“Not Yellow At All”: The Agency of the Symbol in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
After Oscar Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray (henceforth DG) in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, the public responded with a collective wringing of hands and pearl-clutching, resulting in Wilde including a preface to the 1891 edition that would help define it in the context of aestheticism. The plaiting of the Yellow Book into the narrative was a Victorian shibboleth, a symbol of French decadence, aestheticism, and art pour l’art. (This would be a good time to read Stacey M’s post, if you haven’t yet. It’s fine. I’ll wait.)
Wilde’s preface includes a number of articles that could be applied to either the controversy surrounding the storyline of DG itself, particularly the implicit homoeroticism, or the appearance of the Yellow Book in Chapter 10 of the novel, when Lord Henry gives it to Dorian, or, perhaps more accurately, leaves it without explanation to elicit curiosity. (Wilde 158). Dorian’s experience with the book, I argue, has as much to do with the symbolic value of the book as its content. One of the articles in the preface of the novel reads: “[t]here is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” and later, “[t]hose who go beneath the surface do so at their peril” (Wilde 41, 42). The Yellow Book is proffered by Lord Henry, Dorian’s Machiavellian mentor, and the source, manner, and moment in which it appears is more likely the impetus for Dorian’s obsession with it, rather than some deeply corrupting content.
Wilde himself notes that the actual Yellow Book that caused such a caterwaul of Victorian moralizing was “not yellow at all” (Weintraub in Ledger 6); perhaps a search for some supernatural and hypnotic force in its pages would be ultimately fruitless. Dorian becomes enamoured by the Yellow Book that Wilde represents in the novel, but he receives the book just as he is experiencing guilt (one of many uncomfortable emotions Dorian rejects vociferously) and relies on the book to alleviate his discomfort with his own role in Sybil’s suicide. The book, though risqué, and captivating, holds no more power than Dorian himself in his desperation to avoid “go[ing] beneath the surface” (Wilde 42).
The book obliges his desperation to remain above the surface, revelling in the power it has been imbued by its own controversy and the potential for moral disorder it represents. That Dorian capitulates to an idea he was seeking in the first place is not surprising, and says more about his investment and escape into the book, a metaphorical place in contravention to the social contract of the time. When Dorian explains that the book “so fascinated [him] that [he] forgot how the time was going” (Wilde 160), Lord Henry is unsurprised and acknowledges Dorian’s contention that there is a “great difference” between liking the book and being fascinated by it” (160). Lord Henry’s knowledge of how Dorian would engage with the book is not an indictment of the book itself, but rather a recognition that the power the book wields is predicated on it being labelled illicit by the symbolic yellow cover, and on Lord Henry’s a priori awareness that Dorian would confer power upon the book in pursuit of the libertine, decadent, and salacious.
Wilde’s ambivalence about the Yellow Book’s intrinsic ability to corrupt is demonstrated in life and art; his assertion that the Yellow Book was “not yellow at all” (Weintraub in Ledger 6) reinforces his insistence that an “immoral book” (Wilde 41) is a construction, a manifestation of collective fears. In the novel, Dorian’s fascination with the book begins as he rhapsodizes that “things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed” (158, 159). The book’s power is in Dorian’s own zeal, and is no more a corrupting influence on him than any of the other preoccupations of his “sensuous life” (167), including his obsessive relationship with the aging man in his painting: they eventually leave him empty, after he realizes that no amount of “denial of self” (250) could fulfill him.
Ledger, Sally. “Wilde Women and the Yellow Book: The Sexual Politics of Aestheticism and Decadence.” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 50.1 (2007): 5–26.
Wilde, Oscar, and Norman Page. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 1998.
 Translated – “Art for art’s sake,” from French decadence that became a common Victorian aphorism associated with the emergence of aesthetics, and the permeation of French decadence into Victorian society in the late 19th century.