An Analysis of Pastiche in Art Spiegelman’s [Maus I: My Father Bleeds History]

Art Spiegelman’s Maus revolutionized the perception of comics not only in academia, but also in popular culture. Not only is it the first graphic novel to ever win a Pulitzer prize, but its presence has been ubiquitous in academia–appealing to scholars interested in areas such as the image-text relationship, animal studies, postmodernism, history, memoir, Holocaust studies, and race, among others. Maus possesses two intertwining narratives.The core narrative focuses on depicting the experiences of Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Holocaust survivor, as he struggles to survive the horrors triggered by the rise of Hitler and the German Nazi Party. The other narrative focuses on the speaker’s attempts to interview his father to get the information needed to craft the core narrative–making Maus a work that attempts to recover history through a depiction of the actual recovery process. This secondary narrative frames the discussion of Vladek’s tale of survival while simultaneously giving the reader a glimpse into the relationship between a son and his father.

The following set of panels are depicted on page 90 of The Complete Maus. These panels highlight how events from the past and the present are combined within the same pages--which sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the narrative strand that is taking place. At times, Vladek's retelling of his story is interrupted by his son, who often demands his father to tell a more coherent and chronological tale.

Figure 1. The following set of panels are depicted on page 90 of The Complete Maus. These panels highlight how events from the past and the present combine within the same pages–which sometimes makes it difficult to keep track of the narrative strand that is taking place. At times, Vladek’s retelling of his story is interrupted by his son, who often demands his father to tell a more coherent and chronological tale.

The interesting aspect about these intertwining narratives is that many times they clash or interrupt each other. Vladek often tells his story in a very fragmented fashion. Sometimes he will interrupt a story to talk of another event, other times he adds details that he forgot to recall, and he often leaves gaps in his stories–much to the chagrin of his son, who is trying to create a comic book using his father’s story. The speaker, sometimes rudely, interrupts his father to ask questions, and to ask him to cover events that he skipped or that he didn’t explain with enough nuance. Thus, what manifests in Maus is a tension between the father’s efforts to recall past events and the speaker’s efforts to distill his father’s story into the comics medium. This tension is reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s views on the postmodern historical novel, which he discusses in his book, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 

Given that postmodernity questions the ability to identify absolute truths, and given the awareness that the past is impossible to accurately represent, Jameson argues that the postmodern historical novel can only possibly represent one’s interpretations, notions, and preconceptions of the past (25). Postmodern historicism manifests in Maus in two ways: the father’s memories are often presented in a fragmented non-linear fashion that Art desperately tries to organize and make sense of–often leading him to reprimand his father for not presenting events in chronological order. Secondly, the graphic novel itself is a reflection of Art’s interpretations of his father’s story–which pushes readers to not only question the flawless authenticity of Vladek’s story, but also Art’s depiction of these events. The combination of different modes of temporality and narrative ultimately create what Jameson would call a pastiche, which is the amalgamation of many styles and discourses without specific norms or guidelines (17), which leads to the creation of an “ahistorical” product.

Despite this sense of ahistoricism and the overall distrust that exists towards exact history and truth, Spiegelman does an effective job of trying to persuade the reader into confiding in him by highlighting his unwillingness to censor his father’s story. This is seen in the instance in which Vladek is talking about his relationship with Lucia, the woman he dated before meeting Art’s mother. Even though Vladek makes Art promise not to include Lucia’s story within his work, Art not only includes the story, but also a depiction of the moment in which he promises not to share the story with others:

From page 25 of The Complete Maus. Here we see an instance in which Art depicts certain aspects of his father's tale, even when his father explicitly tells him not to include these details within his graphic works.

Figure 2. From page 25 of The Complete Maus. Here we see an instance in which Art depicts certain aspects of his father’s tale, even when his father explicitly tells him not to include these details within his graphic works.

When analyzing pastiche in Spiegelman’s work, it is important to closely look at the art techniques and the style that Spiegelman’s employs in the comics panels. I mentioned above that the past and the present blur within the panels due to Spiegelman’s amalgamation of the novel’s two narratives within the same pages and sections. One panel, for instance, could depict Vladek’s attempt to hide from the German forces, and the next panel suddenly jumps to the present, depicting an ill Vladek feeling chest pains as he strives to tell his tale (see pages 119-120 for this example). According to Jameson, since postmodernism is characterized by our loss of connection to history, what we know as the past is nothing but a style (or as he refers to it, a simulacrum) or a code that is commodified into our collective consciousness. Now, this is simply a fancy way of saying that we make used of clichéd and stereotypical signs in order to indicate that we are invoking history or a sense of a past (Jameson 19-20).

When watching a film or viewing an image, the past is invoked by signs like color (i.e. black and white imagery to convey a sense of antiquity, as seen in films such as Schindler’s List), certain styles of clothing, and even certain accents (people from older cultures, for instance, rarely ever speak in American accents in contemporary films). Something I noticed, however, is that Maus at times rejects using these codes and signs, thus making it a challenge to invoke a concrete sense of pastness. This blurring manifests not only through the combination of panels representing both of the novel’s narrative strands, but also through the application of the same artistic style for past and present events.

The fact that the entire graphic novel is colored in black and white, and the the images that invoke the present and the past are stylized in the same fasion,  it becomes even more challenging to distinguish between Vladek’s story and his son’s attempts to create a record of this story. Notice that Spiegelman could’ve stylized the past using different drawing techniques–as he did with the well-known comic book within the comic book–but he chose not to do so. If you take another look at figure 1, notice how the event taking place in the present and the event taking place in the past are colored and stylized in the same fashion. This blurring can either indicate Spiegelman’s attempt to highlight the relevance of his father’s events in today’s culture, or it can even be approached as a rhetorical device used to help readers connect the emotions embedded in both narrative strands. Could this be approached as an attempt to escape from the conventions of pastiche that are usually used in postmodern historicism?

The fact that Spiegelman represents characters as animals can also be interpreted as a symptom of pastiche. In order to grasp the complexities of the relationships that exist between Jews, non-Jewish Poles, and Germans, Spiegelman represents these socio-cultural demographics as animals–Jews are represented as mice, Germans are represented as cats, and non-Jewish Poles are represented as pigs. All of these animals are associated with strong signs and connotations, which Spiegelman appropriates to bracket a better historical understanding of the tensions that exist between these demographics. After all, the relationship between mice and cats is very well-known–and other well-known texts, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm, use animals as an allegory for highly charged political themes. The use of animals emphasizes, in this particular case, Jameson’s views of pastiche, which he also approaches as a parody or appropriation of particular aesthetic forms due to the inability to create new forms with new meaning. Due to our inability to relive Vladek’s experiences, Spiegelman must make use of pastiche in order to allow us to grasp the pathos and logos of his historical account.

While I do buy Jameson’s views on the process of pastiche, I am slightly hesitant to embrace his negative and bleak views of the consequences of this process. Jameson would argue that pastiche creates what he calls a “pop history,” which approaches as an empty or blank stereotype of a time that can no longer be accessed or understood. If this is the case, do we necessarily want to imply that Spegelman’s Maus is nothing but a product of pop history? Sure, I think today, it is clearly understood that it is impossible to reach absolute truth or that it is impossible to truly understand the past–which explains our current cynicism towards historical depictions and distillations. However, should this prevent us from attempting to access or recreate history through art? This view is too unproductive and stagnant–not to mention frustrating. Is Maus simply a manifestation of pop history? A better question would be: is Maus nothing but a pastiche?

As always, feel free to discuss these ideas below!

You can purchase a copy of Spiegelman’s work here.

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. Print.

On the Development and Evolution of Culture – Raymond Williams’ [The Sociology of Culture]

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Front cover of The Sociology of Culture (1982)

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture, originally published in 1982, is a precise and methodological approach towards the field of cultural sociology. The book is centered on establishing the prominence, evolution, and reproduction of culture. Williams ultimately traces this evolution through a discussion of cultural sociology, and through a painstaking description of cultural forms and their nuances.

Raymond Williams posits that a sociology of culture is an  cross-sectional, cross disciplinary area of study that is concerned with all areas of cultural production, including those forms that can be approached as ideological. The work of the cultural sociologist or cultural historian centers on:

the social practices and social relations which produce not only ‘a culture’ or ‘an ideology’ but, more significantly, those dynamic actual states and works within which there are not only continuities and persistent determinations but also tensions, conflicts, resolutions and irresolutions, innovations and actual changes. (29)

Thus, rather than attempting to solely find easy solutions to problems, the sociology of culture tries to take into account the totality of cultural productions, even when this totality is paradoxical or incomprehensible. This encompassing approach strives to rework social and sociological ideas that approach cultural productions such as language and art as marginal or peripheral social processes. Furthermore, the sociology of culture “is concerned above all to enquire, actively and openly, into these received and presumed relations, and into other possible and demonstrable relations” (10).

Williams opens his discussion by alluding to the multitudinous definitions of culture that exist. He points out three common and general definitions that are usually attributed to culture; however, he points out that the third definition is the most common usage within contemporary cultures (all three definitions are found on page 11):

  1. a developed state of mind – referring to the person who possessed a developed or cultured mind. (e.g. Neil goes to art museums every weekend. He is a very cultured individual).
  2. the processes of this development – referring to cultural interests or activities. (e.g. wine-tasting, opera, going to the theater, going to an art museum, playing golf, attending a lecture, playing a game, watching a television show, etc.).
  3. the means of these processes – referring to the broad categorizations used to approach cultural processes. (e.g. the humanities, the arts, the sciences, etc.).

These definitions of culture, according to Williams, can be traced back to two different “convergences” of interests: one that he refers to as idealist, which emphasizes on the “informing spirit” (11), or in other words, a lifestyle that aims for broad and deep engagement with socio-cultural activities; Williams approaches the other convergence as materialist, which emphasizes “a whole social order” (12), in which “a specifiable culture, in styles of art and kinds of intellectual work, is seen as the direct or indirect product of an order primarily constituted by other social activities” (12). For instance, from this macro perspective, we can refer to a specific Puerto Rican culture, which is known for possessing its own music (bomba, plena, salsa, and reggaeton), literature and literary figures, and even its own cuisine (banana tamales, arroz con gandules, etc.).

Although these were the traditional convergences that were usually scrutinized when conducting a cultural study, Williams points out that there is a third emerging convergence that is becoming evident in contemporary cultural work–and this third convergence becomes the central object of analysis in The Sociology of Culture. This third convergence “sees culture as the signifying system through which necessarily (though among other means) a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced and explored” (13). This convergence is quite different from the previous two because it takes into account signs and signifiers, along with the traits usually associated with these elements, such as reproduction, replication, and innovation. Even more so, this focus on cultural signifiers allows sociologists to more effectively scrutinize social relations as mediations rather than reflections. According to Williams, mediation refers to the

necessary processes of composition, in a specific medium; as such it indicates the practical relations between social and artistic forms […]. But in its more common uses it refers to an indirectness of relation between experience and its composition. (24)

Another element that Williams approaches as crucial for the sociology of culture is the concept of ideology, for it is used to approach and categorize “formal and conscious beliefs of a class or other social group” (26) or “the characteristic world-view of general perspective of a class or other social group” that includes conscious and “less conscious, less formulated attitudes, habits and feelings” (26). Williams seems to prefer the latter definition because he believes that an effective ideological critique cannot be restricted solely to formal and conscious matters. He also makes a succinct critique of the notion of a general ideology, explaining that if the term is used to allude to a broad group or a way of life lived by a certain community, then we run the risk of creating a “false generality […] to discriminate ascriptions to specific classes and other groups” (29). Williams thus highlights the sociological necessity of the concept of ideology, as long as it not used as a term to categorize or stereotype the “informing spirit” of a universal or broad population.

I was particularly drawn to Williams’ chapters on identifications and reproductions, mostly because they contribute immensely to conversations that I’m engaged with in terms of the “literariness” of young adult fiction, and the possibility of approaching the young adult novel as an object capable of cultural innovation. Williams devotes a significant amount of effort into discussing notions of the aesthetic. He speculates that at first, many might assume that the aesthetic seems relatively easy to define–the term is usually approached as a a synonym for terms such as beauty, harmony, or proportion. However, these terms lead to an “untraceable” problem when it is deemed that people can specialize in channeling or using these perceptions to recognize and judge works of art. Another problem that arises when it comes to the aesthetic and the arts is the plasticity of the term; art can be used as a categorical marker to approach everything from hair, fashion, decoration, landscaping, dancing, and sports, among others. Williams also points out that the arts are a label usually assigned to “areas of human thought and discourse” (124), as seen within the humanities.

The problematic nature of the notion of aesthetics leads Williams to ask an important question within the sociology of culture: what is, or what is not, art? Williams points out that judgments of value, quality, and execution are expected in virtually every practice. However, within the practice of art, there are works that are produced through a practice recognized as art that are difficult to categorize or approach as art. For instance, although some films, such as Academy Award-winning movies, can be and are approached as art, there are other movies that people would refuse to view as such. Think, for instance, of the differences between movies such as The PianistDude, Where’s My Car?; InceptionThe Hoursand Sharknado.  Some of these movies would, undoubtedly, be approached as high-quality works of art; others would be approached as a movie capable of killing brain cells. Williams points out that the criteria used to approach cultural artifacts and productions is variable and unstable, and even though a production might comply with expected and general standards, it might still lack an element that prevents it from being categorized as art proper.  As Williams puts it:

a ‘bad novel’ does everything that the category ‘novel’ indicates, at the level of generic definition, but then fails to do something else, either in its ‘aesthetic process’ or in terms of its ‘seriousness’ or its ‘relation to reality’ (which at least explicitly, the original definition had not included). (125)

This notion is problematized even more by the fact that works that were once considered “bad” can later on obtain status as a “legitimate” work of art. Williams points out that novels, for instance, were considered to be a literary object associated with lower classes–whereas this is clearly not the case today. Science fiction novels, as Williams claims, are also examples of works that “move from one side of the [art/not art]divide into another, or are straddled across it” (125). Williams then delves into the social processes of art, and he makes a claim that I, at first, was rather skeptical about. He argues that

The attempt to distinguish between good, bad and indifferent work in specific practices is, when made in full seriousness and without the presumption of privileged classes and habits, an indispensable element of the central social process of conscious human production” (126).

My hesitancy about this claim arose from my belief that this focus on the “good” or “not good” is a dated idea in that contemporary critical studies recognizes that all objects, good or bad, are capable of informing the subject on the social processes of human production. However, from a social perspective, this divide between the good and the bad can be useful, because it highlights the way elements and productions are socially organized. Thus, Williams does not view these labels as permanent, but rather, he views these labels as markers in flux: “variable social forms within which the relevant practices are perceived and organized” (130).

The Room (2003) is a film that is almost universally recognized for being one of the worst movies of all time. What does this help us to understand how cultural forms and productions are socially organized? What makes The Room a bad film? Even more so, how do we approach the film once we take into account its popularity as a cult classic? Is this movie so bad that it becomes good?

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Another chapter that I was really interested in was the one on cultural reproduction. Williams opens this chapter by discussing the tension that exists between micro socio-cultural studies that target a very specific forms, practices, and institutions, and macro socio-cultural studies that tries to develop a general theory that accounts for most social processes. He believes that the more one knows about a subject, the more one tries to defend it from being distilled or interpreted through a broad, general perspective. He then proposes a distinction between two kinds of cultural consciousness that are in play in terms of the value of the specific over the general:

  1. “that alert, open and usually troubled recognition of specificity and complexity” that puts “working generalizations and hypotheses under strain” (182).
  2. the “often banal, satisfaction with specificity and complexity, as reasons for endless postponement of all (even local) general judgments or decisions” (182).

Williams argues that the distinction between these two forms of consciousness is crucial towards understanding the process of cultural reproduction.  Cultural reproduction is approached as a temporal concept (one that is not always historical) that involves “movement from one dateable manifestation of culture to another” (183). Cultural reproduction is also a negotiable concept, or better said, a notion that is characterized by its plasticity. Williams points out that when talking of cultural reproduction, it is important to keep the two connotations of the word reproduction in mind: although it can denote the exact replication of an object (such as in the case of a photocopying machine), it can also have a biological valence in which a new organism is producde that shares traits with the original source, without being an exact copy. Williams asserts that when it comes to cultural reproduction, both connotations should be kept in mind because “There are very few significant cultural processes analogous to the printing press or the photocopier, but there are also very few analogous to sexual or other biological reproduction” (185).

In terms of reproduction, Williams emphasizes works that are transitional, that is, works produced when formal innovation begins to manifest within a particular culture. Innovation usually takes place in these transitional forms when there are new elements that are “incompatible or undigested” present within the work. As Williams points out, there are times when a work’s treatment of these new elements may be simplified and unable to reach their full potential, but we must be careful not to ignore their formal significance by comparing them with “preceding or succeeding mature examples” (200).  It is quite easy for scholars to not notice transitional innovation when it is occurring, but as Williams puts it, this innovation “is one of the very few elements of cultural production to which the stock adjective, ‘creative’, is wholly appropriate” (200).

After addressing the issue of innovation and reproduction, Williams classifies categories of social and cultural change that take into account relations of domination and subordination, but that also takes into account the dynamic nature of cultural forms. These categories are:

  1. Dominant – Williams asserts that this is the most obvious condition of production. Dominant forms are usually seen as crucial, “natural,” and necessary by forms that are not dominant. Dominant forms are not always overtly aware of their dominance. There is a range between dominant forms that consciously control (e.g. the press), “various kinds of displacement, to a presumed (and then dominant) autonomy of professional and aesthetic values” (204).
  2. Residual – “work made in earlier and often different societies and times, yet still available and significant” (204).
  3. Emergent – “work of various new kinds” (204).

Williams points out how the dominant can absorb, or at least attempt to absorb, the residual and emergent forms. He also posits that there is older work preserved by certain groups available as an alternative to “dominant contemporary cultural production” (204), just as there is almost always the presence of innovative work that tries to move beyond dominant forms, and at times succeeds. Interestingly, Williams asserts that some forms of innovation can happen within the dominant, ultimately becoming a new form of the dominant.

Raymond Williams’ The Sociology of Culture is a slightly difficult yet very insightful book that gives scholars the tools and the terminology needed to effectively scrutinize and critique culture. There are countless other interesting ideas in this book that I could’ve highlighted in this discussion, but I simply decided to focus on the elements of the book that will be useful for my future research. In due course, I hope this post gives you a better idea of the notions discussed in The Sociology of Culture, and I hope that it pushes you to give it a read.

Work Cited

Williams, Raymond. The Sociology of Culture. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. Print.

Oscar Wilde and the Graphic Novel: [The Picture of Dorian Gray]

The following post is an excerpt from my seminar paper written for my class on Wilde and Synge: Art as Subversion, offered by Dr. Declan Kiberd at the University of Notre Dame (fall 2012). In this paper, I evaluate the artistic merit of literary comics adaptations using Wilde’s views on aesthetics. I then perform a series of close “readings” in order to assess how comics adaptations of The Picture of Dorian Gray take advantage of the conventions of the comics medium in order to offer a standalone artistic expression. This excerpt displays my analysis of Basil Hallward’s death as depicted in the comics adaptations I selected.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

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ACTION versus PASSIVITY: The Death of Basil Hallward

Basil’s death is a key moment in Dorian Gray, not only because it is the novel’s climactic point of no return, but also because it is the moment that Dorian truly obfuscates any light he had remaining in his soul. Part of what makes this instance so memorable in Wilde’s novel is that he certainly had no reservations in illustrating the graphic and violent nature of Hallward’s death. Everything from the sounds of Basil choking on blood, to the repeated stabbing motions delivered by Dorian, are emphasized by Wilde in his uncensored version of Dorian Gray:

He rushed at him, and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again. There was a stifled groan, and the horrible sound of someone choking with blood. The outstretched arms shot up convulsively three times, waving grotesque stiff-fingered hands in the air. He stabbed him once more, but the man didn’t move. (Wilde 223-224)

Perhaps the overt violence in this passage can be approached as gratuitous, but on the other hand, it emphasizes the rage and the loss of sanity that Dorian was undergoing at the moment. Surprisingly, despite how descriptive Wilde was in this passage, adapters of the novel tend to diverge in terms of how Basil’s death take place, and the adaptations differ drastically in terms of the grotesqueness and detail that characterizes the murder. I will first focus my attention on John Coulthart’s adaptation of the text, in which he combines quotes from the source text with pen and ink drawings of the actions taking place.

Coulthart’s depiction of Basil’s death (see Figure 1 below) is nowhere near as explicit or overt as Wilde’s text is. Rather than depicting Basil’s death or focusing on the depiction of Basil’s lifeless body, the comic shows an image of Basil looming towards the painting, raising his candle in the air as he stares in horror at the disfigured painting. Interestingly, in Coulthart’s collages of Dorian Gray, the decay of the painting is not shown until the very end—an interesting choice when considering that the degeneration of the picture is one of the most vivid and concrete images that Wilde portrays in his novel. Coulthart develops a sense of anticipation and avoids showing the monstrosity of the painting until the final reveal at the end of his collage sequence. Coulthart’s interpretation of Basil’s death illustrates Dorian’s arm and hand approaching the shocked victim with a knife in hand, suggesting the murder rather than directly illustrating it. Note that the image alludes the idiomatic expression of ‘stabbing someone in the back,’ strengthening the element of betrayal present within the narrative.

Coulthart’s images are known for depicting Modernist, decadent, and intertextual elements. Close attention to the squared background of the image reveals that it is divided equally into back and white colors. However, the parameters within these boundaries of space are not respected; not only does Basil’s candle provide illumination into the darkened area of the background, but the white side of the background melds into the darkness with the prominent splatter of blood (which foreshadows Basil’s death). This can be interpreted as a sign of transgression, in which certain limits and socio-cultural parameters are not respected—thus forcing the decoder to rethink the image of innocence that Dorian initially projects. This use of imagery can also be interpreted in a moralistic sense, for we see that although Basil is trying to provide some illumination to the darkness present within the scene, it is darkness that ultimately prevails.

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Figure 1. “The Death of Basil Hallward—The Graphic Canon Edition.” Designed by John Coulthart. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Graphic Canon (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012). 481. Print.

The intertextuality at play in this image is quite stark as well. In the upper corner of the image, emphasis is put on the curtain that is draping over the painting. When thinking of curtains within the context of a stabbing, it is nearly impossible to avoid invoking the image of Prince Hamlet stabbing Polonius as a consequence of invading a private space[1]. The connotations of this invasion of privacy and its murderous consequences are eerily similar to those that take place in the murder of Basil. The other objects depicted in the painting, such as the candle stand and the book holder, also emphasize the lavishness and decadence present within Dorian’s lifestyle. Note that within the context of the original novel, these objects seem out of place because the painting is supposed to be located within Dorian’s childhood room. Their baroque nature and depiction of nudity certainly creates a clash with the simplicity and the purity that is typically expected within a child’s room.

Coulthart’s suggestive and subtle interpretation differs immensely from the artistic direction that Roy Thomas and Sebastian Fiumara take in the Marvel Illustrated adaptation (see Figure 2 below). Thomas and Fiumara certainly invoke the graphic and brutal nature of Basil’s death in Wilde’s novel, and unlike Coulthart’s version of the death, these adapters want their decoders to be disturbed and shocked by Dorian’s violent and transgressive act. Mirroring the description offered in the source text, one can observe a knife being pugnaciously jammed into the vein behind Basil’s ear. Blood gushes out of the puncture would in a hyperbolic fashion—accompanied by the onomatopoeic word “SHUNK,” which verbally simulates the sound the knife makes as it punctures Basil’s flesh. The image also places emphasis on the fact that Basil is choking on his own blood, as evidenced by the streams of scarlet spewing from his mouth, and the disturbing sound effect that accompanies this ghastly discharge.

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Figure 2. “The Death of Basil Hallward—Marvel Illustrated Edition.” Adapted by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Sebastian Fiumara. The Picture of Dorian Gray (New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008). No page number available. Print.

The image is not only meant to shock, but it also demands pause and careful observation. It is not a coincidence that this image is not placed alongside other comic panels, but rather, the artists use an entire page of the comic to depict Basil’s death. The use of color is particularly effective in this panel. Unlike the bulk of this comic adaptation, which makes use of vivid colors and tones in most of the panels, this image is depicted with an opaque crimson hue, further adding to the aggressive and ferocious nature of the act taking place. Basil’s expression also denotes an element of shock and surprise—his mouth is wide open and his pupils are positioned upwards as if he were mirroring the reader’s reaction towards Dorian’s slightly unexpected transgression. His eyes are quite reminiscent of a martyr’s countenance during the moment of sacrifice—looking upward as if they were surrendering themselves to God. This interpretation definitely fits within the context of Wilde’s work. Recall that Basil implores Dorian to give up his evil ways, and to embrace piousness as a form of salvation. As Basil beseeches in Wilde’s uncensored version of the novel:

“Pray, Dorian, pray,” he murmured. “What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.” (223)

This plea greatly mirrors the narrative of most martyrs, for after they implore a non-believer to be reverent and to turn their faith into a higher power, they are then sacrificed under the hand of the non-believer. Although this sense of martyrdom can be implied by the Wildean text, Thomas and Fiumara make this notion overt with their visual depiction of Basil’s countenance. Dorian’s act was violent, but in this case, the artists focus on Basil’s self-sacrificial attempt to save the remnants of Dorian’s soul—an attempt that failed miserably.

Alex Burrows and Lisa K. Weber take a subtler approach to Basil’s murder (see Figure 3 below). As mentioned previously, their adaptation is part of the Graphic Classics series, which similar to the Classics Illustrated series, is aimed at a younger audience. With this in mind, the violence and aggression in this adaptation has to be more subtle than that which is seen in the Marvel Illustrated edition, yet it has to be less abstract and open to interpretation than it is the case of Coulthart’s collages. In the images depicting Basil’s murder, none of the panels represent the actual insertion of the knife into the victim’s body. Rather, the decoder is offered a silhouette image of Dorian mounted over Basil’s lifeless body with a bloody knife in hand, preparing to stab the body once again. The inversion of black and white in this particular panel forces the decoder to pay close and sustained attention to the action occurring in this image. The panel that follows in this sequence depicts Dorian in a raged and infuriated stance, covered in blood. The final panel in this particular sequence depicts Dorian hunched over Basil’s body, vis-à-vis the cursed painting—which now portrays Dorian gray in a decrepit and grotesque fashion reminiscent of the crypt keeper[2].

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Figure 3. “The Death of Basil Hallward—Graphic Classics Edition.” Adapted by Alex Burrows and illustrated by Lisa K. Weber. Graphic Classics: Oscar Wilde (Wisconsin: Eureka Productions, 2009). 31. Print.

The greatest difference between Burrows and Weber’s interpretation of Wilde’s text, and the other adaptations discussed previously, is their choice of subject for the murder of Basil. Whereas Coulthart and Thomas/Fiumara approach the victim as the subject of the murder, Burrows and Weber place more emphasis on Dorian Gray and the heinous deed that he committed. This difference in subject has resounding interpretive effects—Burrows and Weber’s interpretation pushes the decoder to attribute agency to Dorian, thus enforcing an understanding of the climax based on an actual change within his persona. This adaptation approaches this point as a moment of transformation, for although he was partially responsible for other deaths in the narrative, this is the first death that he is directly responsible for. This notion of change is capitalized when Dorian himself is forced to come face to face with the decay of the painting. On the other hand, the other adaptations offer a sympathetic interpretation that focuses on Basil as a victim—thus reinforcing a reading centered on the grotesque nature of the act itself rather than its transformational effects on Dorian Gray. It all comes down to the issue of passivity versus activity: Does one focus on the fact that Dorian murdered Basil, or does one focus on the fact that Basil was murdered by Dorian? Despite the superficial similarity between these approaches, they do manage to highlight different concerns and issues that affect the interpretive possibilities of the novel.


[1] I would like to thank my friend and colleague, Leanne MacDonald, for pointing out this possible allusion to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as we were scrutinizing the imagery used in my selection of comics.

[2] See HBO’s television series titled Tales from the Crypt.

Works Cited

Burrows, Alex. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Illustrated by Lisa K. Weber. Graphic Classics: Oscar Wilde. Wisconsin: Eureka Productions, 2009. Print.

Coulthart, John. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” The Graphic Canon. Ed. Russ Kick. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012. Print.

Thomas, Roy. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Illustrated by Sebastian Fiumara. New York: Marvel Publishing, 2008. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition. Ed. Nicholas Frankel. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

FAIR USE NOTICE: This blog post contains some copyrighted material  (samples from the comics adaptations used in this study) whose use has not been authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this not-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the copyrighted material (as defined in section 107 of the US Copyright Law). No infringement is intended.

Listening to the “Unheard Lyric”: Amplifying Faint Discourses in Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales

It’s interesting how easy it is for me to forget songs and stories that I heard last year, yet at the same time, it’s so easy for me to recall songs and stories that I heard as a child. Ask me something about the plot of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and I might need a few minutes to collect my thoughts and remember what the novel is even about. However, ask me a question about Maurice Sendack’s Where the Wild Things Are, Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, and the act of recalling and remembering is instantaneous. There is something about the apparent simplicity of Children’s literature that makes it not only easy to remember, but ostensibly easy to understand and deconstruct. However, underneath this aura of simplicity is a complex struggle of ideas, aims, and goals: Children’s literature is anything but simple, and I think Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales attest to this notion.

Notice how the name of the genre implies possession: children’s literature. But a question that surfaces simply by looking at the label of the genre is: does this literature, as the name implies, truly belong to children? After all, how many children’s books have we seen out there written by actual children? What does this imply? How is the notion of children’s literature complicated as we realize that the genre has become a fad, and virtually anyone with influence or social status can write and publish a children’s book? Everyone from Madonna, to Bill Cosby, to Billy Crystal, to Whoopi Goldberg, to Queen Latifah, to Brooke Shields, to Ray Romano has published a children’s book. Is it because they’re easily marketable or easy to write? This, of course, greatly affects the perception of the genre within academia. However, what mostly makes children’s literature an ignored area within literary criticism is not only its apparent simplicity and its marketability, but also to its didactic nature. In his book Sticks and Stones, Jack Zipes brings most of these problems to the surface, offering a somewhat fatalistic and negative view of children’s literature as a hot commodity, which leads to the production of formulaic books that follow the same patterns and that serve to mold and construct how a child should be—his attack on the Harry Potter series is well-known amongst those who study children’s and young adult texts. But his tirade against children’s literature, interestingly, is interpreted through the lens of an adult ideology. How do children perceive the literature that is designed for them? Do notions such as formulas and patterns truly bother them? What do we do if our children love Harry Potter? Tell them that their tastes are horrible and that they should be embarrassed to embrace such a redundant and formulaic text? In due course, Zipes’ assertions attack children’s literature by ignoring the very values and the audience that defines the genre.

Debates on the usefulness of art aside, and whether or not children’s literature is or isn’t art, or even if the genre overuses patterns or formulas, one thing is absolutely clear: children’s literature is deemed to be inherently useful and instructive. Not only is it meant to entertain, but it also serves as a heuristic aid that feeds children a set of ideas, or better said, dogmas. Whether or not the text constructs the child or aids the child in his or her own identity construction is open to debate, but nonetheless, we must realize that the lessons in the genre are looming, and the sense of didacticism that they possess is absolutely real. Recalling the children’s works I mentioned earlier, notice that each and every one of them instills an important lesson that children carry with them for the rest of their lives, and notice how this lesson is extremely reliant on what the author thinks a child should know. I mentioned these three books because they were some of my favorites as a child; however, it was after I reflected on this choice that I realized that in essence, all of these works tell the same story: Where the Wild Things Are, Peter and Wendy, and The Wizard of Oz emphasize on the idea that there IS no place like home. It’s strange that now that I look back, the notion of home was a central concern to me: after moving from New Jersey to Puerto Rico at the age of 8, there was always a desire to return home. But Peter Pan never arrived at my window to whisk me away, clicking my heels three time never brought me back to New Jersey, and I metaphorically never escaped the island where the “wild things” were found.

Perhaps the first break that we make from the realm of children’s literature occurs at that moment when we realize that their lessons, aims, and methods fail to sustain in our own lives. This does not mean, however, that these lessons have no value. We have to admit that children’s literature predominates in our own lives in a time when innocence presumably reigns supreme: it is a time in which we are empty canvases. We are open to the world, and we approach the content and message of children’s literature in an unpretentious fashion: we are usually unaware of the possibility of embedded subversion peppered throughout a text, we definitely don’t think about how useful or useless a text is, and our perceptions are not influenced nor bound by critical and ideological lenses. In other words, we could care less if The Wizard of Oz represents a struggle of classes as exemplified by the dynamic between the wicked witch and her henchmen, we are ostensibly oblivious to the struggles of humanity and animality in Where the Wild Things Are, and we certainly don’t give a damn in terms of the implications of space and place in Peter and Wendy. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge when approaching children’s literature from a scholarly perspective: keeping in mind that the audience for a children’s text is a child, how are we able to approach these texts from a critical and scholarly perspective without ignoring the genre’s target audience, and the assumed ignorance and innocence laced the ideal child? In other words, how do we learn to listen to that child-like voice inside of us, while still complying with our adult desire to analyze, deconstruct, and understand?

I think Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales provide a lot of food for thought when it comes to these questions. After all, the notion of Oscar Wilde writing children’s literature seems to be bewildering in every sense of the word. How can an advocate of the uselessness of art devote his precious time towards crafting a text that is essentially instructive and pragmatic? How does Oscar Wilde view his target audience? Even more so, keeping in mind Wilde’s affinity for subversion and refusal to be confined within conceptual boundaries, how does Wilde attempt to transform and challenge the notion of a children’s literature via his unique take on fairy tales? First of all, perhaps it is important to know why Oscar Wilde wrote children’s tales in the first place. In a letter that he sent to G.H. Kersley on the reason why he wrote the short story The Happy Prince, Wilde presents the fairy tale as a genre capable up reaching the deepest trenches of the imagination, those trenches that are inaccessible to most people in society. He writes that The Happy Prince

is an attempt to treat a magic modern problem in a form that aims at delicacy and imaginative treatment: it is a reaction against the purely imitative character of modern art – and now that literature has taken to blowing loud trumpets I cannot but be pleased that some ear has cared to listen to the low music of a little reed.” – Letter to G.h. Kersley on the Happy Prince. (Kohl 51)

Notice that the actual short story definitely complies with this aim. What is so surprising about The Happy Prince is that at first, we are given the impression that we are about to delve in a very realistic story. Rich description is provided in terms of the prominence of the statue located above a tall column, and conversation is focused on the fact that children shouldn’t cry because the happy prince, a statue, doesn’t cry. This sense of realism suddenly takes a turn as the focus of the story shifts towards a Swallow and his infatuation with a reed. Notice that the reed, although personified, has no concrete method of expressing its desires in a way that a human or living creature can. The swallow is constantly mocked by its peers, seeing as the reed is unable to communicate with the bird, and seeing as it is presumed that the reed has nothing valuable to offer. The swallow, however, is able to look beyond what is expected from a typical communicative relationship, and learns how to approach the reed in a different fashion. The bird focuses on the rhetoric of the reed’s movements, as guided by the influence of the wind. The reed bows down to the bird as if accepting its courtship and the swallow keeps the reed company for a while. The swallow even goes as far as to describe the reed as flirty or as a coquette, interpreting its subtle swaying as an act of seduction. What is clear here is that the swallow is open to a language that is not directly interpretable by the other birds that surround him, which in due course not only demonstrates the sensitivity that the bird possesses, but also its openness to listen to the voices of those who cannot speak.

This obviously resonates with ideals that Wilde was trying to promote at the time; indeed, with his active experimentation with homosexuality during the crafting of the Happy Prince and Other Fairy Tales, many of the messages within these stories seem to give voice to the Other, while in turn, attuning people’s ears to the sound that the metaphorical reed makes. But it is also uncanny that the story alludes to the voice of the child: one of the most ignored and snubbed voices within culture and society. Indeed, there is definitely a resemblance between the Swallow and the child, seeing as both are able to hear and see things that are disregarded by adults due to their experience and their embracing of cultural restraints. Children definitely embrace imaginative treatment while adults, especially within Victorian times, tended to reject it. The correlation between the child and the animal is indeed a common parallel within children’s literature. As Sue Walsh points out in her essay “Child/Animal: It’s the Real Thing,” both the child and the animal allow one to frame and express ideas about human identity more than any other idea, and this is because both concepts engage in a similar discourse that avoids any sense of mastery. In other words, although one can presumably write about children and animals, one could never fully master what the concept of animal or child means. This makes the use of these concepts especially useful for infusing one’s own ideologies and beliefs within a text.

It is obvious that both children and animals are central figures within Wilde’s tales. Not only is an animal one of the central figures within The Happy Prince, but they are also central in his tale known as The Star-Child, in which animals are first mistreated and ignored by the beautiful child, but then they become key towards the star-child’s salvation (recall that it is the rabbit that helps him find the different colored pieces of gold). This sense of leveling between the adult, the child, and the animal seems to portray a utopian ideal within Wilde’s tales, an ideal that may even be deemed socialist or Marxist, especially when taking into account Wilde’s values and ideas—recall that Wilde is, after all, the author of a 1891 essay titled “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” which approaches capitalism as a disease that suppresses the soul and prevents individuals from discovering their true talents. It would be unwise to ignore how influential egalitarianism is in all of the tales that we have read for today’s class: The Star-Child ultimately roots for a sense of cohesion between beggars and royals, implying that inherently, there is no essential difference between the two. The story, as I already mentioned, also strives to smooth the differences between humans and animals. The Selfish Giant invokes the values of compassion to demonstrate that those with property should be willing to share said property with individuals who do not possess the same amount of power or ownership. Even in The Happy Prince, we observe that wealth is being distributed to those who are in need of capital in order for their talents to thrive. The Marxist undertones of the stories seem to be blatantly obvious to the experienced adult reader, but we must question whether this notion of capital inequality would be apparent to a child. Norbert Kohl, in his discussion of selfishness and selflessness in his book titled Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel, points out that in due course, reading the fairy tales alongside to Marxist theory might be a bit far-fetched, seeing as

the socialism inherent in his gentle fairy-tale seems far more geared to aesthetic effect than to political propaganda. If these tales are indeed ‘wry pieces of social and moral commentary’, as one critic suggests, then it must be said that the commentary contains little insight into or analysis of the social causes and effects of poverty. (54)

When it comes down to it, we must admit that even when writing in one of the most didactic and pragmatic genres within the literary realm, Wilde could still find a way to ensure that his textual creations would aspire to be not only instructive, but above all, artistic. The four fairy tales that we read for today’s class, for instance, use a high style of language that exceeds the very basic vocabulary that usually predominates in children’s texts. Notice, for instance, how the giant in Wilde’s tale, The Selfish Giant, expresses sorrow and regret when he realizes that Spring has not arrived due to his self-centeredness: “How selfish I have been!” he said; “now I know why the Spring would not come here. I will put that poor little boy on the top of the tree, and then I will knock down the wall, and my garden shall be the children’s playground for ever and ever.” An adult reader would clearly see that the giant felt regret for his actions, as is implied by his desire to help the young boy up the tree as a retribution for the wrongs he committed.

However, true to the fashion of the fairy tale genre, Wilde peppers his prose with overt and obvious statements that reinforce the lesson inherent within the text. The giant’s proclamation, for instance, is followed by a declaration stating that “He was really very sorry for what he had done.” But the complexity of language in Wilde’s fairy tales does not stop there. Kohl, for instance, remarks that Wilde’s fairy tales are adorned with everything from archaic and biblical phrases, personifications, and elaborate descriptions, all which enhance the artistic value within the tales (56). Elizabeth Goodenough, in her discussion titled “Oscar Wilde, Victorian Fairy Tales, and the Meanings of Atonement,” posits that this use of various stylistic registers within his fairy tales are actually employed to destabilize the “Victorian pathos of broken hearts and the cult of dying children,” focusing on miserable and illustrative “portrayals of expiation and renunciation, failure and death” (340). And while I personally agree that the medley of voices, registers, and allusions serve to cement the validity of the values present within the tales, let us not forget that Wilde was overly sensitive to issues of audience and the reception of his work, as evidenced by the lengthy responses he would write when receiving critical backlash. When it comes down to it, fairy tales are usually written with a child audience in mind, but it is usually an adult who ultimately serves as the decoder of the written word. Fairy tales are notorious for being dubbed as bed-time stories, and the fairy tale itself comes from an extremely oral tradition. Although the stories are written for children, Wilde definitely wanted to entertain and perhaps allude to the aesthetic sensibilities of the adult who reads the text out loud to the child. I would undoubtedly argue that Wilde was a vivid precursor to what I will dub, thanks in part to a conversation I had with Ana Jimenez, the Shrek effect—alluding to the 2001 Dreamworks film that is in essence a children’s movie that subtly but constantly portrays content that only a person with an adult mindset would and could appreciate. This is turn allows adults to take part with, and fully enjoy, a discourse primarily targeted towards a younger audience.

Indeed, this notion of using a children’s text to allude to the sensibilities of an adult may be approached as another way in which multiple or unheard voices are amplified, but let us not forget the subversive nature of this sense of duality. During the time Wilde was writing fairy tales, this genre was undergoing radical transformations in terms of its aims and purpose. As Jack Zipes points out in his book Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion:

No longer was the fairy tale to be like the mirror, mirror on the wall reflecting the cosmetic bourgeois standards of beauty and virtue that appeared to be unadulterated and pure. The fairy tale and the mirror cracked into sharp-edged, radical parts by the end of the nineteenth century. (107)

We can arguably say that with his fairy tales, Wilde not only cracked the mirror, but he ultimately shattered it. Wilde refused to fully embrace the concept of “happily ever after” with his tales, and he clearly twisted and contorted the tale in order to not only challenge his readers, but in order to highlight ideas and discourses that are marginalized and ignored. The Happy Prince portrays the death of a swallow that gave its life for a greater good. Although we may view the swallow as a scapegoat that sacrificed itself to subdue the tensions that permeated its environment, and although the swallow and the prince’s heart were chosen as the most precious things in the city, notice that the social problem was not entirely fixed: the statue of the prince will simply be replaced by another icon. In The Star-Child, the protagonist finds atonement and redemption and becomes a ruler that governs his land with the values of kindness and charity in mind, but his hardships lead him to die within three years, and he is replaced by an evil ruler. As a matter of fact, The Star-Child is even more subversive than we may initially deem, because as Zipes brilliantly pointed out, this tale is a deliberate subversion of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, where the theme of beauty is inversed in order to challenge its value in contemporary society. As Zipes points out:

Whereas Andersen sees beauty as connected to the duckling’s outward grace as a swan and subservience to the aristocracy of the swans, Wilde’s ideological position implicitly mocked Andersen while presenting a more complex notion of beauty. (125)

But rather than being subversive for the sake of simply being subversive, Wilde’s twists and turns not only highlight the hypocrisies of his society, but they also aim to shed light on figures, people, and ideas that are shadowed by powers such as capitalism, greed, and corruption—and both the powered and the powerless have a say in Wilde’s tales. The beautiful and the ugly have a voice. The poor and the rich have a voice. Even the big and the small can be heard.

Throughout my reading on Wilde’s tales, I encountered an argument posited by the aforementioned Elizabeth Goodenough that not only sparked emotion and insight, but it ultimately influenced the title and focus of this presentation:

The poignant and satiric tonalities of the tales […] sound a dual audience. They invert the logic of [the] premature little adults and the Victorian morbidity of gazing on childish pain by registering a childlike responsiveness to the feelings of others, a compelling lyric to which adults are tone deaf. (349)

A childlike responsiveness to feeling that adults ultimately cannot hear… it’s clearly there. I guess the question is: when are we going to start listening? When it comes down to it, Oscar Wilde’s tales, and ostensibly children’s literature in general, are no different to the melody of the reed. Indeed, they emit lyricism, a language, and arguably, a discourse, but it is quite easy for all of these to go by unperceived by the metaphorical, and at times literal adult ear. Ultimately, Wilde’s tales are in essence pleas towards hearing the subtle whispers of culture and society… of giving voice to the mute and the unspeakable. Wilde’s tales even served the purpose of giving a voice to the side of his personality that people were unwilling to perceive at the time, as argued by Kohl: “In the tales, Wilde was unburdened by the role the public expected him to play, and also by his own need to represent himself as a wit and a clever but moral outsider, and so he was quite free to tell his stories and to reveal another side of his character, that is, his conventional morality” (61). Through amplification as facilitated through subversion, through language, through art, and yes, believe it or not, through pragmatics, Wilde’s fairy tales transform the faint whispers of the burdened, the poor, the animal, the child, the homosexual, the ugly, the marginalized, the dreamer, and the artist into a piercing scream. He transcends children’s literature into everyone’s literature. And like most of the children’s texts that I’ve encountered, Wilde’s screams are ones that are simply unforgettable.

Now that’s what I call art.

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The following post was a paper presentation that I prepared for a doctoral course that I am taking this semester titled “Wilde and Synge: Art as Subversion.” I am planning to continue developing this paper into a publishable article, so any and all feedback is definitely welcome!