The Picture of Dorian Gray | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray | Context



There is no explicit homosexuality in the edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray most people read. However, there is extensive homoeroticism and implied or suggested homosexual activity. This starts in Chapter 1, when Lord Henry Wotton and artist Basil Hallward discuss a painting of Dorian Gray. They linger on Dorian's beauty, and Basil reports going pale when Dorian first met his eyes. After Basil introduces Lord Henry to the flesh-and-blood Dorian, he continues to work on a portrait of the young man. Lord Henry doesn't focus on the painting but instead stares at the beautiful Dorian. There is an atmosphere of possessiveness among the three men, along with a jockeying for position, which makes more sense if readers assume physical attraction.

Later in the book, Chapter 12, Wilde comes close to making Dorian's homosexual activity explicit. Basil asks Dorian, "Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?" and says there are rumors about Dorian—"stories that [he has] been seen creeping at dawn out of dreadful houses and slinking in disguise into the foulest dens in London." Period reviewers found the novel scandalous and immoral because of these insinuations. One reviewer linked the novel to a famous homosexual incident from the period: the "Cleveland Street Affair," involving English aristocrats frequenting a male brothel. More generally, homosexuality played a major role in Wilde's life, and he was carrying on a so-called unseemly relationship with the younger poet, Lord Alfred Douglas. Britain's attitude toward homosexuality also shapes this novel.

Homosexual activity was considered a criminal act in Britain and was punishable by death until 1861. Such consequences are a glaring violation of human and civil rights. Sexual activities between consenting adult men remained punishable by prison terms into the mid-20th century. In the latter half of the 20th century, Britain's Sexual Offenses Act decriminalized homosexual activity, and associated legislation has lowered the age of consent to 16.

Fantastic Literature

In The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde draws on elements of several different types of fantastic literature, a genre that incorporates elements of the supernatural or other worlds that defy realistic explanation. Wilde had published a collection of fairy tales in 1888 titled The Happy Prince and Other Tales, and this novel definitely has fairy tale elements. Dorian's wish inexplicably has magical power. The painting changes, but Dorian does not. Sibyl calls Dorian "Prince Charming." Beyond these specific elements, the way Wilde stylizes and simplifies reality here echoes the fairy tale genre.

Gothic literature exposed the dark side of the romantic movement in literature. Where romanticism saw the good in emotion, Gothic literature showed the danger of excess passion and irrationality. Romantics saw ruins as picturesque; Gothic authors warned of ruins holding secrets or even curses. Gothic literature was a mature tradition by the time Wilde published The Picture of Dorian Gray, and he was one of a number of authors in the period (such as Robert Louis Stevenson) who adapted gothic techniques for philosophical and critical ends. This novel applies several other gothic clichés, like the doubled self, forbidden knowledge, intense passions, and life-threatening hidden secrets.

Finally, though this is the weakest element of the fantastic found in the novel, there are traces of science fiction in Dorian Gray, such as Basil's longstanding interest in the "methods of natural science" mentioned in Chapter 4, and in the way Dorian seeks an explanation for how Basil's painting of him changes in Chapters 7 and 8.

The Aesthetic Movement

The 19th century was a practical, businesslike time. It was marked by urbanization, industrialization, function, and an emphasis on wealth. The middle class rose in power during this period. As is common historically, when one social trend emerges, other movements arise to push in opposite directions. Early in the century, England saw romantics embracing nature as an alternative to industry. Just after the middle of the century, the aesthetic movement emerged. Members of the aesthetic movement believed in the motto popularized by French poet Théophile Gautier: "Art for art's sake." The Victorians valued art that supported a useful social cause or that carried a moral message. For the aesthetics beauty was enough in itself. Wilde was strongly influenced by this movement. He knew people, like art critic Walter Pater, who helped shape the movement in Britain. Pater influenced Wilde heavily, and Wilde took the critic's book on the Renaissance with him when he traveled. He even went so far as to memorize sections of the volume.

A skilled author, Wilde incorporated the aesthetics' philosophy of beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray while also critiquing it in the same work. After Dorian, Lord Henry Wotton is the most important character in the novel, and he spends more time explaining his philosophy than Dorian does his. Lord Henry is a dandy who places a great deal of importance on keeping up appearances and engaging in leisurely pursuits. The philosophy he articulates is very much an aesthetic one. In Chapter 2 he gives a speech to Dorian in Basil's garden that changes Dorian forever by awakening him to the power and importance of his own beauty, saying, among other things, "And beauty is a form of genius—is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight." This is an unflinching celebration of sensual beauty. However, Wilde follows this by showing Dorian living this philosophy and ruining many lives in the process.
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