‘There Is No Such Thing As a Moral or Immoral Book’: Meaning and Origin

 

By Dr Oliver Tearle

In 1890, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was serialised in Lippincott’s Magazine. The following year, when the novel was published in book form, Wilde added a famous ‘Preface’ which consisted of a series of statements and axioms about literature and art.

Perhaps the most famous of these is Wilde’s assertion, ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.’ But what is the meaning of such a declaration, and how does it relate to the novel to which it is attached?

Wilde’s novel was commissioned by J. M. Stoddart, the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, when he had dinner with both Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, in 1889. That evening, he commissioned Wilde to write Dorian Gray and Conan Doyle to write The Sign of the Four, the second Sherlock Holmes novel, for his magazine: not a bad night’s work.

The Picture of Dorian Gray has been analysed as an example of the Gothic horror novel, as a variation on the theme of the ‘double’, and as a narrative embodying some of the key aspects of late nineteenth-century aestheticism and decadence. Wilde’s novel is a fusion of these various elements, among others (of which more shortly).

To find the novel’s value as a book of the aesthetic movement, we need look no further than Wilde’s preface, in which he states, for instance, that ‘there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book’ (what matters is whether the book is written well or not) and ‘all art is quite useless’ (art shouldn’t change the world: art exists as, and for, itself, and no more). But the first of these is what interests us here:

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The aesthetic movement – founded on the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, which explains why Wilde was perfectly happy to describe art as ‘useless’ or lacking in a utilitarian purpose – deals in artistic merit, not in moral goodness. Such a declaration represents a departure from the attitude of high Victorian novelists such as Dickens, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell. One can’t imagine Dickens professing that his work didn’t contain a moral aspect.

But by the late nineteenth century, there was a reaction against the notion that literature’s role was to provide moral instruction. In children’s literature, we need only think of how Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books (1865 and 1871) stood out from other novels for children published at that time, because Carroll’s fiction didn’t offer any moral lesson.

So, Wilde was taking a stand against much earlier Victorian fiction in declaring, ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.’ However, this is all curious because The Picture of Dorian Gray clearly is a moral book. In fact, it’s a moral fable, which means it’s designed not only to have a moral at its core but to promote and teach that moral to its readers. The novel is, as I’ve remarked elsewhere in my discussion of Wilde’s novel, a modern take on the old Faust story (the German figure Faust sold his soul to the devil, via Mephistopheles).

And with its depictions of late Victorian sin and vice, Dorian Gray may also remind readers of another work of fiction published just four years earlier: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is another clear example of the late Victorian moral fable dressed up in the Gothic novel form.

And the moral message of The Picture of Dorian Gray couldn’t be clearer. Dorian’s life is destroyed by his commitment to a life of pleasure, even though it entails the destruction of other lives – most notably, Sibyl Vane’s.

Far from being a book that would be denounced from the pulpits by Anglican clergymen for being ‘immoral’, The Picture of Dorian Gray could make for a pretty good moral sermon in itself, albeit one that’s more witty and entertaining than most sermons. It teaches us that putting beauty and one’s own pleasures ahead of everything else will end in ruin and tragedy.

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