[Disponible en español — The author has kindly shared with readers of The Victorian Web the following essay, which first appeared in the January 2003 issue The Wildean: A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies, published by the Oscar Wilde Society. Thanks to Donald Mead, Chairman, The Oscar Wilde Society, for his assistance.]
One OF THE minor characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray is the Jewish manager Isaacs, who runs the theatre that Sibyl Vane acts in. 1 He is part of a tawdry naturalistic environment, but his Jewishness is stressed so much, and he is so unsympathetically presented, that the reader cannot help feeling a bit surprised and even startled. We first meet Isaacs in chapter 4, when Dorian says to Lord Henry:
A hideous Jew, in the most amazing waistcoat I ever beheld in my life, was standing at the entrance, smoking a vile cigar. He had greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt. ‘Have a box, my Lord?' he said, when he saw me, and he took off his hat with an air of gorgeous servility. There was something about him, Harry, that amused me. He was such a monster. [pp. 47-48]
Dorian's dislike of Isaacs is not simply personal: it has strong anti-Semitic overtones. Nor does it seem to have any limits. Dorian attacks him again and again. A few pages later, for instance, he says:
On the first night I was at the theatre, the horrid old Jew came round to the box after the performance was over, and offered to take me behind the scenes and introduce me to her. . . . He was a most offensive brute, though he had an extraordinary passion for Shakespeare. He told me once, with an air of pride, that his five bankruptcies were entirely due to "The Bard," as he insisted on calling him. He seemed to think it a distinction. [p. 50]
Sibyl Vane is also repelled by Isaacs. At the beginning of chapter 5, when her mother encourages her to be civil to him because he has lent them money, Sibyl replies: "He is not a gentleman, and I hate the way he talks to me" (p. 55). The implication is that Isaacs has sexual designs on Sibyl. The mother's praise of Isaacs, moreover, is simply meant to underline how unsympathetic a character she is: her main interest is in exploiting her daughter, not in helping and guiding her.
Nor is the attack on Isaacs, with its heavy anti-Semitism, placed completely in the mouths of Dorian and Sibyl. At the opening of chapter 7 Wilde joins in, using his authorial voice:
For some reason or other, the house was crowded that night, and the fat Jew manager who met them at the door was beaming from ear to ear with an oily, tremulous smile. He escorted them to their box with a sort of pompous humility, waving his fat jewelled hands, and talking at the top of his voice. Dorian Gray loathed him more than ever. He felt as if he had come to look for Miranda and had been met by Caliban. Lord Henry, upon the other hand, rather liked him. At least he declared he did, and insisted on shaking him by the hand, and assuring him that he was proud to meet a man who had discovered a real genius and gone bankrupt over a poet. — The Picture of Dorian Gray (p. 68)
Lord Henry's liking for Isaacs is, of course, part of his paradoxical nature. A while later, as Sibyl acts very poorly, the audience loses interest and begins to talk loudly and to whistle. Wilde describes Isaacs's uncouth reaction: "The Jew manager, who was standing at the back of the dress-circle, stamped and swore with rage" (p. 70). This is our last glimpse of him. After Sibyl's death, we hear no more of "the [grinning] old Jew" (p. 51).
What are we to make of all this? Is Wilde indulging in an uncharacteristic outburst of anti-Semitism, or is there a deeper reason for his surprisingly hostile and racially prejudiced portrayal of the Jewish manager? The answer, I think, lies in the nature of Wilde's novel. Without exception, the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray are meant to represent various art movements in the nineteenth century and before: it is not only Sibyl who is inseparable from art. Basil Hallward, for instance, is meant at the beginning of the novel to evoke Dante Gabriel Rossetti as painter. The early Rossetti painted beautiful, innocent-looking women; Basil does the same thing, but concentrates on a young man instead. As the novel develops, moreover, Basil is associated strongly with John Ruskin. To a large extent, Lord Henry Wotton is Wilde's "imaginary portrait' of Walter Pater. As Richard Ellmann has observed: "Lord Henry is forever quoting, or misquoting, without acknowledgment, from Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance. Plagiarism is the worst of his crimes. He brazenly takes over the best-known passages" (317). Wotton is meant to represent Pater, but Pater as misunderstood by the young men who were corrupted by his Renaissance (text). Dorian exists both as a picture and as a human being. As he deteriorates, he becomes the type of the Decadent while his picture comes to reflect Decadent art's obsessive and extreme exploration of the evil in human nature. Sibyl Vane represents an innocent movement in English literature. She is all of Shakespeare's heroines rolled into one, but she also suggests the poetry of the early Tennyson, which concentrated on the artist isolated in a beautiful world of art. Like the Lady of Shalott, whom she clearly echoes when she says to Dorian, "I have grown sick of shadows" (p. 71) she steps out of this world into life and immediately perishes as a consequence. Even the minor characters are linked to Victorian art movements. Jim Vane and his mother, for instance, are straight out of Victorian melodrama. Wilde makes this very clear when he has Sibyl say to her brother: "Oh, don't be so serious, Jim. You are like one of the heroes of those silly melodramas mother used to be so fond of acting in" (p. 61). Interestingly, the most recent book on the Jew in modern English literature, Bryan Cheyette's Constructions of "the Jew' in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), barely mentions Wilde and makes no mention of the character Isaacs.
What, then, of Isaacs? Does he fit into this framework, and if so, how? The oily Jewish entrepreneur is a stock figure in the popular literature of Wilde's day, and it is almost certain that Wilde meant him to be another representative of Victorian melodrama and to contribute to the unattractive atmosphere surrounding Sibyl. He is clearly her equivalent of Caliban. But one cannot stop here. Wilde pushes the anti-Semitism to the point of parody, prompting the reader to ask further questions. It is my view, which I offer simply as an educated hypothesis, that Isaacs is at least in part Wilde's response to George Eliot. The most prominent and towering example of the portrayal of the Jewish community in the final decades of the century was Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876). In Daniel Deronda she displayed a warmly sympathetic attitude towards the Jewish community and used it to criticise non-Jewish English society. Wilde disliked Eliot considerably. In The Decay of Lying [text], written shortly before The Picture of Dorian Gray, he enumerated then criticised the various novelists of his day for abandoning "lying" in favour of scientific accuracy and realism. He wrote of George Eliot: "Mr. Ruskin once described the characters in George Eliot's novels as being like the sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus, but M. Zola's characters are much worse" (p. 1075). Wilde, then, associated Eliot with Zola and saw her as part of a movement whose drift led ultimately to that terrible enemy of aestheticism, naturalism. It is true that Eliot is realistic and often mercilessly critical in her analysis of her characters and their motives. She abandons this attitude only once — in presenting Daniel Deronda in particular and the Jewish community in general. Deronda is uncharacteristically idealised by George Eliot. Unlike her other characters he is, quite simply, perfect.
Isaacs in my view is a deliberate parodic inversion of Daniel Deronda. Although this cannot be proved, there are indications which point in that direction. George Eliot describes Deronda as "young, handsome, distinguished in appearance" (p. 5). and of course impeccably well-dressed and a member of the upper orders. Isaacs, on the other hand, is old, ugly, repulsive in appearance, ridiculously dressed, and lower class. Daniel Deronda opens with a memorable scene in which Gwendolen Harleth is gambling at a roulette-table while Deronda looks upon her with disdain:
But in the course of that survey her eyes met Deronda's, and instead of averting them as she would have desired to do, she was unpleasantly conscious that they were arrested — how long? The darting sense that he was measuring her and looking down on her as an inferior, that he was of different quality from the human dross around her, that he felt himself in a region outside and above her, and was examining her as a specimen of a lower order, roused a tingling resentment which stretched the moment with conflict. [pp. 3-4]
The superiority of the Jewish Daniel to the gentile Gwendolen is established at the very beginning of the novel and is confirmed as the book develops. Wilde inverts and exaggerates this situation in the Dorian-Isaacs relationship. It is Dorian, the young, rich and handsome English gentleman, who looks down upon the Jewish manager, seeing him as a member of an inferior species.
Later on in the novel, George Eliot focuses on Daniel Deronda's hands and describes them:
Look at his hands: they are not small and dimpled, with tapering fingers that seem to have only a deprecating touch: they are long, flexible, firmly-grasping hands, such as Titian has painted in a picture where he wanted to show the combination of refinement with force. [p. 137]
There is a similar but less extended focus on Isaacs's hands in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde tells us that he has "fat jewelled hands' that he waves as he talks. Isaacs's hands, unlike Deronda's, are sweaty, vulgar and repulsive.
In another memorable scene in Daniel Deronda, we are told of the young Daniel that he is a gifted musician:
Daniel had not only one of those thrilling boy voices which seem to bring an idyllic heaven and earth before our eyes, but a fine musical instinct, and had early made out accompaniments for himself on the piano, while he sang from memory. Since then he had had some teaching, and Sir Hugo, who delighted in the boy, used to ask for his music in the presence of guests. [p. 124]
When his uncle Sir Hugo, however, suggests to him that he may wish to pursue a musical career, Daniel refuses with disdain and is extremely insulted: "That Sir Hugo should have thought of him in that position for a moment, seemed to Daniel an unmistakable proof that there was something about his birth which threw him out from the class of gentlemen to which the baronet belonged" (p. 125). Wilde compactly counterpoints this scene when he has Dorian say in describing the theatre Sibyl acts in: "There was a dreadful orchestra, presided over by a young Hebrew who sat at a cracked piano, that nearly drove me away" (pp. 48-49). This inversion, moreover, extends the anti-Semitic overtones beyond the figure of Isaacs.
In Eliot's novel, Daniel becomes Gwendolen's mentor and he finally leads her to salvation. The best thing that happens to Gwendolen is that she falls into Daniel's hands. Isaacs's relationship with Sibyl, however, is quite different, for his purpose is to use her for his own profit and he binds her to him contractually. Dorian says to Lord Henry: "We must get her out of the Jew's hands. She is bound to him for three years — at least for two years and eight months — from the present time. I shall have to pay him something, of course" (p. 53). When Gwendolen learns that her family has gone bankrupt and pawns her necklace, Daniel reclaims it and sends it back to her anonymously. But Isaacs lends money to the Vanes not out of goodness but in order to increase his hold on them. While Daniel is selfless and generous, Isaacs is selfish and money-grubbing. He is interested in Sibyl for monetary and sexual reasons, while Daniel's interest in Gwendolen is humane and completely non-mercantile.
Finally, after Daniel Deronda learns of his Jewish identity, he embraces Zionism and decides to abandon England and travel to the Middle East to establish a Jewish state for his people. In this respect also, Isaacs is his mirror opposite. Not only does Isaacs stay in England but he clings on tenaciously to English culture, as embodied in its most august representative, William Shakespeare. Isaacs never abandons Shakespeare and is even proud that he has been ruined five times by "the Bard." Isaacs's multiple ruin by Shakespeare is symbolic. For it was Shakespeare more than any one else who established the negative image of the Jew in English literature in his portrayal of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Thus, Shakespeare has ruined Isaacs not only financially but also culturally, racially, religiously and socially. For Isaacs to continue to cling to "the Bard' is perhaps pathetic, but for George Eliot — Wilde seems to be saying — to try and reverse the image of the Jew established by Shakespeare is even more pathetic and hopelessly futile. In portraying Isaacs, then, Wilde is not only functioning within the long-standing Shakespearean tradition but also reversing George Eliot's highly sympathetic and unrealistically idealised portrait of Daniel Deronda and the English Jewish community. He presents Isaacs as Eliot's real ideal, Zola, would have, placing him in a seedy naturalistic setting and making him an integral part of this setting.
But the question remains: Is Wilde anti-Semitic in The Picture of Dorian Gray, or is he simply anti-George Eliot? There is no trace of anti-Semitism in any of Wilde's other works. In his personal life, moreover, Wilde had several Jewish friends, most notable of whom was Ada Leverson, whom he called "the Sphinx." His friendship with Ada Leverson began before he published The Picture of Dorian Gray and continued until the end of his life. He corresponded with her about his novel, but there is no mention of Isaacs in their letters. It is quite possible that Ada Leverson — who later became a successful novelist herself — understood Wilde's purpose and accepted it. She was one of Wilde's guests at the opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest. And after Wilde's disgrace, while his former friends were deserting him in droves, she and her husband stood firmly by him and remained helpful and loyal until the end. Between trials, for instance, Wilde stayed at their home, Ernest Leverson visited him in prison, and on his release Ada Leverson was waiting to receive him. This is hardly evidence of anti-Semitism. It is in my opinion fair to say that, had George Eliot never written Daniel Deronda, there would probably have been no Isaacs and no mention of the Jewish community in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
This does not exonerate Wilde of the charge of insensitivity, however. It is difficult to imagine a Jew reading Wilde's novel without being offended by the passages on Isaacs. Some recent editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray, moreover, have gone so far as to resort to editorial tampering to tone down or remove the anti-Semitic remarks: the word "Jew" is eliminated altogether and replaced by the word "man' or "manager' wherever necessary. (See the Dell Laurel and Signet editions of the novel, for example). That no individual Jew or Jewish organisation protested in Wilde's day about the portrayal of Isaacs is revealing. What it shows us is that the Jewish community in Wilde's day was weak, unorganised and uninfluential. It was in the habit of maintaining a low profile, trying to blend as much as possible into the non-Jewish society it was part of, and waiting for others — a new George Eliot, perhaps —to leap to its defence.
I would like to end by saying that I offer this reading of Isaacs in the hope that I have followed Arnold's dictum and seen "the object as in itself it really is." If I have missed the mark, however, I am sure that Wilde at least, were he still around, would have been delighted by this example of "the critic as artist" and would have stressed that the highest criticism is creative and subjective, seeing "the object as in itself it really is not"! I leave it to my colleagues to judge whether I have followed Wilde's advice or Arnold's.
1. Isaacs appears in both the shorter 1890 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was serially published in Lippincott's Magazine, and in the fuller 1891 version.
3. For a full analysis of the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray as representatives of various nineteenth century art movements, see Nassaar, Into the Demon Universe, pp. 37-72
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Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. New York: Harper, Colophon Edition, 1966.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988.
Hart-Davis, Rupert, ed. Letters of Oscar Wilde. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.
Nassaar, Christopher S. Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974.
Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Shewan, Rodney. Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism. London: Macmillan, 1977.
Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Third Edition. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1994.
Last modified 24 December 2005