Pulp Fiction? Oscar Wilde’s and George Gissing’s Responses to 19th-Century Trash Culture
In the context of late Victorian literature, the year 1891 must be considered to be one of the anni mirabiles. That year not only saw the publication of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but also that of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, The Soul of Man under Socialism and George Gissing’s New Grub Street. While the first two novels are noteworthy for the fact that they seem to translate the triangular constellation of the medieval morality play into modern narratives and fashion the dandy as the devilish intruder upon the time-honoured values of life, The Soul of Man under Socialism and New Grub Street deal with the threat that arises not so much out of an egotistical supraculture as out of a popular mainstream culture that substitutes the artist as a poeta doctus for a profit-seeking producer of ephemeral and dubious literary texts.
The enormous changes that affected not only the literary market, but the entire structure of 19th-century society can even be perceived in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, where the dandy-villain is no longer a fascinating creature of supernatural or aristocratic descent.1 Alec, originally called Stoke before he arrogated the name of the extinct d’Urbervilles, is the epitome of a new aspiring generation of people that, despite their vulgarity,2 inevitably make their way to the top and, like cultural vampires, take into their possession the names, symbols and belongings of the representatives of the formerly high, but now decayed and bloodless culture. This process, which culminates in Alec’s rape of Tess, in the parvenu’s violating the body of the impoverished old culture, is described in terms of crude Darwinism as the crucial moment when the ‘beautiful feminine tissue [of her body], sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet’ is imprinted’ with ‘a coarse pattern’ and when ‘the coarse appropriates the finer.’3 To visualize this act of crude appropriation, Hardy uses the image of the garden of the Stoke-d’Urbervilles’ house, which used to be a hortus conclusus, in accordance with the tradition of the garden as a symbol of hierarchical order, but is now ‘a trampled and sanded square;4 and what could stress Hardy’s argument of cultural subversion more than the passage in which the house is shown overrun with parasitical ivy?5
In New Grub Street, George Gissing, an admirer of Hardy’s and a reader of Tess of the d’Urbervilles,6 transferred the struggle between ‘the coarse’ and ‘the finer’ from the social sphere into the realm of literature where, by the end of the 19th century, the new demands of mass production and easily digestible fiction were readily met by a phalanx of writers who, like Anthony Trollope or second-tier writers like Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Hall Caine and Marie Corelli,7 profited from the emergent market of pop and trash culture, which was rapidly circulated by the mushrooming lending libraries and magazines like Tit-Bits. As Philip Waller argues, the new market for the late Victorian fiction factory with its flood of six-shilling novels and penny magazines not only corresponded to the ‘age of increasing hurry,’8 but it also met the demands of a new generation that rated quantity higher than quality, velocity superior to Keats’s art of ‘slow time’9 and little morsels of crude fiction more palatable than densely packed three-volume novels. The fact that Leopold Bloom reads an issue of Tit-Bits on the toilet, tears it into fragments and ‘wipe[s] himself with it’10 can only be seen as an unmistakeable sign of the contempt with which James Joyce and other high-culture writers looked on the these products of modern popular culture.
In Gissing’s novel, this dichotomy between high and pop culture, between art and mass production, is mainly personified by the two writers Jasper Milvain and Edwin Reardon, with the latter particularly characterized by attributes of decline and weakness: ‘He looked something older than his years, which were two-and-thirty; on his face was the pallor of mental suffering.’11 While Reardon desperately clings to criteria of quality and persistently sees novel writing in terms of art, his antagonist Jasper Milvain – marked by the attitude of the self-complacent bourgeois – is introduced into the story less as an artist than as an entrepreneur who fashions himself as ‘the literary man of 1882’ (8) and unscrupulously caters to the ‘literary fare that is in demand in every part of the world’ (9). Exposing to ridicule the type of the bohemian ‘unpractical artist,’ as he was idealized in the wake of Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie bohème (1851) and re-defining Samuel Johnson’s pejorative idea of Grub Street as a new and modern place ‘supplied with telegraphic communication’ (9), Milvain launches into a repudiation of old and ossified myths like that of poetic inspiration:
People have got that ancient prejudice so firmly rooted in their heads – that one mustn’t write save at the dictation of the Holy Spirit. I tell you, writing is a business. (13)
Even though the commercialization of literature had begun with Defoe and in the 18th century had given rise to the hack writer who was satirically exploited in the works of Swift and Sterne, the Miltonic idea of writing under the auspices of a heavenly Muse was recaptured by the Romantics, who were instrumental in cementing the myth of the poet as an ingenious bard, as a prophet who addresses only a minority of initiated people. When Milvain categorically denies the existence of the ‘divine afflatus’ in 19th-century works of popular culture, he consciously talks about literature as a trade that is distinct from the canonized works of high culture represented by Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. In his plea for ‘good, coarse, marketable stuff’ (13; my italics), he not only reverts to the vocabulary that Hardy uses to pinpoint the modern supremacy of the uncouth, he further contributes to the demystification of the poet when he defines his role as humouring the masses, or ‘supplying the mob with the food it likes’ (13).
Adapting the metaphor of the brain as an intellectual stomach, which has always been a common trope for the processes of literary creation,12 Milvain detests any form of literary haute cuisine and craves the power to produce cultural fast food which is radically different both from Byron’s seasoned olla podrida in Don Juan and from the nourishing food of high-brow Victorian literature, since his novels are meant to out-trash ‘that trashiest that ever sold fifty thousand copies’ (14). As Milvain protests, an essential component of his anti-Romantic ars poetica of popular and trash culture – totally ignored by the unsuccessful legion of idealists and ‘literary pedants’ (14) – is the fact that the production of literary junk food requires new skills. While the writer of the past aspired to the private mode of ingenuity, to an elitism that was based on the self-fashioning of the poet as an alter deus, the modern writer is not only supposed to please the vulgar; in order to strike a chord of familiarity with his common readership, he is even supposed to ‘incarnate the genius of vulgarity’ (14).
The contradiction that is inherent in the phrase the ‘genius of vulgarity,’ is not only meant to be an attack on Romantic concepts of poetry, it is also ample evidence of the fact that, by the time Hall Caine’s The Christian became the first novel in Britain to sell one million copies,13 time-honoured hierarchies of values and taste were no longer valid and had been superseded by a new aesthetics which was now solely defined by the common, non-discriminating reader, the myriads of clerks whom Gissing attacked in his novels.14 In his influential essay Culture and Anarchy (1867), Matthew Arnold had already written about the consequences that arose from the emergence of the new class of the suburbans, the Philistines that, not unlike the ‘bawling, hustling and smashing’ mob, was characterized as the ‘enemy of the children of light.’15 Linda Dowling is certainly right when she refers to the ‘apocalyptic note’ in Arnold’s text:16 while Hobbes’s Leviathan managed to check man’s egotism, Arnold saw democratization – moored in Bright’s laissez-faire capitalism – as the perilous first stage of the downward slope to anarchy and vulgarity.
One generation later, in the so-called Yellow Nineties, the threat of vulgarization became so palpable that bestseller writers like Caine, Corelli or Rider Haggard17 seemed to subvert not only the literary (sub-)culture as it was depicted by Zola and the Continental Naturalists like Arno Holz and Gerhart Hauptmann, but also the l’art pour l’art movement as it was represented by Oscar Wilde. Seen in this context, Wilde’s motivation in writing the essay The Soul of Man under Socialism is apparent: severely castigating the consequences of democratization he calls for a Socialism that is, however, less influenced by Marx or by William Morris (who also published his Socialist utopia News from Nowhere in 1891) than by Emerson’s concept of Romantic Individualism.18 In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the world of the vulgar is only perceptible as ‘the bourdon note of a distant organ’ beyond the pale of Basil Hallward’s walled-in garden;19 and even the trashy theatre into which Dorian strays is temporarily endowed with a certain solemnity on account of Sibyl Vane’s refined play-acting. There is no denying that Wilde detests Naturalism and all crude forms of realism, the more so since he blames the adherents of Zola for the decay of lying and is disgusted to see the rich labyrinth of art reduced to a sterile laboratory.20 There is no indication of the fact that Wilde was acquainted with Gissing and there is no mention of Wilde’s having read New Grub Street, but Delany’s claim that ‘[t]heir common ground was limited to being three years apart in age and lovers of the classics’21 is in need of modification. Although both come from different social backgrounds and champion conflicting literary philosophies, they share the same ‘eugenic rhetoric of biologized worth’22 and an aversion to the emergent trash culture and its democratized concept of the artist as the distributor of short-lived and kitschy mass products.
While one can argue with Jonathan Freedman that the dandy ‘is by definition the perfect consumer’23 and that, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde himself seems to challenge the new literary market by eclectically mixing features of the popular genres – romance, horror, crime – with his Pateresque ideas of New Hedonism, Wilde’s essay, however, targets a different form of consumerism. Spurred on by the numerous Milvains and paparazzi, late 19th-century readers turn into non-discriminating iconoclasts and threaten to destroy the high-culture aloofness which is vital to the artist as a creator of beauty: ‘In France, in fact, they limit the journalist, and allow the artist almost perfect freedom. Here we allow absolute freedom to the journalist, and entirely limit the artist.’24 It was Byron who, in the first canto of his Don Juan, gave a graphic description of the enormous shifts of paradigm that were caused by the new power of the Regency press. The lack of heroes, the dismantling of people by ‘cloying the gazettes with cant’25 and the dissemination of slander are clear indications of the fact that, by the beginning of the 19th century, down-market journalism – one of the achievements of the democracy of the bourgeois – had started to bring about the political and cultural coup d’état whose effects Wilde was compelled to face:
But at the present moment it [= journalism] really is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism. In America the President reigns for four years, and Journalism governs for ever and ever. (23)
In the clutches of the limitless despotism of Journalism, Wilde’s Britain seems to adapt itself to a democratized and popular culture that has forfeited its cultural legacy and marginalized its last representatives of high culture like the ‘incomparable novelist’ George Meredith (28). Arnold Bennett complained of the new zeitgeist of journalism and mass culture which produced ‘tolerably educated English people who have never heard of Meredith, Hardy, Ibsen, Maeterlinck, Kipling, Barrie, Crockett; but you would travel far before you reached the zone where the name of Braddon failed of its recognition.’26
The result of this cultural iconoclasm and ignorance is, according to Wilde, a negative superlative, since ‘[n]o country produces such badly written fiction, such tedious, common work in the novel-form, such silly, vulgar plays as in England’ (18). Subjecting the literary output of his country to severe criticism, Wilde even reverts to trenchant sarcasm when he maintains that the production of trash culture is a challenge that no true-bred artist can face up to, because, in order to meet the requirements of shallow literature, he would be forced to ‘suppress his individualism, forget his culture, annihilate his style, and surrender everything that is valuable to him’ (19). In short, he would need that ‘genius of vulgarity’ that Milvain tries to conjure up and that both the dandy and the bohemian seek to counteract behind their façades of supra- or subcultural artificiality. Like Gissing, Wilde also makes use of the metaphor of food when he refers to the general public’s dread of novelty and their desire to ‘swallow their classics whole’ (19) without ever tasting them. Again, Gissing (implicitly via Milvain) and Wilde agree when they imagine the average reader not as a connoisseur of cultural delicacies, but as a gourmand gorging himself haphazardly. Faced with the public as the monstrous other that takes bitter revenge on anything that does not live up to the petty bourgeois’s norms of health, morality and patriotism, Wilde draws a typically dandyish conclusion which, on account of financial dependency, Reardon, Biffen or the Yules are far from endorsing. Advocating the concept of l’art pour l’art, which he also expounds in the ‘Preface’ to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde adopts the attitude of a poetic solipsist and consequently states that a ‘true artist takes no notice whatever of the public’ (28).
In his distrust of the mob, of the representatives of British Philistinism, who call for easily consumable and morally impeccable art, Wilde eventually launches into an apology for despotism, which, despite its political calamities, produced outstanding works of art. Seen in the wider context of the cultural liberation of the lower classes, which, particularly in the Victorian age, had encouraged writers to address new target groups and to initiate the popularization of culture, Wilde’s cultural pessimism is of the same quality as that of Gissing and H.G. Wells. While, in the Time Machine (1896), Wells sees the evolution of mankind in terms of a dystopian bipolarity between fragile, victimized creatures (Eloi) and bestialized cannibals (Morlocks) – both alike in their indifference to culture and art –, Wilde’s text seems to underline the fact that Wells’s locus terribilis is not a dystopain fantasy, but an encoded delineation of the late Victorian period. The late 19th-century mob has turned out to be a far greater threat than the despotic princes or corrupt popes, since in its Morlockian monstrosity, it is ‘a thing blind, deaf, hideous, grotesque, tragic, amusing, serious and obscene’ (30) and keeps the dandies, the last paragons of the declining Eloi culture, in a state of jeopardized isolation.
Wilde’s line of argumentation, which culminates in the provocative statements that ‘[i]t is impossible for the artist to live with the People’ and that a new Individualism, synonymous with a return to Hellenism, must be aspired to, could not be more different from the sordid reality from where Reardon, the Yules and Biffen have decided to fight the proliferation of trash culture. This difference is also underlined by the choice of genre: while Wilde deliberately chooses the argumentative genre of an essay which he has end on an upbeat note of prospective harmony and an ars vivendi reminiscent of Pater’s maxim of living ‘intensely, fully, perfectly,’ Gissing, despite his self-understanding as an idealist fallen into the lower depths,27 adheres to the idea of the novel as a tranche de vie and thus depicts his London as another ‘city of dreadful night’ steeped in autumnal darkness, squalor and decay.
What could be more different from Wilde’s plea for a new Hellenism than the gloom that pervades Gissing’s novel? In the twilight of a sky that is ‘dusking over’ (47) and makes Reardon’s sallowness even more conspicuous, the reader is meant to see the twilight of a cultural era. Compared to Milvain’s prolific production of journalistic junk, Reardon’s efforts to produce high-quality literature are not only constantly described in terms of a struggle with emptiness and absence; they are also related to an intellectual dryness that at one point is explicitly labelled as ‘abortive’ (47). Characterizing Reardon as a barren writer, Gissing implicitly makes use of pre-texts and literary stock-in-trade motifs in order to show to what extent the emergence of a new popular culture has eroded the fundaments of European high culture. Thus, the novel inevitably turns into a grim parody of the traditional idea of the pregnant poet giving birth to his masterworks; and when Reardon refers to his pragmatic wife Amy as a Muse, as a source of inspiration and intellectual insemination – ‘Your kindness is the breath of life to me’ (52) –, Gissing dexterously takes up the former reference to the Romantic idea of the divine afflatus in order to stress the bitter irony that, by the end of the Victorian age, the inspiration is no longer transmitted by the West Wind or other divine creatures, but by profit-seeking women who are solely impressed by the fact that a trashy novel with the telling title ‘The Hollow Statue’ is eminently successful with the vulgar readership.
With popular culture gaining ascendancy, the Reading Room of the British Museum, deprecated by conservatives as a heterotopia of a new ‘mixed or vulgar populace,’28 is identified as another wasteland of intellectual sterility. Like Reardon’s garret, the room is a place of twilight and gloom, ‘a trackless desert of print’ (107), which, in an almost surrealist manner, transforms people into machines or ignoble vermin. One of these creatures, keeping up ‘the paltry pretence of intellectual dignity’ (107), is Marian Yule who, as her father’s amanuensis, is cooped up in the library which is not so much a place of scholarly illumination as a darkish and nightmarish cave in a modernized Dantean inferno. Reduced to a mere automaton, a ‘mere machine for reading and writing’ (106), she is painfully aware of the infernal atmosphere of the library and, consequently, compares an official with a ‘black, lost soul, doomed to wander in an eternity of vain research along endless shelves’ (107). Gissing’s descriptions of the outdated academic and literary world which blend iconographical references to hell with the modern realm of machines and automatons eventually culminate in an image that, 20 years prior to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915), visualizes modern man’s metamorphosis into an insect. Toiling in a room that is almost completely penetrated by oppressively Dickensian fog, Marian compares the group of infernal readers to ‘hapless flies caught in a huge web, its nucleus the great circle of the Catalogue’ (107).29
The image of the fly is also used in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, when the titular heroine is compared to a fly on a large-scale billiard table, about to be crushed by the haphazard balls of fortune.30 While in Hardy’s novel, the image of the fly is used in an ontological context and shows man’s puniness and insignificance in the face of an overwhelming fate, Gissing employs the same image in order to show the aporia in which late-Victorian intellectuals are locked.31 Milvain, the epitome of the modern trash-culture man, publishes his ephemeral essays in a journal with the telling name Will-o’-the Wisp and thus clearly leads a life that is characterized by lightness and insubstantiality, whereas Marian and the others, the representatives of academic and literary high culture, are not only caught in a net-like structure which hampers their freedom of movement; in accordance with all the other impoverished Grub Street writers, she is also trapped in a dead-end circularity whose utter hopelessness Gissing tries to highlight with the aid of various intertextual references. Thus, the ‘great circle of the Catalogue,’ which reduces Marian to insect-like non-entity, is echoed in the ‘endless circling’ (123) around a plot, which alerts Reardon to the fact that he is not only in a chaos of disease and suicide, but also in one of the never-ending rings of Dante’s hell; the ‘fearful slough of despond’ (268) into which Reardon constantly plunges, is taken from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and the ‘valley of the shadow of books’ (189), to which Marian is confined, is more than reminiscent of the depressing valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23.
Thus, in order to give a close description of the agonies which the representatives of high-brow culture suffer in the face of an emergent culture of insubstantial trash, Gissing intersperses his novel with cross-references that are deeply moored in the time-honoured idea of felix culpa. But, no matter how long the ordeal of pain and infernal horrors lasts, neither Dante nor Bunyan’s Christian is deprived of his respective teleological reward; and the wanderer in the biblical valley of the shadow of death is free from fear, since the Lord as the shepherd offers his rod and staff as comfort.32 As if intent on thwarting his readers’ expectations, Gissing makes use of these references only to underline his profound cultural pessimism, which is devoid of not only of Christianity, but also of all traces of Wildean aestheticism and exoticism. Neither Reardon, nor Marian, nor Biffen, the latter of whom aspires to ‘an absolute realism in the sphere of the ignobly decent’ (144), find any consolation; instead of coming into contact with the Heavenly Jerusalem, Marian sees that her ‘palace of joy’ (188) is a short-lived illusion, and Reardon’s plans to re-visit Greece and to immerse himself in the relics of ancient culture are relentlessly pitted against the sobering reality of his London misery, the ‘sooty rain,’ his poverty and the unmistakable signs of imminent death.
In particular, the passage where he reminisces with Biffen about the contemplation of beauty in Greece and Italy and where he describes the ‘marvellous sunset’ in Athens in terms of an epiphany (with a rainbow and a ‘diviner light’ transforming everything into a superhuman ideality) must be understood not so much as an oddity out of tune with the Bohemian ideal33 as a late 19th-century longing for a return to Hellenism and pagan beauty. In Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Hellenism collapses under the weight of a gigantic Latin cross, and while in Wilde’s works the Hellenic ideal is always precariously poised between medievalized Christianity and Victorian vulgarity, Gissing clearly shows Hellenism for what it is: an Arcadian dream that is inevitably destroyed by the sordidness of modern life, by the ‘ache of modernism’ which, in Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles,34 is also synonymous with the rise of the uncouth, shallow and vulgar.
Depicting modern life in the clutches of trash culture, Gissing makes his readers aware of the fact that the radical forms of Darwinian commodification are also tied up with ideas of arbitrariness, which clash with former concepts of merit and cultural decorum. Discussing Euripides with Biffen or reciting Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Reardon refuses to see that he has isolated himself in a world in which the axiom of the chain of being has been replaced by that of ‘crush or be crushed’ and in which the relentless ‘scientific spirit’ has consigned almost all the hallmarks and values of high culture to oblivion. Thus, it is hardly surprising, albeit shocking to Reardon, that Amy not only proves to be a debased Muse, but that she openly challenges her husband’s cultural standards, when she reverts to a kind of literature that is defined as ‘specialism popularized’ and avidly reads books that are a trivialized re-hash of the theories spread by Spencer, Darwin and other scientific iconoclasts. When the narrator refers to Amy as ‘a typical woman of the new time, the woman who has developed concurrently with journalistic enterprise’ (361), he gives the concept of the new woman as it was propagated in the wake of Ibsen’s problem plays an ironic twist, and thus introduces into the novel the image of a modern woman who has forfeited her high-culture education and substituted her sound knowledge of belletristic literature for the lurid factualism which, by the end of the Victorian age, is enjoyed by a new and influential caste ‘above the sphere of turf and west-endism.’
What the triangular constellation between Reardon, Amy and Milvain also underlines is the fact that, with Reardon as the odd man out, all time-honoured ideas of quality and industry are not so much subject to concepts of poetic justice, as they are mercilessly exposed to modern laws of opportunism. In a world in which both the commodification of literature and a new pop and trash culture are rampant, the creator of highbrow literature is an anachronism and a self-imposed ‘prisoner of fate’ (412) who is no longer tolerated as a quixotic fellow, but ruthlessly crushed by the wheel of fortune, which is operated and manipulated by the vulgar and the ignoble. Thus, it must be considered highly ironic when the last chapter of the novel is entitled ‘Rewards.’
The idea that characters can count on a reward after undergoing distressing ordeals was challenged for the first time in William M. Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair (1847-48) and later revealed to be incompatible with late 19th-century concepts of Darwinism, determinism or existentialism. Having wreaked havoc on Dorian Gray’s life, Lord Henry Wotton, the tempter and amateur of intellectual vivisections, is never taken to task, nor is Angel Clare, who exposes Tess to Alec’s devilish temptations. Thus, it is only consistent with the pessimism of late 19th-century novels that representations of gross ‘injustice which triumphs so flagrantly in the destinies of men’ (453) are also the underlying pattern of Gissing’s novel. Marian’s family is wrecked by disease and poverty, Biffen commits suicide after a fire (glaringly unlike the purgatorial fire in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre) has destroyed his meagre existence, and Reardon eventually dies of consumption with his last words being a truncated quotation from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our ---’ (454). When Shakespeare’s Prospero speaks these lines and adds that ‘our little life / Is rounded with a sleep,’35 he refers to the Platonic idea of life as a fleeting dream, which, translated into Christian thought, underlines the insignificance of earthly existence and the certitude that life’s dreamy sleep is succeeded both by an awakening in heaven and by God’s weighing the balance of justice on Doomsday. For Reardon, the quotation, as his testimony and his eschatologoi, is meant to be not only an acknowledgement of the insubstantial nature of his life, but also an acceptance of the bitter fact that life is as arbitrary as a dream and that, in the context of man’s existential nightmare, all endeavours to strive for meaning and quality are abortive. According to the novel’s perverted system of justice, the only one who is eventually eligible for rewards is Milvain, whose name conjures up vague ideas both of vanity and of the destructiveness of the character Millwood in George Lillo’s The London Merchant (1731). Marrying Amy and enjoying the ‘dreamy bliss’ (515) of a genteel life dedicated to shallowness and material success,36 Milvain, the epitome of egotism and commodified culture, finally triumphs over all the representatives of a culture that had been on the decline since the days of Byron.
While in 1891 Wilde still hoped to counteract vulgarity with his concepts of individualism and dandyism, Gissing depicts a world in which the vulgar have dealt the death blow to the artist. In his essay The Soul of Man under Socialism, Wilde reverts to the mode of a utopian or futurist writer who envisages a time when ‘through joy [...] the Individualism of the future will develop itself’ (34). By the end of the essay, it becomes patently obvious that Wilde rejects all forms of Naturalism as a remedy against 19th-century tendencies of vulgarity and endorses the aestheticist’s sympathy with the totality of life, which, however, inconsistently excludes the aspects of darkness and desolation:
One should sympathize with the entirety of life, not with life’s sores and maladies merely, but with life’s joy and beauty and energy and health and freedom. (34)
According to Wilde, the dramatization or even ‘worship’ of pain is a relic of the Middle Ages, ‘with its saints and martyrs, its love of self-torture, its wild passion for wounding itself, its gashing with knives, and its whipping with rods’ (34). Wilde’s emphasis lies on the Renaissance whose grandeur was due to the fact that it was committed to no social obligations, but only to the development of the ingenious individual. In the vein of Thomas Carlyle, who, in his 1840 lectures on Heroes and Hero-Worship, endeavoured to resuscitate the idea of the genius and the hero, Wilde proves to be an idealist who not only focuses on the regeneration of the hero in the future, but also firmly believes in the victory of the new individual over the mob with its culture of uniformity and mass consumption.
In contradistinction to Wilde’s essay, Gissing’s novel is deeply moored in the idea of the disappearance of the hero.37 Like Biffen who deals with ‘the essentially unheroic’ (144) and the farce of human life, Gissing seems to dispense with any trace of ‘obstinate idealism’ and to depict a world, which, from the perspective of the high-brow artist, is in a state of irredeemable disintegration. As if contradicting Wilde’s future-bound optimism, Gissing shows the representatives of high culture firmly in the grip of the vulgus, and, what is more, the world of the individuals threatened or almost engulfed by annihilation. In accordance with fin-de-siècle motifs of twilight and decay, Reardon is not only confronted with the abortion of his intellectual children, but also with the death of his son, and Biffen is eventually overcome with ‘the actual desire of death, the simple longing for extinction’ (491). Gissing’s message is thus blatantly clear: all visions of a cultural rejuvenation, which Wilde and the aestheticists were fond of conjuring up, are as fallacious as the multifarious ideas of the advent of the new individual or the Nietzschean superman. Biffen’s ‘westward’ (492) direction must therefore be read as a symbol of the decline of high-brow culture, which, in the prime of their shallow and prosperous lives, the representatives of the commercialization and vulgarization of culture are unwilling to take notice of: ’Ha! isn’t the world a glorious place?’ (515).
Norbert Lennartz teaches at the University of Würzburg. His 'Oscar Wilde's "The Sphinx" - A Dramatic Monologue of the Dandy as a Young Man?' was published in the Philological Quarterly 83 (2004), 415-29.
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For the context of Alec d’Urberville as an example of the 19th-century demystification of the villain, see also Norbert Lennartz, ‘The bourgeois as a Villain: Representations of Evil in 19th-Century Literature’ Representations of Evil in Fiction and Film, ed. Jochen Achilles / Ina Bergmann (Trier: WVT, 2009), 77-93.
Alec certainly corresponds to the type of social climber that Ruskin, in his essay ‘On Vulgarity,’ has in mind. For the context, see Rosemary Jann, ‘Breeding, Education, and Vulgarity: George Gissing and the Lower-Middle Classes’ Victorian Vulgarity. Taste in Verbal and Visual Culture, ed. Susan David Bernstein / Elsie B. Michie (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 85-100.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, ed. Tim Dolin (London: Penguin, 1998), 74.
‘[...] its chimney being enlarged by the boughs of the parasite to the aspect of a ruined tower.’ Ibid., 58. My italics.
Cf. Paul Delany, George Gissing. A Life (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008), 201.
Marie Corelli, ‘the only person who makes a thing out of literature,’ is referred to in E.M. Forster’s novel The Longest Journey (ed. Elizabeth Heine / Gilbert Adair [London: Penguin, 2006], 15).
Writers,Readers and Reputations. Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006), 668.
‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ l. 2. The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 344.
Ulysses, ed. Jeri Johnson (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), 67.
New Grub Street, ed. John Goode (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), 47. All references are to this edition.
Cf. George Eliot, The Mill on The Floss, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981), 140.
The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, V Culture and Anarchy, ed. R.H. Super (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1965), 85-229; 145 and 140. See also Lara Baker Whelan, ‘The Clash of Space and Culture: Gissing and the Rise of the ‘New’ Suburban’ Gissing and the City. Cultural Crisis and the Making of Books in Late Victorian England, ed. John Spiers (Basingstoke: Palgrave / Macmillan, 2006), 152-61; 154.
The Vulgarization of Art. The Victorians and Aesthetic Democracy (Charlottesville / London: Virginia UP, 1996), 18f.
] Gissing was not only exasperated by the fact that Rider Haggard’s She got more of response than his early novel Thyrza; he was also humiliated by the figures that showed him that he was outsold by ‘petty scribblers of the day.’ See Waller, 678.
Wilde’s admiration for Emerson is recorded in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Penguin, 1988), 159. The stoic individualism of Gissing’s ‘unclassed heroes’ also seems to fit into this Emersonian category, although neither in the American Notebook nor in his other works is Gissing’s knowledge of Emerson traceable.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Isobel Murray (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998), 1.
 Ellmann, 285.
Professions of Taste. Henry James, British Aestheticism, and Commodity Culture (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1990), 59.
The Soul of Man and Prison Writings, ed. Isobel Murray (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990), 24. All references are to this edition.
Don Juan I, 1, 3.
Fame and Fiction, 24f. Quoted in Waller, 663.
Susan David Bernstein, ‘Too Common Readers at the British Museum’ Victorian Vulgarity. Taste in Verbal and Visual Culture, ed. Susan David Bernstein / Elsie B. Michie (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 101-17; 103. Cf. Arnold Bennett’s novel A Man from the North in which he comments on the diversity of the British Museum’s readers, quoted in Bernstein, 105.
Bernstein also refers to the vermin in the British Museum as an indication of the squalor and filth, ‘the underside of the civil, respectable, well-lighted places of spatial liberalism,’ 106f.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, 105.
José M. Diaz Lage also stresses ‘the odd passivity of the characters,’ which is indicative of the determinism that paralyses all the characters, even those who succeed. ‘Naturalism and Modes of Literary Production in George Gissing’s New Grub Street’ Atlantis 2 (2002), 73-83; 74 and 77.
‘Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,’ Psalm, 23,4. Authorized King James Version, 651.
John Sloan, ‘Gissing, Literary Bohemia, and the Metropolitan Circle’ Gissing and the City. Cultural Crisis and the Making of Books in Late Victorian England, ed. John Spiers (Basingstoke: Palgrave / Macmillan, 2006), 75-85; 77.
The Tempest VI, i, 156-58 (The Arden Shakespeare), ed. Virginia Mason Vaughan / Alden T. Vaughan (London: Thomson Learning, 1999).
To what extent Milvain can be understood as ‘a pawn in the literary game,’ as Diaz Lage maintains (77), can hardly be corroborated by the text.
For the wider context see Norbert Lennartz, ‘‘I want a hero, an uncommon want...’ On the Deconstruction of the Hero in Late 19th-and Early 20th-Century British and Irish Fiction’ Anglia 125/2 (2007), 288-303.