This is the blog post for our episode Decorative Sex – The Picture of Dorian Gray in which we explore Oscar Wilde’s construction of a unique gothic monster, Mr Dorian Gray. Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has an esteemed place within the gothic literary canon despite the fact that Wilde may have adopted the tropes of the gothic genre as a kind of set dressing similar to the way that Jane Austen uses gothic tropes in order to satirise Mysteries of Udolpho, and ends up accidentally crafting a superior gothic tale in Northanger Abbey.
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In a world of dance cards, chaperones and presentations, the sexuality of Victorians were very heavily regulated. Women were not supposed to enjoy sex, and love and marriage were still not quite synonymous. There is a thinly veiled and thriving gay community that was common knowledge but not commonly acknowledged.
It is in this time of formality, etiquette and highlighted class division that Oscar Wilde unleashes the pleasure-seeking missile that is Dorian Gray. The Picture of Dorian Gray bridges the gap between our idea of uptight Victorian society and the seedy underbelly concealed just below the surface. The story was first published in Lippincott’s monthly magazine in 1890, the publisher feared that the story would insight public outrage and 500 words were deleted prior to publication. Despite this censorship, the story offended mainstream Victorian sensibilities and was reprinted in censored, revised and lengthened form in 1891.
For this episode, I read the edited, and by all reports significantly less scandalous, 1891 novel. In the book after a very revealing preface, which I discussed in a mini-episode called “A Quick Word With Mr Wilde” we are introduced to Sir Henry, a voyeuristic, amoral character with a knack for corruption and manipulation and his friend Basil Hallward a sincere and dedicated artist who has become enraptured with a young man called Dorian Gray who has become his muse. Basil does not want to introduce the impressionable Dorian to Sir Henry for fear that he will lead him astray.
Dorian is a Sulky Pain. He is as you might have guessed the protagonist of the piece, but he is very much not our hero. There are however a series of heroes who present themselves and are vanquished during the process of the story. I’m not going to get into too many plot points in this article but surface to say in the end it is Dorian’s own conscience, such as it is, that eventually defeats him, not the series of well-meaning, kind-hearted people who he evades, destroys or ruins during the course of the story.
This seems to have translated into the film, however, the film needs a force of inextinguishable good and in this case, the force of good injected into the story is Emma, Sir Henry Wotton’s daughter. She is a character who just plain doesn’t exist in the novel. Wilde’s story is much more troubling and complex in that Sir Henry, arguably the most corrupting human force outside of Dorian himself is the only pivotal character to survive the story.
Sir Henry is, well, the worst. He is flippant, immoral and entitled. He is the personification of how Oscar Wilde’s beloved aestheticism can go horribly wrong. He cares incredibly little for those around him, instead of pursuing pleasure and vice in any manner that suits him. Dorian is a good looking guy, so Sir Henry Wotton sets upon actively corrupting him. I really Don’t think Wilde meant for Sir Henry to be as deeply objectionable as he is. Like Frankenstein, I think that through the lens of our 21st century thinking these two men come off as privileged and unchecked. While the characters are very different I think they fall victim to the same fate, their author’s simply could not have foreseen how the
In discussing Sir Henry we have to have a chat about the Male Gaze.
The Male Gaze
The male gaze is a thing in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Okay, that is an understatement. The male gaze is THE thing in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is the chief motivation of the vast majority of the characters and the catalyst that spurs on most of the action. Males objectifying males, males objectifying females, the whole novel the fraught with depictions of people beholding others as a spectacle of beauty or ugliness. In the case that anyone is judged by anything other than beauty, it is to dismiss them by means of class judgement or by virtue of poor reputation. The men in the text are unrivalled and unquestioned in their position of power and their ability to be standard bearers by which all others are judged.
Beauty is conflated with morality and innocence, and ugliness is conflated with immorality and degradation. The picture absorbs the ugliness that is presumed would manifest itself on Dorian through the ravages of time and the evilness of his deeds. But even with the supernatural assistance of an enchanted picture, there are still signifiers that Dorian’s pure beauty has been compromised. The signifiers are subtle such as the changing of the adjective for his hair from “golden” in his time of innocence to “yellow” when his virtue has been compromised.
As for Dorian’s acts of cruelty and indulgence, they are somewhat underwhelming to a
modern audience but his vices and scandals, though slightly hidden and coded behind Wilde’s flawless use of metaphor and innuendo, would have been somewhat shocking to Victorian readers. His treatment of Sybil, however, still seems cruel and inhumane to a modern audience. He chastises her for not living up to his unrealistic expectations of her, and rather than being delighted in her love for him, or even a little disappointed in her performance but ultimately unchanged in his affections, he completely tears her down for being distracted by the notion of a future with him. How dare she not be able to act? Dorian shows himself to be an absolute arse. Who cares if she can’t act! He supposedly loves her but she gives one shitty performance and the glass shatters.
The Fate of Sybil Vane
It is, of course, a horrible irony that his false love for her has lead to her perceiving everything that she would leave behind in being with him to be false. He completely upends her life, making him her whole world and then takes that whole world away. He is culpable in her death to the extent that anyone who has exerted emotional cruelty is responsible for the events that they set in motion. His ignorance and self-centeredness is, of course, no excuse, but he does not have a direct hand in her death and it is not until he kills the creator of the painting, Basil Hallward that he becomes an actual murderer.
From the moment Sybil Vane is introduced in the book we are hit with wave after wave of foreshadowing. It becomes pretty clear that this relationship is doomed. Dorian drags his two friends along to one of Sybil’s performances in an attempt to convince Basil and Henry of her genius, which is a hard task as Henry makes it very clear early on that he believes women are quote “a decorative sex”. The direct quote goes
“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.”
To which Dorian cries “Harry How can you?”
And Henry continues
“My dear Dorian, it is quite true. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rouge and esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can’t be admitted into decent society.”
Poor Sybil meanwhile is telling her brother, James, and her mother how much she loves Dorian who she only knows as prince charming which is a red flag right there. If you are seeing a guy who only wants to be known as prince charming you need to get the fuck out of there. Dorian has changed this 16-year-old girl’s perception of the world so much that she has trouble pulling together the enthusiasm for pretending to fall in love with the balding middle-aged guy playing Romeo, and consequently gives a shitty performance. Dorian is embarrassed and confronts her, basically calling off the arrangement due to her crappy performance which has got to be one of the worst reviews in history.
And Poor Basil. Poor smitten, sappy Basil. He pretty much saw disaster on the horizon but was powerless to stop it. He knew how shitty Sir Henry was, and although he was blind to Dorian’s true nature he certainly saw his potential for corruption.
Is Wilde being funny when he depicts the death of Basil in the 13th chapter or is he being poetic?
I refuse to believe that Wilde was not conscious of this fortuitous coincidence, and it certainly marks the downward spiral upon which Dorian will slowly begin to descend. He begins to lose his grip on reality and starts in motion the events that will lead to his demise at his own hand.
I adore Oscar Wilde and hopefully, I can find a relatively fleshed out adaptation of “The Portrait of Mr W.H.” that we can cover in a later episode as that is one of my absolute favourite of Wilde’s stories. Wilde’s relationship to Victorian masculinity and the almost exclusively homosocial relationships in many of his books is reflective of a life torn between his desire for and love of other men and his feeling of obligation and love for his traditional Victorian family. As a man who dared to defy convention, despite his attempt to avoid direct public scrutiny for his personal life, no sooner did he begin to enjoy the success and acclaim that he deserved, he became a man under siege. The Picture of Dorian Gray was written before Wilde met the man whose family would shepherd in his downfall, Lord Alfred Douglas. The book, however, is seen by many Wilde fans as foreshadowing the relationship between the writer and the young lord. Dorian is young, attractive and, by the end of the book irredeemably corrupted, Lord Alfred Douglas was young, attractive, frequented sex workers and was a little less naive than his partner Wilde. It is Basil’s relationship with Dorian that is his downfall and one could certainly draw parallels between Basil and Wilde, but I think he would like to think he had the quicker wit of Sir Henry.
That young Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie, was the self-absorbed tornado that turned Wilde’s life upside down, or even that he was some sort of diabolical architect of Wilde’s destruction is to potentially oversimplify what is a real human relationship between two people. To paint Wilde as simply an unwitting victim is to do little justice to the author’s intelligence. I think there is one thing most people agree on…
John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry was a nasty piece of work. The originator of the Queensbury rules of boxing, father of the aforementioned Bosie and all around hyper-masculine bastard, he is the one who started making public accusations against Wilde which lead to public scrutiny and the potential destruction of his career. Rather foolishly Wilde sued for libel, and in the process of trying to prove that Queensbury’s accusations of “Gross Indecency” were groundless, he gave the state enough cause to prosecute him. Wilde was given a heads up and it is implied that he was given a chance to flee, but he did not. Much is made of his motives to stay and face the criminal charges that would send him to gaol in 1895. This is not a great rundown of events, have a look at the references for better sources of information.
The Final Passages of The Picture of Dorian Gray
He looked round and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.
There was a cry heard, and a crash. The cry was so horrible in its agony that the frightened servants woke and crept out of their rooms. Two gentlemen, who were passing in the square below, stopped and looked up at the great house. They walked on till they met a policeman and brought him back. The man rang the bell several times, but there was no answer. Except for a light in one of the top windows, the house was all dark. After a time, he went away and stood in an adjoining portico and watched.
“Whose house is that, Constable?” asked the elder of the two gentlemen.
“Mr. Dorian Gray’s, sir,” answered the policeman.
They looked at each other, as they walked away, and sneered. One of them was Sir Henry Ashton’s uncle.
Inside, in the servants’ part of the house, the half-clad domestics were talking in low whispers to each other. Old Mrs. Leaf was crying and wringing her hands. Francis was as pale as death.
After about a quarter of an hour, he got the coachman and one of the footmen and crept upstairs. They knocked, but there was no reply. They called out. Everything was still. Finally, after vainly trying to force the door, they got on the roof and dropped down on to the balcony. The windows yielded easily—their bolts were old.
When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.
For more information and much clearer articulation of the intricacies of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the life of Oscar Wilde see the below references:
- My copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray in A Gothic Treasury of the Supernatural
- History of Literature Podcast
- The life of Oscar Wilde
- Aestheticism, Homoeroticism, and Christian Guilt in The Picture of Dorian Gray Joseph Carroll
- Aestheticism in Victorian English Literature at Oxford Bibliographies
- Free copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray at The Gutenberg Project
- Free public domain Audiobook of The Picture of Dorian Gray at Librivox
- Movie IMDB page for Dorian Gray 2009