Victorian Gender Roles in the Picture of Dorian Gray
How it works
Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, tells the story of the young and beautiful Dorian Gray, who is unmarked by age and excess. Meanwhile, his portrait, which Dorian hides from view, registers every detail of his debauched life. In 1890, Wilde had already shocked his readers when The Picture of Dorian Gray was published as a short story due to the hedonistic lifestyle of Dorian Gray and the homosexual undertone of the text (Mason 75-7). In fact, Ed Cohen agrees that reads, numerous scholars and critics alike have concluded that Wilde’s narration embraced the homoerotic lifestyle (801). In spite of this, Wilde himself rightfully defended his characters as his artistic product, and he insisted that the readers misunderstood them (17).
Wilde lived and published his work in the late-Victorian Era. The Victorians are known for their oppressive moral codes, and during that time sex and anything that brought sex to mind was strictly taboo (Muldoon x). Gender roles were rigorously regulated. In the Victorian society, men and women lived in separate circles. Men often had close friendships and did not spend much time with any women. The combination of this was of society, and traditional gender roles led to sexual policing and constant suspicion and mistrust without evidence or justification. In 1885, ‘gross indecency,’ the unspeakable sin of male sodomy, became punishable by law (Salamensky 581). It is no surprise that this classic fictional work received heavy criticism, and the author was sentenced to prison for claims of an affair with another man; facts which were affirmed by Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland (11, 13).
How it works
Cohen suggests that Wilde’s novel provoked the Victorian norms of the ‘middle-class’ male identity (806). The Picture of Dorian Gray explores various facets of masculinity. In the historical and literary context of Victorian society, we observe the particular importance of the three male characters: the artist, Basil Hallward, the aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton, and the young, handsome hedonist, Dorian Gray. Each male seems to represent different types of masculinity. Thus, the Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde is exploring how men who pursue traditionally masculine lifestyles all encounter similar pitfalls and difficulties, despite the differences in their lifestyles. (Smith).
The purpose of this paper is to look deeper at the theme of masculinity in the sense of the expectations of the Victorian society, how Wilde approaches masculinity in the novel and its impact on the characters’ lives. It is imperative to have some basic understanding of the Victorian society to analyze The Picture of Dorian Gray from a gender and sexuality standpoint. Therefore, the next section discusses the Victorian expectations about gender and its link to the characters in the novel. It is essential to know how the characters are gendered in the novel, and how they think about gender and sexuality themselves, to be able to understand the impact in their portrayal.
Gender roles expectations in the Victorian Society
In the Victorian era, the Evangelical belief that men and women were different and their roles complementary, was common sense to the middle class (Parker 5). According to Martin A. Danahay, the Victorian Society demonstrated the most extreme form of gender segregation. It strict separated the men from the women spheres (2). Images and texts continuously reinforced the separation of the genders. These texts and images implicitly and explicitly stated that work was manly, thus not appropriate for women. The public sphere of work was exclusive for men and strictly separated from the private, feminine sphere of the household (Danahay 2). Moreover, Victorian marriage was described as characteristically cold as the relations between husband and wife were emotionally distant and formal’ (Seidman 47).
John Tosh argues that Victorian gender ideology was full of contradictions and paradoxes, and an example of this is that the Victorian ideal of the hard-working masculine man leads to a problem for Victorian intellectuals. Intellectual labor was not evident as being manly. Therefore intellectuals had difficulty representing their work as masculine (Danahay 14). For example, a writer’s hands are soft just like a woman’s, and not rough, dirty and calloused like a manual laborer. The Victorian division of the public and private spheres was the source of the problem for intellectuals, as their work was often situated in the domestic sphere (Danahay 15). Nonetheless, these men belong to a higher class and educated. They saw that their activities, such as writing, painting, balancing the family accounts and managing servants as ‘work.’ They recognized that for them the boundaries between work and domestic labor were blurred and unstable, and this was socially accepted (Danahay 15).
The examples above all show the clear distinction between the male and female sphere, and the gender roles associated with these spheres. While work was seen as a sin for women, it was a way to salvation for men.
Wilde’s approach to masculinity in The Picture of Dorian Gray and its impact on the characters’ lives
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, men rule the novel. The few women who are mentioned, or are allowed to speak, are objectified and degraded. The book mostly agrees with Victorian gender roles and sexuality, strictly maintaining the separate spheres of men and women. However, by portraying one of his male characters, Dorian Gray, in the sexual role as a vain man with same-sex desires and distinct female attributes. Wilde made his readers come face to face the destabilizing gender structure in the Victorian society. As Elaine Showalter shows, the need to redefine the meaning of masculinity was an emerging social and cultural challenge in the Victorian society during the two last decades of the 1900s. It was a period when sexual anarchy developed in Great Britain, partly as a consequence of the public contesting the laws that ruled sexual identity (Showalter 3).
Lord Henry Wotton
The novel, for the most part, focuses on the lives of Dorian and Henry and tells the story from their perspectives. Anouska Kersten agrees that men are often at home or a bar drinking amongst themselves, and they only meet women at parties (14). Neither Henry nor his wife work. The reader can assume they must be at home most of the time. But, it is evident they don’t often meet, keeping to themselves. Moreover, Henry mentions that all his friends, acquaintances and enemies are male (Wilde 13), illustrating that he does not interact with women often. Henry is, in fact, the first character the reader meets. The initial description of Henry’s surroundings and his thoughts convey he is a man of leisure. Throughout the novel, he usually offers unsolicited advice on various subjects: art, the meaning of life and the pursuit of pleasure at all costs. Women, his wife included, have little importance to him (Smith). Lord Henry states that his life as a married man is a fulfillment of an obligation, not of desire. In his own words ‘the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing. When we meet — we do meet occasionally, when we dine out together, or go down to the Duke’s — we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces’ (Wilde 6). Smith agrees that it appears that both parties, Henry, and his wife, may feel as if something is missing or not fulfilling about the narrow gender roles society has assigned them. Moreover, when questioning the institution of marriage, it becomes immediately apparent that there are severe flaws in both the characters as well as the society at large.
The following chapter in the novel introduces Basil Hallward. He is a painter and a close friend of both Henry and Dorian. Basil has fallen in love with Dorian’s beauty and painted the picture of Dorian Gray. Basil is also afraid he might have put more than he should into the image, and that the painting might show his love, or ‘idolatry’ as he calls it. Because of his feelings for Dorian, Basil is also a homosexual character. He struggles with his feelings for Dorian, but he never acts upon them, even though his concern for Dorian eventually results in his death by Dorian’s hand.
Basil is not a feminine character, except for the creative job often associated effeminacy (Hamilton 232). According to Danahay’s definition of masculinity, Basil is the most male character of the upper-class according to the Victoria standards. In this sense, Basil is the closest representation of the ideal ‘man’ in the Victorian society and possesses a strong sense of morality.
Finally, Dorian. He represents what might be the most complex and nuanced exploration of masculinity. Dorian Gray comes across as an effeminate male, as he is narcissistic and feminine qualities describe his beauty. In fact, Dorian seems to be more effeminate than he is masculine (Smith). Dorian Gray is the absolute opposite of what was considered as the solid ‘true’ bourgeois male, according to Cohen (801). He is even talked about like a woman whether when engaging in conversations with his close male friends or the context of intimacy with men. One of many of these male exclamations addressed by a male friend to Dorian Gray is ‘You have never looked more charming than you do tonight.’ (Wilde 162). Dorian Gray’s actions associated with a passive and vain woman with a passion for fashion, which Felman describes as a Victorian femininity norm. Dorian Gray is being talked about in numerous passionate conversations between other males (Wilde 10, 24, 143).
However, when first introduced by the author, he is described as a ‘lad’ who responds in a ‘willful, petulant manner’ (Wilde 21). Only when he kills Basil, Dorian contests his innocent ‘lad’ image. Perhaps, this is one of the moments in the book that, similarly to Dorian’s dismissal of Sybil Vane, serves to assert his masculinity. Dorian’s liking of the club life, which is a Victorian male popular interest, also solidify his manhood.
Dorian is a complex character. He is a bachelor. He dates a younger girl called Sybil Vane, and he has a short, intense relationship with her, until her death. The novel doesn’t reveal the civil status of Basil Hallward. He is, likely, a single man since there is no mention of a wife. Lord Henry Wotton, is a married man. As already mentioned in this paper, the marital relations in the text point to normal family relations according to the Victoria Society standards. At first glance, the relationships Dorian Gray have with his girlfriend and his close friends are socially acceptable. However, Dorian Gray’s relation with a third male friend, Alan Campbell, is narrated as a romance, ‘For eighteen months their intimacy lasted.’ (Wilde 207). It seems like class and privilege are essentials that allow a man such as Dorian to behave along feminine codes. Dorian Gray is not linked to social actions that demand masculinity. The central traits of his identity deviate from those defined as dominant masculine characteristics in the Victorian times.
Neither Dorian nor Basil nor even Lord Henry, realize the fullness of their identity, as constrained as they are by the roles that they have assigned themselves. Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward are homosexual characters, but they are as sexist as Lord Henry Wotton. The separate circles of men and women are strictly maintained. This way, the novel supports Victorian gender roles.
However, Dorian Gray a feminized male individual with strong female attributes. He is narcissistic, and his beauty is described through feminine qualities. Dorian and Henry, do not fit the masculinity stereotype because they do not have a job, yet that does not matter for their position in society, because of their wealth. Wilde, through the portrayal of Dorian as a homoerotic male, presents to the reader the Victorian destabilizing gender structure. Dorian Gray’s character is an example of Victorian men, showing the readers that not all men were as masculine as history would have them believe.