Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Susan Mooney, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Regina Hewitt, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Laura Runge-Gordon, Ph.D.


aestheticism, Decadence, Symbolism, gaze, Wilde, Nabokov


This study compares the relation between beauty, objectification, and transcendence in two novels: Oscar Wilde's early-modernist The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and Vladimir Nabokov's late-modernist Pale Fire (1962). Though written over half a century apart, the works feature similar critiques of the aesthete's devotion to beauty. While Wilde's novel offers an insider's view of aristocratic Decadence in late-nineteenth-century London, Nabokov's reflects his early influence from the Russian Symbolists and recalls that tradition in the American suburbs of the mid-twentieth-century. Both novels demonstrate the trust that many modernists held in the ability of beauty to offer transcendence over the limits and suffering of mortal life. Yet they also call attention to the dangers of aesthetic obsession.

My study applies the theories of Plato, Emanuel Swedenborg, Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Vladimir Solovyov, Laura Mulvey, and Steven Drukman to the aesthetic sensibilities presented in the novels. To understand how these ideologies inform the works, I have divided the main characters into three categories---artist, spectator, and aesthetic object.

Both Wilde and Nabokov present beauty as a positive force for its ability to provide at least temporary transcendence. The authors also, however, portray the tragic consequences of aesthetic objectification. By comparing the two works, I conclude that both highlight the dangers of the aesthete's obsession with beauty, but only Nabokov's Pale Fire offers a solution: the need for pity toward those who become the objects of the aesthetic gaze.