The Meaning of Oscar Wilde’s the Picture of Dorian Gray
How it works
The Irish writer, Oscar Wilde opens The Picture of Dorian Gray with a statement in the preface that art is free of moral responsibilities. Immediately, this statement and the sexuality in the story sparked controversy among the Victorian readers that were known for their strict moral codes. Enhanced by Oscar Wilde’s personal scandal after being convicted of the same gender “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years of hard labor both the story and the writer received international fame.
The unfortunate Wilde’s tragic ending fossilized the author’s name in the history of the world’s literature as one of the most celebrated writers of the Victorian Age. Beside The Picture of Dorian Gray, the author’s most famous works include a play titled The Importance of Being Ernest.
Originally published in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray has been interpreted in a number of different ways. The different lenses in which these interpretations are based on, greatly impact the analysis. This essay is to explore the message central to the story by exploring the concept of sexuality as depicted in the novel. The concept of sexuality in 1890 and 2019 has changed drastically. What was presumed to be unacceptable during the Victorian Age, is no longer offensive in the modern world. Upon reading the essay, students would be introduced to the traditional sexuality concept, sexuality in the novel and its relevance to the author’s life. The coded language and allusion in the novel are to mask the depth of sexuality being portrayed.
Analysis of the Sexuality Theme and its Relevance to Oscar Wilde
The story tells about the transformation of Dorian Gray’s mentality in real life and the transformation of the physicality in the picture. When Lord Henry Wotton sees Dorian Gray’s perfect picture painting for the first time, he immediately requested Basil Hallward, the painter and close friend of Dorian to introduce the young man to him. Initially, Basil knew that it would be a bad omen for Dorian, but he could not resist Lord Henry’s request. The two men became close and slowly, Lord Henry’s corrupt mentality begins to influence Dorian. The young man’s innocent soul slowly transforms as he begins to change into Dorian the hedonist and Basil’s portrait of Dorian slowly changes into a horrible looking man. This change resembles Dorian’s mentality. He goes as far as committing crimes he never repents. Furthermore, as he becomes self-aware of his own physical personal, his narcissistic nature leads him into his own downfall.
Oscar Wilde challenged the Victorian social values with the characters’ development and complicacy of the relationship between the three main characters in the story. The homosexuality between the three characters is subtle and coded. This cannot be perceived through the present time perspective of homosexuality in which marriage between the same sexes has been legitimized. The Victorian, on the other hand, considered homosexuality to be not only taboo but also unlawful. With a dedicated law for homosexuality, proponents of the notion were subject to legal punishments. Wilde himself was sentenced to two years of hard labor for his sexual preferences. His publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray became one of the first English novels to explore the desire of homosexuality. Despite the numerous coded allusions employed by the writer, the novel and the writer were both confronted by hostility. Despite that, it did not fail to attract sufficient attention. In addition to
The Victorians believed that sins were visible in the bodies. Again, Wilde challenged the idea as in his story as he created Dorian Gray to be perfect and beautiful despite his moral decay.
The story is lacking woman characters and centers in the lives of the prominent male characters, hinting the segmented lives of the men and women of the Victorian society and the writers’ sexual preference. The story, as well as other characters, are developed from the three characters’ perspectives and it focuses on the lives of Dorian Gray and Lord Henry. Basil’s attraction toward his close friend of the same sex, Dorian Gray is obvious since the readers were first introduced to both characters, “But he [Basil] suddenly started up, and, closing his eyes, placed his fingers upon the lids, as though he sought to imprison within his brain some curious dream from which he feared he might awake” (Wilde 3). Basil is admiring the perfection in the model of his artwork, Dorian Gray, and he stops himself as he starts to have forbidden thoughts of him. The homosexuality in the sentence is subtly implied just like many other disguised homoerotic feelings presented in the novel. Basil’s sexual attraction toward Dorian is subtly evident in his words and actions. He insists that he will not send Dorian’s picture to Grosvenor despite the prospect of fame. He claims that “I have put too much of myself into it” (Wilde 4). This coded language can be interpreted as Basil’s attraction that he becomes too invested in the painting. He knows that he is different in term of physicality to Dorian that the attraction is not mutual. Thus, Dorian’s painting becomes his release. He will not own the person, but he will keep the painting for himself to enjoy. Furthermore, his reluctance to share the name of Dorian Gray to Lord Henry indicates his possessiveness. Basil confesses his attraction as he says, “When I like people immensely I never tell their names to any one. It seems like surrendering a part of them (Wilde 5). Basil wants Dorian for himself and protects Dorian from Lord Henry. However, he fails to do both as he introduces Dorian to Lord Henry.
Most of the homosexuality is veiled in the concept of artistic and aesthetic, like Lord Henry’s admiration toward Dorian’s feature, “Yes, he [Dorian] was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair” (Wilde 25). Lord Henry’s describes Dorian’s charm artistically, however, behind such artistic admiration, there is a subtle hint of physical attraction toward a person of the same gender. Additionally, Dorian leads a double life to preserve his hedonist lifestyle and the social acceptance which can be interpreted to be the depiction of Wilde’s life as he, too, tried to conceal his sexual orientation and affairs from his family while remaining to be a member of “respectable” orthodox societies that uphold values and laws.
Lord Henry’s description of Dorian Gray suggests that Dorian possesses an androgyny beauty. Androgyny is the presence of both feminine and masculine sexual characters in an individual. Androgyny may refer to which can either be physical or mental factors. However, in the case of Dorian Gray, the androgyny particularly refers to his physical appeal. As a physically attractive man, Dorian’s charm is undeniable. However, ‘finely-curved scarlet lips’ suggest certain femininity in his masculine charm. Dorian’s androgyny character is not restricted to his physical appearance, but also on his lifestyle. With Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian enjoys the club-life and socializes over dinner (Wilde 140). Club-life was one of the most popular past time for the Victorian men, but socializing over dinner was for the women. The dual lifestyle can only be interpreted as an androgyny lifestyle and the social acceptance of this androgyny lifestyle is a privilege restricted to upper-level society. Such sexual androgyny was omnipresent in the life of Oscar Wilde. “Wilde constructed his androgynous otherness by opposing the gentlemen’s rules of dress” (Detmers 112). Wilde did not wear what was decent according to the Victorian fashion for men. The word “dress” itself implied a certain level of androgyny as a dress can also refer to female dress.
Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor because of his sexual orientation. His attraction toward the same gender had become a great scandal in the Victorian Age and his stories were the depiction of the life that he was leading and his criticism toward Victorian life. Although this scandal had played an important part in advancing his fame, it also led to his downfall. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde shared the theme of sexuality or homosexuality, to be more precise, which highly resembled his own personal life. Despite the subtle messages on the same gender relationship contained in the book, it sparked controversy and considered to cross the boundary of decency. The story is the depiction of Oscar Wilde. Dorian Gray, to a certain extent, resembles Wilde himself.
The sexuality theme is constantly shown throughout the story as it is the central message that Wilde shares to the readers. He criticizes the sexuality of Victorian life through the development of his characters and their interactions. It is evident that sex attractions are portrayed in the novel through the main characters and it is established since the beginning. Both Basil and Lord Henry are attracted to Dorian’s perfect physical feature and their admiration is obvious. However, the words chosen to depict their admiration contain certain duality that they can be interpreted as a “special” attraction. Furthermore, Dorian tries to hide his “other life” just like Wilde as both tried to be a respectable part of the Victorian community. But just like Wilde, Dorian often fails to hide his true self. His abnormal age preservation is one of the physical aspects that he could never hide from other people.
Wilde created Dorian as a highly complicated personality as Dorian is both the protagonist and antagonist in the novel. Dynamic and ever-changing, Dorian’s character developed from the beginning to the end of the story. Personally, Wilde and Dorian share certain undeniable androgyny qualities. Wilde and his fashion sense showed his androgyny side. He challenged the Victorian male fashion standard with a hint of feminine touches. Similarly, Dorian is described as masculine in his physicality but his femininity is equally undeniable, these are the characters that make him appealing to both genders. Additionally, he enjoys the lifestyle that is often associated with men, but at the same time also loving what the women do as he regularly spends time at the club and dinner parties.
- Wilde, Oscar. “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/the-picture-of-dorian-gray.pdf. Accessed on 4 May 2019.