The Picture of Dorian Gray. The only novel by Oscar Wilde and the novel that convicted him.
An Irishman, Oscar Wilde was best known for his plays in London during the late 1800s. He was well-known for his irresistible charms, swift wit, and disarming conversational skills. Naturally such skills translate well into the literary realm, especially when that concerns the dialogue and pace of a play.
Though married, it is well-known and accepted that Wilde was actually gay, though of course due to the time he lived in, he was unable to live out that life in public. His underground and undercover homosexual lifestyle did eventually come back to haunt him and condemn him in the end, a fact that leaves many who visit his resting place to offer kisses on his tombstone. Though, the word tombstone isn’t quite accurate these days, they had to construct a clear glass fence around it due to the degradation of the stone from the high volume of kisses. And they were tired of cleaning it.
He rests in Père Lachaise in Paris, France. I actually visited his grave and gave it a smooch myself. We’ll return to why one kisses the grave later:
Art is a risk, no?
Why choose this novel? It’s not even written by a traditional novelist!
Well first, I wanted to read it, because it contains one of my all-time favorite quotes.
I didn’t say I liked it…I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.
Secondly, when I was purchasing it in the book store, the woman working there asked me if I meant to purchase the censored version. I, like any voracious book consumer, was taken aback immediately by this. Of course I wanted the uncensored version! It’s like asking me if I want a modified Huck Finn!
Why had it been censored? What was the difference? In passing when I bought it, I thought it would be a difference between original and abridged. A difference of length.
In fact, The Picture of Dorian Gray, like many novels of its time, was published in parts “in England and America in 1890 by the J. B. Lippincott Company of Philadelphia in the July issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine,” (Frankel, 4.) where it caused immediate distress to well, everyone.
One critic from the St. James Gazette wrote of the novel: “The puzzle is that a young man of decent parts, who enjoyed (when he was at Oxford) the opportunity of associating with gentlemen, should put his name (such as it is) to so stupid and vulgar a piece of work.” (Frankel, 5.) Among many others, his work was seen as unclean and ungentlemanly—it was unsuitable for the general public. Some even suggested that the publishers and Wilde be prosecuted.
The novel was full of unapologetic homoerotic references. Homosexuality was quite illegal at the time. The law that pertained to such “unclean” vices was the Criminal Law Amendment of 1885, which made sexual activity between men and subject to prosecution. Thus, those who saw Wilde’s overt challenges to Victorian standards of propriety, sexuality, and masculinity were calling for legal action and they certainly had the law on their side.
All of these veiled allusions to legal action came after a rather thorough deletion on the part of J.B. Lippincotts as well, which brings us to the matter of an uncensored text. Wilde’s shame and caution in the public eye in regards to his novel caused him to modify the text many times—he even added a late prefix to the work. The version I read, this untouched (or as untouched as is possible to uncover) version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is the clearest picture of what Wilde wanted to write about and wanted to express. It is free from the chains of his time.
To me, this is a heartbreaking novel. One written with such love for a life that couldn’t be.
Wilde’s novel helped convict him under the Criminal Law Amendment of 1885. To put it briefly, his lover’s father, The Marquess of Queensberry, disliked the relationship between his son and Wilde. After a lot of systemic harassment, he left a calling card at Wilde’s that said “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.” Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s lover, encouraged him to prosecute his father on the charge of libel and, despite Wilde’s friends’ recommendations to refrain from doing so, Wilde prosecuted Queensberry.
Unfortunately the 1843 Libel Act allowed Queensberry to skirt conviction if he could prove the truth of his accusation. After Queensberry hired private investigators to tail Wilde and Douglas, as well as interview those in the underground homosexual scene, the details of Wilde’s scandalous love life emerged before the trial. It was a bloodbath.
The trial only led to the public exposure of Wilde’s indecent lifestyle and, though he dropped the charges when it became clear that his prosecution of Queensbury would only harm him, the minute the case closed, he was arrested on suspicion of sodomy and gross indecency. The incendiary passages of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray were used to cross-examine him in his trial against Queensberry, referred to as the “purged edition” by the defense, and though the novel was left out in his sodomy and gross indecency trial, it was the use of his literary work and its rejection of societal norms that helped doom him.
He received the maximum sentence of two years hard labor (along with Douglas) for gross indecency. While the crowd at the Old Bailey shouted “shame!” at him, Wilde asked only:
And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?
He was dismissed with a wave of the judge’s hand.
The next two years drained the life from Wilde. He even advocated for penal reform in the horrible conditions of the British Prison System. This was to no avail. He ended up in France in exile, poor, depressed, and alone. Eventually, after drinking much of his money away and being publicly embarrassed by old contacts of British society, he contracted meningitis and died. The end of his days were spent languishing in his hotel room, where he said “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.”
And so we kiss the grave. To give Oscar the love no one showed him, despite him believing so strongly in that love.
The plot where salacious details lie…
With all the drama surrounding this text, one imagines that it must be quite the story.
It’s really a rather old formula and an almost mythical plot. It reads like Faust, like a fable.
Our main character is Dorian Gray, an incredibly handsome young man who is terrified of losing his good looks with age. There is Basil Halworth as well, the painter who immortalizes him on canvas and Lord Henry Wotton, a wanton dandy and hedonist.
We open on Basil painting Dorian Gray while Lord Henry idles nearby. They discuss his beauty and after a while, Dorian arrives to see the work. He is delighted by its beauty but immediately horrified at the prospect of the painting’s longevity in beauty and his slow denigration in looks. By accident he makes a wish for their positions to swap: he shall never lose his beauty but the painting will bear the marks of his age.
For the remainder of the novel we watch Lord Henry’s self-indulged influence enable Dorian’s already plentiful narcissism, as the painting grows uglier and uglier still. Dorian bears the secret quietly, but since he need not physically carry the repercussions of his actions, he falls further and further into corruption.
Where is the homoeroticism? It lies in the relationship between the three of them. Basil loves Dorian, which leads him to immortalize him in art. Lord Henry is intrigued by Dorian, as all others are used up by him and become uninteresting. As for Dorian, he seems only to love himself as he tries to become art itself.
The novel is concerned with aestheticism (a philosophy that praises art for art, beauty for the sake of beauty, or a new sort of hedonism) and whether or not beauty can be preserved (or if it should!)
Of course, the moral question of being good versus appearing good is raised and in the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t say whether or not it is answered.
Dorian’s inner turmoil about the increasing ugliness of his portrait are interesting to me, as his outside remains untouched and yet the trade-off doesn’t decrease his burden or guilt. In fact, hiding it seems to only increase his paranoia.
Wilde touches on the senses, which aligns quite well with his aesthete beliefs (but of course it challenges everything about a Victorian society and masculinity.) Dorian thinks:
The worship of the senses has often, and with much justice, been decried, men feeling a natural instinct of terror about passions and sensations that seem stronger than ourselves, and that we are conscious of sharing with the less highly organized forms of existence. But it appeared to Dorian Gray that the true nature of the senses had never been understood, and that they had remained savage and animal merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic.” (Wilde, 161.)
First, this works on the level of accepting homoerotic feelings that certainly many men in Victorian society were forced or told to suppress, often leading to underground and underage prostitute rings. Wilde may be advocating for an embrace of these senses rather than outlawing them.
Secondly, the nature of Victorian society was to suppress most passions. This idea works to push back against that fundamental aspect of Wilde’s societal reality, as well as against traditional masculinity. Even now, modern masculinity asks for suppression of feelings, senses, and passions (other than outbursts of anger and violence.)
A bit of justice for Wilde
I would highly recommend reading this edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray if the desire to read it has struck you now or ever. Do not skip out on the general introduction nor the textual introduction, which I honestly think make this book an outstanding experience to read. It’s more like a historical text and an inner look at Wilde’s precarious existence as a homosexual writer in late 19th century England.
After the initial outbursts from the press, Wilde wrote a “delayed preface” for his novel. We shall end with some of his compensatory words:
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
Bisous sur la tombe d’Oscar Wilde et à vous,