This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

The Utopian Aestheticism of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Gertrude Stein's Three Lives




Gordon, Linda

Type of Degree





This study reads Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891) and Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives (written 1905, published 1909) through Paul Cézanne’s radical aesthetics of surface, and is grounded in H. G. Wells’ radical account of utopianism as the “interplay of individualities.” The utopianism of Wilde and Stein derives from their aestheticism. Wilde’s writing recapitulates the tension in aestheticism between totalistic and pluralistic impulses, and Stein’s literary stress on surfaces extends Cézanne’s aesthetics that treats each surface as a recalcitrant individuality. This study explores the emergence of images of individualities whose stress on surfaces resists reduction to any final assertion. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Cézanne’s pictorial art breaks down the Renaissance perspective’s distinction of figure and ground, while Wells’ utopianism asserts the interplay of individualities and implies a critique of totalization. The disruption of totalizing form moves thought from a model of reconciliation and unity, in which the “idea of one” is contested. In their portrait metaphors and techniques, Wilde and Stein ally themselves with Wells’ figuration of utopia as an ever-inventive process, thus placing their narratives in the critical context of twentieth century novel theory of Mikhail Bakhtin that critiques monologism, and occupies a position similar to the anti-totalizing ethics of Derrida, Adorno, and Levinas that affirm difference, individuality, and Other. The utopian narratives of Wilde and Stein break from the monolithic explanations sought by other early modernists, who seek to return to an old Eden rather than turn toward an ever-unfolding world.