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.
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