Lecture Notes: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Stanford University

Perspectives and Context for Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Regenia Gagnier on the critics’ reviews of The Picture of Dorian Gray (before the 1895 trials for Wilde’s “Gross Indecency”):

One is struck by the profusion of such terms [in the reviews of Dorian Gray] as “unclean,” “effeminate,” “studied insincerity,” “theatrical,” “Wardour Street aestheticism,” “obtrusively cheap scholarship,” “vulgarity,” “unnatural,” “false,” and “perverted”: an odd mixture of the rumors of Wilde’s homosexuality and of more overt criticism of Wilde as a social poseur and self- advertiser. Although the suggestion was couched in terms applying to the text, the reviews seemed to say that Wilde did not know his place, or-amounting to the same thing-that he did know his place and it was not that of a middle-class gentleman.  (Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public, p. 59)

Ed Cohen analyzes this passage and comments:  In Gagnier’s analysis, the immediate critical response to Dorian Gray denounced the text’s transgression of precisely those class and gender ideologies that sustained the “middle-class gentleman”: the novel was seen as “decadent” both because of “its distance from and rejection of middle-class life” and because “it was not only dandiacal, it was ‘feminine”‘ (65). Thus, the Athenaeum would refer to the book as “unmanly, sickening, vicious (although not exactly what is called ‘improper’), and tedious and stupid” (Mason 200). And the Scotts Observer would remark: ‘Mr. Wilde has again been writing stuff that were better unwritten and while ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray,’ which he contributes to Lippincott’s, is ingenious, interesting, full of cleverness, and plainly the work of a man of letters, it is false art-for its interest is medico-legal; it is false to human nature-for its hero is a devil; it is false to morality-for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health and sanity.’ (Mason 75-76) Emphasizing that Wilde’s novel violated the standards of middle-class propriety, these characterizations illustrate the intersection of Victorian class and gender ideologies from which Wilde’s status as the paradigmatic “homosexual” would emerge. For, in contrast to the “manly” middle-class male, Wilde would come to represent-through his writing and his trials-the “unmanly” social climber who threatened to upset the certainty of bourgeois categories.  (“Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation,” PMLA 102.5 [1987]: 802)

The Westminster Gazette (6 Apr. 1895), commenting on the Marquis of Queensberry’s acquittal on charges of criminal libel: [E]very reader of our columns, as he passed his eye over the report of Wilde’s apology for his life at the Old Bailey, must have realized, with accumulating significance at each line, the terrible risk involved in certain artistic and literary phrases of the day. Art, we are told, has nothing to do with morality. But even if this doctrine were true it has long ago been perverted, under the treatment of the decadents, into a positive preference on the part of “Art” for the immoral, the morbid, and the maniacal. It is on this narrower issue that the proceedings of the last few days have thrown so lurid a light. … But this terrible case . . . may be the means of incalculable good if it burns in its lesson upon the literary and moral conscience of the present generation.

Further comments by Ed Cohen:

[T]he widespread fascination with Wilde’s trials should not be viewed solely as the result of a prurient public interest, nor should it be seen only as the product of a virulent popular desire to eradicate “unnatural” sexual practices. Rather, the public response must be considered in the light of the Victorian bourgeoisie’s larger efforts to legitimate certain limits for the sexual deployment of the male body and, in Foucault’s terms, to define a “class body.” The middle-aged, middle-class men who judged Wilde-both in the court and in the press- saw themselves as attempting not merely to control a “degenerate” form of male sexuality but also to ensure standards for the health of their children and their country.’ To this end, the court proceedings against Wilde provided a perfect opportunity to de- fine publicly the authorized and legal limits within which a man could “naturally” enjoy the pleasures of his body with another man. The trials, then, can be thought of as a spectacle in which the state, through the law and the press, delimited legitimate male sexual practices (defining them as “healthy,” “natural,” or “true”) by proscribing expressions of male experience that transgressed these limits.2 The legal proceedings against Wilde were therefore not anomalous; rather, they crystallized a variety of shifting sexual ideologies and practices. For what was at issue was not just the prosecution of homosexual acts per se or the delegitimating of homosexual meanings. At issue was the discursive production of “the homosexual” as the antithesis of the “true” bourgeois male. In Britain during the late nineteenth century, “the homosexual” was emerging as a category for organizing male experience alongside other newly recognizable “types” (“the adolescent,” “the criminal,” “the delinquent,” “the prostitute,” “the housewife,” etc.).3 Coined by the Swiss physician Karoly Benkert in 1869 and popularized in the writings of the German sexologists, the word (along with its “normal” sibling, “the heterosexual”) entered English usage when Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis was translated during the 1890s. The shift in the conception of male same-sex eroticism from certain proscribed acts (the earlier concepts “sodomite” and “bugger” were identified with specific legally punishable practices [see Trumbach; Gilbert]) to certain kinds of actors was part of an overall transformation in class and sex-gender ideologies (see Weeks, Coming Out, esp. chs. 1-3). If we think of the growth and consolidation of bourgeois hegemony in Victorian Britain as a process whereby diverse sets of material practices (“sex” and “class” among others) were organized into an effective unity (see Connell), then we can see that “the homosexual” crystallized as a distinct sub- set of male experience only in relation to prescribed embodiments of “manliness.” This new conceptualization reproduced asymmetrical power relations by privileging the enactments of white middle-class, heterosexual men […].  (“Writing Gone Wilde: Homoerotic Desire in the Closet of Representation,” PMLA 102.5 [1987]: :801-2)


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