Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Jews gone Wilde


I just read The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I last read — not very attentively, I think — in high school, more than 30 years ago. (For the record, it seems to me now an inappropriate choice of reading for high school.) No question that it is a great novel, even if Wilde would have been well served by a more assiduous editor who pointed out just how many times his characters “flung themselves” onto sofas, divans, wicker arm chairs, and “a luxuriously cushioned couch”. (They occasionally “throw themselves” as well. I wonder whether Stephen Leacock had this example in mind in writing his famous line “Lord Ronald… flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”)

The thoroughgoing misogyny of the book was familiar, but I had forgotten, or not noticed, the antisemitism. Early in the book significant attention is devoted to the peripheral figure of the low-rent theatre impresario who employs Dorian’s first idol, the young actress Sibyl Vane. He is first described as

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.

He is almost never referred to by name. He is always “the Jew”, “the horrid Jew”, “the old Jew” (and there is constant reference to his gaudy “jewelled fingers”). He is ugly, mean, wheedling, slovenly, an “offensive brute”, and even his “extraordinary passion for Shakespeare” is played for laughs, with the Jew blaming “the Bard” for his five bankruptcies, seemingly a parody of the only way a money-grubbing Jew could relate to the sublimities of English culture.

The pianist at the theatre, at his “cracked piano”, is also described as a “young Hebrew”, for no apparent reason other than to intensify the sense of artistic degradation.

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