A Comparison of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “Catcher in the Rye”

A banned book results in censorship of a work and prohibits the freedom to read under the circumstance that it is unorthodox. This banning portrays the book as inappropriate to society. There have been many books viewed as this way throughout history. However, it still seems to reach people as time progresses. Each era has different views on censorship and what should be censored. Two disputed novels, The Portrait of Dorian Gray and The Catcher in the Rye were both believed to be unconventional in their differing time periods as it questioned societal thinking. The diverging influences which both retain supplement the evolving eras and prove the differences that each have. The superficiality of society and how it impacts people are present in both Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and J.D. Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye as the prior demonstrates more focus on negative consequences of influences, while the latter focuses on alienation but both are controversial as they are considered as immoral.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde was published in 1890, during this time period there was an insurgence of industrialization that produced benefits and consequences that affected every aspect of life. Within the nineteenth century the “Industrial Revolution began to accelerate and spread” (Buzan and Lawson) throughout the world. Because of this growth in production and manufacturing, “global trade increased twenty-five times over” (Buzan and Lawson) which contributed to more communication between countries and the spread of goods and ideas throughout the world. Along with this trade came “industrialization, mass politics, infrastructural developments, and nationalism” (Buzan and Lawson) that greatly shaped the nineteenth century. As well as late nineteenth century ideologies that shifted “from liberalism to socialism” and the “improvement of the human condition” (Buzan and Lawson) all contributing to the unique literary period the novel was written.

The late Victorian Era in which The Picture of Dorian Gray was written includes key elements of the era and the counterculture that challenged society. This time period was very conservative and proper with a “taste for luxury, ostentation, and outward show” (Stern). Victorian culture also included much of “sexual constraint” (Peckham), therefore the immorality of Victorian Counterculture shocked the public. Counterculture is defined by “an effort to change by negation and inversion the conventionalized instructions” (Peckham). The Picture of Dorian Gray was considered dangerous as it went against Victorian Era norm and included homosexual suggestions and negative influences that proved immoral.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger was written in 1951 during a time in which turmoil and unrest had ended and reformation begins. World War II finally came to the end six year prior in which the Allies defeated the Axis powers in what is considered the deadliest war in the history of humanity. The war was a tumultuous time that left the world in pieces and affected many authors and their literary works, as one can imagine. During the mid-twentieth century there were many “civil liberties gains” (Cushman), such as the fight for African American rights and integration of the colored people in schools, transportation, jobs, etc., instead of the prior segregation. The twentieth century also “combat communism and disloyalty” (Cushman) as people pushed for freedom and equality. This time period was full of strides towards better treatment of all peoples and the fight for human beings, no matter their skin color, in addition to the transforming literary world.

The Catcher in the Rye is considered a Bildungsroman in some elements as it follows the story of a young boy finding his purpose in the world but also includes a level of immorality in which society at the time banned the novel for. A bildungsroman can be defined as “a novel that educated by portraying an education” (Gottfried and Miles), however the the novel, the main character runs away from various schools as he does not want an education. This genre also includes “self-questioning, self-awareness, and self-consciousness” (Gottfried and Miles) which is something the main character does often through inner dialogue. As “bildungsroman concentrates on actions, thoughts, and reflections equally” (Gottfried and Miles) it gives insight into a teenage boy’s mind that unfortunately led to the banning of The Catcher in the Rye for some time because it included unsavory language and negative and sexual influences that concerned society.

The superficial society is portrayed in both novels as the main characters focus on appearance and problems they face with humanity. Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde states that “when I find that I am growing old I shall kill myself” (Wilde 29) because when he grows old he will no longer be beautiful and beauty is held in high regard during this time. Society centers on appearance as beauty is considered art and art is beautiful. They view Dorian Gray as beautiful so society doesn’t question his corruption and negative influences. These compliments to his appearance is encouraging to “his own beauty” and “the corruption of his own soul” (Wilde 131) therefore as Dorian Gray focuses more on his appearances, his own soul deteriorates. Every corrupt deed he performs appears in his grotesque portrait while his own beautiful appearance remains untouched further suggesting the superficiality of society.

Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger also views society as superficial as he calls everyone a “phony” throughout the length of the novel. Holden exposes his roommate saying that “he always looked good when he was finished fixing himself up, but was a secret slob” (Salinger 15). He accuses his roommate for focusing too much on his appearance while calling him out for being a hypocrite and phony which Holden deeply despises. Holden also states that his boys’ school is “full of phonies” in which all they do is study to make money and join the football team while drinking and having sex everyday and always in their “dirty little goddam cliques” (Salinger 70). He hates society for focusing on superficial things and reveals their phoniness in his inner dialogue. Both Dorian Gray and Holden Caulfield recognize the superficiality of society, while Dorian seems to go along with it as he is accepted because of his beautiful appearance, Holden despises that very fact and accuses all of being a phony.

The Picture of Dorian Gray focuses more on the negative consequences that influence brings about and how Dorian falls prey to them. In the beginning of the novel there is foreshadowing as Basil warns Lord Henry not to influence Dorian Gray because his “influence would be bad” (Wilde 16) but Lord Henry argues that “all influence is immoral” (Wilde 19) thus starting a reaction that leads to the downfall of Dorian Gray. Throughout the novel Dorian progresses into corruption as each bad deed he does is revealed in his portrait. The ugliness of his soul is demonstrated in secret while his outward appearance remains beautiful.

Dorian Gray speaks to Lord Henry, saying “it was a poisonous book” (Wilde 129) that Lord Henry had given him in which influences Dorian to act immorally and influence others to do the same and “abandon himself to their subtle influences” (Wilde 135) that led to his own destruction. The corrupting influences leads Dorian Gray to live an immoral life and their superficial society encourages him as they compliment his captivating appearance and disregard any sense of his corruption.

On the other hand, The Catcher in the Rye focuses more on the alienation that Holden Caulfield surrounds himself as he fears change and uses it as a a form of self protection. Throughout the novel, Holden is continuously changing schools, which contributes to his feelings of alienation as he strays for societal norm. At one point, Holden visits a museum in which he compares his feelings to as “everything always stayed right where it was” (Salinger 65) and reveals his fear of change and him wanting everything to just stay as it were. Holden also shares a piece of advice to not “tell nobody anything” because “if you do, you start missing everybody” (Salinger 115). This demonstrates the reason behind Holden’s alienation and using it as protection.

One of Holden’s teachers tell him that “many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now” (Salinger 102), as he tries to convince Holden that education is important because he won’t be alone. This proves that Holden’s actions have been suggested as immoral as he does not want to attend school and hates all those for being phonies and uses excessive curse words that society views inappropriate.

The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Catcher in the Rye present immoral ideas of their respective time period as the former twisted art and ethics into darkness that disturbed society while the latter uses excessive curse words and suggestions that shocked the public. The Picture of Dorian Gray was written in a period in which beauty and aestheticism was greatly appreciated and art considered to be everything that was moral and should be followed. Therefore when Wilde made the assertion that “all art is quite useless” (Wilde 2) it went against the values of society and dejected art. Wilde also stated in his novel that “an artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them” (Wilde 13) which was another unpopular opinion that went against the morals and ideals of the era. Through this, he also asserted the superficiality of society and art furthering the immorality of his novel, especially among the higher class. Along with poisonous and suggestive influences, The Picture of Dorian Gray was considered immoral in the eyes of aristocrats and labeled as a dangerous book.

The Catcher in the Rye is similar as it is considered to be a banned book that was confiscated from many schools for its immoral aspects. The novel contains many instances of smoking, alcohol, sex, and profanity therefore deeming it inappropriate for young audiences. Holden’s language is considered vulgar and his influences as corrupt. Holden says “I’m quite a heavy smoker” (Salinger 3) in the beginning of the novel which is unacceptable as he is only 16 years old. Holden also starts a fight with his roommate and thinks to himself that he might “split his goddam throat open” (Salinger 24) which demonstrates his violence and use of God’s name in vain excessively throughout the whole novel. Holden even seems to be obsessed with sex and speaks about it repeatedly as he even asks someone “how’s your sex life?” (Salinger 77).

All these immoral references led to the banning of this book from many schools in the country. Though both these novels were written in varying time periods they are both considered immoral and unacceptable to society. They were both very controversial for many reasons and reveals the similarities the literary pieces share and the differences of influences and interpretations between time.

The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Catcher in the Rye are considered immoral in different ways and were both shunned by society but now considered great literary works that are integrated into school curriculum. In an article, History and Morality, the author addresses that evil is “a necessary life force” and that there is a “necessity of sinning in order to realize the full depths of the human soul” (Mazlish). The Picture of Dorian Gray presents importance as it portrays the inner struggles of a man and his appearance and provides a cautionary tale that there is more underneath the surface.

The novel also depicts the power that art possesses as there is depth to what may seem shallow. The Catcher in the Rye is important to American literature as well as it provides a character that teenagers can relate to and brings to mind new ideas of youth after the war. It also focuses on the development of Holden Caulfield’s character as he is learning to accept the fact that he is growing up.

Many teenagers can relate to the rebellious story that Holden Caulfield tells which was not common during the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, Oscar Wilde even prefaces The Picture of Dorian Gray, stating that “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book” (Wilde 1). Therefore one cannot judge a work of literature on the basis that it is moral or not because of the subjectivity of that definition. Wilde also states that “diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital” (Wilde 2). At that time society was shocked by the corruptness the novels contained. As time progresses it reveals that these novels hold great importance in the literary world as they are now considered great works that transcend time.

Morality involves discerning between what is right and wrong. As history progresses, however, the ideas of ethics and morality varies. The world is ever changing and so are opinions and ideals. The line between right and wrong is skewed based on perspective. Good and bad is subjective and reliant on the time period in which it is assessed. For example, the Victorian Era is greatly conservative with concentration on appearance and social class.

The Picture of Dorian Gray challenged these views as it included many corrupting influences and alternative perspectives to art as Dorian Gray is considered beautiful but his portrait is revealing of his ugly soul. On the other hand, the twentieth century gave rise to more freedoms and equality to all peoples and less focus on social rankings.

However, The Catcher in the Rye produced much profanity, alcohol abuse, and sexual influences considered most unsuitable to teenagers. Now in the present day, these two novels are literary works taught throughout the world. Though both were deemed dangerous at the time it was written, it now serves as a teaching tool that demonstrates evolution of society and literature. Therefore as time changes, so does societal ideals.

Works Cited

  1. Buzan, Barry, and George Lawson. ‘The Global Transformation: The Nineteenth Century and the Making of Modern International Relations.’ International Studies Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 3, Sept. 2013, pp. 620-34. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24017929.
  2. Cushman, Robert E. ‘American Civil Liberties in Mid-Twentieth Century.’ The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 275, May 1951, pp. 1-8. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1028186.
  3. Gottfried, Marianne H., and David H. Miles. ‘Defining Bildungsroman as a Genre.’ PMLA, vol. 91, no. 1, Jan. 1976, pp. 122-23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/461404.
  4. Mazlish, Bruce. ‘History and Morality.’ The Journal of Philosophy, Inc., vol. 55, no. 6, 13 Mar. 1958, pp. 230-40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2022420.
  5. Peckham, Morse. ‘Victorian Counterculture.’ Victorian Studies, vol. 18, no. 3, Mar. 1975, pp. 257-76. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3826644.
  6. Rose, Arnold M. ‘The Problem of a Mass Society.’ The Antioch Review, vol. 10, no. 3, 1950, pp. 378-94. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4609433.
  7. Salinger, Jerome D. The Catcher in the Rye. Penguin Books, 1994.
  8. Stern, Rebecca F. ‘Gothic Light: Vision and Visibility in the Victorian Novel.’ South Central Review, vol. 11, no. 4, 1994, pp. 26-39. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3190112.
  9. Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 2003.