Homosexuality and The Picture of Dorian Gray
Homosexuality is becoming increasingly acceptable in today’s culture. In the United States, nine states currently allow same-sex marriage and more are in the process of attempting to legalize it. Homosexuality is becoming more prevalent in media as well. Television shows are not only more-widely portraying gay characters, but also have storylines with same-sex romance. This is significant progress considering that the world was not always as accepting of homosexuality. The Victorian Era was a time when there was no toleration of same-sex relations. Even though the Victorian Era was extremely homophobic, Oscar Wilde challenged these feelings not only through his own sexuality, but also through the explicit and implicit occurrences of homosexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The Victorian culture was particularly harsh when dealing with sexual deviance and homosexuality. Furthermore, the era was incredibly strict with what it considered sexual deviance. This initially consisted of deviance such as masturbation and premarital sex. Homosexuals, however, soon became a new “species” to be studied and evaluated and would serve as the basis for a set of restrictions on sexuality. Homosexuals were determined to be mentally-ill inverts. Soon, same-sex relations became punishable by law because of the Labouchère amendment that said homosexuals could be charged with “gross indecency.” This era was practically dedicated to either healing or punishing homosexuals. These laws ultimately resulted in the silencing of homosexuality because most found it preferable to hide their sexuality out of fear of being exposed and destroyed by the heteronormative legal system. These laws did not stop homosexuality, however. Homosexual relations still frequently occurred in the Victorian Era; however, they were incredibly secretive and kept quiet out of fear (Sanna 23-25). Writer Oscar Wilde, however, was not as cryptic about his sexuality. He was homosexual and his book The Picture of Dorian Gray faced much scrutiny for its claimed homosexual content. Despite this, the way that homosexuality exists in The Picture of Dorian Gray parallels with its appearance in the Victorian Era because both the era and the book have it; however, in the era, homosexuality is incredibly undisclosed, while the homosexuality in the book is mostly implicit. Despite its implied appearance in the book, Oscar Wilde still faced much backlash for the content, in addition to his own sexuality.
Oscar Wilde endured much resentment for his personal life and also for the content of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Despite the Victorian attitude toward homosexuality, Wilde was a homosexual and was quite shameless about it. He dressed flamboyantly and even had an affair with Alfred Douglas, despite being married with children. Wilde also skillfully slipped homosexual content into his books. His brave defiance eventually caught up with him, however. The Picture of Dorian Gray faced much backlash for its content. The Daily Chronicle of London said that it was “heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction” (Ross). It was also called “nasty,” “nauseous,” and “unclean.” Critics and society opposed the strong homosexual undertones caused by Basil’s obsession with Dorian. Excerpts of the book were even read aloud at the trials that Wilde was soon to endure (Ross).
In 1895 Oscar Wilde received a card from The Marquees of Queensberry, the father of Wilde’s lover. The card referred to Wilde as a sodomite, which resulted in Wilde suing the Marquess for libel. April 3 was the day of the first trial and it showed that even though it was Wilde that had sued the Marquess, it was really Wilde that became the defendant. In order to rid himself of the libel charge, the Marquess had to prove that what he said was true. Thus, the Marquess had detectives find evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality. Because of the evidence, Wilde was arrested on April 5. Wilde was eventually charged with “indecency performed with other male persons” and after a series of trials, Wilde was named guilty and received the maximum sentence: two years of hard labor. The judge was repulsed by the case, calling it “the worst case I have ever tried” (Schulz 39-40). Despite being seen as a disgrace to some of the people in his culture, Wilde was also an inspiration to many others like him because of his shamelessness toward his sexuality. Today, he is still seen as a role model to the homosexual community for his bravery and daringness to defy the norm of his society, to embrace who he was, and to dare to put incredibly controversial material into his works. The Picture of Dorian Gray was by far the most controversial of his works because of its homosexual content; however, what is it about the book that makes it such?
The Picture of Dorian Gray created much controversy and excerpts of it were even read aloud at Oscar Wilde’s trial as evidence of his deviance. While, much like homosexuality in the Victorian culture, most of the homosexual content is incredibly subtle, there are some instances in the book that are much more explicit. Ed Cohen states that in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde creates an aesthetic representation of men and their sexuality and opposes the identity of a “true-male” through the characters of Dorian and Basil. He also states that Basil visualizes his desire for Dorian while Lord Henry verbalizes it (805-806). For example, Basil has an extreme obsession with Dorian and represents that in the many portraits he has painted of him and wishes to paint of him. Lord Henry, on the other hand, verbalizes his need to be in Dorian’s presence. Despite this difference, both men are completely obsessed with Dorian. Basil states that “he is absolutely necessary to me” (Wilde 149), and that “I flatter him dreadfully. I find a strange pleasure in saying things to him that I know I shall be sorry for having said” (Wilde 152). These passages not only suggest Wilde’s obsession of Dorian from an artistic perspective, but even from a romantic perspective, as he takes pleasure in complimenting him. This similarly occurs when Lord Henry first meets Dorian and thinks, “He was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair” (Wilde 158). The fact that Lord Henry describes Dorian’s physical appearance in such detail makes his interest in Dorian appear more romantic than friendly. These passages alone give readers plenty of reasons to believe that homosexual content in The Picture of Dorian Gray exists. In addition to that, these are only a few explicit examples of homosexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray. While these occurrences definitely played a part in the backlash toward the novel, there is also content in the book that contains implied homosexuality. These implications also caused backlash toward the novel, perhaps even more, because sometimes one’s imagination is worse than reality.
Oscar Wilde faced much criticism for the homoerotic content in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Despite this, nowhere in the book is a homosexual character named nor is there a presence of homosexual acts. While there are numerous explicit examples of homosexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray, even those examples never straightforwardly mention homosexuality. Much of the content that made this book so controversial is implied. Because of how much Wilde’s society negatively-perceived this book, however, these implications must be incredibly heavy and furthermore must suggest things that the Victorian Era considered repulsive. Christopher Lane discusses the significance of the painting in The Picture of Dorian Gray in terms of the homosexuality of the book. He says that the way the portrait appears reflects the content in Dorian’s mind in addition to his behavior. The darker and more deviant Dorian becomes the more ugly the portrait appears. The degree of hideousness that the portrait contains reveals that Dorian has committed the most horrible sins (936). It is possible that these horrific sins that occurred through Dorian’s life involve homosexuality. For example, when talking to Dorian after not having seen him in many years, Basil says to him, “Why is your friendship so fatal to young men? There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide. You were his great friend. There was Sir Henry Ashton, who had to leave England, with a tarnished name” (Wilde 309). Basil goes on to list even more young men who have turned to lives of shame because of Dorian. Later in the book, after Dorian kills Basil, he begins to think, “Every year– every month, almost—men were strangled in England for what he had done” (Wilde 320). These passages hint at the sinful behavior that Dorian engaged in that caused his portrait to become repulsive to view. The fact that it is only men that were affected by his sins, and that the sins either result in the murder, suicide, or shame of the men and their family makes it appear that these implications are homoerotic, especially because the effected men were ones that Dorian was particularly close to. It makes sense that over the years, Dorian engaged in homosexual relations with various men. However, once these relations were uncovered, they resulted in the utmost shame of the men. Thus, they killed themselves out of humiliation, fled, or in some cases even got killed because of the extreme homophobia in the Victorian culture. Even though none of this is explicitly said, when the pieces are put together with the fact that Wilde was prosecuted partly because of the content of the book, it is incredibly likely that this is what happened in the many undisclosed years that Dorian lived.
Even though the Victorian Era was incredibly against homosexuality, Oscar Wilde was a fearless homosexual who not only dressed flamboyantly and dated various men, but also dared to put homosexual content in The Picture of Dorian Gray at a time when it was not tolerated. Wilde bravely defied the standards of his culture; however he was eventually prosecuted for it. The Picture of Dorian Gray remains a symbol of Wilde’s defiance, as it contains passages of not only nearly-explicit homosexuality, but also implied homosexuality that disgusted those of his time. Now, however, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde are studied with insight and curiosity instead of disgust and loathing because of the adapting feelings toward homosexuality in today’s culture.
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