an early twentieth century society treated women writers. Understanding that Wilde used themes of aestheticism in his works to show his love for fine art gives us insight to the trends that influenced literature, similarly the themes of modernism in ‘A rooms of One’s Own’ shows how Woolf was ready to break away from traditional writing styles just how she wanted society to move away from traditional gender roles. Oscar Wildes quote “life imitates art more than art imitates life” seems to be true when considering literature as artists use their own life experiences in their art and exaggerate them showing that all art holds some truth about the artist who created it.

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Socio-Literary Contexts of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/socio-literary-contexts-of-oscar-wildes-the-picture-of-dorian-gray-and-virginia-woolfs-a-room-of-ones-own/
“Socio-Literary Contexts of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/socio-literary-contexts-of-oscar-wildes-the-picture-of-dorian-gray-and-virginia-woolfs-a-room-of-ones-own/
Socio-Literary Contexts of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/socio-literary-contexts-of-oscar-wildes-the-picture-of-dorian-gray-and-virginia-woolfs-a-room-of-ones-own/> [Accessed 1 Dec. 2022].
Socio-Literary Contexts of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 25 [cited 2022 Dec 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/socio-literary-contexts-of-oscar-wildes-the-picture-of-dorian-gray-and-virginia-woolfs-a-room-of-ones-own/
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