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The Threat of Realism in À Rebours and The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Karol Kapsa

Joris-Karl Huysmans’ À Rebours and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray represent the decadent literature of the fin-de-siècle on their respective sides of the Channel. Huysmans’ Des Esseintes and Wilde’s Dorian Gray are, in their own ways, both embodiments of the countercultural fin-de-siècle mantra of art for art’s sake or l’art pour l’art. It was the libertinism associated with the aesthete lifestyles depicted in these novels that led cultural critics like Max Nordau to blame decadent art for the perceived degeneration of society during the fin-de-siècle. In their own writings, however, both writers make clear that their respective turns toward the decadent mode were intended to preserve their writing, and all writing of the period, from the stagnation which threatened the dominant modes of naturalism and realism. Huysmans’ novel was a deviation from the naturalist movement to which he belonged, and which he had perceived as running into dead-ends. Both Huysmans and Wilde saw that the naturalist and realist modes threatened to collapse the categories of life and art. A large part of Wilde’s oeuvre was dedicated to exploring the dangers of this collapse, Dorian Gray and “The Decay of Lying” being the foremost of these works. À Rebours and The Picture of Dorian Gray push back against the conflation of art with life which drove 19th-century art and art criticism. Their forms reject the strict mimesis of the naturalist and realist schools while their protagonists function as cautionary figures against the moral idolization of the artwork.

Joris-Karl Huysmans was a French writer whose early novels associated him with naturalism. The naturalist movement was adjacent to literary realism, which had arisen in rejection of earlier Romantic principles. naturalist literature often depicted the world as a deterministic place, in which individuals were often products of their material conditions. The style of naturalist literature was characterized by the accurate, mimetic representation of the material world. Many works of naturalism and realism were concerned with social change and the injustices arising from industrialization and the proliferation of capitalism. These works, Huysmans’ included among them, depicted the lives of the lower class and were largely concerned with the portrayal of crime, poverty, and hunger. In his 1903 preface to À Rebours, Huysmans describes the naturalist movement as having “no room — in theory at least — for exceptions; it thus confined itself to the portrayal of ordinary experience, striving, under the pretext of being true to life, to create characters who came as close as possible to the average person” (Huysmans 205). À Rebours, written twenty years prior, presented Huysmans’ deviation from the principles of the naturalist school. The novel’s protagonist, Des Esseintes, is the last in a line of inbred French nobility. Des Esseintes is wealthy, and although there are brief forays into the Paris underworld through flashback, he has managed to seal himself away entirely from the poverty and grime that the French naturalists had staked out as their domain — Des Esseintes’s mansion is a far cry from the Paris streets. The perceived unholiness of À Rebours is that it revels in the sensory but prefers the psychological to the physical. As Des Esseintes’ health continues to wear away — seemingly for no reason but ennui itself — the mansion gradually becomes an entirely virtual space. In this way, À Rebours is a paradox: a psychological novel obsessed with sensation.

Des Esseintes disavows the idea that art should imitate nature. Hermetically sealed away from his fellow man, he inundates himself with the sensory stimulation that he deems only artifice can provide. Early in the novel he proclaims that “Nature […] has had her day” and goes on to ask whether “there exist[s], anywhere on this earth, a being conceived in the joys of fornication and born in the throes of motherhood who is more dazzling, more outstandingly beautiful than the two locomotives recently put into service on the Northern Railway” (Huysmans 22, 23). Des Esseintes is convinced that man’s creative ability has surpassed that of Nature. This ruling leads Des Esseintes to fill his mansion with every mode of artifice available to him. Deeming Nature’s flowers too depressing, and growing “tired of artificial flowers aping real ones,” Des Esseintes fills his mansion with “natural flowers that would look like fakes” (83). A “mouth-organ” of high-end liqueurs is used to play symphonies of sensations upon the tongue (45). The impotent protagonist tastes Persian bonbons housing crystalized “female essence” to evoke memories of past sexual encounters (96). Towards the end of the novel, once his progressive ennui has all but destroyed his digestive tract, Des Esseintes plans out full-course meals to be liquified and consumed via enema. À Rebours — sometimes translated into English as Against Nature — is an immersive experiment in synesthesia. The sensations evoked by the novel are Huysmans’ proof that the naturalist school is missing something. Language is not always adequate to describe the world as it is, and the world is not only material.

In his preface to the novel, Huysmans justifies his abandonment of the naturalist school. He writes that “naturalism was wearing itself out going over the same ground. The reservoir of insights that each writer had built up, drawing on himself and on others, was beginning to run out” (Huysmans 207). In À Rebours, Huysmans was separating himself from a movement which he saw was rapidly losing steam. In the novel, Des Esseintes makes sweeping surveys of the literature housed on his shelves. He is quick to cut down many writers, many of them Huysmans’ contemporaries, as his literary palate narrows. He scoffs at the dreary realism of Dickens, among others. Des Esseintes does, however, voice admiration for the idealist modes of certain Catholic and Symbolist writers, such as Ernest Hello and Barbey d’Aurevilly, people Huysmans would later come into contact with through his move away from the naturalists. In his work Degeneration, Max Nordau points to Des Esseintes as the prototypal decadent man, writing: “[w]e have him now, then, the ‘super-man’ of whom Baudelaire and his disciples dream, and whom they wish to resemble: physically, ill and feeble; morally, an arrant scoundrel; intellectually, an unspeakable idiot” (225). A more generous interpretation of À Rebours suggests the contrary. Des Esseintes was not intended to be the depiction of the decadent übermensch, but to prove that the naturalist mode was flawed. After being made to leave his mansion by his doctor, Des Esseintes spends the last pages of the novel cursing the simultaneously filthy and mundane outside world into which he is being ejected. This is Huysmans’ acknowledgment that art cannot be a replacement for life, at least not a sustainable one. And yet, for a brief while, Des Esseintes succeeds in living a life composed of art, exposing the inadequacy of an artistic school that exists only to represent life ‘as-it-is.’

In 1891, Oscar Wilde published the essay “The Decay of Lying.” The work is a treatise styled as a Socratic dialogue between two dandyesque characters. The essay functions as Wilde’s own refutation of the naturalist and realist schools, although there is evidence in Wilde’s Oxford journal that the balance between realism and idealism had long been a concern of the writer (145). The naturalists are disparaged for their lack of creative capacity as Vivian, the character standing in for Wilde, says “the only thing that can be said about them is that they find life crude, and leave it raw” (17). They are all but written off when he writes that “the modern novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction” (13). Most notable in “The Decay of Lying” is Wilde’s development on Des Esseintes’s assertions that nature’s design was wanting compared to that of men. Vivian states that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life” (46). This claim is qualified by the explanation that “[t]hings are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us” (47). Wilde suggests that art cannot be simply mimetic because it is art itself that determines how the world is viewed. art is utopian not only in its capacity to envision new worlds, but also in its capacity to convert the mind to new ways of perception. Like Huysmans, Wilde rejects absolute materialism. There is no objective reality in a world in which art can be created.

Wilde’s connections to Huysmans are made clear in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian encounters a book bound in yellow about a “wonderful young Parisian, in whom the romantic and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended” (Wilde 282). Neither À Rebours nor Des Esseintes are named in the version of Dorian Gray which was eventually published, yet the descriptions of this fictional Parisian are remarkably similar to Huysmans’ hero. In the Orientalist montage, which makes up most of Dorian Gray’s eleventh chapter, Dorian undertakes a similar sensory tour as Des Esseintes undergoes in À Rebours. Upon reading this yellow book, Dorian finds that it “seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (282). That Dorian Gray can find in the pages of the yellow book the image of his own life already disrupts the assumed process of mimetic representation. Through an implied providence, Dorian’s life mimics Huysmans’ art. It is a fictional proof-of-concept for Wilde’s arguments in “The Decay of Lying” that it is life that imitates art rather than vice versa. Wilde’s refutation of the naturalists goes beyond Dorian’s uncanny reenactment of Huysmans’ hero, however. It is the titular object — the seemingly supernatural portrait of Dorian Gray — which demonstrates Wilde’s assertion as to the relation between art and reality.

The portrait of Dorian Gray exists in the cross-section between the idealist and realist modes. The painting begins as a mimetic representation of Dorian’s physical beauty, that is, as a realist representation. The painting becomes imbued with an Ideal after it is bonded with Dorian’s soul. The portrait embodies the collapse of the category of life and art. The painting functions as a model of Wilde’s understanding of meaning-making in art. The preface to Dorian Gray claims that “[i]t is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (139). This idea is present in the ways that Dorian’s portrait is perceived. The painting’s physical appearance changes with the moral qualities which are inflicted upon it by the judgements of the observers. The realities of Dorian Gray’s life are secret, and his loose ends (Basil, James Vane) are neatly disposed of. The span of time between Dorian’s discovery of the yellow book and his thirty-eighth year are largely obscured, even from the reader. The decadent and immoral events of Dorian’s life are only outlined through hearsay. After Dorian’s death on the book’s final page, there is no record of his life of immorality. Dorian’s faithful and unwitting servants see in Basil’s painting the pristine and beautiful portrait of their employer as he was in life. The reader of the novel has been privy to the insidious life of the portrait’s subject and sees the picture of Dorian Gray “in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty” as something sinister (391). Basil Hallward, whose Romanticist leanings are made evident early on in the novel, sees his own perdition, his own moral failings, in the portrait. For the Romantic, the artwork is an extension of the artist’s own essence, and so Basil sees the portrait as a reflection of himself; it was he who had shown it the “secret of [his] own soul” in its creation (144). The metaphor of Dorian’s portrait is clear: even a portrait that is seemingly, supernaturally linked to the soul of its object is perceived differently by all who gaze upon it. The viewer is the critic, and the critic becomes like an artist each time they look upon an artwork and pass judgment. In the preface to Dorian Gray, Wilde casts away both of those who would source the meaning of an artwork in either the artist or the outside world when he writes: “The nineteenth-century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth-century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass” (138). Wilde argues that art must be allowed to exist for its own sake in order to be productive. As reads in the preface to Wilde’s novel, “[t]here is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” (138). Wilde sources the morality of the artwork within the critic who interprets it. To locate the virtue of an artwork in its mimetic ability is mistaken. On this note, Shelton Waldrep writes that “[f]or Wilde, realism embodied an absolute value for aesthetics” (105). This absolute value threatened art not only with the stagnation that Huysmans feared but also with a fixed moral quality that Wilde considered to be dangerous. Dorian Gray was Wilde’s argument that “realism— with its attendant focus on the world as it is in all of its detail — is just another name for the total aestheticization of everything” (Waldrep 105). To allow the categories of art and life to overlap is to reduce life to an aesthetic principle, just as Dorian Gray does. Waldrep writes that: “[f]or Wilde, an aesthetics based on such a precept risked constraining any and all fantastic, romantic, or other creative and critical impulses” (106). To deem that art must possess a moral quality — to suggest that the beautiful is good and that the good is beautiful — is to claim that virtue is aesthetic. Dorian Gray makes this mistake when he trades his soul for the face of a painting. Des Esseintes makes this mistake when he trades the real world for a life in a museum. It is only when art is allowed to exist for its own sake that it is able to become a whole, a totality.

Dorian Gray and Des Esseintes represent the collapse of the categories of life and art. The critics of the decadent movement cry out that this is the pinnacle of immorality, Wilde (and Huysmans, to a lesser extent) nods his head in response. Wilde’s oeuvre is dedicated to demonstrating that art must remain a totality, a category holy in and of itself, in order to maintain its utopian ability to mediate the ideal and the material. Des Esseintes’ jewel-encrusted tortoise, encumbered with the weight of beautiful objects, is the representation of a life made subservient to art. To no surprise, the tortoise dies within its first day in Des Esseintes’s perfume-drenched home. The lives of both Des Esseintes and the tortoise are degraded and snuffed out, respectively, when they are made subservient to art. Dorian’s portrait depicts the opposite function: when an artwork, even one which depicts something as beautiful and pristine as the young Dorian Gray of the novel’s early chapters, is encumbered with preserving the morality of a corrupt and sinful subject that artwork will inevitably become itself sinful and corrupted. Man suffers when he is made to live like art, and art suffers when it is made to behave like a life.

Both À Rebours and The Picture of Dorian Gray acted as prototypes of decadent literature in continental Europe and England respectively. By the same token, both works were accused of perpetuating the degeneration associated with the fin-de-siecle by contemporary critics. The maxim of l’art pour l’art which Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray were perceived to embody was blamed for the moral bankruptcy of fin-de-siècle art and literature. These characters’ true function was as cautionary tales for when the categories of life and art became too closely intertwined. Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray depict what happens when life is mistakenly treated as art and when art is taken to be the sole meaning of life. art’s meaning exists within the critic, as Wilde writes in the preface to his novel: “[t]he only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely” and as the unfortunate fates of Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray make clear, “[a]ll art is quite useless” (Wilde 139).

Works Cited

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature (À Rebours). Penguin Classics, 2003.

—. “Preface: Written Twenty Years After the Novel.” Against Nature (À Rebours). Penguin Classics, 2003, pp. 205-218.

Nordau, Max. “Excerpt from Degeneration.” Against Nature (À Rebours), by Joris-Karl Huysmans. Penguin Classics, 2003, pp. 225.

Waldrep, Shelton. “The Aesthetic Realism of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.” Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 29, no. 1, 1996, pp. 103-05. ProQuest, /aesthetic-realism-oscar-wildes-dorian-gray/docview/198121717/se-2.

Wilde, Oscar.  Oscar Wilde’s Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making. Edited by Philip E. Smith and Michael S. Helfand, Oxford University Press, 1989. 

—. The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Portable Oscar Wilde, edited by Richard Aldington and Stanley Weintraub, Penguin, 1981, pp. 138-391.

—. “The Decay of Lying.” Intentions: Oscar Wilde. Brainard, 1909, pp. 7-67.

About the Author: Karol Kapsa is a U3 English Literature Major from Grimsby, Ontario. He is currently working on early 20th-century American literature. His role models are Jack Kerouac and Joan of Arc.