A Case Study on Art as a Literary Theme

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

Music, painting, acting – art comes in many forms and can have a profound impact on our lives. It can also be a treat for the reader’s imagination when it takes center stage in a story. This never happens by coincidence, though. When art appears in fiction, it always has a purpose and therefore resonates with characters and readers alike.

Let’s call art our canvas for today’s edition of Theme: A Story’s Soul. Using novels from two different genres, we’ll gain a better understanding of art as a literary theme and learn how we can explore it in our own work. See what similarities you can find as you read the examples below.

Examples of Art as a Theme in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (Philosophical / Gothic Fiction)

Picture of Dorian Gray coverIn The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian adopts the worldview that beauty and pleasure are all that’s worth pursuing, and wishes that a portrait of himself will age in his stead. He then pursues a life of hedonism and watches as the portrait corrupts itself to reflect his sins. The portrait, however, isn’t the novel’s only instance of art. In fact, the concept of art’s beauty and purpose is discussed throughout the story.

In Chapter One, the painter Basil Hallward talks at length about his craft. As he explains, “‘[E]very portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the colored canvas, reveals himself.’” (7) In other words, Basil sees his work as a reflection of himself and the things he deems beautiful. It’s so personal that he even hesitates to show his portrait of Dorian in public (“‘My heart shall never be put under their microscope’” (13). The idea of art as an extension of the self – and the paralyzing fear of having one’s work critiqued – is all too familiar to us as writers.

Other characters express different opinions about art. Dorian, for example, finds art very moving. He recalls a visceral reaction he once had to music (21), and becomes upset when Basil threatens to throw out his portrait (“‘Don’t Basil, don’t! It would be murder!’”) (30).

Lord Henry Wotton, however, seems emotionally detached from art. He states on several occasions that art is meant only for publicity. He also says at one point, “‘Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile.’” (224) Here, Lord Henry implies that art is merely a beautiful object, and that it isn’t supposed to arouse feeling or compel us to react – a sentiment that not everyone, especially Dorian, shares.

Examples of Art as a Theme in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone (YA Fantasy)

daughter-smoke-bone-coverDaughter of Smoke and Bone introduces readers to Karou, a blue-haired young woman who was raised by chimaera and has no memory of her origins. When she meets the angel Akiva, she can’t help but fall in love. Nor can she fathom the secrets that he’ll help her unearth about her past. Despite the chaos and turmoil, art remains a central part of Karou’s story.

An art student in Prague, Karou is well-known at school for her drawings of fantastical creatures (a.k.a. her chimaera friends). Her peers are constantly marveling at her “gorgeously rendered and deeply strange” sketches (8). Likewise, the chimaera are enamored by Karou’s craft, but for other reasons: “They liked to see the normal things: tourists huddled under umbrellas, chickens on balconies, children playing in the park.” (34) Just as Karou’s fellow students admire her imagination (or what they believe is fantasy), the chimaera appreciate seeing a reality that’s unfamiliar to them through her work.

Other art forms appear throughout Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Zuzana, who is Karou’s best friend and a puppeteer-in-training, enjoys all styles of performance art. In one scene, she puts on a “dance-and-puppet” show with her violinist boyfriend for a crowd of tourists (180 – 181). Karou’s mentor Brimstone, on the other hand, is a resurrectionist. He creates necklaces of gems and animal and human teeth, then draws magic from them to conjure new bodies for the souls of dead chimaera – a trade described as both beautiful and terrible (332). Between all three examples – drawing, performance, and “jewelry-making” – readers see that art can have myriad purposes, inspirations, and impact on the audience and the creator.

Keys to Exploring Art as a Literary Theme

As you can see, art plays an integral role in both The Picture of Dorian Gray and Daughter of Smoke and Bone. No wonder it sneaks in as a literary theme. Here are some of the ways in which it’s explored:

  • Significant Characters and Objects: Both books feature artists as protagonists and/or supporting characters and specific works of art (Dorian’s portrait, Karou’s sketchbook) as important objects to the plot.
  • Different Types of Art: Like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The Picture of Dorian Gray highlights multiple styles of art, including painting, poetry, and theater. This allows art to become a prevalent force in the characters’ lives and the story world.
  • Inspiration and Creative Expression: Allowing artistic characters to discuss their work – from sources of inspiration to the creative process itself – can shed light on one’s need or motivations for creating. This can be done through dialogue (Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray) or narrative (Karou in Daughter of Smoke and Bone).
  • Reactions and Emotions: Characters in both novels show a wide range of reactions to art. The type of emotions expressed can offer insight into one character’s views on art as well as the various purposes art can serve.
  • Contrasting Opinions: Remember the drastic differences between Lord Henry Wotton’s and Dorian Gray’s reactions to art? Showing dissimilar opinions can emphasize the fact that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

In both stories, art is important because it matters to the protagonist. For Dorian, his portrait serves as the plot catalyst and the beginning of his downfall. For Karou, her drawing skills are one of her few remaining constants after everything changes. Your own stories on art should also show that art is deeply embedded in the character’s life. That way, it arises naturally as a theme while dazzling your readers with talented, unique characters and increasing their appreciation for creativity.

It’s Your Turn!

  • What stories have you read that explore art as a literary theme? How does the author accomplish this?
  • Have you written a story that involves an artistic character(s)? What is his / her chosen craft? What inspires him / her to create? How are those creations significant to the story? If you haven’t written such a story before, try it and see what happens.
  • Do you draw, sing, paint, or engage in other art forms besides writing? What inspires you to dabble in these areas?

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.

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Sara 2015Sara Letourneau is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she’s revising a YA fantasy novel and reviewing tea for A Bibliophile’s Reverie. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

  • That’s a really interesting distinction to make. I can’t remember any books in recent memory that I’ve picked up that have had art as a significant piece of the plot puzzle, but I do have students that have shared in class some books they’ve read in Japanese. One book featured the true story of a stolen painting, and the fictional account of how it was lost and then found (it was actually found before the book was published.) One of my students actually went on a literary book tour (self-made) in France to visit all the places listed in the book.

    Art definitely elevates things to a new and interesting level! (I suppose Pitch Perfect is a good example of using new mediums to tell a story, since the movie was based on a book. 🙂 )

    • Sara Letourneau

      It does, doesn’t it? As someone who appreciates different kinds of art (music, poetry, visual arts), it’s a treat to see creativity like this pop up in a novel and then see what kinds of thematic statements pop up about it. And I agree, not many books discuss art or feature artistic characters. Maybe that means we’ll have to write some, Alex. 😉

      I love your examples from your students, btw. Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

  • I haven’t thought of art as a theme. I suppose in Ballet Shoes the theme is art since it focuses on acting and ballet. I like to play the piano, draw, and paint digitally. I often find it helps improve my writing. 🙂

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    • Sara Letourneau

      Yeah, it’s not an obvious or common theme, but if you read closely enough you’ll find that books that discuss art are definitely making statements about the subject. 😉

      You do a great job with your character expressions! I always like seeing those. As for me, I used to take dance lessons when I was a teenager, and I’ve always loved music (though I don’t know how to play any instruments and I’m not a good singer). I’ve also taken up adult coloring books as a hobby… which isn’t really creating something new, but it’s neat to choose the colors you want to use and see how the picture comes out. It’s very calming, too.

      Thanks for commenting, Tori! 😀

      • I will definitely be looking out for it now.

        Aw thank you. ^ ^ That’s cool that you took dance. I did briefly but it’s not my thing lol. I’m glad you enjoy it. I’ve just recently saw adult coloring books in 2nd and Charles. They look cool.^ ^

  • I should give more thought to art as a theme. I do have a few artistic characters, and I’ve come across some books with them as well, I just didn’t think about it being a theme in the stories. I will have to give more thought to this, and be on the lookout for it as I read. 🙂

    • Sara Letourneau

      That’s great, E.! What kind of art do your characters create, if you don’t mind me asking?

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