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The most expedient approach to introducing the work of the sage is to present the introductory passage of King Solomon's Proverbs.

To know wisdom, and instruction; to understand the words of prudence: and to receive the instruction of doctrine, justice, and judgement, and equity; to give subtilty to little ones, to the young man knowledge and understanding. A wise man shall hear and shall be wiser: and he that understandeth, shall possess governments. He shall understand a parable, and the interpretation, the words of the wise, and their mysterious sayings. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Fools despise wisdom and instruction. [Proverbs 1:1-7]

To this should be appended the succor:

[Although] the turning away of little ones shall kill them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them he that shall hear me, shall rest without terror, and shall enjoy abundance, without fear of evils. (1:32-330)

The passage reads as an outline for George P. Landow's skeleton requirements for the exemplary sage: comprehension of God's subtle auguries; fluency in metaphor, parable, paradox; sufficient distance from the whole to foster an aptitude for seeing connections between morality and politics; credibility and severity enough to communicate this insight; adequate compassion and intelligence to offer the audience an escape.

Landow's Elegant Jeremiahs, explains the sage, and sage writing, but seemingly compresses the scope of the genre by limiting his nineteenth century examples of the occupation to men like John Ruskin and Carlyle. These sages — indisputably standouts among the greatest pedagogues of the century — can, despite their eccentricities and individualism, be classified into one group based on such factors as their social conservatism and their unambiguous devotion to conventional morality. Their stature was not limited to their writing-for socially they were accorded respect and, in short, the deference due to the Biblical prophet. For more diverse examples Landow offers the twentieth cenrury, introducing such eccentric and unique luminaries as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. For the nineteenth century, was it impossible to hear the wisdom of the sage through an unconventional mouthpiece? Must the sage always possess the austere self-control of the disciplined and industrious John Ruskin? Was there a writer who used the sage device who added diversity to the pool?

For the sake of broadening the nineteenth century selection of sage writers — to demonstrate that the voice of doom and recourse came from nineteenth century gutters as well as medieval ramparts — consider the flamboyant and paradoxical, and personally "immoral" Oscar Wilde. His odd gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, qualifies its author for the membership criterion. He uses a quite elementary and, ironically for a man so enamoured with paradox, direct symbolism to teach his lesson. Dorian Gray is read as the "Young Beautiful" — the hope that is the succeeding generation. Will he admit the counsel of Basil Hallward, as a painter a lover of truth and candor, and plant morality, integrity, and spiritual growth beneath his fa�ade of roses? Or will he succumb to the moral decay that gnawed at his fathers, of whom Lord Henry Wotton is the representative? Although other Decadents, like Beerbohm, use the devices of the sage to produce a confusing, morally inverted message that parodies sages like Ruskin, Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray is a sincere adoption of the sage's toolkit, for the message of the text is one of sincerity and morality-even anti-Decadence.

Dorian Gray, as a sage's admonition, is necessarily complex and confusing — it is, after all, written by Oscar Wilde. Critics have often asked whether Wotton or Hallward expresses Wilde's voice; other commentators explore the possibility that Wilde attached elements of himself to both, and also in character of Dorian Gray. This renders Wilde much more confusing when we try to decide whether or not he is to be placed with the sages, because the sage writer is such a cult of personality — even in sage fiction the narrator is close to the author. As the message and biography of the Biblical prophet are inseperable, so is this the case for modern sage writers. Professor Landow demonstrates this in his point that "one must inevitably stand apart from the mass of men to speak the truth." The sage is apart from the world he criticizes, but he criticizes his world; he is not a member of another community, and his subject matter is tied to his biography. It follows, therefore, that the sage should be above his audience not only in terms of insight, but also in lifestyle. The sage must live the transcendence he has discovered.

Yet although most traditional sages can be readily forgiven their shortcomings, Wilde is a sinner without repentance. In both life and in his literature he not only stands within the immoral or amoral society that he questions in Dorian Gray, but is proudly a magnet around which it spirals. Indeed, the society that he stands apart from — which rejected him on moral grounds after his book was published — is the nineteenth century moral majority. Aesthetes loved the book; they kept it by their bedsides and read it over and over. So why, when the sage is supposed to be an alien, is he embraced by the group that he chastises and rejected by the mainstream voice that he seems to advocate by destroying Gray, who values beauty over morality? Perhaps Wilde as a sage represents the dawning of a new twentieth century literary tradition in which author and narrator are more easily distanced, so that the Epicurean ideals espoused in The Picture of Dorian Gray come from a narrator who is an idealized abstract of the author whose biography certainly lacks Biblical purity... or even adherence to the ideals of the Greek philosopher he admired. In the emerging Freudian world marked by multi-leveled personalities and internal struggles between conscience and desire, perhaps Wilde's biographical incompatibility presents a new era for the sage. Indeed, if the aesthetes were the first indication of the more jaded culture that has flowered since the Victorian era, should not a weary and wary people have more complex and imprefect — more human — sages? This ought to be the case particularly if the sage, to be credible, needs to be somewhat grounded in the world that he preaches to from afar. Isiah and Ruskin came from devout backgrounds and touched more devout people, so what must the new sage be like to touch a further fallen people?

Without doubt, the three central characters in Dorian Gray fulfill the needs of the sage writer with Lord Henry Wotton representing the evil to be warned against, artist Basil Hallward as savior, and Gray as subject. A painting — Gray's soul — shows Wilde's regard for the ability of art to discern truth. In Hallward — who is consistently rejected by his less righteous friends — we do see that in some sense Wilde knows that the prophet is one who can expect to live on his group's fringe. The painting, hidden away in the attic, is a grotesque ledger upon which all of Gray's, or Wilde's audience's sins, great and small, are jotted down.

Landow shows that the Old Testament prophets, as models for the sage, "first called attention to their audience's present grievous condition and often listed individual instances of suffering (26)." Dorian, the longer he has to learn from Wotten and to realize that he can escape wrongdoing without discernable effect, becomes a vehicle for many of the sins that Wilde's society seems to him to be committing under the table. Gray, for instance, takes on the attributes of a corrupt clergyman, collecting religious artifacts in his attic:

He had a special passion, also, for ecclesiastical vestments, as indeed he had for everything connected with the service of the Church. In the long cedar chests that lined the west gallery of his house he had stored away many rare and beautiful specimens of what is really the raiment of the Bride of Christ, who must wear purple and jewels and fine linen that she may hide the pallid macerated body that is worn by the suffering she seeks for, and wounded by self-inflicted pain. [151]

The passage delves into further detail about the opulence of the material Roman Catholic Church-and, as the obsession with the Bride of Christ's self-inflicted pain shows, its masochism-completing a picture of a self-crippling man who has substituted external for internal, costume for soul. The Catholic objects and clothes occupy space in the cloistered area of his house where he keeps his painting. A painting that shows its owner the wounds he is inflicting on his soul is to be considered his self-perception. By clouding with the frivolous toys of faith the sanctuary in which a less corrupted man should contemplate his morality, Wilde reveals a man who has gone to great lengths to forget a conscience growing too hideous to behold:

For these treasures, and everything that he collected in his lovely house, were to him means of forgetfulness, modes by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times almost too great to be borne. Upon the walls of the lonely locked room where he had spent so much of his boyhood, he had hung with his own hands the terrible portrait whose changing features showed him the real degradation of his life, and in front he draped the purple and gold pall as a curtain. For weeks he would not go there, would forget the hideous painted thing, and get back his light heart, his wonderful joyousness, his passionate absorption in mere existence� On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it himself, but filled, at other times, with the pride of individualism that is half the fascination of sin, and smiling with secret pleasure, at the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden that should have been his own. [152]

The ache Gray causes himself as he eats away at his heart, the horror that one's soul could be too offensive to regard, and the extent to which a person will go to be distracted from their sick spirit-these are all tokens of societal putrefaction. Dorian, although his features are exaggerated and his conscience made concrete to attain focus, offers a vivid portrait of suffering.

The next techniques of the Old Testament sage, to show that the "suffering resulted directly from� neglecting-falling away from-God's law," and to promise "further, indeed deepened, miseries if their listeners failed to return to the fold," are already accomplished in the preceding passages (Landow, 26). Wilde could not make more explicit the connection between not only neglection of, but also abuse of God's law, by raising the metaphor in the above passages of hanging the "purple and gold pall as a curtain" over the mirror of the soul, having just previously mentioned that the Bride of Christ wore "purple and jewels" to conceal a "macerated body." Gray hides sin in the same way that a martyr veils the scars of piety, and Gray spiritually pays for it.

Painter Basil Hallward, the maker of the painting, repeatedly begs Gray to repent, as Wilde perhaps asks his audience to look at itself:

"I won't tell you that I don't want to preach to you. I remember Harry saying once that every man who turned himself into an amateur curate for the moment always began by saying that, and then proceeded to break his word. I do want to preach to you. I want you to lead such a life as will make the world respect you. I want you to have a clean name and a fair record. I want you to get rid of the dreadful people you associate with. Don't shrug your shoulders like that. Don't be so indifferent. You have a wonderful influence. Let it be for good, not for evil. They say that you corrupt everyone with whom you become intimate� I wonder do I know you? Before I could answer that, I should have to see your soul. [164]"

Dorian has already considered trying to find his soul, but dismissed the possibility because he failed to fathom the harm that he was doing others and-of more significance to him-his own spirit. Here, Hallward establishes himself as a preacher (by associating himself with his supernatural painting, he has already shown some credibility, some knowledge of God or morality), openly declaring a need to preach. He then offers paths to salvation: foster self-respect and gain that of others, reject apathy, nurture others instead of misleading them. Also, he touches upon the importance of self-knowledge, hinting that he understands Gray's struggle to conceal his portrait.

In filling this latter function, Hallward recognizes Wilde trying to fulfill some more of Landow's criterion for the sage: "turning 'dumb facts' into speaking voices" and serving "as a second Daniel, interpreting the writing on the wall (42)." Hallward, of course, has filled these tasks most perceptibly by making a painting that reflects the soul-at least amplifying the soul's voice. But when he approaches Dorian late in the action, asking him why others are taking about him, and why his disciples seem to whither, he is trying to translate signs that Gray misunderstands and make them more explicit. He tries to draw everything together; at the same time Wilde tells his audience to examine their lives for similar common signs. Of course, in an action indicative of the reception the harbinger can expect, Hallward is immediately following this murdered by his unappreciative friend.

Another compelling reason to admit Wilde to the ranks of the sage is his skillful use of the invented, fantastic symbolical grotesquein his creation of Hallward's painting of Gray. The grotesque, which Landow identifies as "a term that we employ to describe the jarringly unnatural," is adopted by the sage to diagnose "instances of disorder"-it is therefore a process of definition, also discussed as part of the sage's job description (74). Ruskin defines the symbolical grotesque as a "general term for symbols, allegories, and emblems" that writers would later use to represent the "falling away from the true path" and what Kayser calls an "encounter with madness" (Landow, 76). All of these descriptions fit Dorian Gray and the segment of the audience that he represents. Each time he drifts away from his course-destroying an actress or corrupting a youth-the painting proclaims it to him; and his ultimate sin, the murder of Hallward, perhaps the sage himself, drives him to sufficient madness to destroy his painting-an attempt to break apart his soul. Landow quotes Charles Haddon Spurgeon, "The masses never were, and, perhaps never will be, able to receive instruction in any other way than by parabolic illustrations" (80). Wilde, always concerned with his role as a celebrity" and storyteller, would understand the importance of the parable.


Landow, George P.Elegant Jeremiahs. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991. [complete text].

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995.

Last modified 7 March 2002