"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

As my reading schedule was interrupted by a colony of noroviruses that imposed themselves on my hospitality last week, I had only time to read one version of The Picture of Dorian Gray by the Slaves of Golconda posting deadline. I chose to read the first version, published in 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, because it created a much greater sensation than the longer and slightly expurgated 1891 version.

That a few homoerotic suggestions would create such a stir seems absurd considering what else is alluded to in the novel, but given the time I can understand that the one was seen to lead to the other. Just before the story was first published, the British newspapers were full of scandals about high persons engaged in low acts with telegraph boys, complete with government cover-ups at the highest level and hints of royal involvement. The scandal, which had gone on for five months, finally died down about two months before Dorian Gray was published, so the public was no doubt fully refreshed and eager for another opportunity to be horrified and disgusted when Wilde’s story appeared.

I must admit, however, that I also was horrified and disgusted by The Picture of Dorian Gray. I certainly would not agree with the Victorians that homosexuality is itself corrupt or leads to further corruption, nor that evil, or merely unpleasant, things should never be spoken of. Suppression merely punishes the innocent and protects the guilty. But I can’t deny that from a moral standpoint there is much that is distasteful in this story. That is not to say that it is a bad story or that it shouldn’t be read for itself, as well as for it’s place in literary and social history, but I cannot agree with the story.

Oscar Wilde, in defending Dorian Gray, stated emphatically that art and ethics (or morality) must be kept entirely separate. He also felt that art and life were separate, and even that people were separate, that is, that art could not influence life, and that people could not influence each other. I cannot agree with any of these theses, and indeed The Picture of Dorian Gray seems to contradict him as well. Donald L. Lawler, editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Dorian Gray, calls the story “a sign of contradiction,” and I believe this is what he is referring to.

If art and morality were indeed separate, why would Wilde include a “moral” in his story, and, moreover, call attention to this moral when defending his work against his critics? Art, as Wilde conceived of it, should need no moral; it’s only subject should be Beauty. By that definition I am not sure that this story qualifies as art. That is the first contradiction.

The second contradiction is about the separation of art and life. In the book we see several examples of art influencing the characters, and not for the better. Basil, inspired by Dorian to create a new style of art, ends up in an idolatrous relationship that initiates the ruin of both. Dorian is captivated by his beauty as it is portrayed by Basil, and this fuels his vanity and desire to hold on to his youth. The vile book given to him by that devil Lord Harry accelerates Dorian’s descent into depravity, and he returns to it often to fuel and validate his lust for “experience.” If Wilde did not believe that art could influence life, The Picture of Dorian Gray, although fictional, does nothing to advance his cause.

The third contradiction concerns the most important element in the book, that of personal influence. The book begins and ends with it. Events are set in motion by the influence of Dorian’s beauty of Basil and the influence of Basil’s adoration on Dorian. There are hints that Dorian’s nature was always inclined against virtue and that it was merely wakened by contact with Basil and then Lord Henry, but there is stronger evidence against that idea. Again and again we see Dorian, riddled with guilt and on the point of repenting and making amends, come under the subtle influence of Lord Henry and get turned completely against his initial impulses. But even Harry’s influence is not enough to quell Dorian’s moral instincts, and he must resort to mad obsessions with objets d’art and possibly drugs to avoid his conscience. When he has finally had enough and finally resolves to mend his ways, Harry places one final doubt into Dorian’s mind that propels him towards his last desperate act. One might say that Harry failed in converting Dorian entirely, but that he influenced him is unquestionable.

I see this book as a work partly of self-defense and partly of self-doubt. To his critics Wilde said, more than once, that “the real moral of the story is that all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its punishment.” I read into this statement a wish to declare to the world that though he may appear depraved, he is not completely lost to morality and realizes that there must be limits to human behaviour. It stands to reason that he must reject “renunciation” (i.e. virtue) in order to accept his own sexuality, and we can hardly blame him for that. If he lived in a more liberal age I doubt that this book, with that moral, would have had to be written.

As for self-doubt, I refer to the contradictions listed above, as well as one more. In one of his public defenses of the book, he wrote:

One stands remote from one’s subject matter. One creates it, and one contemplates it. The further away the subject-matter is, the more freely can the artist work. … An artist, sir, has no ethical sympathies at all. Virtue and wickedness are to him simply what the colours on his palette are to the painter. They are no more, and they are no less.

This is exactly the stance that Lord Henry encourages and Dorian cultivates, an “excess” of amorality that is clearly condemned in the book. Yet here is Wilde adopting exactly the same pose. I haven’t read much analysis of this book but it almost looks like an act of self-sabotage, which was tragically completed when the book was used against him in court, to his eventual destruction. Did Wilde’s unassailable wit and aplomb conceal an equally vigorous inner conflict that expressed itself in The Picture of Dorian Gray? Knowing something of what homosexual people go though even today, it is plausible that Wilde (who was, after all, a human being) succumbed to self-loathing and internalized oppression and that this carried over into his artistic life.

No doubt there are others who have a better idea about this than I do, and intend to carry on reading about this book and Mr. Wilde. Though I can’t say I enjoyed the story— indeed I was thoroughly repulsed by Lord Harry’s evil philosophy and Dorian’s evil acts—I do appreciate Wilde’s courage in facing the evils of homophobia and censorship. He helped us get to where we are today, and for that we owe him some thanks.

For more posts and discussion on The Picture of Dorian Gray, visit MetaxuCafé.com.

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2 comments on “"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

  1. Quillhill says:

    Very nice, Sylvia. The background is enlightening, and you present the idea of Wilde's inner conflict/wiffle-waffling/what-have-you clearly and convincingly.

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