Looking with Narcissus: Oscar Wilde’s Reception of the Dying God

Manny, Iarfhlaith (2018). Looking with Narcissus: Oscar Wilde’s Reception of the Dying God. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000d99d


‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors,’ writes Oscar Wilde in his ‘Preface’ to the 1891 book edition of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. By transferring agency away from the originator to the recipient, Wilde’s aphorism could be considered a late nineteenth-century version of reception theory, which has sought to challenge conventional critical ideas of influence or tradition in classical studies in recent decades.

The Introduction to this thesis relates the classically educated Wilde’s epigram, which supposedly originated with his Trinity College Dublin tutor, John Pentland Mahaffy, to the dissolution of authority both inside and outside Classics during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Chapter 1 explores the broadly similar critical sentiments in Wilde’s press correspondence and his defence of his writings in his 1895 libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry. Wilde’s inverted ideas of reading, I argue, are informed by the plays of Euripides and Aristophanes.

Chapters 2 and 3 turn Wilde’s inverted ideas of reading on their head. Chapter 2 argues that Wilde’s use of the Orpheus story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is revealing about not only Dorian Gray’s but also his author’s troubled relations with both sexes. Chapter 3 shows how Wilde uses Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in his fairy tales and plays to represent unhappy heterosexual relations in contradistinction to a positively portrayed Platonic pedagogical pederasty—a juxtaposition that is reflected in Wilde’s life as well as his work.

Chapter 4 reverts to Wilde’s idea that artistic meaning is in the eye of the beholder. The religious relativism and oscillation between literary sources in Wilde’s drama Salomé, which is viewed as an example of ‘Alexandrian’ Euripideanism, contribute to an atmosphere of narcissistic subjectivism and projectionism that meet with the full condemnation of official authority.

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