"Culture and corruption," murmured Dorian, "I have known something of both."
--Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I hold that no work of art can be tried otherwise than by laws deduced from itself: whether or not it be consistent with itself is the question.
--Thomas Wainewright, quoted by Wilde in "Pen, Pencil, and Poison"
Recent genre theory reminds us of just how often our disagreements about the meaning or interpretation of a text are actually debates about how the text should be read, or, more precisely, what kind of text it should be read as. If we are persuaded that a text is indeed an urban eclogue, a Bildungsroman, a Horatian ode, a parody of pastoral, or an example of postmodern female Gothic, we are more likely also to be persuaded of the critic's interpretation of that text's meaning. Thus a critic who interprets Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a modern secular morality play is not so much claiming to have found the meaning of the text as he or she is trying to persuade us to read the text as a particular kind of play. What a text means is inseparable from how it is read, and since we must always read a text as something, genre often asserts itself as a set of instructions, implicit or explicit, on how to read a text. The debate over the genre, and thereby the meaning, of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray exemplifies this protocol of reading.
Dorian Gray (1) has always provoked contradictory interpretations, but underlying the disagreements about the work's meaning there has persisted a more fundamental debate about what kind of novel it should be read as. This debate is discernible in the early reviews, though somewhat obscured by the hysteria over the novel's alleged immorality. Reading the novel as an English imitation of a decadent French text, for example, the reviewer for the Daily Chronicle denounced it as "a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Decadents, a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction" (NCE 342-43). The St. James Gazette repeated this attack: "The writer airs his cheap research among the garbage of the French Decadents like any drivelling pedant" (NCE 333). But while the popular secular press was denouncing Wilde's novel for its "spiritual putrefaction," Christian publications, such as the Christian Leader, the Christian World, and Light, which interpreted it as an ethical parable or moral fable, praised it as "a work of high moral import" (qtd. in Pearce 169). In America, Julian Hawthorne (son of Nathaniel Hawthorne) was undecided whether Dorian Gray was "a novel or romance (it partakes of both)." But he finally settled on "parable" and pronounced the novel "a salutary departure from the ordinary English novel" (NCE 348-349). Clearly, the judgment of early reviewers depended, at least to some extent, on the genre in which they placed the novel.
Modern critics are as divided about the novel's meaning as the original reviewers were obsessed with its morality. But what has not changed is the role the perceived genre of the novel plays in interpretation. (2) While some critics read the novel as belonging to a single genre and assume that the conventions of that genre provide the key to unlock the text's meaning, others see it as a kind of heteroglossia combining two or more genres. In "The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde's Parable of the Fall," for example, Joyce Carol Oates finds the novel to be "a curious hybrid. Certainly it possesses a 'supernatural' dimension, and its central image is Gothic; yet in other respects it is Restoration comedy" (427). For her, the novel's generic anomalies make its message at once transparently clear and enigmatically opaque:
While in one sense The Picture of Dorian Gray is as transparent as a medieval allegory, and its structure as workman-like as Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, to which it bears an obvious family resemblance, in another sense it remains a puzzle: knotted, convoluted, brilliantly enigmatic. …