Laura Giovannelli, Il Principe e il Satiro. (Ri)leggere “Il ritratto di Dorian Gray” [The Prince and the Satyr: (Re)reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray”], Carocci, Roma, 2007, pp. 254.
by Luca Caddia
Laura Giovannelli has written a book that, in general terms, proves a useful and a complete companion to The Picture of Dorian Gray. In my opinion, its informative potential is unequalled, as far as Italian books dealing with the same subjects are concerned, and if it were translated in English it could be a precious instrument for both students and scholars who are willing to form an accurate opinion about the novel.
Nevertheless, something I must highlight in this review is how the attention paid by Giovannelli to assembling the innumerable sources that constitute the genesis of the novel is total, if not overwhelming, which might be a problem in a book that claims to be a re-reading of such a popular classic. On the other hand, it is also right to point out that all the material used here is perfectly argued through an appropriate and intelligent selection of the huge amount of criticism that has appeared on the subject in the last forty years. That is to say, Il Principe e il Satiro seems to me more a (pre)reading, although an excellent one, than a (re)reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Now I would like to express my opinion on a handful of topics opened up by the author of this book and with which I cannot agree in full: Giovannelli often remarks how Dorian is easily led by “chimerical appearances” (i.e., 60, 95), then she dismisses Harry’s role through a simple employment of the famous, authorially apologetic definition of him as a “spectator” (87), which has always seemed quite problematic to me, not only because of the violent agency of the late-Victorian public, but also considering how “spectator” and “appearance” become dangerously sympathetic terms when applied to such a blasé type as Lord Henry. In other words, is Harry’s influence necessarily responsible for Dorian’s crucial wish or is his presence merely contingent in the economy of the novel?
Sometimes Giovannelli’s orderly and sophisticated writing might deceive the uninitiated reader, especially when she employs such concepts as “masculinity crisis” (39) to define the challenge posed by Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray to the bourgeois norm of the late-Victorian age. Apparently, it is very difficult not to agree with her when she sums up the sexual politics fixed for men in the 1890s, but since we are not dealing with the 1990s, one should remember that the concept of manliness, which accompanied constructions of masculinities all through the Victorian Age from the early spiritual meaning encouraged by the Evangelical propaganda to its reconstruction in emotional terms brought forth by Anthony Trollope, was regenerating itself into a Spartan (i.e., bellicose) ideal whose paradigmatic role was actually in progress, not in crisis! In other words, it seems to me that Wilde’s menace, both in intentions and effects, to the patriarchal order of the late-Victorian era is less that of weakening an emerging performing standard than that of giving air to an ancient closeted concept, which was considered unfit for “the survival of the pushing” exemplified by those pragmatic imperialistic conceptions that the novels, on the other hand, doesn’t reject in full (see the dialogue between Harry and the Duchess of Monmouth in chapter XVII). And if you think that by stressing the focus on the novel’s pars construens I am not doing justice to the disruptiveness of its decadence, I call the first paragraph of the novel as a witness for the defence. By taking the initial description of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, as John Sutherland has argued, alone proves disturbing to the Victorian common reader because of its “indelicate” stress on smells (Is Heathcliff a Murderer?, 197), Giovannelli describes a “centripetal movement” proceeding from the garden to the centre of Basil’s studio, in order to demonstrate that the objects described in the first paragraph are “concentrically configured” (82). However, this is not what actually happens in the novel, where the “oppressive stillness” of its elements conveys more the idea of a bubbling microcosm which is about to burst in order to reveal, all of a sudden and not by degrees, the “full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinarily personal beauty”. There, he said it.
The Picture of Dorian Gray includes a character who, in my opinion, deserves much more than both author and critics have generally allowed him: James Vane. Giovannelli argues that he belongs to that group of predestined characters who were often utilized by naturalist novelists in order for them to observe the interactions between a determined temper and a conditioning historical background (133). I don’t think I will say something very original if I claim that James is such a real threat to Dorian that he must be shot during a hunting scene in order for the story to get rid of him, which, on the other hand, says a lot about his supposed lack of agency as a character. If it is possible to argue that, as a member of the working-class, he is slain by the leisurely society (i.e., E. San Juan, The Art of Oscar Wilde), I also strongly believe that James is blocked by an author who, far from being interested in the interactions between him and his background, had fully realized his dangerous potential within a self-sufficient plot that had to be brought to its own resolution by the protagonist himself. In my opinion, James’s redundancy is as contingent as the destiny of Dorian Gray.
My favourite passage in the novel occurs in chapter VII when, after having bid farewell to Sibyl, Dorian takes a long walk through the meanderings of London and, before dawn, finds himself close to Covent Garden, where “a white-smocked carter offered him some cherries. He thanked him, wondered why he refused to accept any money for them, and began to eat them listlessly. They had been plucked at midnight, and the coldness of the moon had entered into them”. That Dorian is unable to sense the dimension of gratuity in anybody, especially in that particular moment of the novel which (dis)connects his metamorphosis from Prince Charming to Satyr, may be unsurprising, and yet it is by means of the reactions to his presence by non characters like the carter or the assistant of Mr Hubbard (the frame-maker who helps Dorian move his portrait to the old schoolroom), that the reader can perceive the absolute truth of Wilde’s concern about his beauty. Paragraphs like these are not explored in Giovannelli’s book, which seems more concerned with gathering topics already researched by other critics in a way not dissimilar from that employed by Dorian when, in chapter XI, he is described as a collector. Oddly, studies in material culture often agree that, generally speaking, one of the main purposes of collectors is that of creating a life-narrative for themselves through the newly meaningful relation that collected objects acquire when drawn close to each other (see the works of Susan Stewart, Susan M. Pearce, Alexandra Bounia, Claire Wintle): Dorian Gray fails to survive the derangement created by the impressionistic vision which shapes his new identity, but eventually he manages to mean much to his readers. I wish Giovannelli’s beautiful book the same good fortune.