12
October
2016

The Consolations of Teaching 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' by Oscar Wilde

There are many positive aspects to teaching Oscar Wilde in the Twenty-First Century in South African schools.

Firstly, there is the joy of working with the writing of an author who clearly delighted in the clever use of words. Hardly a page goes by in which the reader is not surprised or provoked to thinking more deeply on matters being presented, and the use of words is very effective.

Secondly, there is the story itself, in which a man engages in evil acts and seems, for some time, to be likely to get away with it. The magical act in which the painting is turned into a “living” thing, taking on the sinful qualities of the person whom the painting depicts, is something about which to speculate. Many of the readers of the book would be able to identify with some desire such as remaining young or unblemished, and this can be explored in the class.

In addition, there is the issue of secrecy. Dorian Gray has more than one secret – he has the secret of the painting, but he also has the secret(s) of the acts in which he engages. At one point he travels to the docks, to a disreputable area in the city, and it is clear that this place is one to which he travels frequently. The range of his criminal acts is only hinted at – the reader does not know the truth of Dorian Gray, even though some dark elements are exposed, most notable the murder of Basil. The reader can speculate about how well we know other people: Basil was a friend of Dorian’s, and Lord Henry was too, but neither seemed to realise the depths to which Dorian plummeted. Which of us does not have a dark secret? How well do we know others?

Many people seem to regard the Victorian era as a time in which Britain held a dominant role in the world, and this is indeed so. Frequently we see images of the Victorian era as a time of luxury and high society, and this is shown in the dinner parties to which Lord Henry is invited. However, there is also a stratum of society in which the materially disadvantaged live, and these are reflected in the characters of Sibyl Vane, and her brother and mother. These characters do not have the luxuries that are possessed by the other central characters, and their relative poverty is the impetus that leads Sibyl to perform on the stage. Does our society differ so very much?

The novel is full of images that relate to the senses. The initial scenes include references to the garden, and include sight, sound, and smell. Often our perspective of the world is dominated by our visual sense, but Wilde makes use of many different sensual elements. Pupils in class can be encouraged to write their own pieces that make use of all the senses, rather than relying to such a large degree on sight.

There are points of concern about the novel, and these can be used as learning experiences. One point might be that the novel is not South African. There is a need to emphasise the value of South African literature in secondary school texts. However, this does not mean that we should study only South African literature – that would be problematic, because it would lead to a narrow parochialism that limits our intellectual and speculative engagement with the world. Wilde’s novel is part of the literature not only of Britain, but also of the world. There are many thematic echoes that can be found in literature from a range of societies. The most obvious connections are to the ancient Classical world of Greece and Rome, but there are also connections to the Celtic folklore and mythology of Wilde’s Irish heritage. Teachers can use the novel as a conduit to encouraging pupils to explore their own heritage in terms of mythology and folklore, and to consider how they would accommodate such ideas in their own version of a Gothic story.

A second point of concern about the novel is that it is of the Victorian era, and as such is written in a style that is somewhat dated. The language is complex, and this is part of its power, but it is also less easy for pupils whose language usage is poor to understand. This is true, but it must be acknowledged that not everything in life comes easy – in other words, the novel is worth reading, but it might require some effort. In cases where pupils are struggling with the text, it is a good idea to get them to focus on the story – this will probably assist them to understand. It is, after all, a story of magic, and love, and callous disregard for others, and murder, and deceit. These issues dominate our modern headlines and are shared on social media, so these aspects of the novel will be accessible to the class. If the pupils understand the plot, they can then move on to more challenging matters such as themes. However, if they do not understand the plot, they will struggle to understand any thematic issues.

Although teaching this novel may be a challenge in some classrooms, it offers rich reward for those teachers and learners who decide to select this title.

Categories: Macrat Musings

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