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Homosexuality In Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Tristan M-W

on 20 July 2014

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Transcript of Homosexuality In Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

Homosexuality in the Story

In the end, only Oscar Wilde will have ever known the true meaning behind his work. The Picture of Dorian Gray’s reputation in literary history, however, reflects a distinct difference from other works by Wilde. The reactions of Oscar Wilde’s audience clearly demonstrate that this piece of work was unlike any other and its content went so far beyond social normality that it became taboo. Whether it was homosexuality or not, both Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray lived similar lives. Both strove for the pleasures in life that they so naturally craved but, due to society’s ignorance, intolerance, and xenophobia, both were outcasted. After Wilde’s trial, English society refused to recognize him as a valid author. Once a household name, Oscar Wilde was too taboo to even speak of. Because of this, there is little to no confirmation of the true intent of The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, like all artists Wilde’s stories represented the time in place in which he wrote them. Context and relativity can expand the meaning of a piece of work greatly. Therefore, one could interpret Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as being a reflection of the struggles faced by homosexual men and women trying to survive in London during the final years of the nineteenth century.
Homosexuality - Oscar Wilde
Both the lives of Oscar Wilde and his character, Dorian Gray, closely resemble one another in their sharing of similar events. The two lives of the character in and the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray closely mirror the other. Wilde was believed to have had many male lovers. Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensberry, is thought to have been one of these lovers. The two men developed a strong and close friendship. In 1894, Lord Alfred Douglas’s father witnessed the two men eating in a cafe which, for unknown reasons, began the long dispute that would take Wilde and the Marquess of Queensberry to trial. What is interesting about this is that around 1895, while relaxing in a club, Wilde received a letter addressed to him by the Marquess which read “ For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite.” (Oscar WIlde-Biography). It was the Marquess’s hope to blackmail Wilde away from his son. There is no definitive answer as to why he disliked the two men’s relationship but clearly he thought it to be wrong in some way. This form of vague blackmail can be seen in chapter fourteen when we first meet Alan Campbell. In this scene, Dorian threatens Campbell with blackmail so that he will dispose of Basil Hallward’s body. Exactly like the Marquess of Queensberry, Dorian threatens to send out a letter with information that Alan Campbell finds particularly horrifying. Although the reader never learns the contents of the letter, outing gay members of society in this format was not uncommon.
Oscar Wilde took the Marquess of Queensberry to trial which, sadly, would prove to be a horrible mistake. During the trial, many pieces of evidence were presented against Wilde and he was charged with sodomy and gross indecency. Wilde chose to fight the charges but lost and was sentenced to two years of hard labour. The once great author became a social outcast. His wife and children fled England and started a new life under the name Holland. Oscar Wilde, poor and outcasted, died from cerebral meningitis in 1900 in Paris. Dorian Gray suffered the same fate. His reputation in London society left him friendless and shunned. Although The Picture of Dorian Gray was written long before Wilde’s death, the chance of exposure would have been a constant risk for any homosexual man or woman in London during the late 1800s. Wilde was not the first to be rejected by society and the law and, therefore, would have known the consequences of exposure. Dorian’s troubled and tortured life reflects many of the consequences of living in an intolerant society like the one in London during the end of the nineteenth century.

Homosexuality In Oscar Wilde's
The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the story of a young upper-class socialite living in London during the end of the nineteenth century. Dorian Gray, the main character, is renowned for his beauty and elegance which captures the attention of all who see him. His face is said to reflect youthfulness and the purity in being young. The story opens in the studio of Basil Hallward, a celebrated painter of the time. The reader enters right as Hallward is finishing the final touches on Dorian’s portrait. Here, we meet the character Lord Henry Wotton who will become Dorian’s mentor and guardian through the story. His harsh frankness is proven when he blatantly explains that Dorian will, just like him, grow old and his youthful beauty will fade. His words change something within Dorian Gray as he realises the inevitable truth in what Lord Henry has just said. This event marks the beginning of the end of Dorian Gray’s life.
After a brief period of reflection, the character jumps back into his normal life and it appears that the entire event is forgotten. However, Dorian does retain something from what Lord Henry said as he decides to live his life fully and experience all that he can. Because of this, Dorian begins to visit the more impoverished parts of London where he watches performances in cheap theatres. Here is where he meets Sibyl Vane who is described, by Dorian, as a great actress. The two fall in love and are engaged to be married. After many great performances, Dorian decides to invite Lord Henry and Basil Hallward to one of Sibyl Vane’s performances. Struck with love, the actress loses her ability to act which, to Dorian’s horror, ruins her performance. This disgusts Dorian and he cruley breaks off their engagement. Whether by natural or supernatural causes Dorian’s portrait gains a cruel grin. At first he believes it to be his imagination but soon realises that his painting really did change. In the hopes of redemption, Dorian writes a letter to apologize to Sibyl Vane but finds that it is too late as she killed herself the night of her performance.
This event begins Oscar Wilde’s story of corruption and vanity. Granted his wish of eternal youth, Dorian enters the world of “sin” and pleasure. His acts cause a great stir within London’s social world of the rich and elite. Night after night, Dorian enters a world described as evil and dark and, night after night, his portrait grows more and more withered and corrupted. The torture becomes too much for Dorian and, in his final scene, he stabs a knife through the painting which, through an unknown cause, stabs him too. Wilde’s character of youth and beauty dies on the floor in front of his portrait which, miraculously, regains its beauty as he takes on his true form.
Censored Copy
In the standard version of the text, Lippincott's censored version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, there are many references to immorality. As well, Wilde, as the narrator, and many of the characters discuss events that are, generally, very vague and lacking in critical detail. One can understand why so many of the original readers were upset as there is a very strong sense that Wilde is referring to homosexuality, however, it is never directly stated. Because of this, it is impossible to find a definitive answer as to whether Dorian Gray’s indecency is a reference to him being a homosexual. A great example of this can be seen early in the story during a conversation between Lord Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward. “I know you will laugh at me, but I really can’t exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Page 4). In this conversation, Basil is explaining to Lord Henry the reason why he does not want to display Dorian’s portrait. His reasons are unclear as he simply states that it gives too much insight into his true personality. It is very easy to assume that he has romantic feelings towards Dorian but, without a clear statement, one can only speculate that.
Another interesting but vague topic in the censored version is temptation. Temptation is discussed throughout the story but its relevance is unknown. Lord Henry Wotton, who plays Dorian’s mentor through the story, is constantly teaching him “life lessons” with no explanation as to why. As a reader, it is unclear why he is so explicit about the temptations and desires in life. A great example of this can be read on page 21. “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Page 21). This line is just one from a long conversation the two have on the same topic. This conversation only represents one of many others. The reason that Oscar Wilde focused on immoral desires so much in this story is unclear in this version. However, if one applies this to the rest of the book, it too appears to be a reference to sexual desires that, at the time, were seen as immoral and completely taboo.
Tristan McGrath-Waugh

Published in 1890 by the Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in London, The Picture of Dorian Gray was one of Oscar Wilde’s most controversial works. Even after having around five hundred words and phrases altered or removed, the story was deemed immoral and caused an uproar within both Lippincott and Wilde’s readerships. The book’s indirect references to homosexuality and drug use were seen as obscene and indecent. Oscar Wilde is considered one of the English language’s best authors but, too, was known for his lifestyle. Even though, in his day, Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality was unknown and condemned when brought to light, today he is celebrated as an icon for the LGBT community around the world. Although it is vague, The Picture of Dorian Gray makes many references to “immoral acts” which strongly resemble homosexuality. When paired with a copy of the original and uncensored manuscript many of these instances are confirmed as such. This being said, The Picture of Dorian Gray does not praise homosexuality. In fact, Wilde’s novel goes on to condemn it. The censored and uncensored copies of the story combine together interestingly to fill in details that, otherwise, would be missing but it is when both are contrasted with the life of their author, Oscar Wilde, that the reader can put into perspective the mentality they were written in. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a reflection of the hardships that Oscar Wilde faced as a homosexual man living in the late 19th century and his struggle to come to terms with his sexuality.
Uncensored Copy
With around five hundred extra words and phrases, the original uncensored manuscript fills in many of the gaps in information that are presented to the reader in the censored copy of the text. The best and most critical example of this is when Basil Hallward is explaining to Lord Henry why he does not want to display his portrait of Dorian in a public space. The change of meaning in this previously mentioned scene completely alters the story. The censored line, “I know you will laugh at me, but I really can’t exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Page 4), originally contained much more information as to the nature of Hallward’s fears. This can be seen on page eighty-five of the Harvard University copy of the original manuscript. “I have put into it all of the extraordinary romance of which, of course, I have never dared to speak to him.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray Ed. Nicholas Frankel, Page 85). In the unedited scene, Basil states that his feelings towards Dorian are that of a romantic kind. This difference only counts for the character Basil Hallward but, still, it opens up a whole realm of interpretation and furthers the likelihood of Dorian Gray’s being a homosexual character.
One interesting scene is on page two-hundred and fifteen. “Why is it that every young man that you take up seems to come to grief, to go to the bad at once.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, Page 215). In this scene, Basil Hallward is questioning Dorian. At this point, all of London believes him to be no good and corrupt. Basil has come to say farewell to him and to beg that he turn his life around. What is specifically interesting about this scene is what Basil says to Dorian and, therefore, informs the reader of. He explains that Dorian has had a bad habit of befriending young men and developing very close relationships with them. Basil describes that Dorian and whichever man he was with would be inseparable but then suddenly split apart. In the quote specifically, the artist makes clear that each of these young men’s lives would go to ruin after befriending Dorian. In a very long list, he states that some lost their jobs, their families and how one even killed himself. Although it is not stated, the reader can only assume that these relationships were very intimate and, if had not, had been approaching a romantic level.
"Oscar Wilde-Biography." The European Graduate School. European Graduate School, n.d. Web. 17 July, 2014. <http://www.egs.edu/library/oscar-wilde/biography/>.

Secombe, David. "Blue Gate Fields." The London Column. London Column, 6 Sept. 2011. Web. 19 July 2014. <http://thelondoncolumn.com/tag/bluegate-fields/>.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, 1890. Print.

- - -. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Nicholas Frankel. United States of America: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2011. Print.
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