Reading the Ethics of the Soul and the Late-Victorian Gothic

Kenneth Womack
Kenneth Womack

As a literary phenomenon, the Victorian gothic manifests itself in fin-de-siècle literature both as a subversive supernatural force and as a mechanism for social critique. Envisioning the world as a dark and spiritually turbulent tableau, the fictions of the late-Victorian gothic often depict the city of London as a corrupt urban landscape characterised by a brooding populace and by its horror-filled streets of terror.

In ‘The Three Impostors’ (1895), for instance, Arthur Machen offers a desolate, hyper-eroticised portrait of London and its invasion by a chemically altered degenerate race of pagan beings.

In one of the more chilling portrayals of London’s citizenry, Marie Corelli’s ‘The Sorrows of Satan’ (1896) narrates the Devil’s progress through the city’s ethically bankrupt environs as he searches for someone — indeed, anyone — with the moral strength to resist his temptations. He does not succeed.

At the conclusion of ‘The Sorrows of Satan’, the Devil ascends the steps of Parliament, walking arm-in-arm with its acquiescent ministers. The characters in Richard Marsh’s ‘The Beetle’ (1897) encounter a similarly troubled London cityscape. In the novel, a desperate and lonely Robert Holt wanders the city in search of lodging only to confront the supernatural insect, metaphor for London’s spiritual vacancy in the form of a giant beetle.

Finally, in ‘The Lodger’ (1923), Marie Belloc Lowndes depicts the mean streets of 1880s London in her fictional account of Jack the Ripper’s murderous exploits in the city’s notorious East End. The novel’s chilling atmosphere of suspense, fear and horror — as with other works in the genre — underscores the manner in which the Victorian gothic provides a critique of the moral and spiritual value systems of London and its forlorn inhabitants. Each volume also narrates — in one form or another, human, insect or otherwise — the corruption of the soul.

In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890), Oscar Wilde likewise investigates the ethics of the soul through his own well-known portrait of aesthetic narcissism and fin-de-siècle decadence. Yet in the novel’s ‘Preface’, Wilde writes that ‘no artist has ethical sympathies.

An ethical sympathy in an artist’, he coyly adds, “is an unpardonable mannerism of style” (1991, 69). During the novel’s initial serialisation, the popular press severely rebuked ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ for its ostensible lack of moral import.

A reviewer in the June 30th, 1890 edition of the Daily Chronicle described the novel as “unclean” and a “poisonous book” with “odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction”. In a July 5th, 1890 notice in the Scots Observer, yet another reviewer complained about the novel’s “false” morality, “for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health, and sanity” (cited in Beckson 1998, 271).

Wilde swiftly replied to the growing horde of critics, arguing, rather ironically, that ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ was in fact too moral: “All excess, as well as all renunciation”, Wilde soberly concluded, “brings its own punishment” (cited in Ellmann 321).

While the novelist’s contradictory stances regarding his narrative’s ethical properties seem purposefully beguiling, few critics deny the moral fable that functions at the core of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. Although Colin McGinn, for example, evaluates the novel in terms of its humanist agenda in ‘Ethics, Evil, and Fiction’ (1997), he neglects, as with other Wilde critics, to consider the role of the Victorian gothic as the mechanism via which Wilde achieves his moral aims regarding the soul and its function as the repository for humanity’s notions of goodness and evil — the essential qualities that define our perceptions about the interpersonal fabric of the self.

An ethical reading of Wilde’s novel reveals the ways in which the novelist exploits the fantastic elements inherent in the Victorian gothic as a means for fulfilling his decidedly moral aims in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. Ethical criticism, with its reliance upon contemporary moral philosophy, affords readers with a paradigm for considering the contradictory emotions and problematic moral stances that often mask literary characters.

Ethical criticism also provides its practitioners with the capacity for positing socially relevant interpretations by celebrating the Aristotelian qualities of living well and flourishing. As Martha C. Nussbaum reminds us in ‘The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy’, the ethical study of literary works offers a powerful means for interpreting the ideological and interpersonal clashes that define the human experience.

The ethical investigation of literature, she writes, “lays open to view the complexity, the indeterminacy, the sheer difficulty of actual human deliberation”. Such humanistic criticism, she adds, demonstrates “the vulnerability of human lives to fortune, the mutability of our circumstances and our passions, the existence of conflicts among our commitments” (1986, 1314). By focusing our attention upon the narrative experiences of literary characters, ethical criticism provides a powerful mechanism for investigating the interconnections between the reading experience and the life of the reader.

An ethical reading of Wilde’s novel — concerned, as it is, with the soul and our perceptions regarding the nature of goodness — demands that we devote particular attention to these issues and their relevance to such a reading of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.

In her important volume of moral philosophy, ‘The Sovereignty of Good’, Iris Murdoch elaborates upon the concept of goodness and the ways in which our personal configurations of it govern human perceptions regarding the relationship between the self and the world. Murdoch’s paradigm for understanding goodness functions upon the equally abstract notions of free will and moral choice.

“Good is indefinable”, Murdoch writes, “because judgments of value depend upon the will and choice of the individual” (1985, 3). Postulating any meaning for goodness, then, requires individuals to render personal observations about the nature of this precarious expression and its role in their life decisions.

Although Murdoch concedes that goodness essentially finds its origins in “the nature of concepts very central to morality such as justice, truthfulness, or humility”, she correctly maintains, nevertheless, that only individual codes of morality can determine personal representations of goodness (89).

“Good is an empty space into which human choice may move” (97), she asserts, and “the strange emptiness which often occurs at the moment of choosing” underscores the degree of autonomy inherent in the act of making moral decisions (35). Individuals may also measure their personal conceptions of goodness in terms of its foul counterpart, evil, which Murdoch defines generally as “cynicism, cruelty, indifference to suffering” (98).

Again, though, as with good, evil finds its definition in the personal ethos constructed by individuals during their life experiences in the human community.

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