A queer theory reading of Oscar Wilde’s: A Picture of Dorian Gray | English Literature Dissertation
Aestheticism dictates that life should be lived by an ideal of beauty and a movement embodied by the phrase of ‘art for art’s sake.’ There is perhaps no greater advocate of such beliefs as Oscar Wilde, and the characteristics of aestheticism run through much of his work, both plays and stories, particularly in the character of the dandy. It would be difficult to analyse any of Wilde’s work without considering his own personal life and consequently, almost impossible to analyse his use of aesthetics without tackling the elements of homoeroticism.
Living in a society largely intolerant to homosexuality, Wilde was obviously restricted to some extent with regard to what he could writeabout explicitly and as a result secrecy becomes an important influence over Wilde’s work. This makes for an extremely interesting relationship between aestheticism and homoeroticism, and it is this relationship that will form the main focus of this essay. What are the forms and techniques that Wilde uses to aestheticise homosexuality, and why? And how by doing this his literary works reveal aspects of his own life and sexuality, ultimately creating ‘the figure of Wilde the aesthete, dandy, and campy witticist’ who has become a public icon forhomosexual men in Britain and America.’ It will focus primarily on The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Happy Prince and Other Stories.
‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H’ portrays Shakespeare as being a slave to beauty – ‘that is the condition of the artist!’ This concept of theartist as worshipper of beauty is a recurring characteristic of Wilde’s literature and will be dealt with later in this chapter. Firstly, itis necessary to look at the ideal of beauty that Wilde presents as worthy of worship.
There is an overwhelming resemblance between Wilde’s portrayal ofbeauty and the concept of beauty in the Greek era. As Summers observesin his book Gay Fictions: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition, both The Portrait of Dorian Gray and ‘The Portrait of Mr.W.H’ focus heavily on portraits of androgynous young men – ‘bothstories allude to famous homosexual artists and lovers in history andthey both assume a significant connection between homosexual Eros andart.’ Same-sex desire is referenced heavily throughout Greek literature, for example, during the sixth century, the poet Sappho wrote numerous homoerotic verses concerning young women, with the term ‘lesbian’ derived from the name of her island home of Lesbos. Platoalso referred to same-sex desires and relations, even forming his own theory on the pre-determined nature of different sexualities. In words taken from ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H,’ the ideal of beauty is ‘a beauty that seemed to combine the charm of both sexes, and to have wedded, as the Sonnets tell us, the grace of Adonis and the loveliness ofHelen.’ Wilde uses this Greek ideal of beauty as a means of adding authority to his allusions to homoeroticism, to make the content of the two aforementioned works more acceptable to a Victorian audience. Itis important to note that there is a marked difference of public attitude towards homosexuality and homoeroticism between Greek and Victorian society. Donald Hall observes that during the Greek eraadult male sexuality, ‘had much more to do with power status and social positioning than it did with any expression of identity-determining desire for the same or other sex.’
Wilde’s ideal of beauty also overlaps with the Greek concept of the muse. The Portrait of Dorian Gray presents us with Dorian, the muse topainter Basil Hallward, and ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H’ provides us withan insight into the life of one of the most famous muses of all, the young man who Shakespeare addressed many of his sonnets to – ‘Who was he whose physical beauty was such that it became the very corner-stone of Shakespeare’s art; the very source of Shakespeare’s inspiration; the very incarnation of Shakespeare’s dreams.’ The muse, defined as asource of inspiration especially for a creative artist succeeds in objectifying the subject, transforming a human presence into aesthetic fodder to fuel the creative mind, as well as something far superior tothe person beholding the muse. With regard to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Summers suggests that, ‘the implied link between homosexual Erosand creativity is clear in Dorian’s effect on Basil’s art. Dorian’s beauty and the ideal that he represents cause Basil to see the world afresh and inspire him to his greatest work as an artist.’
This is where the idea of worshipping beauty comes into play. ‘TheHappy Prince,’ for example, is distinctly removed from everyday lifeand is admired from afar in a quite literal sense. However, Dorian isperhaps the best illustration of Wilde’s fascination with the worshipof beauty. The novel suggests that to other young men Dorian ‘seemedto be of the company of those whom Dante describes as having sought to“make themselves perfect by the worship of beauty.” Like Gautier, hewas one for whom ‘the visible world existed.’ At the same time,Dorian is presented to us as the worshipped, with regard to hisrelationship with Basil Hallward.
The experience of the muse in the manner of Basil and Shakespeare (asportrayed by Wilde) seems to present something of a double-edged sword,producing feelings of such passion that joy and despair becomeintertwined. The narrator of ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H’ suggests thatShakespeare’s muse was ‘a particular young man whose personality forsome reason seems to have filled the soul of Shakespeare with terriblejoy and no less terrible despair.’ In a similar vein, Basil hasominous feelings on meeting Dorian for the first time, ‘I knew that Ihad come face to face with someone whose mere personality was sofascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my wholenature, my whole soul, my very art itself.’ The effect of beauty canbe seen as both gift and curse – in the same way that Wilde perhapsregarded homosexuality in Victorian society.
The importance that Wilde places on the worship of beauty is closelyrelated to his strong beliefs in aestheticism. The distance that Wildeseeks to construct between the observer and the object of beauty can beread as a mechanism of aestheticism whereby he aims to eliminate anyattachment to moral and wider societal concerns. The following chapterwill analyse the relation of aesthetics to Wilde’s literary works, andhow far he is able to separate the appreciation of art from moralvalues.
Mary Blanchard, in Oscar Wilde’s America suggests that ‘the personaof the invert or male homosexual was an emerging concept during the1880s, and the connections between aesthetic style and a homosexualsubculture cannot be overlooked.’ And with other critics referring toWilde as the ‘high priest of aestheticism,’ it’s clear that Oscar is noexception to this rule. He lived a hedonistic lifestyle, flitting as asocial butterfly from one experience of art and beauty to the next. InVictorian times the male dandy soon became a symbol of this aestheticage, with no finer literary examples than Dorian and Lord Henry of ThePortrait of Dorian Gray, and Algernon and Jack of The Importance ofBeing Earnest. Lord Henry declares that ‘pleasure is the only thingworth having a theory about’ and it is this preoccupation withmaterial things and surface-level emotions that characterises thedandy, a choice of style over substance. As a result Dorian becomesfascinated with acquiring commodities such as perfumes, jewels andmusic. Wilde dedicates pages of description to this ‘search forsensations that would be at once new and possess that element ofstrangeness that is so essential to romance.’
The concept of dandyism is closely linked to that of Victoriandecadence. Goldfarb, in his essay on ‘Late Victorian Decadence’provides us with a useful definition of decadence, highlighting itsresemblance to aestheticism – ‘the value to be gained from experienceof all sorts and from indulgence in a life of sensation. Because ofthis emphasis, decadent literature is animated by the exploration ofimmoral and evil experiences; never does it preach morality, nor doesit strongly insist upon ethical responsibilities.’ This separationbetween decadence and morality is also a characteristic common toaestheticism.
Glick studies the concepts of dandyism at length in her essay on’The Dialectics of Dandyism,’ identifying an opposition betweencritical thought on dandyism and arguing that two different models’locate dandyism at the opposite poles of modernity, simultaneouslypositioning the queer subject as a privileged emblem of the modern andas a dissident in revolt against society.’ Therefore, on the one handthe reader can accept the dandy as person who embraces the aestheticsof culture and celebrates beauty – ‘as a preoccupation with surfacetrends to conceive of gay identity solely or primarily in terms ofartifice, aesthetics, commodity fetishism and style.’ Or, beneath thesurface, we can read a protest against the commodification of modernlife and a rejection of common values and aspirations. Goldfarb note asimilar contempt for modern society in the movement of decadence, ‘aself-conscious contempt for social conventions such as truth andmarriage, by an acceptance of Beauty as a basis for life.’ Bothaestheticism and decadence seek to remove beauty from the confines ofmodern society and use it to their own ends in a self-created sensualand fantastical lifestyle.
Wilde’s use of aestheticism can be read as an attempt to showhomosexuality as a sign of refined culture, as a means to his desiredend where such a topic becomes more acceptable. In the same way thatWilde alludes to the Greek ideal of beauty to disguise what couldotherwise be seen as a direct and possibly offensive portrayal ofhomosexual desire, by adhering to the rules of aestheticism Wilde isable to divert attention from any moral attack on his writing. Themovement of aestheticism shuns any notion that art can be connectedwith morality and passionately encourages individual freedom and socialtheatricality. Ironically, whilst it can largely be seen as arebellion against Victorian sensibilities, it is simultaneously amethod of retaining a covert nature to the expression of homoeroticdesire. In the case of Basil Hallward, he finds art an outlet for suchdesires, ‘there is nothing that Art cannot express.’ Through Dorian,Basil is able to discover a ‘new manner in art, an entirely new mode ofstyle’ not just when he is painting Dorian, but when he is merelypresent. It allows him a new way of looking at life, having realisedthe power of homoeroticism
In presenting homosexuality through the lens of aestheticism andconsequently presenting it as a refined culture with close links to theidealised and romantic image of the Greek age, Wilde also separates thelifestyle of the homosexual man from the classes of heterosexualsociety. As Elisa Glick suggests in her essay on the dialectics ofdandyism, ‘Wilde depicts Dorian’s seemingly endless appetite forexotic, luxury objects as the exterior manifestation of his innerintellectual and artistic superiority.’ This presents Dorian’sdesires and those of other aetheticism advocates as elitist andultimately superior to other classes. Through the use of aestheticism,it can be argued that Wilde attempts to give homoeroticism the power totranscend class. By describing such episodes in this romantic andfantastical manner, he places homosexuality in a highly refined classof its own, in a position out of reach from the realities of theworking class and bourgeoisie.
To take this concept one step further, Wilde can also be seen toreject the realities of common society entirely, as an aesthetepreferring to lose himself in sensual experiences and ultimatelydreaming of an escape from reality to a place where such experience canbe fully realised. Glick goes on to note that ‘Dorian’s acquisition ofluxuries and curios not only seems to affirm his “aristocratic”distinction, but also aims to build a self-created world byaestheticizing experience itself. Gray yearns not so much for theenjoyment provided by an individual object, but for the aestheticpleasure provided by its reincarnation of part of his collection.’Indeed, Dorian does become obsessed with creating his own desiredversion of reality, in which worshipping beauty and living by thesenses is the priority. Having embarked on this aesthetic journey-largely instigated by Lord Henry –Dorian’s passion to adhere to theseideals becomes clear, ‘It was the creation of such worlds as these thatseemed to Dorian Gray to be the true object, or amongst the trueobjects of life.’ Early in the novel Wilde even goes so far as toassociate reality directly with the lower classes and as therefore,something ranked below the aspirations and lifestyle of those likeDorian; in this extract no sooner is Dorian overcome by fascinationwith Lord Henry than he is brought down to earth by the entrance of aservant:
‘Dorian Gray never took his gaze off him, but sat like one under aspell, smiles chasing each other over his lips, and wonder growinggrave in his darkening eyes.
At last, liveried in the costume of the age, Reality entered the roomin the shape of a servant to tell the Duchess that her carriage waswaiting.’
By personifying ‘Reality’ Wilde presents it as something that can bedefeated, beaten by those who have enough desire and strength of mindto do so. In the same way Wilde often capitalises and personifies’Art’ to add character to the subject and emphasise his position onthat subject.
Although in one respect this separation of the dandy or aesthetefrom reality may seem to alienate him from others in society, thecontent of Wilde’s narration does not necessarily isolate him from amoral standpoint. It is interesting to note that we are given verylittle information on the uglier types of experience that Dorianseeks. As readers, we understand the influences and transition thatthe protagonist is going through as his soul darkens, but we are noteducated in the exact nature of the experiences. This allows lessopportunity for concentrating on the moral aspects of his lifestylechoices, and more opportunity for pondering on the nature ofaestheticism; we focus more on the influences on Dorian and theconsequences, rather than on judging his actions and decisions. Whenone delves deeper to find a moral standpoint on Wilde’s part, it isdifficult to do so, and consequently, easier to assume that the absenceof analysis in this area suggests ambiguity on his part.
Summer seeks to find an answer to this moral ambiguity in the worldof Oscar Wilde himself, and in relation to The Portrait of Dorian Grayfound that ‘Wilde summarised the moral as “all excess, as well as allrenunciation, brings its own punishment. The painter, Basil Hallward,worshipping physical beauty far too much, as most painters do, dies bythe hand of one in whose soul he has created a monstrous and absurdvanity. Dorian Gray, having led a life of mere sensation and pleasure,tries to kill conscience, and at that moment kills himself.’ Thiscomment of Wilde’s confirms the notion that becoming a slave to beautyis a condition of art, illustrated by the tone of the inevitable thataccompanies the phrase ‘as most painters do,’ an observation that wecan easily transfer to the experience of other artists as well. Wildegoes on to explain that ‘Lord Henry Wotton seeks to be merely thespectator of life. He finds that those who reject the battle are moredeeply wounded than those who take part in it. In this respect bothBasil and Henry are ultimately doomed, thus suggesting no clear moralpath that the reader need follow for salvation. Moral ambivalenceoccurs frequently as a result of the narrator’s attitude; the narratoris sympathetic towards whichever character he is describing, and inparticular, often seems just as seduced by the strong and influentialcharacter of Lord Henry as Dorian is. With this in mind, Summersconcludes that ‘notwithstanding the retributive ending of the book, theFaustian dream of an escape from human limitation and moral stricturesultimately triumphs over the condemnation of excess and therebysubverts the apparent moralism.’ To summarise, he argues that ‘theFaustian dream is rendered more appealingly than the superimposedlesson of dangers of narcissism.’ However, if we accept Summersreading, it still remains impossible to read the novel withoutquestioning the relationship between aestheticism and morality.Whether we believe Wilde to subvert or strengthen common moral values,their presence within the narration is undeniable and invites furtherthought from the reader.
To conclude this chapter on aestheticism, we can see that Wilde’sliterature aestheticism and homosexuality exist co dependently. Thisobviously has an effect on the public’s reading of his works, and howreadily and comfortably they associate these two aspects. As Summerssuggests it is interesting to note that The Picture of Dorian Gray was’among the first novels in the language to feature (though blurred andinexactly) a homosexual subculture’ Summers wrote that ‘homosexualreaders would certainly have responded to the book’s undercurrent ofgay feeling, and may have found the very name “Dorian” suggestive ofGreek homosexuality, since it was Dorian tribesmen who allegedlyintroduced homosexuality into Greece as part of their militaryregimen.’ In contrast, Mary Blanchard notes a negative consequenceconcerning heterosexual readers during the Victorian era – ‘Allyingaesthetic style with the masculine self provoked attacks from someVictorian men unsure of their own gender orientation.’ This raisesthe issue of how a heterosexual readership can be seen to react to theundertone of homosexuality, and how a reader’s interpretation canchange when fuelled by more knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s personal life.Before looking at the effect of the writer on what is ultimately afictional narrator, this essay will look at the importance of secrecyin the life of the homosexual man.
Today’s society is obviously more accepting of Wilde’s sexuality andits effect on his art, Summers illustrates this point by suggestingthat Wilde’s demise meant that he ultimately functioned as Saint Oscar,the homosexual martyr.’ But of course it was not until some timeafter the late nineteenth century that Wilde was fully appreciated by awider audience. Miller and Adams in Sexualities in Victorian Britainobserve that ‘the Victorians were notorious as the great enemies ofsexuality: indeed in Freud’s representative account, sexualitysometimes seems to be whatever it was that the middle-class Victorianmind attempted to hide, evade, repress, deny.’ In this respect thehomosexual man had a double secrecy to adhere to – that of sexuality,as well as homosexuality. In Victorian society there was very much aclear-cut idea of what was natural and unnatural, of what was normaland abnormal. Consequently, Wilde set himself up as a figure to beattacked by the press as unnatural and abnormal – ‘the Victorian presspublicized in wildly inflammatory ways Wilde’s eccentric dress,effeminate, and haughty demeanour, all held up as important signifiersof his unnatural sexuality and the threat he posed to “normal,”middle-class values.’ Being such an extravagant and extrovertedcharacter, Wilde’s sexuality was not particularly covert and eventuallyprovided Victorian society with a case by which to lay down the law asto what was acceptable in terms of sexuality. As Ed Cohen suggests inhis essay, ‘Writing Gone Wild: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet ofRepresentation,’ ‘the court proceedings against Wilde provided aperfect opportunity to define publicly the authorized and legal limitswithin which a man could “naturally” enjoy the pleasures of his bodywith another man.’
Despite the fact that it was Wilde’s indiscrete homosexual behaviourand demeanour that led to his downfall, aspects of secrecy featureheavily in his literary works and certain narrative techniques aid tothe covert nature in which homoeroticism is often presented. To recap,by relating same-sex friendships to aestheticism and ideals of beauty,Wilde is able to divert attention from aspects of homosexuality thatwould be otherwise be interpreted as immoral by Victorian society.Also, Wilde omits any direct reference or description of same-sexphysical relations and hardly even alludes to such activities. Thecontent of the narration and emphasis on aestheticism means that ahomoerotic reading of Dorian Gray is not immediately obvious – at leastnot to a heterosexual readership. Therefore, homosexual love becomesthe love that cannot be spoken of and is fundamentally secretive.
The secret language of homosexuality is particularly evident in TheImportance of Being Earnest, a play riddled with code words alluding tohomosexual behaviour. Karl Beckson ‘argues that the title of the playis not only a pun on the name of Earnest, but is also a representationof same-sex love since the term Urning (a variant of the more commonlyused Uranian) referred to same-sex desire in fin-de-siecle London.’Beckson also argues that Wilde’s use of the term ‘bunburying’ as ameans for Algernon to escape responsibility also has Uranianimplications. With the action of bunburying being such a focal pointof The Importance of Being Earnest, this reading of the play suggest aserious preoccupation with the secret world of the homosexual. It isalso interesting to note that ‘an unnamed critic in Time suggests that“Bunburying was shorthand for a visit to a fashionable London malewhorehouse” (2 February 1979, 73), an opinion reaffirmed by JoelFineman in 1980.’ Understandably, after the success of play thephrase ‘bunburying’ became a commonly used term as same-sex slang.John Franceschina notes other code words used in the play as ‘musical,effeminate, and aunty, all of them Victorian expressions for same-sexactivity.’ Yet, again Wilde diverts attention from a moral reading bywriting in a style that is based on farce and euphemism, a style thatrejects an immediate analytical reading.
In her essay ‘Dialectics of Dandyism,’ Elisa Glick observes theissue of secrecy within both modern and Victorian society and suggeststhat ‘modern gay identity is pervaded by the trope of the secret.’She pays particular interest to the dichotomy of appearance and whatlies beneath, in her words ‘the opposition between outward appearanceand inner essence.’ This split between appearance and essence of aperson’s character and desires is central to Wilde’s portrayal ofhomosexuality, as illustrated by the character of Dorian Gray. Dorianis a contradiction of appearance and essence, with the portrait beingan omnipresent reminder of this. And to return to The Importance ofBeing Earnest, the very act of bunburying on Algernon Moncrieff’s partsuggests a web of deceit where appearances are never compatible withreality.
One might think that such a heavy reliance on secrecy might lead tosome resentment by those forced to hide their sexuality from anintolerant society, but in the case of Wilde’s dandies, this does notseem to be the case. In fact, such characters appear to activelyembrace a world of secrecy. If we equate Dorian’s portrait withhomosexuality, then we can read his response to the secrecy that isforced upon him as something of a guilty pleasure – ‘pride ofindividualism that is half fascination of sin, and smiling with secretpleasure at the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden thatshould have been his own.’ This seems to suggest that throughsecrecy, a homosexual man can avoid all the negative consequences thatwould be thrust upon him by an offended Victorian society. Glickobserves that it the portrait is not just related to the secret worldof Dorian, but that it also functions on a wider scale, ‘Wilde makes itclear that the portrait does not exhibit a single secret; rather it isthe site for a circulation of secrecy in which all these characters –Basil, Dorian, and Lord Henry – are implicated.’ The portraittherefore, becomes a symbol of the secrecy of the homosexual man, whichis simultaneously associated with issues of aestheticism. Glick goeson to suggest that Basil ‘expresses the sense of homosexuality as bothknown and unknowable – the double bind of gay identity – when hedeclares, “I have come to love secrecy. It seems to be the one thingthat can make modern life mysterious or marvellous to us. Thecommonest thing is delightful if only one hides it.
But just how realistically can homosexuality exist by these secretcodes of conduct? Just as Wilde suffers at the hands of an intolerantsociety, so does Dorian Gray struggle to live a life of doubleidentity. By the end of the novel it becomes clear that he issuspended between two worlds, with no lasting way of marrying the two.To return to the essay of Elisa Glick, ‘Dorian must die when he stabsthe portrait because he can only exist in the relation between thepublic and the private, a relation that Wilde literalizes in theportrait and its subject.’ Right from the outset of The Picture ofDorian Gray we are presented with the concept of that part of anartist’s inspiration that remains secret and personal to them.Therefore, the portrait of Dorian Gray does not merely conceal thesecrets of Dorian, but also the secrets of the painter of the subject -‘the portrait is a “mysterious form” because its outward appearanceconceals its inner essence.’ – it reveals the essence of both painterand painted. The secret desire hidden within the painting is broughtto our attention by Henry’s shallow comment that the painting looksnothing like Basil; the fact that his retort misses the point entirelymerely succeeds in enhancing our understanding that there is much moreof Basil’s desires and passion in the painting than is immediatelyobvious from its surface attributes. Interestingly, this revelationcontradicts the concept of appreciating art purely for its appearanceand with no relation to moral values. In many cases living by thesenses reveals much about the person, and experiences cannot be soeasily detached from emotion and personal feeling. For example, whenDorian falls in love with Sibyl Vane, Henry observes that ‘out of itssecret hiding place had crept his Soul, and Desire had come to meet iton the way.’ Within the stereotypical lifestyles of the aesthetes,inner feeling will inevitably show its face and with it, bring at leasta fleeting ponder on moral values.
Having analysed The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture ofDorian Gray with regard to elements of secrecy, both positive andnegative consequences of such an influence on homosexual lifestyle areapparent. But it is the story of ‘The Happy Prince’ that puts Wilde’sfinal and definitive seal of opinion on the issue of secrecy. Once theswallow has sacrificed his life for the statue of the Prince, the twoTown Councillors far from understand the relationship between theswallow and prince, becoming preoccupied with the trivial matter of whoshould be the subject of the next statue. However, there is ultimatelya happy ending with the swallow and Prince receiving recognition andacceptance from God, ‘for in my garden of Paradise this little birdshall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shallpraise me.’ The relationship between Prince and Swallow does havehomoerotic undertones, with the Swallow often read as the dandycharacter, in this case fascinated by the beauty of the statue. Thehomoerotic aspect of the tale culminates in a kiss between the two,’but you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you.’ If we are toaccept a homoerotic reading of ‘The Happy Prince’ then accordingly wecan read the ending as Wilde voicing his opinion of homosexuality asnatural and literally giving such a lifestyle the blessing of God. InThe Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wilde uses a similar technique whereby hepresents the character who can most easily be classified as homosexual,as the very character who is the most morally sensitive.
However, a homoerotic reading of ‘The Happy Prince,’ indeed of anyof Wilde’s literary works, relies on and is substantially influenced byour knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s personal life. This brings us to thefinal chapter of this dissertation, a chapter that will analyse therelationship between the writer and the narrator, and the effect ofthis relationship on aesthetic and homoerotic readings of Wilde’sfiction.
Chapter 5 -Wilde the storyteller
So far we have looked mainly at The Importance of Being Earnest andThe Picture of Dorian Gray and we have touched upon the fact that it isoften difficult to read such works without considering the personallife of Oscar Wilde. A Victorian audience would have held someknowledge of Wilde, considering that he was an extremely sociablecharacter with social critiques often published in Reviews of thetime. And of course, his two year’s imprisonment would have beenwidely publicised and consequently common knowledge. There is no doubtthat it was around this time that heterosexual readers would havestruggled to accept the links that Wilde makes between aestheticism andhomosexuality, fearing a similar fate merely for sharing thecharacteristics of aestheticism. Reading in the twenty-first centurywe now have the privilege of even further information on Wilde’sprivate life.
The nineteenth century novel largely focused on the third person,omnipresent narrator, and in doing so inevitably drew attention to thepersona of the narrator and subsequently to the author himself. Wildeis no exception to this rule and it is difficult not to see his owncharacter – or what we believe to be his own character – shinethrough. As suggested in the previous chapter, it is not just thecondition of the artist to worship beauty, but also to allow his owncharacter and desires to become a part of his art. In the case of ThePortrait of Dorian Gray, our knowledge of Wilde as a dandy and aesthetecolours our interpretation of characters such as Lord Henry andDorian. Knowing what we do about Wilde’s extravagant social life andturbulent relationship with the press, lines such as ‘You don’t wantpeople to talk of you as something vile and degraded’ spoken to Dorianby Basil, begin to take on more significant meaning. With this quotein mind, it is possible to read between the lines and observe a feelingin Wilde that he wishes somehow, outside of his literature not to belooked upon as ‘vile and degraded.’ This desire for acceptance isoffset by the more typical tongue in cheek wit of Wilde, the use ofwhich diverts attention from serious emotions. This type of humour canbe seen in Dorian’s retort to Basil on hearing gossip, ‘I love scandalsabout other people, but scandals about myself don’t interest me. Theyhave not got the charm of novelty.’ It seems that Wilde isdeliberately poking fun at himself and joining in with the popularridicule that was present in Victorian society about the life of theaesthetic gentleman. Many cartoons and caricatures were in circulationat the time that sought to make fun of the extravagances of theaesthetic lifestyle. Numerous satirical works were also released,worth particular mention is Robert Hitchens Green Carnation, asatirical novel on decadence influenced by the author’s beliefs inaestheticism as unconventional and exhibitionist. The Importance ofBeing Earnest also has a farcical tone throughout, which often servesto allow the reader to question Wilde’s authority, whilst also allyingthe comments of certain characters with Oscar himself. For example, aline of Gwendolen appears to point directly at Wilde’s personal life,’And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties hebecomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that. Itmakes men so very attractive.’
However, many critics would argue that the very definition of fictiondictates that the reader should accept that there need not necessarilybe a connection between narrator and author. In the same way that anactor does not need to have experienced a similar history and lifestyleto the character they play, so too should we allow the writer to assumedifferent characters. This very point crops up in the story of ‘ThePortrait of Mr W.H whereby the narrator argues that ‘To say that only awoman can portray the passions of a woman, and that therefore no boycan play Rosalind, is to rob the art of acting of all claim toobjectivity.’ Indeed, this type of reading does take some of thepressure away from Wilde and means that he can be judged as an authorless readily. Having said this, in reality this is an extremely thinveil of protection. And in the writing of ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H’even seems to invite a reading based on his own life. For example, heuses a first person narrator and a style that can easily be mistakenfor a factual piece of writing concerning validated research. Wildeclearly walks a fine line between fact and fiction, keeping the focuson fiction just enough to allow him to present his work as fiction, andrely on the cover of other narrative techniques such as the beliefs ofaestheticism. Wilde toys with his audience and seems to delight inkeeping them guessing as to where the line between fact and fiction isdrawn. This can be linked back to the issue of secrecy withinhomosexual culture and the pleasure that can be gained from suchsecrecy.
The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and ‘ThePortrait of Mr W.H’ all feature aspects of the male dandy and overlapwith what we know to be Wilde’s lifestyle. But when it comes to othertales in The Happy Prince and other stories, they are much furtherremoved from Wilde’s reality and experience, located in fairy talesettings and seem to offer the content of a fable. Written in such adifferent style to the works already discussed, where can theseremaining tales be positioned in relation to Wilde’s stance onaestheticism and lifestyle as a homosexual man, and does the fact thatWilde has adopted a fairy tale style mean that there is more separationbetween narrator and author?
The Happy Prince and other stories do have elements of Wilde’s wideropinions and ideas on aestheticism, and in some instances, undertonesof homoeroticism. However, before considering the stories in relationto these issues, it is important to draw attention to Wilde’s intendedreadership/audience. Having married Constance Lloyd, Wilde was thefather of two and there is no doubt that consequently assuming thisrole influenced the content and style of these particular works.Although his two sons were still very young when he wrote The HappyPrince and other stories, he would ultimately have had them in mind ashis desired audience. As Owen Dudley Edwards comments: ‘This is not tosay that the stories were first told to his two sons, though simpleversions of them may have been…But they were written with the intentionof telling them to his sons. They are stories from an unselfconsciousfather who knows how to move the storyteller in and out of thenarrative with mild self-mockery, as opposed to some assertive malechauvinist brute thundering his own dignity and morality for theedification of his wretched offspring.’
‘The Happy Prince,’ ‘The Selfish Giant’ and other tales in thecollection all have characteristics of the fairy tale, as well as thebible story and epic tradition. Wilde’s target audience wouldobviously have influenced his apparent adherence to Victorian moralvalues and religious beliefs. With a folklorist for a mother and aneducation in the classics, Wilde’s storytelling influences can clearlybe traced back to his upbringing. Owen Dudley Edwards suggests thatWilde’s stories ‘in almost all cases travel back to a Celtic folk-worlddominated by ghosts and God. The presence of God in The Selfish Giant’for example, focuses on a religious message of humanity and the afterlife, and as a result it allows for a clear-cut moral, something thatWilde’s other works shy away from. There is less ambiguity concerningthe conclusions we come to at the end of these tales.
It can perhaps be argued that these stories are an outlet forWilde’s desire to be accepted by Victorian society. Influenced by hischildren – an aspect of his heterosexual life – they appear to be thetype of sugary tale that would be embraced by a society obsessed by thedistinction between right and wrong, normal and abnormal. Although,there are still moments of typical ‘tongue in cheek’ Wilde humour, themorals of the stories fundamentally serve those of the Victorian ideal.
Animosity toward Wilde during the late nineteenth century came aboutlargely as a reaction toward perceived immoral aspects of his work.However the very nature of aestheticism invites a reading entirelyunrelated to moral values. As Lord Henry Wotton suggests at the veryend The Picture of Dorian Gray ‘As for being poisoned by a book, thereis no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. Itannihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books thatthe world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.That is all.’
It seems that while Wilde would ideally like the rest of society toread his works as ‘art for art’s sake,’ the reality of it all is thatresponsibility cannot be transferred quite so easily. Art isinescapably linked with the character and inner feelings with theartist and will be read accordingly by the reader. Both Dorian andBasil realise this, and in this respect we can perhaps see evidencethat Wilde himself was dubious as to just how far he could separatehimself from his art – Dorian begins to experience a similarrelationship with Art, ‘Appreciate it? I am in love with it, Basil. Itis part of myself. I feel that.’ Dorian soon comes to realise thatthe painting is a part of him, and does not merely objectify him, nordoes it exist independently from himself and Basil. No sooner has itbeen created than it is a part of their lives, of their experiences andfeelings. Toibin highlights this as problem concerning all of Wilde’sliterary works, particularly his plays – ‘is that they are forced tocompete with the drama of his own lost years.’ Numerous biographieshave been published on Wilde, even films documenting his life. Havingbecome a part of popular culture today, most people know something ofWilde’s history, particularly his tumultuous relationship with AlfredDouglas. It is impossible to approach Wilde’s fiction with fresh eyesand no prior conceptions of what we suppose will be references to hisown lifestyle.
Throughout the chapters of this dissertation, it has become clearthat art cannot exist purely for art’s sake; a host of other factorsand influences come into play during the observer’s appreciation of theart. Wilde’s art cannot be experienced as ‘art for art’s sake, it isart to make a point, as a vehicle for Wilde to express his own opinionsand feelings. Just as the picture of Dorian Gray proves what sin cando to a man, so the novel raises its own issues and aims to make itsown point, as ambiguous as this may be – ‘The sitter is merely theaccident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter, itis rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.’Recognising this, Wilde calls upon numerous narrative techniques todraw attention away from aspects of his own personal lifestyle. Thesetechniques include referencing the accepted ideal of beauty from theGreek era, injecting an element of farce in order to invite a questionin the authority of the narrator, and referencing beliefs inaestheticism. Well-known in the late nineteenth century for his socialcritique and outspoken character, Wilde would often use this to hisadvantage by making extreme remarks on society that would defy beingtaking seriously, for example, ‘I am too fond of reading books to careto write them, Mr Erskine. I should like to write a novel certainly; anovel that would be as lovely as a Persian carpet and as unreal. Butthere is no literary public in England for anything except newspapers,primers, and encyclopaedias. Of all people in the world the Englishhave the least sense of the beauty of literature.’ Instead of askingfor trouble, Wilde succeeds in creating a style that allows him morefreedom by taking on a role of questionable authority. Toibin suggeststhat Wilde is ”ready to mock and amuse, use old creaky plots and oldcreaky characters, and use them to play with a world of surfaces andsecrets. Mistaken identities, long-lost children, lost jewels,overheard conversations and many exits and entrances are placed besidecynicism and corruption, opportunism and a large number of aphorismswhich manage to seem both glib and indisputable.’ Thus, he drawsattention away from his own personal life and allows himself much moreliterary freedom of expression through misunderstanding and the worldof farce.
Wilde is only able to escape the restraints of aestheticism whenrelating true experience. His work, ‘De Profundis,’ written fromReading jail between January and March 1897 is described her by Toibin:’The tone of ‘De Profundis’ was calmly eloquent; there was a hurtbeauty in the sentences, and a sense of urgency, a sense of hard thingsbeing said for the first time. Wilde’s old skills at paradox, hisability to use words as a way of turning the world on its head, were nolonger used to seduce an audience but to kill his own pain and grief…Hehad suffered too much to care if his tone seemed too emotional, writtennot as art, but as matter.’ The reference to ‘seducing an audience’implies that Wilde sought an acceptance that could not have been gainedwere he more serious and were he truthful. His skills of ‘turning theworld on its head’ can therefore be read as defence mechanisms todisguise the man behind the face of the narrator.
Despite the pleasure of secrecy described in Chapter 4, Wilde wasperhaps more concerned about conforming within the confines ofVictorian society than would be apparent at first glance. An importantevent with regard to Wilde’s moral values is that of his arrest andsubsequent trial. To quote Summers: ‘the theme of martyrdom is athread that runs through much of his work, early and late, and probablyreflects the strong masochistic element in his personality, even as italso mirrors his sense of alienation. Moreover his disastrous decisionto prosecute the Marquess of Queensbury for alleging that he posed as asodomite was itself reactionary rather than defiant in nature,reflecting both his ambivalence toward homosexuality and his desire toappear to conform to the Victorian standards that he so oftenridiculed.’ This is to suggest that Wilde’s desire to conform mayhave had more of an influence over his actions than any early crusadefor gay rights or rebellion against Victorian morals and values.Toibin states that ”The personal became political because an Irishmanpushed his luck.’ The covert nature of homosexuality and thestrategies Wilde used within his literary works to concealhomoeroticism, may have given him a false sense of security and enoughbravado to believe that he could call upon Victorian standards toprotect him from slander.
In the words of Summers: ‘Although Wilde frequently (and sometimesself-servingly) asserted the impersonality of art, his own art isinseparably bound to his personality, or at least to the personal he soassiduously cultivated and promoted, and thus his works cannot beappreciated in isolation from his life.’ As a homosexual manattempting to exist successfully in Victorian society, whilst leading asomewhat secretive homosexual lifestyle, Wilde was ultimately unable tomarry the two markedly different worlds. Living in an intolerantsociety, Wilde’s only potential saviour was aestheticism, bringing withit the power to validate homoeroticism and invite acceptance from widerVictorian society. Yet, it was the elitist nature of aestheticism thatisolated others from joining the movement, and instead it became anexclusive club that provoked ridicule from many of the bourgeoisie andmiddle class. Just as Wilde’s fiction was inextricably linked with hispersonal life in Victorian society, so, over one hundred years afterhis death he remains an iconic writer, known equally for his lifestyleand his art.
- Blanchard, Mary Warner, ‘Boundaries and the Victorian Body:Aesthetic Fashion in Gilded Age America,’ The American HistoricalReview, Vol.100, No. 1 (Feb, 1995)
- Blanchard, Mary Warner, Oscar Wilde’s America, Counterculture in the Gilded Age (Yale University Press, 1998)
- Brown, Richard Danson and Gupta, Suman, Aestheticism and modernism:debating twentieth century literature 1900-1960 (Oxford, Routledge,2005)
- Cohen, Ed. “Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation,” PMLA, Vol. 102, No. 5 (Oct, 1987)
- Felski, Rita, ‘The Counterdiscourse of the Feminine in Three Textsby Wildem Huysmans and Sacher-Masoch,’ PMLA, Vol.106, No.5 (Oct, 1991)
Franceschina, John, Homosexualities in the English Theatre: From Lyly to Wilde (Greenwood Press, 1997)
- Glick, Elisa “The Dialectics of Dandyism,” Cultural Critique, No. 48 (Spring 2001)
- Hall, Donald E, Queer Theories (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)
- Goldfarb, Russell M. “Late Victorian Decadence,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Summer, 1962)
- Lawler, Donald L, and Knott, Charles E, ‘The Context of Invention:Suggested Origins of Dorian Gray’ Modern Philology, Vol.73. No.4, Part1 (May, 1976)
- Miller, Andrew H and Adams, James Eli, Sexualities in Victorian Britain (Indiana University Press, 1996)
- Schulz, Davis, ‘Redressing Oscar: Performance and the trials of Oscar Wilde,’ TDR, Vol.40, No.2 (Summer, 1996)
- Sinfield, Alan, Out on stage: lesbian and gay theatre in thetwentieth century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999)
- Summers, Claude J, Gay Fictions, Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition (Continuum, 1990)
- Toibin, Colm, Love in a dark time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar (Pan Macmillan 2002)
- Wilde, Oscar, Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Harper Collins, 2003)
- Wilde, Oscar, The Importance of Being Earnest (Penguin, 1994)
- Wilde, Oscar, The Importance of Being Earnest, York Notes Advanced (York Press, 2004)
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