Paradoxical Femininity in The Picture of Dorian Gray

What I found to be quite interesting in The Picture of Dorian Gray was the attitude towards femininity, which I still feel unable to describe in a conclusive or definitive manner.  The novel as a whole is rather lacking in female characters, and yet I do not think we as readers mind much, because like Jacques in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus, Dorian is described in an overwhelming feminine way- his rose-white boyhood and initial naïveté cast him as an effeminate character from the jumpstart.  However there are actual women in the novel- first and perhaps most importantly, there is Sybil Vane, an embodiment of aesthetic appeal, a living in-the-flesh Shakespearean heroine.  The young and the beautiful women in this novel, like in Shakespearean tragedies, are inescapably tragic and wretched in their beauties.  Just as Sybil’s death is conceived by Dorian a beautiful ending to a non-life, the death of a later romance, Hetty, is nonchalantly discussed between Dorian and Lord Henry, who asks, “How do you know that Hetty isn’t floating at the present moment in some star-lit mill pond, with lovely waterlillies round her, like Ophelia?” (151).  These women are portrayed like pretty pictures; they are lovely but discardable, and their appeal is sensual but not at all sexual.  For though Dorian appears to be passionately in love with Sybil, it is her artistic beauty that inspires him, and he considers her less as a lover and more as a saint- at one point he tells Lord Henry not to criticize her, for “Sybil Vane is sacred!”  This reminds me of Juliet’s quote during the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet calls Romeo the “god of my idolatry.”  Perhaps Wilde means for Dorian to lack sexual feeling for the female ingenues in order to emphasize the homoerotic tone of the novel.  Either way, the feminine figure is in this example an item that is weak, pathetic, and pretty much in the same way a flower is- lovely in bloom, but always on the brink of a withering death.
This is opposed, however, by the character of the Duchess in the ending of the novel, who is the first individual; male and female alike, in which Lord Henry meets his match.  The chapter between the Duchess and Lord Henry is a stream of quickened witticisms and paradoxes; it is clever and delightful, and it is the speediest part of the novel in terms of pace.  What does Wilde mean by including both Sybil Vane, the weakest and most helpless of women, and the Duchess, a silver-tongued coquette?  How do we reconcile these two contrasting images of femininity not to mention all of the others in the novel (Lord Henry’s intelligent but cold and adulterous wife, Sybil’s ambitious and dirt-poor mother, the old women who fall hopelessly in love with the young and beautiful Dorian Gray), and what does Oscar Wilde mean by all of it?

-J.S.W.

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Filed under Week 5 Reviews: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Against Nature

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