From “Wholesome Discipline” to “Something Fatal”: Portraiture in the Victorian Novel



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In Victorian England, the biological processes behind the act of seeing were coming under new scrutiny. These changes in the public’s perception of sight, it has been argued, resulted in what Jonathan Crary calls “a massive reorganization of knowledge and social” (3). The change in the understanding of sight had a corresponding, tangible effect on the fabric of Victorian society. Issues such as the interaction between the objectivity and subjectivity of sight, or how the figure of the observer occupies positions of power, became the textual (and visual) shorthand for social interactions. Representations of art in novels therefore occupy a unique place in Victorian consciousness: because art inherently deals with issues of visuality, self-perception, and awareness, art (and portraits especially) can function as a physical embodiment of vision. The very existence of the portrait in the text brings additional concerns, such as the way that the production of the self necessarily exists in tension with the external influence of society and the subject’s environment. This project is composed of two case studies: the first focuses on Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, and the second on The Picture of Dorian Gray and to a lesser extent Salome, both by Oscar Wilde. These works, from earlier and later parts of the Victorian period respectively, each use the devices of vision and art to show societal and personal relationships, but textually represent these devices in such different ways that it becomes necessary to examine the differences in the conclusions that each author draws from these similar subjects. Insofar as any work of literature is a product of its time, I argue that the ideological differences implicit (or explicit, as the case may be) in each text are revealed through the way that each addresses the problems inherent in vision. The production of a portrait often results in a kind of “fracturing of the self,” whereby the subject projects certain ideological and personal characteristics onto the work of art in a way that is either productive of the self, or conversely results in the disintegration of the self. Wilde’s view of the sterility of art, stemming from the l’art pour l’art philosophy propounded by the Aesthetic Movement of the late Victorian period, contrasts starkly with Bronte’s earlier, relatively hopeful view of the transcendent aspects of art, as the self-portrait that Jane creates allows her to create and claim herself. By examining instances of portraiture in Jane Eyre and The Picture of Dorian Gray, I demonstrate the epistemological, societal, and ideological shift that result from technological advances in the field of optics.



Victorian, Literature, Visual culture