The Picture of Dorian Gray
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)
- Wilde, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Penguin, 1994)
The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Victorian Era
In July 1890, esteemed Irish author Oscar Wilde’s first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published, making its first appearance to the public (Buzwell). The novel’s main character is Dorian Gray, a young gentleman who becomes in possession of a portrait that ages for him, in addition to bearing the brunt of his sins, leading him down a path of immorality and destruction. The novel sent shock waves late Victorian England with its references to topics that, during this period, very few dare speak about.
In a time where strict moral codes were in place and having a good reputation was of utmost importance, The Picture of Dorian Gray put an emphasis on the pure hypocrisy that ran rampant through high Victorian society. In doing so, the novel followed the Victorian literary trend of focusing on the darker nature of mankind.
While one might refer to the Victorian Era as an age of morality, it can easily be called by another name, too. The immense focus on being extremely principled and the extreme focus on reputation quickly lead to a steep increase of hypocrisy, which, to some, earns the Victorian Era the name the Age of Hypocrisy. The pressure people faced, especially those in the upper classes, caused hypocrisy to reign; people would live a double life of sorts, committing acts that their society would deem heinous, and then hide it behind a socially acceptable facade. Several of the major hypocrisies of the upper classes appear in The Picture of Dorian Gray, such as sexuality and drug use (“The Picture of Dorian Gray”). The first case of hypocrisy in The Picture of Dorian Gray involves sexuality. The Victorian Era treated sexuality as a very taboo subject. However, despite the stigma it had, it remained prevalent throughout Victorian England.
The story implies that Dorian had been in a variety of inappropriate relationships. While most of these were with women, several of these relations can be implied to be with men, taking history, Dorian’s past, and Wilde himself into account. While considered extremely immoral during this time, homosexuality was widespread; the fact it was especially common in the educated class and Dorian’s rocky interactions with Alan hints at a potential relationship between the two (“The Picture of Dorian Gray”). Basil, who at the very least, holds a deep affection for Dorian, questioned him, asking “Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?” (pg 120something). Given the apparent ruin Dorian had on the lives of the women he was involved with, it is perfectly fair to infer that he had several relationships with men, too. To further back this claim, The Picture of Dorian Gray was later used as evidence to personally prosecute Wilde for “gross indecency”, hinting further at the possibility of Dorian having relations with men (Buzwell). However, while homosexuality is now generally accepted by society, Dorian did participate in behaviors that, while common, were and still are taboo. The story quotes Dorian as “creeping at dawn out of dreadful houses and slinking in disguise into the foulest dens in London.” (pg 120something). This reveals another major hypocrisy for the Victorian Era.
Prostitution was considered a major social problem during this time. Despite this, prostitution was rampant throughout the country; the number of prostitutes in solely London during 1887 was estimated to be about 80,000, making up 3% of the population of London (“The Picture of Dorian Gray”). Dorian Gray portrayed the hypocrisy of the gentleman class, as he is described as trying to save face in spite of going to places the average Victorian would consider absolutely dissolute. The second case of hypocrisy was the use of drugs. The Victorian Era was known for its drug abuse, with opium having a role as England’s drug of choice. In 1839, opium was the cause of 543 poisonings, claiming a total of 186 lives (“The Picture of Dorian Gray”). In an attempt to rid himself of the memory of murdering Basil, Dorian makes the decision of going to an opium den. The book states, “He hurried on towards the left, glancing back now and then to see if he was being followed” (pg something). Afterward, he became immediately unnerved by the fact he knew someone at the den. The fact that Dorian wished for no one to know he is in attendance of such a place speaks volumes to the Victorian desire to keep their dark desires hidden.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
Setting (Jasmine) The Decadent Movement was an artistic and literary movement occurring in Western Europe that portrayed an aesthetic style of satire, critique, and artificiality. The novel was both written and set in London, England some time in the 1890’s. Dorian travels freely between two major parts in London; the wealthy West end, and the run-down East end.
These two sides of London represent the two sides of Dorian Gray. On the west side, Dorian is a gentleman, the local celebrity. On the East side, however, Dorian is villainous and suspicious. He becomes “”that guy”” that your parents told you to stay away from. As the plot progresses, we see Wilde’s intention of merging two locations with Dorian’s two distinct personalities. The Decadent Movement took place during the Victorian Era, where the line drawn between high and low class was a segregation; a war between incomes, making the plot of Wilde’s story that much more intriguing when published in 1980.
Synopsis (Belinda) In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the very handsome protagonist Dorian Gray was just a naive and innocent boy until a charismatic nobleman named Henry Wotton comes along and influences him. Basil Hallward, a painter who idolizes Dorian greatly, paints a perfect portrait of Dorian and gives it to him. Because of Henrys words about beauty, Dorian trades his soul for the eternal beauty of this portrait. From there, the beautiful Dorian becomes more sinful and hedonistic, and with every sin he commits, his portrait changes while he remains beautiful. At first, he was glad that he could do anything he wanted and still look beautiful but near the end, the painting drove him to the edge. He tried to change his ways but it was too late.
- 1 Characters (Gaby)
- 2 Quotation (Duc):
- 3 Critique (Gaby)
- 4 References:
So the main character in the novel is Dorian. Dorian Gray is a handsome and wealthy young man who serves as a muse to Basil Hallward. A dynamic character because he turns into a monster by the end of the book. He is the archetype of beauty, representing the main theme about soul corruption and beauty.
Next we have the devil, Lord Henry Wotton. He is the cynical one and always arguing very controversial ideas which is probably why the novel was censored during that time. Many professors believe he was the representation of the devil because he incited Dorian to commit sinful acts and then would go and have a cup of tea in the afternoon.
There is also, Basil Hallward with his puppy love. He is the artist and the one who paints Dorians portrait. Hes so in love with Dorian that is afraid of portraying his love in his painting. He tries and fails to save Dorian from the influence of Lord Henry and it will end up costing him greatly.
Other important character is Sybil Vane. She is an actress from a poor theatre and Dorian falls in love with her young beauty and skills. After a terrible performance, Dorian decides that she is not worth her love anymore and breaks her heart. Sybils suicide is the rolling ball to Dorians decadence and the rise of his evil self.
Theme (Jennie) One of the main themes of the book is beauty. Dorian Gray embodies the idea of pure beauty. He is beautiful and he attains eternal youth. Dorians physical representation becomes something that everyone in the book aspires to be. Although he is beautiful in the exterior, his internal self is foul which goes with the saying, dont judge a book by its cover.
good vs evil: From the beginning, both evil and good were equals to each other. Basil Hallward, Dorians painter thats obsessed with him, symbolizes the angel in Dorians shoulder. He tries to influence Dorian with good habits like staying away from corruption. On the other hand, Lord Henry Wotton is the complete opposite of Basil. He is a hedonistic and selfish aristocrat that views people as mere tools to get what he wants. Later on, Dorian becomes distant with Basil and ends up picking up the evil influences of Lord Henry. This way of thinking eventually leads Dorian to his downfall.
One of the main themes of the book is evil versus good. Basil Hallward, Dorians painter that’s obsessed with him, symbolizes the angel and durian shoulder. He tries to influence Torian with good habits like staying away from corruption. On the other hand Lord Henry Wotton is the complete opposite of Basil. He is a hedonistic and selfish aristocrat that views people as mere tools to get what he wants. Later on, Dorian becomes distant with Basil, and ends up picking up the evil influences of Lord Henry. This way of thinking eventually leads Dorian into his downfall. Another major theme of the book is beauty. Dorian Gray embodies the idea of pure beauty. He’s beautiful and he attains eternal youth. Dorian’s physical appearance becomes something that everyone in the book aspires to be. Although he is beautiful in the exterior, his internal self is raw, which goes with the saying don’t judge a book by its cover.
The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame (Lord Henry, chapter 19, pg. 223). This quote was used as an excuse for Dorian to not stop reading the book due to his curious-self. An excuse for Lord Henry sins.
Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic (narrator, chapter 3, pg. 41). The quote basically means that behind everything beautiful, there is something dark and tragic. Lord Henry says this after learning about Dorian’s past and his parents’ death. Despite his dark and tragic past, Dorian is still innocent and beautiful. The quote is also meant to foreshadow Dorian’s future and how his beautiful portrait is used to conceal his evil and atrocious actions.
Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is by far the best ending for one (Lord Henry, chapter 1, pg. 6). This quotes foreshadowing the chain of misfortunate friendships in the story because laughing to end a friendship is not only mean but evil
Okay, so let’s start with our first quote. Hey what’s wrong buddy? I don’t know man, why should I read your book anymore, it ruined my life! Dude,The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame (Lord Henry, chapter 19, pg. 223). So he is obviously referring to the book, it’s called no spoiler. No author writes a book hoping that no one can read it. As a writer himself, Lord Henry gave an excused for all the sinful things in his book, saying that it’s nothing other than the worlds secret. This ultimately shows what his philosophy of asceticism, where there’s no such thing as meaning. Everything spins around beauty and nothing else. So, same thing from earlier. He said, behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic (Narrator, chapter 3, pg. 41). Pretty straightforward. The quote basically means that behind every beautiful thing, there is something dark and tragic. The quote is also meant to foreshadow Dorians future and how his beautiful portrait is used to conceal his evil and atrocious actions. What a villainous saint. Okay, time for some deep quotes. Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is by far the best ending for one (Lord Henry, chapter 1, pg. 6). Vocabulary time. Aphorism, an observation that contains a general truth. So, this aphorism means that humor is a good way to start a friendship. Moreover, ending on good terms is always the best way to terminate ones. This quote foreshadows the chain of unfortunate friendships in the story. Say no more to avoid spoiler alerts. Look out, bye!
In our opinion, we would recommend The Picture of Dorian Gray because it is a very interesting novel. The plot of the novel is very uncommon and unlike anything else. Besides, the novel addresses very controversial topics and ideas that many of us have thought of and should be exposed to. The novel is a dense read but you can easily find very strong arguments about art, beauty, and how we should live our life. The drastic change in Dorian is just one more surprise that this book has and everyone should give this novel a try.
The Picture of Dorian Gray Essay: The Life of Secrecy
In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, secrecy greatly affected Dorian Gray and the weakness his mind had caused a tragic downfall. Dorian Gray was an innocent, beautiful, handsome young man who sold his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influences changed him from an innocents into an evil person who blames others for his action and into someone full of dark secrets.
He admires his beauty so much to the fact that only his beauty is what remains on the outside and it doesn’t matters what remains on the inside. Dorian Grays secrets of mind had change and shaped his true self. The fact that Dorian Gray kept his secrets and how he uses hedonism has impacted him a lot. He is hideous and beautiful but most importantly he is a living human being and a portrait.
It all started when he thought he felted the love for Sibly or so did he think he was in love. Sibly is naive and likes to live in her own fantasy world thinking that Dorian Gray is her prince in knight play. Dorian on the other hand only used sibly for his own entertainment and for her beauty. “I loved you because you were marvelous, because you had genius ad intellect, because you realised the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid.” Chapter 7, Pg 91. Dorian Gray only wants to manipulate Sibyl and it shows that his love for Sibly was absent. This also show how hedonism is affecting him.
Every steps that Dorian does shows the exact reflection in his self portrait. For example, Dorian Gray starts to notices the facial changes in the portrait, it started frowning. In the novel it stated that, This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. Chapter 8. This would mean that because he treated sibyl badly, it reflected onto his portrait. He would blamed on Sibyl for causing her own death. Aside from this, he kept the Portrait to himself without revealing to others, he went as far as hiding the portrait.
Thus, Dorian changed drastically when he killed Basil. He blamed Basil for introducing Henry in the first place. Even after he killed Basil he continued to hide the fact that he killed Basil. Clearly said in chapter 14 page 173, Its was a suicide Alan, he is selfish using excuses to make others help him. He forced and threatened Alan campbell to disposed the dead body in the boardroom. At this point Dorian Gray was already an ugly and hideous human being.
By selling his soul, he had committed many ugly crimes and the way it is done is how it starts to shape his life. He never admit any wrong doings and it is what dragged him down. The portrait has impacted most of what he has done, it is a reflection of his soul. At the end, it reveals that he has done many ugly things as far as dealing with drugs. It basically showed the ugly side of him when the portrait revealed bloodied handed.
Oscar, Wilde.The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890 Barnes & Noble Classics 2003
New Hedonism in The Picture of Dorian Gray
In the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Dorian Gray undertakes a life of new hedonism after it is espoused by Lord Henry Wotton (Wilde 94). This new hedonism values pleasure and beauty above all else and drives Dorians desire to stay youthful and beautiful forever. Dorian Grays pursuit of the hedonistic lifestyle brings harm to those around him, as it promotes the idea of living solely for oneself and ones own pleasure.
While the tenets of this philosophy do not inherently cause destruction, it is the only possible result of coupling new hedonism with Dorian Grays personality and beliefs. Gray was temporarily saved from consequences of his actions and having to confront what he was becoming due to the painting bearing the hideousness of his sins, in turn letting his hedonistic lifestyle continue without the limits of conscience. As a result of Dorian Grays shallow beliefs and temporary absolution of his sins due to the painting, he could not have pursued a life following the philosophical principles of new hedonism without the negative ramifications.
A main factor contributing to the destructive nature of Dorian Grays hedonistic lifestyle is that it was driven by his beliefs grounded in aestheticism or art for arts sake. This philosophy is endorsed heavily by Lord Henry, in that he says Beauty is a form of genius – is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation (Wilde 93). Dorian Gray is greatly influenced by Lord Henrys ideas and subsequently begins to believe that retaining his youth and beauty is all important, Lord Henry is perfectly right. Youth is the only thing worth having (Wilde 100). Dorian Grays new motivation is expertly shown when he becomes jealous of the painting of himself as why should it keep what I must lose? (Wilde 100). Therefore, Dorians pursuit in his new hedonistic lifestyle is beauty and the pleasure from beauty, ultimately causing pain to others. This suffering he inflicts onto others is shown through Dorian Grays shallow relationship with actress Sibyl Vane. Though engaged, Dorians love for her is based entirely on her looks and talent as an actress, her art. However, when she decides she cannot act anymore because Dorian is more to me than all art can ever be, Dorian rejects her. (Wilde 196). Due to his aestheticism, Dorian cannot understand her underlying motives and only sees her now ugly art. The destructive nature of aestheticism coupled with hedonism comes through when Dorian rejects her and says without your art, you are nothing, consequently resulting in her suicide (Wilde 197).
Dorian Grays shallow wish to be youthful and beautiful forever while his portrait ages escalates Grays hedonistic lifestyle to extreme heights in turn increasing the destruction and pain wrought on himself and others. As a result of the portrait becoming representative of the corruption of Dorians soul while he himself remains unmarred and beautiful, it effectively hides his sins. Dorian even hides his sins from himself, as he drew a large screen right in front of the portrait, shuddering as he glanced at it (Wilde 205). Through this Dorian never has to confront himself or his actions and can temporarily escape consequences leading to the destructiveness of his hedonism to be unchecked and uncontrolled by conscience. Since Dorian and many others at the time saw external beauty as a reflection of the soul, Dorian is able to get away with countless misdemeanors as his portrait bears the ugliness of his sins for him. Basil tells Dorian that, with your bright, innocent face, and untroubled youth- I cant believe anything against you (Wilde 294). This is especially ironic as Dorian shortly thereafter murders Basil after showing him the portrait, expertly showing just how destructive Dorian has and can become, on his pursuit for pleasure, due to the portrait bearing his sins for him. Dorians external self not reflecting his sins leads Dorian to not be able to accept blame and responsibility for those same sins. Dorian believes it was the portrait that had done everything and writes off things such as Alan Campbells suicide as being entirely his [Campbells] own act (Wilde 408). Basils murder at the hands of Dorian Gray expertly expounds this idea, because he felt as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas (Wilde 307). Through this Dorian personifies the portrait into a living being for him to project all his sins onto while, he believes, remaining blameless himself. Due to his unwillingness to accept responsibility, Dorian therefore, cannot truly change his ways or be forgiven leading to only further escalations of debauchery and pain perpetrated against not only others but himself as he further corrupts his own soul.
Dorian Grays desperate avoidance of sacrificing any experience and his desire to remain a paragon of beauty, as he lived a life of hedonism, had disastrous consequences on himself and those around him. The intention of Grays life of debauchery was to be experience itself and to pursue pleasure at all costs while experiencing all that life has to offer. (Wilde 265 ). However, due to his aestheticism and shallow nature, where he lived a life in search of beauty without regard for morals, he actually caused harm to those around him and his own soul, leading to his eventual downfall. His soul, because it was represented by the painting, was hidden away, allowing the dissociation of his physical self from his soul. Because of this, Dorian was not forced to confront its hideousness and sinful nature until it was too late, all the while living a life of destruction and debauchery. Through the hideous acts of the beautiful Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde, who was a prominent follower of aestheticism, explores the idea that beauty is art for arts sake in that there is no underlying meaning. Dorian Grays beauty was not reflective of his corrupted and hideous soul implying that external beauty should not be equated with goodness or any other hidden moral as beauty has no other reason or cause than to be beautiful.
Dorian Gray: A Parable
Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray is a controversial novel about the vanity of youth and how it corrupts the very heart of the human soul. Wilde intended this novel to be a parable, warning its readers about the nature of humanity and how easily a human soul can be corrupted. From the very beginning, Dorian Gray is depicted as a handsome youth; however, as a young man, he is still na??ve about the ways of the world.
As such, he is still an innocent, and his soul is yet unstained by the evil, corrupting nature of society. However, it does not take long until the first seeds of corruption take hold. Dorian meets a man named Lord Henry a man who is immediately smitten by Dorians good looks. Insecure about his own looks and feeling a pang of jealousy, Lord Henry laments, youth is the one thing worth having and someday, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly you will feel it (Wilde 20).
A representation of society particularly the society of Grays time Lord Henry equates youth and beauty. Looking at Dorian, Lord Henry notices his graying hair and wrinkly face, and feels his own mortality. Suddenly, Lord Henrys clothes dont seem as nice. His wifes smile doesnt feel as genuine. Everything to him is old and gray except Dorian. Dorian notices this as well, and he notices how people love him for his youth and his beauty. They believe him to be good because he is young, because he is handsome. He begins to surround himself with beautiful things: people, jewelry, etc. But he doesnt value them only what they represent. He is unable to even see the humanity in people. He does not care about their problems about their feelings. He only cares about their looks.
As such, his soul is now corrupted and he has lost touch with his own humanity. He has become like the rest of society. So when Basil presents him with a beautiful portrait of himself, Dorian instead begins to see his own flaws. He begins to hate the beauty he sees because he knows, unlike him, it will stay forever young. Forever beautiful as society tells him. In this state of disillusionment, he makes a Faustian deal, wishing the painting should age and show the ravages of the world while Dorian himself could go on being youthful and handsome (and, in his disillusioned view of the world, good) forever. In essence, he gives away his soul, and everything that is good in him, to be what society wants. And when he learns and celebrates that the painting, not he himself, takes on all the scars of the world and that he can live a consequence free life, his corruption becomes complete.
Themes in the Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, first published in 1890, was extremely controversial. Many considered it morally wrong because of the things it portrayed (SparkNotes). But the main elements it portrayed, its themes, were common ones.
The idolization of beauty and youth begins on page one and continues on through until the end. Art is also introduced on page one, before page one really, and its effects are felt throughout the entire book. A constant battle between good and evil takes place throughout the entire story. These three things play major roles in the movement of the plot and largely affect the main characters we see.
Dorian Gray is beautiful. This is the first thing we know of him. We also learn that is young, not even of age yet. After knowing him a short time, Lord Henry tells Dorian youth is the one thing worth having and someday, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, you will feel it (Wilde, 20). These comments show that Lord Henry, and most of society, associate youth with beauty. They also show the idolization that takes place of such youth and beauty. It seems to be the only thing that people seem to notice of him. Sibyl Vane doesnt know his real name, but she knows he is good looking and young. People, Lord Henry included, assume that because he is so beautiful and so young-looking he is innocent and unmarred by the world. Beauty and youth act as a revitalizing agent for the characters. Basil creates the best works of his life when he becomes friends with Dorian. When Lord Henry, a married man, sees Dorian for the first time, feelings are awakened in him he hasnt felt in a long time, feelings his wife doesnt even give him. As Dorian falls into the wrong ways of life, he is brought back to something close to his normal self when he becomes obsessed with beautiful things like jewelry and fancy tapestries.
Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter (Wilde, 5). In the story, Dorian comes in contact with three works of art: the portrait of himself done by Basil, Sibyl Vanes acting (for that is a work of art), and the yellow book given to him as reading by Lord Henry. All three works of art show Dorian something he truly wants in life. They also change his life in some form or fashion. The portrait shows him how beautiful he truly is and makes him realize that he doesnt want to lose his beauty. Without the painting, Dorian wouldnt have made the wish that kept him young. Without the painting, Dorian would have shown the world how bad of a person he could have been. Without the painting, he might not have become such a terrible person. He might have not done terrible things, knowing the world could see all the scars and marks on his body. Sibyl Vanes act is the first time that Dorian falls in love. It shows him what he really wants out of a woman and a lover. Her lack of acting, during her last performance, leads to the fight between her and Dorian which leads to the first change in the picture and her taking her own life. The portrait changing for the first time leads to a change in Dorian. It makes him realize what happens when he does something that would mar his body. It leads to him realizing that he could do terrible things without having to pay for the consequences. Sibyls death leads to another new chapter in Dorians life because he realizes that he can cause people to do terrible things and get away with them. The yellow book forces him to realize what he is truly doing with his life and makes him work for change. It takes a while for that to happen though. When Basil finishes the portrait, he says he can not exhibit it because I [Basil] have put too much of myself in it (Wilde, 2). He is afraid that it would make Dorian dislike him. Later on, however, he asks Dorian if it would be all right if he exhibited the painting. This shows that Basils feelings for Dorian change over the year as Dorians pulls away from him. He stops feeling things for Dorian that he needs to hide because Dorian becomes a terrible person and Basil doesnt want to be around him. Sibyls acting before meeting Dorian is the rawest form of emotion. She doesnt realize that what she is portraying is fake because she has never experienced that before. After meeting, and falling in love with Dorian, she realizes that her acting is fake and stops trying because she has the real stuff.
The battle between good and evil is a fight that has been fought since the beginning of time. There are two examples in this story. Basil and Lord Henry are constantly fighting over how to treat Dorian and how to nourish his growth as a human being. Basil wants Dorian to be the perfect gentleman. He wants to stay the sweet, innocent, young thing he is at the beginning of the story. Lord Henry wants to change Dorian as much as possible. He thinks it is a game to change Dorian, to make him question what he thinks and what he does. Basil wants to encourage Dorian in everything he does. When he falls in love with Sibyl, Basil acts if its the best thing in the world. When Sibyl cant act and Dorian thought, Basil still encourages him to love her. Basil goes to Dorian as he falls into the darker side of life and tries to reason with him. Lord Henry does right the opposite. When Dorian tells him that he will marry Sibyl Vane, Lord Henry tells him not. He encourages Dorian to leave the play, and Sibyl, when they realize how bad of an actress Sibyl is. He doesnt seem to notice or care it is being rumored that Dorian is destroying young mens lives. The fight begins the moment Lord Henry meets Dorian and continues through until the end of the book. The other battle of good versus evil is fought within Dorian himself. He has two little people standing on his shoulders, giving him contradicting advice. He wants to be good. He really tries to be good. But he falls off the wagon. He is constantly seeking new feelings he has not yet felt before and he finds them by doing things on the wrong side of life. This battle wages inside him until he kills Basil. He then realizes that he wants to be good, wants to do the right thing. Even then, though, he has to fight to do that. Lord Henry tells him he is being stupid for wanting to do that, that he has done nothing wrong, and that makes him question himself. But eventually, he does the right thing. To repent for all his sins, he tries to destroy the painting and kills himself.
Though at its publication, it was considered controversial, The Picture of Dorian Gray portrays main themes that can be found in most works. The idolization of youth and beauty causes a lot of problems in this book. Art changes how the characters think about the world and themselves. The battle between good versus evil is fought from page one until the end. These three themes play major parts in the story of Dorian Gray and change all the characters in some form or fashion.
Aesthetic Principles in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is one of the most famous figures linked to literary Aestheticism. He was generally viewed as a controversial symbol for Aestheticism, mainly because of his appearance. In his article The Life of Oscar Wilde,Hesketh Pearson argues that Wilde got introduced to the aesthetic principles by his college teachers, Walter Pater and John Ruskin. He kept Patter’s words of philosophy with him everywhere and named them his “Golden book,” because to him they were life changing. Ruskin inspired Wilde to teach others about his aesthetic interests.
Wilde is famous for writing poems, plays, short stories, criticism and one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, written during his late career (first published in 1890 and revised in 1891), which concerns the issue of devotion to art. The story’s main characters are three men seeking beauty in life; Lord Henry, a wise teacher of aesthetic principles, Basil Hallward, an artist, and Dorian Gray, a model learning about aesthetic values. The novel mainly concerns a discussion among these three men, who are fascinated by each other’s beauty and opinions. The story was highly debated regarding whether it is morally repulsive, due to the focus it places on fascination between men, or a work of Aestheticism.
The ambiguity in the interpretation of the novel prompted my interest in exploring the role Aestheticism might have played in it. There are several critical works about Wilde, mainly biographies about his life, focusing on the fame he received for his personality and the way his life ended tragically in prison and misery. He is moreover often mentioned in texts about Aestheticism, since he is one of the most famous symbols of The Movement, but most of these works concord his other literary contributions.
This essay attempts to examine the principles of Aestheticism in order to investigate whether the novel is written in accordance with Aestheticism and sets out some powerful arguments to show how the two main characters in the novel resemble Wilde himself, especially when it comes to getting introduced to the Aesthetic philosophy and living a life according to those principles. This essay will also discuss how the story was received, how Wilde changed the text, and why he refuted the mainstream ideology of the Victorian era. The writer’s claim is that Wilde uses The Picture of Dorian Gray to spread his own interpretations of Aestheticism.
The theoretical approach that is used in this essay is based on the perspectives of New Historicism. In New Historicism it is important to research the author’s life, the author’s social surrounding and how people reasoned during the author’s lifetime and relate that information to the literary work (Lynn, Steven. Text and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical TheoryNew York: Pearson Longman. 2011. Print).
This essay will start by tracing biographical elements in the novel; how two literary works influenced it and how the two main characters actually resemble Wilde himself. It will then pay attention to aesthetic objectives and the aesthetic style, Victorian influences on Aestheticism, as well as explore how the story was received and why Wilde revised the novel.
Dorian Gray: Fear or Corruption
In the book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is believed by many people that Lord Henry has corrupted Dorian Gray, but this may not be true. Many believe, that Dorian Gray hates Lord Henry because he is alone in the world. Having someone just like himself scares him; Therefore, Dorian Gray lets Lord Henry believe that he has corrupted him, but why? It is possible that Dorian Gray wants to have someone in the world like him.
Dorian Gray believes that he is alone in the world because he is a narcissist. He feels that no one understands who he is. As soon as hes at this vulnerable moment, he meets Lord Henry. Dorian Gray feels alone in the world and wants a companion who is just like him. As soon as Dorian was thinking these thoughts, Lord Henry came. This was the perfect timing and Dorian realized that Lord Henry could be his companion. Dorian is alone in the world, and that makes him become cruel to Lord Henry, when he realizes that Lord Henry is just like him. Cruelty equals loneliness, Oscar Wilde says.
As you know, the beginning of the book starts off with Basil painting a portrait of Dorian Gray and Lord Henry wanting to meet him, and eventually ends up corrupting him. This may not be the case. We can see that Dorian Gray is scared of Lord Henry from the beginning. He says, Have you really a very bad influence, Lord Henry? As bad as Basil says? (19). It seems as though Dorian Gray is intrigued in knowing if Lord Henrys influence is cruel, its as if Dorian Gray wants it to be bad, so he has a reason to be scared and to hate him. Lord Henry responds to Dorian Gray by saying, There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral immoral from the scientific point of view. (20). Lord Henry is saying that there is no such thing as bad influence, the only reason people believe this is because no matter what influence you are given, it will take you away from who you really are. With these quotes, Dorian is testing Lord Henry to see if he is just like Dorian and in the end, Dorian is happy that he has finally, found someone just like him.
Then, Lord Henry goes on to talk about temptation and continues to corrupt Dorian Gray. With this, Dorian responds with, Stop! You bewilder me. I dont know what to say ( ) Let me think. Or, rather, let me try not to think. (21). In class, we spoke about how at this point, everything Lord Henry has said, was too much for Dorian, and he does not understand anything that Lord Henry is saying. But instead, Dorian was testing Lord Henry to see if his mind thought just like Dorians. Dorian acts like he did not understand what Lord Henry says because it is all part of his plan to make Lord Henry believe that he is corrupting him. Another point in the book is when Lord Henry and Dorian Gray are discussing Sibyl Vane, Dorians part-time lover. Lord Henry says, People like you ( ) what are your actual relations with Sibyl Vane? ( ) it is only the sacred things that are worth touching. (51). To which Dorian replies, Harry! Sibyl Vane is sacred! (51). Dorian is acting like what Lord Henry just said is insane; having sex with a virgin. Lord Henry goes on to say, It is only the sacred things that are worth touching, Dorian. (51). Again, we see here that Lord Henry tries to corrupt Dorian, and Dorian allows him to do so, with the fact in mind that Dorian knew all of this already, and he continued to let Lord Henry believe that he has corrupted him.
Next, we wonder why Dorian Gray would allow Lord Henry to believe that he has corrupted him. Perhaps because he felt as if he was alone in the world. That no one understood who he was a narcissist. When Sibyl Vane dies, Dorian Gray runs to Lord Henry to confide in him. He says, “”why is it that I cannot feel this tragedy as much as I want to? I don’t think I am heartless. Do you? ( ) I don’t like that explanation, Harry, but I am glad you don’t think I am heartless. I am nothing of the kind. I know I am not. And yet I must admit that this thing that has happened does not affect me as it should. It seems to me to be simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded.”” (96).
Misogyny in The Picture of Dorian Gray
In Oscar Wildes novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian Gray is influenced by his friends Basil and Lord Henry. Basil is portrayed as the good influence because he always tried to keep him from following any evil patterns. On the other hand, Lord Henry was considered a terrible influence towards Dorian, for he taught this character that pleasure was the most important quality in life.
Being more intrigued by the path of pleasure, Dorian strikes a corrupt sense of mentality, which only becomes worse when he continues to sin. To further emphasize the misogynic view within this novel, Wilde writes Dorian, Basil, and Lord Henry as the main characters, whereas the women in the novel, such as Sibyl Vane and her mother, were perceived minor and unimportant. Oscar Wilde demonstrates the use of misogyny by outcasting the women roles in the book, almost the same way men treated women during the Victorian Era.
Throughout this Era and novel, men demonstrated sexist comments and actions along with having a hatred towards women.. Women were considered property of their husbands. The only job that was deemed acceptable was a teacher; worst of all, during this Era, women were introduced to a double sexual standard which were restrictive rules for womens sexuality with passionate freedom for men. This began to raise the level of prostitution and even venereal disease. Society in the Victorian Era prevented and discouraged women from having any kind of power. The neglection women received became a norm in both males and females eyes. In his novel, Wilde disregarded the female roles to represent the life women had during this time period. Due to the lack of importance and the type of treatment women received in the novel, later results to the evil actions Dorian Gray progressively makes and escalates the greediness among the male characters. Lord Henrys morals often criticize women based on their intelligence, as well as, believing that women are a decorative sex and they arent worth talking to because they never have anything to say (Wilde 51). The importance of his statement helps provides evidence that men never found any interest in women and theyre only there for a distraction or company.
Dorian Gray strikes his first significant encounter with evil with Sibyl Vane, an actress, when he encounters her true feelings about him. Dorian argues that Sibyl is not worth anything when he states, You are shallow and stupid… how mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been! You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again…never think of you…never mention your name I wish I had never laid eyes upon you! You have spoiled the romance of my life Without your art, you are nothing (Wilde 91). Misogyny is being shown through this dialogue because Dorian is demonstrating the lack of care and love for Sibyl and shows that he only really loved her for her art, not her true self. Dorian disrespecting and antagonizing Sibyl only corrupted his soul more and will be throughout the rest of the novel.