Hook? Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was a revolutionary work during the time of its publication in the 1800s (1800’s?) for its progressive views while going against the social norms of the Victorian era as well as its support for the aestheticism movement. It made various statements that are prime for analysis and discussion while remaining an entertaining piece of literature showing extreme disregard for Victorian social code, morals, and trends.
Transition? Victorian England in the 1800s was a time when people were focused on being respectful and pious.
Gentlemen were expected to act as gentlemen in all things and women were to listen to men. News and facts of the time were without much variety and anything to do with sexual matters was not discussed and regarded with distaste. It was a new era of Puritan control and repression of the self and one’s desires. Everything was regulated and measured so it is understandable that Wilde’s behavior and literature caused such a scene in such an uneventful society.
“ ‘Irregular’ sexual activity was condemned” (Marsh). Any references or actions towards homosexuality was looked upon with disdain and shunned in the 1800s. There are many phrases in Wilde’s writings, especially in The Picture of Dorian Gray, that could be referring to homosexuality and as a result the book received a large amount of backlash from the public. Men were expected to like and marry women. They were not to even consider the idea of being with another man.
Men were expected to dress according to their status, and even those of immense wealth were not to flaunt it. In Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray there are many instances where one of the characters (a man) appears to be in love with another man and other characters completely ignore their social responsibility, dressing as fine as they wish and putting on a show of wealth and beauty. These references go against the traditionally enforced stereotype of the simple hard working straight man.
For those in the upper class showing restraint and a desire for knowledge was necessary. Victorians believed in art as a teaching tool, one that could be used to learn more about the self and inspire others. This was the traditional way of thinking of art and other works. Oscar Wilde went against this and fought for the aesthetic movement in the 1800s. The aesthetic movement in this time is normally boiled down to “art for art’s sake” (Ridley). Victorians required that art have a deeper meaning to it, and often put works though layers of morality when interpreting their meaning. Aestheticism does not require there to be anything to a work of art or literature other than it be beautiful. This movement in the 1800s was widely known and supported by both Ruskin Prater and Oscar Wilde (Ridley). The movement was known for wanting to free art of the responsibility of having a meaning, and simply wanted art to exist for the simple reason of being beautiful.
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland on October 6, 1854 (“Oscar”). His parents were appreciative of the arts and instilled in him that same adoration for drama and literature. Wilde went Trinity College in Dublin for three years and then went on to Magdalen College in Oxford. He studied under the accomplished English art critic John Ruskin and English essayist Walter Prater (Ridley). These teachers were a great influence on Wilde and in many of his works that value of art and criticism dominate. “[Wilde] very quickly became a conspicuous figure on the social scene, celebrated for his wit, personality, and self-consciously foppish dress” (“Wilde, Oscar”). Wilde wore extravagant clothes such as fur coats and kept his hair long in spite of the more common and socially acceptable short hair and dark plain clothes traditionally seen in the 1800s. When Oscar Wilde was 23 at Magdalen College his statues on the social scale skyrocketed attracting a group of followers who then started a “self consciously effete and artificial” cult (“Oscar”). Upon leaving Oxford this following grew. Wilde was an infamous icon having extreme contrast to the pious ways of the Victorian era. Being contradictory was important to Wilde as was emphasis on the value of youth. This is seen in many of his works and reflected in the care he took with his appearance. Ignoring societal traditions and the glory of youth are some of the many themes Wilde inserted into several of his works as well as The Picture of Dorian Gray during his career.
This absolute disregard for the behaviors and morals valued by Victorian society made Wilde continually sought after by socialites. In the 1800s his popularity soared as a poet, novelist, and playwright and he became one of London’s most acclaimed authors known for mocking the time’s social conventions. In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd and together they had two sons. But in 1885 rumours of Wilde’s homosexuality had begun to spread, resulting in a scandalous libel trial (“Wilde, Oscar”). Such a trial at the time was of great importance as homosexual acts were illegal. The Marquess of Queensberry was the one who accused Wilde of homosexual behavior after he discovered his son Alfred Douglas had a relationship with Wilde. Wilde then sued the Marquess for libel or defamation of his good name while pleading innocent to the claims of homosexual behavior. The Marquess was ruled innocent of libel, and Wilde retracted his accusation. This was an admission of guilt in the court’s eyes. In May of 1885 Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour after being arrested for homosexual misconduct (“Oscar”). This is a significant because at the time courts could be used to punish homosexuals during the 1800s. For Wilde prison was not much unlike any other event to happen in his life, just another even to display. After his trial and imprisonment Wilde wrote a publicly published letter addressed to a friend saying in his defense that he was only as criminal than the rest of humanity and a scapegoat. Such a statement fits well with the themes seen in The Picture of Dorian Gray and contradicts the aspired perfection of the Victorian era (“Oscar”).
To Wilde the corruption of Victorian ethics was his impulse for writing and he thought himself as a criminal who challenged society by creating scandal (“Oscar”). While these motivations certainly added to Wilde’s infamy and popularity they were used against him in court, resulting in his imprisonment. Prison and his experiences there are seen in his other writings just as theme of being a youthful criminal are seen in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900 in Paris. Even in death his legacy was not without its scandalous effects. He wrote a letter to Alfred Douglas his presumed lover that was published posthumously recriminating Douglas (“Wilde, Oscar”). Such an action seems cruel but criticism was of great importance to Wilde. Criticism seemed to him to be lacking in the Victorian era. In Wilde’s only book on formal criticism, he restated many of the aesthetic themes that The Picture of Dorian Gray emphasized. Oscar Wilde described his own dramatic works as “trivial comedies for serious people” a comment in tune with his own style of writing that was baffling, clever, and usually reliant on puns or elaborate word games for its intended effect (“Oscar”).
The Picture of Dorian Gray is centered around a young man named Dorian Gray and his life descending into a life of complete moral corruption when in the beginning he was a pure, naive, innocent man. Basil, another character in the story, meets Dorian at a party and is immediately inspired by him and asks for Dorian to be his muse. Eventually a painting is done of Dorian, the finest painting Basil has ever made. Dorian makes a remark that it is sad how he shall grow old and gray while the painting will remain exactly the same. This introduces a new character Lord Henry to the discussion. He tells Dorian that reason is exactly why he should value and use his youth while he has it, because youth and beauty are the most powerful thing. Dorian takes a liking to Lord Henry and Lord Henry continues to educate Dorian in the hedonistic ways of his own philosophy. Lord Henry is the perfect devil’s advocate and could take circles around anyone. He advises experience for the sake of the experience itself. Anything and everything imaginable, go out and find it. Love is a big motivator and Dorian falls in love with an actress named Sybil Vane and he tells Henry of this. Sybil Vane is wonderful at acting ironically because the things she acts she has never experienced for herself, so as soon as she falls in love with Dorian, she can no longer act, which is precisely the reason he fell in love with her to begin with. Dorian plays the victim asking her how she could do this to him, and then breaks up with her vowing to never see her again. Dorian goes home feeling wretched and eventually concludes he was cruel to Sybil, and he should make amends. Sybil Vane kills herself in the night, but Dorian does not know this until Lord Henry comes to visit and tells him so. He is distraught, mostly about being held responsible for her death than anything. With each action of morality and lack of compassion for anyone other than himself, the painting of Dorian grows old, cruel, and hideous while Dorian himself is young, lovely, and beautiful. The painting is said to reflect his soul inside and holds his sins for him, leaving him young and unaffected by them. Basil speaks to him and sees the painting, and Dorian for what he is. He tries to convince him to repent and be saved, and in a fit a rage Dorian kills him. The spirals into fits of paranoia, and hardly leaves the house. The books ends with Dorian trying to destroy the painting, with the same knife he had killed Basil, and he falls, leading with the knife in his heart. His servants come into the room to find not their young lord but an old hideous man lying dead, and the beautiful picture of Dorian Gray. They are only able to recognize him by the rings on his fingers (Wilde).
Recognizing the various themes in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is important as many of them had a direct contrast to the traditional Victorian lifestyle. One repeating theme was value of beauty, youth, and appearances. He had retained his youth and that was all he needed (Wilde 89). The focus of youth is often seen in Wilde’s works and is combined with how things are not what they seems to be at face value. This would appear to be in contrast to aestheticism which is all about taking things for their face value and appearance, but here Wilde is making the statement that beauty doesn’t last, and it is one of the few truths in life to be taken at face value if only for how it looks and not for the morality (or lack thereof) it contains. Dorian took great care with his appearance and often wore fine clothes, however while he looked very handsome he was incredibly morally corrupt. Polite society had rumours about Dorian’s corruption, however the goodness of his face seemed to rebuke them (Wilde 93).“Those finely shaped fingers could never have clutched a knife for sin, nor those smiling lips have cried out on God and goodness” (Wilde 125-126). Wilde places Dorian’s good looks in such high esteem that even those who would suspect of his wrong doing cannot bring themselves to believe it because he is so pure looking. Youth is regarded as a universal truth and perfect in its beauty. This is the double standard for beauty Wilde creates while advocating for aestheticism. The value of beauty is seen as the one thing that truly matters and appearances are important, but when taking only appearances and beauty into account, what lies under the surface is left undiscovered.
On the topic of discovery, Lord Henry had the influence that beauty and anything to do with the sense, were the only things in life worth considering or exploring. Lord Henry is a contradictory character saying this about influence, “There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral-amoral from the scientific point of view” (Wilde 16). This view on influence holds true because while Lord Henry continues talking, Dorian is intrigued by his ideas and no longer is his own person, but more a case study for Lord Henry to puzzle out as he discovers new experiences in the world. Throughout the book the negative influence of Lord Henry on Dorian is seen in how he feels no remorse for Sybil Vane’s death and indeed thinks himself the victim of her selfishness for taking her own life. Lord Henry’s philosophy boils down to hedonism. In the Victorian era restraint was common, but Lord Henry mentions that such self-denial impairs the soul, and he believes that if a man were to give in to every whim he had, chasing after every fragment of a dream he would life fully and completely as a man should becoming attuned to a new hedonistic ideal. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it” (Wilde 16-17). Such words would be considered blasphemy in the modest Victorian period. While the concept of giving shape to dreams and living to the fullest is attractive it is proven to be the downfall of Dorian in the end. Having shown no restraint or repentance, he died feeling the full force of his sins upon himself and his youth could not save him.
Among the themes of hedonism, youth, beauty, aestheticism, there are several homosexual tones to the The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the beginning of the book not even twenty pages in, it mentions the curious influence Dorian Gray has over the painter Basil Hallward. It mentions his youth and beauty as a inspiration saying it was no wonder Basil worshipped him (Wilde 15). While this could be taken to mean an artistic adoration it goes on in the story to mention Basil’s complete infatuation with Dorian and how Basil would not act on such feelings for risk of staining Dorian’s good name. This is a clear reference to how homosexuality was regarded in the 1800s. To be in a relationship with another man was immoral and scandalous in the Victorian time period. Wilde inserts his own opinion of hmosexuality when Basil speaks to Dorian after Dorian has condemned Sybil for her failure as a actress saying, “I cannot understand how any one can wish to shame the thing he loves” (Wilde 58). Each reference is small and could almost be put off as to be meaning something else but that is the beauty of Wilde’s work. There is much within to be inferred and analyzed. When the homosexual references stand on their own, they could almost be taken to have another meaning, but when shown together if becomes obvious the message Wilde was trying to convey. Some of the last words in the novel on the topic of Basil loving Dorian Gray are “the love that he bore him -for it was really love- had nothing in it that was not noble and intellectual. It was not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses and that dies when the scenes tire” (Wilde 87). This is in defense of homosexuality as in the Victorian times it was referred to with disdain and something for inferior men to be capable of. This love between two men is portrayed as nothing but true and pure completely unlike the love between Dorian and Sybil that faded so quickly. Basil’s love for Dorian continues even after learning of his horrid nature.
In short, The Picture of Dorian Gray was a novel that caused such a stir during its publication because of the complete contradiction it made with the current social code of the Victorian era. The homosexual tones not only serve as a way to go against traditional society but also as a reflection of Wilde’s own life. His writing caused a scandal much like his actions. It is relevant for its call to return to art the value of being beautiful simply for the sake of being beautiful, freeing art from the trap of having to acquire a deeper meaning. Too little restraint results in the destruction of the soul, but total resignation means spiritual death. Finding the balance between the two, and the beauty in life along the way is the true artfully aesthetic way to life.