In this part, I intend to disclose the ambiguity of The Picture of Dorian Gray by studying its reception. When in 1895, Oscar Wilde was prosecuted for 'unnatural vices', The Picture of Dorian Gray was used in evidence against him. Not only did Edward Carson find indications of Wilde's homosexuality and decadence in the novel, but many critics after him did so. While Victorian society reduced Wilde after his downfall to a degenerate and psychoanalysts have studied him as an interesting pathological case, the homosexual community worships him as a heroic martyr in the history of homosexual emancipation. Although Wilde quipped that "caricature is the tribute which mediocrity pays to genius", the complexity of his life and work has often been explained away by reducing him to caricatures like "the homosexual martyr" or "the superficial wit". In the following chapter, I shall examine the role which Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray have played in the homosexual emancipation. In the second chapter, I want to explain the hostile reception of Wilde's novel in the Victorian literary press.
interpretation is retroactive; in fact Wilde and his writings look queer because
our stereotypical notion of male homosexuality derives from Wilde, and our ideas
Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century, p. vii
To give an idea of Wilde's significance for the gay community, I quote Scott Wilson who notices that "Wilde is made not merely a saint, but is of necessity positioned as the standard by which a gay life and identity is measured." Yet, it is an ironic twist of history that the gay community has changed Wilde into a kind of martyr and that he is remembered by society as the stereotype of the effeminate homosexual, since he used all means to avoid such a social stigma. Neil Bartlett, for example, modifies Wilde's heroic role in the history of homosexual emancipation. In Who was that man?, he draws a parallel between the lives of gay men like Oscar Wilde in 1890s and homosexuals like himself in the 1990s. When he scrutinises Wilde's status of a homosexual martyr, he concludes that he did not behave as a hero whose behaviour defied the heterosexual world, but as a privileged Londoner who could easily afford a homosexual double life:
It is no longer the orthodox imagery of heterosexuality that is under scrutiny; but the new orthodoxy of Wilde as a gay pioneer and martyr. This may be scrutinised, challenged to reveal some truly ugly meanings. It is commonplace to observe that "beneath" Wilde's charming exterior lay the night life, the lurid Victoriana of nineteenth-century London (the brothel in a respectable street, the expensive gift making its way into the wrong class of pocket). But what if "beneath" the heavily lidded eyes of the sex criminal lay not the excitement of a life that dares to challenge and evade, every boy's dream of an escape into the darker streets, but merely the overweight cynical ease with which an economically privileged man can and does lead a homosexual life in London without having to pay more than money for it.
As a matter of fact, Wilde never intended to come out for his same sex passion. In his article "The Social Rebel", George Woodcock refuses to regard Wilde's libel suit as a heroic deed:
There are some who have tried to elevate Wilde's homosexual practices and his three trials into a great act of rebellion against society. But here is an evident distortion, for all his actions during this period show the weaker side of his character, and reveal him as a victim rather than the defiant rebel.
Wilde brought about a libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry in order to put an end to all rumours about his homosexuality, so that he could save his reputation. Unlike Woodcock, Hielkema argues that Wilde's downfall indirectly contributed to the homosexual emancipation by making sexual deviance visible. Even if the press could not name Wilde's vice because of censorship, the readers started to speculate about the nature of his "unnatural acts". Another effect of Wilde's punishment was that, although Victorian society wanted to deny the existence of sexual deviance, it could not convict Wilde without affirming the existence of homosexual practices.
Indeed, Wilde could probably get so long away with his homosexual escapades since most Victorians disavowed the existence of a homosexual way of life. According to Woodcock, Wilde could conceal his 'bunburying' in such an efficient way that even intimate friends like Robert Sherard and Frank Harris had been unaware of his homosexual escapades. To us, when we now read some of Wilde's letters or when we hear anecdotes about his camp behaviour, it seems improbable that most Victorians did not believe him to be a homosexual. Alan Sinfield, however, explains that the Victorians did not perceive queerness as we do now. Wilde became the stereotype of the effeminate homosexual only after his trials and thus we know see him and read his work.
Sinfield, for instance, explains that in the nineteenth century, Wilde's effeminacy was not specifically associated with homosexual behaviour, but in general with the elegance and refinement of the aristocracy. Aristocrats who could afford not to labour, were called 'effeminate' since they were viewed as "etherial, decorative, and otiose in relation to the vigorous and productive values of the middle class." Only in the lower classes was effeminacy directly related to sodomy. Not until Wilde's scandal did effeminacy really begin to characterise male homosexuality. Furthermore, confusion of gender was part of the social game that the dandy took part in. The dandy and the femme fatale (for instance the actress Sarah Bernhardt) liked to play with the conventions of gender roles. To illustrate the ambiguity of Wilde's effeminate dandyism, I can refer to the Marquis of Queensberry, who thought that Wilde merely posed as a homosexual. On the famous card which he left for Wilde in his club, Queensberry had accused him of "posing like a somdomite (sic)" and not of "being a sodomite".
To explain the Victorian view of same-sex passion, Sinfield borrows Michel Foucault's thesis about the development of a homosexual identity. Until the end of the nineteenth century, most Victorians perceived same-sex practices as a temporary aberration and a kind of debauchery that was a temptation for everybody. They believed that everybody was born to be a heterosexual. Only when people began to view homosexual behaviour as a congenital and fixed feature of someone's personality and no longer as a matter of conscious choice, did a homosexual identity come into existence.
Like Sinfield, Elaine Showalter accepts Michel Foucault's thesis on the development of a homosexual identity and affirms that the late nineteenth century invented the stereotype of the male homosexual (and hence also of its opposite, the heterosexual). According to her, Victorian society constructed such a homosexual personality type in order to contain a growing homosexual subculture:
The concept of homosexuality began to take
shape in the 1880s in the work of John Addington Symonds and Richard von
Krafft-Ebing and in the research of Victorian sexologists such as Havelock
Ellis. ... Homosexuality became a medical problem, a pathology, even a
disease; and medical and scientific speculations about homosexuality attempted
to establish clear borderlines and labels, to draw "an impassable border
between acceptable and abhorrent behaviour."
The effort to create boundaries around male homosexuality was also carried out in the legal sphere. The burgeoning homosexual subculture that had begun to develop in England in the 1870s and early 1880s was both identified and outlawed by the Labouchère Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment of 1885, which made all male, homosexual acts, private or public, illegal: ... This was the law under which Oscar Wilde would be convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labour at Reading Gaol.
This "burgeoning homosexual subculture", in which Oscar Wilde took part, subverted the conventional gender roles. Victorian society tried to neutralise this sexual anarchy by creating strict boundaries around male homosexuality as a disease or as a criminal act. Wilde, the effeminate dandy, was an expert in crossing these boundaries, for which he was severely punished in 1895. In the following paragraphs, I shall deal with Wilde's struggle with the homosexual stereotype which Victorian society was concocting.
Notwithstanding the emergence of the homosexual stereotype at the end of the nineteenth century, Wilde did not believe in the existence of a homosexual identity. He even refused to accept such a label. This is the way in which Alan Sinfield has interpreted Wilde's short story The Portrait of Mr. W.H.. The I-narrator of this short story is invited by Erskine. To him, Erskine tells the tragic story of Cyril Graham's suicide. Graham had invented a new thesis about the identity of Mr. W.H., to whom Shakespeare dedicated his Sonnets. He believed that 'Mr. W.H.' stood for the initials of Willie Hughes, a young, effeminate boy-actor who deserted Shakespeare's theatre company. Shakespeare would have written the Sonnets to win back the love of Willie Hughes as he was the muse of his art. To prove his theory, Cyril revealed a portrait of Willie Hughes to the sceptical Erskine. When Erskine discovered that this portrait was a forgery, Cyril shot himself. The I-narrator is immediately fascinated by Graham's theory and decides to look for new clues in Shakespeare's Sonnets. Once he has convinced Erskine with new evidences that Cyril's theory is right, he himself suddenly rejects the theory as: "... a mere myth, an idle dream, the boyish fancy of a young man who, like most ardent spirits, was more anxious to convince others than to be himself convinced." Erskine, on the other hand, intends to devote his life to proving Graham's theory. Two years afterwards, the narrator receives a letter from Erskine in which he announces that, by the time the letter has arrived, he will have committed suicide as "he had tried in every way to verify the Willie Hughes theory, and had failed, and that as Cyril Graham had given his life for this theory, he himself had determined to give his own life to the same cause." It later turns out that he actually died of consumption. Paradoxically, in spite of this discovery, the narrator remarks at the end: "... but sometimes, when I look at it [the portrait], I think that there is really a great deal to be said for the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare's Sonnets."
Sinfield suggests that, as the narrator in The Portrait of Mr. W.H. suddenly dismissed Cyril's theory about Shakespeare's homosexuality as "a mere myth", Wilde played with the idea of a natural homosexual identity but rejected this as a fancy. If Shakespeare had been inspired by the love for a young boy-actor, same-sex passion would have gained a right of existence. Yet, Wilde's story insists that no non-literary facts (like a portrait) can support nor legitimate the existence of a homosexual identity. Sinfield writes: "Mr. W.H. enacts not the discreet presentation of an existing queer identity, but the elusiveness of the quest for such an identity." As a result, Scott Wilson questions Wilde's martyrdom for the gay community:
If one gives one' life, one's image, one's example, in a martyr's death, the martyrdom presumably has to be genuine. But what if it were said, after Wilde, that he died, that he went to prison, for what he did not believe, for what he could not know to be true, for a sexuality, say, that could not be properly known or experienced or lived or represented even though he did indeed live it, infusing its images with beauty and uneasiness.
As a matter of fact, Wilde himself in The Portrait of Mr. W.H. undermined the concept of 'martyrdom', for its narrator notices that "[n]o man dies for what he knows to be true," but that "[m]en die for what they want to be true, for what some terror in their hearts tells them is not true."
Although The Portrait of Mr. W.H. indicates that no evidence can be found for the existence of a natural homosexual identity in real life outside the sphere of art (no historical sources can be found for proving the existence of Willie Hughes), Wilde seems to suggest that one may construct an artificial gay identity through art. Even if Cyril's theory about Shakespeare's homosexuality finally turns out to be a lie and the Sonnets are merely fiction, they helped the narrator to express his own lingering homosexual feelings.
In The Decay of Lying, Wilde explored the relation between art and truth. He concluded that, although art consists of beautiful lies, it may confront someone with hidden sides of his or her personality. As Wilde repeated in the enlarged version of The Portrait of Mr. W.H.: "Consciousness, indeed, is quite inadequate to explain the contents of personality. It is Art, and Art only, that reveals us to ourselves." This theory explains why the narrator thinks to have discovered his own soul when interpreting Shakespeare's Sonnets. The narrator, thus, exclaims that he "was deciphering the story of a life that had once been his, unrolling the record of a romance that, without him knowing it, had coloured the very texture of his being" and how curious it was that a book of Sonnets, published nearly three hundred years ago, had suddenly disclosed "the story of his soul's romance" to him. I can support this interpretation by quoting a passage in De Profundis, where Wilde points to the possible effect of reading Shakespeare's Sonnets: "Out of Shakespeare's sonnets they draw, to their own hurt it may be, the secret of his love and make it their own." Likewise, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is art which brings to light Dorian Gray's decadent nature. This happens when he identifies himself with the hero of a decadent novel which Lord Henry gave to him:
For years, Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of this book. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he never sought to free himself from it. ... The hero, the wonderful young Parisian, in whom the romantic and the scientific temperaments were so strangely blended, became to him a kind of prefiguring type of himself. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life written before he had lived it.
In conclusion, I concur with Sinfield that Wilde did not believe that a natural, homosexual identity existed. In The Portrait of Mr. W.H., the narrator can find no historical evidence to support Cyril's theory about Shakespeare's homosexuality. Yet, Wilde seems to believe that the homosexual can construct an artificial gay identity in art, since the narrator of the short story suddenly discovered a hidden homosexual side of his personality through reading Shakespeare's Sonnets. The paradox is that, although art consists of lies, it increases the self-knowledge of its audience by offering them new possible identities (such as a homosexual one) and alternative ways of life.
Interestingly enough, Lawrence Danson's interpretation of The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is also quoted by Sinfield. Danson asserts that Wilde deliberately refused to confine his sexuality within the boundaries of the homosexual identity which Victorian society was constructing. This interpretation fits in with Wilde's ideas about developing oneself as an individual. Such a fixed homosexual identity would have been an arrest in his personal development. Wilde, for instance, wrote about Dorian Gray:
He used to wonder at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence. To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead.
Like Dorian Gray, Wilde wanted to keep all alternatives open and refused to confine himself to one identity. Also as an intellectual, Wilde refused to stick to one system. Consistency was never his strongest point, which is proved by his flirtation with the Catholic church and masonry in his youth. The narrator in The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is equally very inconsistent when he suddenly abandons his theory about the identity of 'Mr. W.H.', although he has just convinced Erskine of its truth.
In his critical writings, Wilde changed this lack of consistency into an ideal for the critic. In The Critic as Artist, he tries to prove the superiority of 'becoming every person' to 'being a person', when he lets Gilbert assert:
It seems to me that with the development of the critical spirit we shall be able to realise, not merely our own lives, but the collective life of the race, and so to make ourselves absolutely modern, in the true meaning of the word modernity. For he to whom the present is the only thing that is present, knows nothing of the age in which he lives. To realise the nineteenth century, one must realise every century that has preceded it and that has contributed to its making. To know anything about oneself, one must know all about others. There must be no mood with which one cannot sympathise, no dead mode of life that one cannot make alive.
The question then remains whether Wilde's homosexuality resulted from his conviction that one had to experiment with different ways of life. Or was his theory an apology for his homosexual practices?
Wilde's attitude to the emancipation of the "Love that dare not speak its name" seems ambiguous not only because he did not believe in a natural homosexual identity, but also because of the discrepancy between his idealisation of homosexuality and his practices. On the one hand, he defended the Platonic idealisation of homosexual love, for instance at his trial:
The "Love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you will find in the sonnets of Michael Angelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection which is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michael Angelo, and those two letters of mine. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its name," and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exits between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it. (my italics)
In his speech, Wilde clearly tries to aestheticise homosexual passion, which he calls "beautiful" and "spiritual". Also in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward's affection for Dorian Gray is idealised as a source of inspiration for a new art. Similarly, Graham's theory in The Portrait of Mr. W.H. proposed that the beauty of Willie Hughes was a source of inspiration for Shakespeare's art. On the other hand, Wilde's contacts with boy prostitutes (as described by Rupert Croft-Cooke) are far less idealistic or aesthetic. Wilde's idealisation of homosexuality seems a beautiful, theoretical mask. Wilde's extreme aestheticism, for instance, abhors nature and praises artificiality, so that it gives a right of existence to an 'unnatural' and 'artificial' same-sex passion. This discrepancy between high ideals and brute reality can also be found in the character of Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray attempts to transform his life into a refined work of art for which he rejects all conventional morality, but he ends leading a life of utter debauchery. As Dorian Gray used his personal beauty as mask in order to indulge certain forbidden appetites, Wilde seems to have used his aestheticism as a smoke screen, so that he could indulge 'unlawful', homosexual appetites.
It is characteristic for Wilde that he oscillates between the two extremes; the Platonic ideal of homosexual love and the sordid underworld of boy prostitutes. Nevertheless, Victorian society may have forced Wilde to assume this position because of its hostility to same-sex passion. Since the Victorians condemned homosexuality as a vice, he was obliged to sublimate this sexual drive as a spiritual inspiration for the artist or to aestheticise it, although he knew (when following Sinfield's interpretation of The Portrait of Mr. W.H.) that this sublimation only existed in art but was a lie in real life. In his battle against Victorian hypocrisy, Victorian society forced Wilde to become himself a hypocrite.
Before I further discuss Wilde's ambivalent role in the emancipation of homosexuality, I shall briefly dwell on the alleged misogyny in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Showalter observes that Wilde's rationalisation of homosexual love as an aesthetic experience may account for the misogyny in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Only the beauty of male youth qualifies for the Platonic ideal of a spiritual love. According to the decadent aesthete, women could not aestheticise their sexuality in a heterosexual relationship, since the biological necessity to produce children related female beauty directly to nature, which was precisely the opposite of art. As a matter of fact, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry Wotton's disgust for nature correlates with his misogyny.
Wotton charges women with the same defects of which he accuses nature. He describes women as possessing "wonderfully primitive instincts", so that they "appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty more than anything else." Women are even better suited for suffering, since they "live on their emotions". Furthermore, they are "a decorative sex" which, like nature, represents "the triumph of matter over mind." Because of their immanence, vulgarity and materiality, women, consequently, have "no sense of art". Another interesting point in this context is that Wilde contrasts Lord Henry's artistic musical voice with the inartistic shrill and discordant voice of his wife Victoria, who "tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy." It is also female practicality which spoils every romance, as Lord Henry puts it: "Women are wonderfully practical, ... much more practical than we are. In situations of that kind we often forget to say anything about marriage, and they always remind us." Because of his contempt for nature and women, Lord Henry tries to duplicate himself without the interference of a woman. He hopes to turn Dorian Gray into a creation of his own. As he acknowledges in chapter four: "To a large extent the lad was his own creation. He had made him premature. That was something."
Showalter concedes that these evidences of misogyny are in contradiction with Wilde's editorship of the women's magazine The Woman's World. Articles on feminism and women's suffrage had appeared in this magazine under Wilde's editorship. Yet, she fails to see that he modifies Lord Henry Wotton's prejudices for instance by his creation of the witty Lady Narborough. When Lord Henry complains to her that women love men for their defects, she cleverly replies:
If we women did not love you for your defects, where would you all be? Not one of you would ever be married. You would be a set of unfortunate bachelors. Not, however, that that would alter much. Nowadays all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married men.
One could also argue that Lord Henry loses his credibility as a connoisseur of women when the reader learns in the nineteenth chapter that his marriage is broken up because his wife Victoria eloped with a pianist. Moreover, his remark to Dorian Gray that he feels like Marsyas who is listening to Apollo, indicates that he is a broken man. Marsyas was a shepherd who challenged Apollo to a musical contest, but he was defeated and flayed alive by Apollo. Finally, Wotton's self-generation turns out to be still-born when Dorian Gray commits suicide in the final chapter.
Though Wilde sublimates his same-sex passion as an aesthetic experience, Showalter points out that the aesthetic quality of homosexual love is threatened by natural phenomena such as ageing and venereal diseases. Syphilis in its final phase, for instance, mutilates the body by all kinds of skin disorders. Hence, she proposes that Dorian Gray's magic portrait fulfils Wilde's utopian dream of eternal youth and beauty. Instead of the homosexual, the picture bears the traces of old age and venereal diseases. Richard Ellmann's observation that Wilde contracted syphilis from a woman prostitute in 1878 may support Showalter's argument that Dorian Gray's portrait depicts the signs of a venereal disease. I can add to Showalter's argument that Melissa Knox suggests that the corruption of Dorian's soul is hidden from the outside world in the same way as the inner destruction of the body by syphilis is. Furthermore, Dorian's invisible degeneracy secretly infects his companions as a venereal disease does. Since syphilis slowly affects the body in three stages, it remains invisible to the outside world between these periods, so that patients often think that they are cured and unknowingly infect other people with it. When Wilde grew older, he must have been terrified by the threat of physical and mental deterioration from the syphilis he had contracted. This may partly explain his obsession with youth and beauty which is reflected in Dorian Gray's irrational fears of old age.
However, I concur with Alan Sinfield that it is naive and even homophobic to relate the deformation of the portrait exclusively to a homosexual way of life. Showalter's interpretation of the portrait presupposes that Dorian Gray must be a homosexual, whereas the novel remains silent about the precise nature of Dorian Gray's immoral debauchery. As Sinfield holds in The Wilde Century:
He [Dorian Gray] is accused of ruining the reputations of numerous women and of having corrupted young men, but the vice of one of these is specified as taking 'his wife from the streets', and of another as fraud. What Wilde had wanted, he said, was 'to surround Dorian Gray with an atmosphere of moral corruption.' ... Of course, that does not rule out same-sex passion, but neither does it make possible a secure labelling of Dorian's vice.
I can add to Sinfield's arguments that the Decadent writer does not associate venereal diseases with homosexual love, but with nature and the femme fatale. In the eighth chapter of À Rebours, Des Esseintes is, for instance, collecting exotic flowers (nature) which seem to bear the marks of syphilis. At the end of this chapter, syphilis reveals itself to Des Esseintes in the form of a diseased, flowerlike woman during one of his nightmares:
le sol quelque chose remua qui devint une femme très pâle, nue, les jambes
moulées dans des bas de soie verts. ...
Une soudaine intuition lui vint: c'est la Fleur, se dit-il; et la manie raissonante persista dans le cauchemar, dériva de même que pendant la journée de la végétation sur le Virus [syphilis].
Alors il observa l'effrayante irritation des seins et de la bouche, décrouvit sur la peau du corps des macules de bistre et de cuivre, recula, égaré; mais l'il de la femme le fascinait ... .
Although I go along with Sinfield in that The Picture of Dorian Gray never specifies Dorian's vice, I do not rule out Showalter's assumption that Wilde's fascination with eternal youth and beauty might be related to the sublimation of his homosexuality. Even if The Picture of Dorian Gray does not directly mention same-sex passion, Sinfield admits that its context is "deafeningly queer".
Besides the ambivalence in Wilde's defence of homosexuality, I wish to reveal that Wilde's indirect representation of same-sex passion in The Picture of Dorian Gray is ambiguous, sometimes even reactionary. Nobody can deny that The Picture of Dorian Gray helped to introduce the forbidden theme of homosexuality into English literature, but as Richard Ellmann noted: "Like Proust, Wilde made use of the theme of homosexuality, but only in terms of unhappiness." For instance, Basil Hallward is murdered for his extreme devotion to Dorian Gray and Dorian Gray is told to have corrupted women as well as men.
To examine Wilde's representation of homosexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray, I compare his novel to Pathologieën (1908) by the Dutch decadent writer Jacob Israël de Haan (1881 - 1924), who was greatly influenced by Oscar Wilde. Not surprisingly, De Haan in Pathologieën paid tribute to Wilde by dedicating one of its three parts to him. Nowadays, Jacob Israel de Haan is known for having written Pijpelijntjes (1904), the first Dutch novel which openly described a homosexual relationship.
In his article "De uitstraling van Oscar Wilde over de Nederlandse letteren", Johan Polak observes that De Haan strongly identified himself with Wilde. When he visited Reading Gaol, De Haan, for example, expressed his emotions in two poems. One poem dealt with Wilde's imprisonment at Reading and the other paraphrased The Ballad of Reading Gaol. De Haan also sent a copy of Pathologieën to Lord Alfred Douglas with the following dedication: "Je donne ce livre à Lord Alfred Douglas, parce-qu'il l'ami d'Oscar Wilde et le poète le plus pénéntrant."
Pathologieën narrates the decline of Johan van Vere de With ending with his suicide, as The Picture of Dorian Gray describes the degeneration of Dorian Gray. Johan van Vere de With and Dorian Gray have a lot in common. Both grew up without a mother. Johan's mother committed suicide shortly after he was born; Dorian Gray's mother died of a broken heart shortly after he was born. Both have artistic gifts: Dorian plays the piano, whereas Johan writes artful, elaborate descriptions of objects and landscapes. Both young men are guided by contrasting father figures. The idealistic painter Basil Hallward and the cynic dandy Lord Henry Wotton try to gain control over Dorian Gray, while Johan must choose between his real father, who rejects his son's homosexuality, and René, an evil dandy and painter, who engages Johan into a destructive, sadomasochistic relationship.
Nevertheless, the two novels differ in genre, theme, and their representation of dandyism. First of all, both novels represent different genres. Pathologieën is realistic, while The Picture of Dorian Gray with its supernatural elements (eternal youth and a changing portrait) belongs to the genre of the fantastic and is influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel. For Dutch fin-de-siècle literature, Jacqueline Bel distinguishes a sociological from a pathological naturalism. Pathologieën (the title is revealing) clearly belongs to the latter type. Whereas sociological naturalism described a certain social class of people in their natural environment, pathological naturalism usually gave a psychological portrait of a nervous character. The discoveries of modern psychiatry (for instance Freud and his study of the unconsciousness) played an important role in the emergence of pathological naturalism. De Haan opted for this new subgenre of naturalism, so that he could write freely about homosexuality under the pretext of a literary scientific study. Wilde partly solved this problem of censorship for homosexual themes by writing his novel in the genre of the fantastic romance.
Secondly, both novels have a different theme. Pathologieën is outspoken apologetic about Johan's homosexuality, which only becomes pathological, when a narrow-minded society refuses to accept it. If Johan had not been rejected by his father, he would not have been driven in the arms of the evil René. This apology for homosexuality is the central theme of Pathologieën. Oscar Wilde is never so strongly apologetic as Jacob Israel de Haan and the central theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray is certainly not an apology for same-sex passion.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the attentive reader can only catch a glimpse between the lines of the Platonic ideal of homosexual love (as an inspiration for an artist like Basil Hallward) and the negative puritan view of same-sex practices (as a vice for a criminal like Dorian Gray). Wilde even omitted some too obvious hints to same-sex passion from the Lippincott version, when his novel was put into print. Wilde submits to ideological pressure since his novel represents homosexuality by means of two ideological constructs; the puritan view that it is a vice (Dorian Gray) and the Platonic sublimation of same-sex passion as an inspiration for the artist (Basil Hallward). This Platonic view of homosexuality is as prejudiced as the puritan view, since it presupposes that homosexual love has no right of existence unless it is sublimated.
Unlike Wilde, De Haan defended his homosexuality in his fiction in a more direct way. Yet, Ron Moser notes in an article about Pijpelijntjes that, although De Haan wrote about homosexuality and that his writings were even to a large extent autobiographical, he strongly denied to write about himself. Like Wilde, he only gave his homosexuality a right of existence in fiction and in his private life hidden away from society.
Finally, the two novels differ in the representation of dandyism. De Haan portrays the dandy figure far less sympathetically than Wilde. The painter René is nothing but a sadist and his epigrams are no more than irritating, nonsensical paradoxes. The reader is immediately disgusted by his shallowness. Wilde's creation, Lord Henry Wotton, is a far more fascinating dandy. He has all the attractiveness of a real Mephistopheles and his epigrams are unsettling. René and Lord Henry both experiment on people, but René does it in a physical way, whereas Lord Henry subtly seduces with his wit and charms. In their experiments, René and Lord Henry are equally insensitive and destructive to others. Yet, Lord Henry is an attractive evil character who, like a Sir John Falstaff, charms us by his wit. This gives The Picture of Dorian Gray in its portrayal of evil and good an ambiguity, which Pathologieën entirely lacks.
De Haan's negative portrayal of the dandy can be explained by the introduction which P.C. Boutens (1870 - 1943) wrote to his Dutch translation (1911) of Wilde's De Profundis. In this introduction, Boutens remarked that every pure artist has a personal morality which is superior to the conventional morality. Yet, Boutens condemned Oscar Wilde as an impure artist, for he did not contemplate his inner life (inner contemplation was typical for a symbolist like Boutens), but he took part in the mundane, social life of London as a notorious dandy who tried to experience every sensation. As Boutens wrote:
"Oscar Wilde, die zeker geen zuiver kunstenaar was, zocht zijn ondergang door het noodlottige dualisme van zijn aanleg. Wat voor iederen onbevangene thans duidelijk is, dat zijn tehuis eer zijn cel in de gevangenis was dan de woningen der Engelsche grooten, voorvoelde hij met de noodlottige zekerheid van wie niet aan hun bestemming ontkomen, en hij maakte die verheimelijkte bewustheid tot den pervers bekorende inhoud van een ledig mondain leven. Hij versmeet en verkwistte zich aan onwaardigen. Hij weigerde te zien wat hij maar al te scherp zag: dat de kunstenaar het leven niet doorkent door een alzijdige deelneming, maar door een eerlijke verdieping in zijn eigen bestaan." [original spelling] (my italics)
Boutens thought that Wilde wanted to experience everything including corruption and that he consciously planned his downfall:
Maar er laait om hem een schijn van feller tragiek, omdat een onzichtbaar noodlot hem dreef tot de schijnbaar vrijwillige keuze van het verderf. Hij is als een slaapwandelaar die met open oogen zoû spelen om het leven: door zijn bejuweelde vingeren glijden en verglijden alle schatten tot den glimlach der hooghartige spilzucht verstart in de bewuste grijns van den dood. [original spelling]
He clearly condemned Wilde's idle dandyism, since he, as a symbolist, took the social role of the artist far more seriously than Wilde, who promoted the art for art sake's movement. Like Boutens, De Haan attributed Wilde's downfall to his dandyism and extreme aestheticism. As a result, he represented the dandy figure as shallow and evil without any ambiguity.
Furthermore, De Haan did no longer need dandyism and extreme aestheticism, because he regarded homosexuality as something innate and natural (Johan van Vere de With, for instance, was born to be a homosexual), while Wilde considered same-sex passion to be a matter of conscious choice and artificial and tried to defend this disposition by advocating an extreme aestheticism that abhorred nature and worshipped artificiality. Wilde's and De Haan's opposite views of nature illustrate Michel Foucault's thesis about the development of a homosexual identity as a shift from incidental sexual deviant behaviour to the homosexual as a species. For Wilde, a homosexual identity is a mere fancy and he regards homosexual practices as incidental, unnatural and artificial. To defend his 'unnatural' passions, he aestheticises it and despises nature because of his extreme aestheticism. Yet, for De Haan, the homosexual identity is congenital and is therefore natural. Consequently he attacks the unnatural, arbitrary conventions of society and finds comfort in nature.
In a final analysis, Oscar Wilde's role in the history of homosexual emancipation is ambivalent and complex. Although Wilde led a homosexual double life, he always tried to avoid the social stigma. In my discussion of The Portrait of Mr. W.H., I have shown that he denied the existence of a natural gay identity. Yet, it seems that Wilde, like the narrator at the end of this short story, believed that the homosexual can create an artificial gay identity through art. Indeed, as a dandy, Wilde thought that, as an artist created a work of art, a dandy could shape his personality. Not only did he reject the existence of a natural gay identity, but he, likewise, viewed every other authentic identity (for instance a natural heterosexual identity) as a temporary social and historical construction. Like Dorian Gray, he wondered "at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable and of one essence." For Wilde, no universal, a-historical and essential human nature existed which could define one's self, but every identity was a social role or mask which was rooted in a social and historical context.
Unlike Jacob Israel de Haan, Wilde saw his homosexuality as a conscious choice and not as congenital. Like Wilde, most Victorians considered same-sex practices to be a kind of debauchery to which everyone was tempted (as if homosexuality was a matter of conscious choice). This view of homosexuality may explain Wilde's extreme aestheticism which denies nature and worships the artificial, so that his 'unnatural' homosexuality could gain a right of existence. While De Haan represented same-sex passion in Pathologieën as something natural which is corrupted by an intolerant society, Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray hinted at homosexuality in its conservative guises; as a vice or sublimated as an artistic inspiration. Although this Platonic idealisation of homosexuality seems progressive at first sight, its effect is reactionary since such a sublimation presupposes that ordinary same-sex passion has no right of existence unless it is sublimated and consequently neutralised.
Nevertheless, The Picture of Dorian Gray contributed to the homosexual emancipation, as the novel created an ambiguity about all Victorian social conventions and prejudices. I have already pointed to the disturbing effect of the dandy Lord Henry Wotton, who attacks all Victorian dogmas in a most charming way. How the Victorian literary press reacted to the ambivalence of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is examined in the next chapter.
A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist
In The Critical Heritage volume devoted to Oscar Wilde, Karl Beckson summarises that Victorian reviewers could not stomach Wilde for two deadly sins; his plagiarism and his insincerity. They particularly attacked his witty epigrams which seemed to be written merely for artistic effect or for the sake of cleverness. As a result, critics accused him of sacrificing the sincerity of his art for cheap rhetorical effects. These accusations can mainly be explained by the dominant theory of literature at the time.
In the 1890s, conventional literary criticism generally believed that fiction should hold a mirror up to nature (mimetic) and, thus, expose the shortcomings of life (moralistic and didactic). This metaphor went back to Shakespeare's Hamlet, when Hamlet instructs the players:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. (my italics)
Like Hamlet, the average Victorian critic expected a literary work to reflect reality in an authentic way with the author attaching a moral message to this imitation of reality. In order to represent the world authentically, authors were only allowed to express his their own experiences and personal observations of life. In this type of literary criticism, the sincerity of the author determined the value of the literary work, whereas the artistic form was considered to be a means and not the end.
Not surprisingly, Wilde's aestheticism clashed with this mimetic and moralistic view of literature. In his poetics, aesthetics dominated realism and morals. The artist is the creator of beautiful things without any concern for morals or an accurate representation of reality. Art is autonomous and not mimetic. In The Decay of Lying, Wilde declared that art should express nothing but its own beauty. He also believed that, if art does not reflect its creator or reality, it mirrors its spectator. Since the reader determines the moral content of a literary work, art could not have a moralising function. Indeed, virtue and vice are only used by the artist as raw material in his or her art.
About the above quoted passage in Hamlet, Wilde quipped in The Decay of Lying: "They [realist writers] will call upon Shakespeare - they always do - and will quote that hackneyed passage forgetting that this unfortunate aphorism about Art holding the mirror up to Nature, is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all art-matters." Instead of Hamlet's mirror, Wilde introduced the paradox of the sincere mask as the key concept for describing the role of the artist. If one looks in Hamlet's mirror, one does not find a trustworthy reproduction of reality and the artist's real experiences, but a "truthful lie" and the mask of the artist. This mask allows the artist to explore new modes of expression, thinking and morals in a sincere and detached way. As Wilde reversed the ideal of authorial sincerity in one of his epigrams: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
Consequently, critics often accused Wilde of insincerity and posing. For example in the following excerpt:
His gaze was constantly fixed on himself; yet not on himself, but on his reflection in the looking glass. There is a vast difference between honest introspection, in which a man turns his eyes inward to search for what is there that he may develop to improve it, and the actor's pose before his mirror to see that his make-up, his disguise, his semblance, is becoming and effective. ... Never being forced to search in himself for himself and develop what he found there into the firm basis of his life's work, he continued to pose, to imitate, to build on sand. How long will it be before the sand covers all his building? (my italics)
Unlike Wilde, Victorian critics asserted that only sincere introspection and not the aesthetic form could give birth to enduring literary works. To exemplify this obsession with sincerity in Victorian reviews I quote this anonymous critic who praises the authenticity of The Ballad of Reading Gaol without knowing the author:
The document is authentic: hence its worth. The poem is not great, is not entirely trustworthy; but in so far as it is the faithful record of experiences through which the writer -C.3.3.- has passed, it is good literature. According to its sincerity it is valuable: where the author goes afield and becomes philosophic and self-conscious and inventive he forfeits our interests; but so long as he honestly reproduces emotion he holds it. To feel and chronicle sensations is his peculiar gift: in the present work, at any rate, he is not a thinker. (my italics)
This critic plainly values the poem insofar as it reflects real experiences, while he excludes the aesthetic form from his evaluation. Hence, De Profundis was later praised to be Wilde's first authentic and most sincere work, since he wrote it out of his own experiences in prison. However, Max Beerbohm correctly pointed out that Wilde was still playing with new roles and masks in this miserable period of his life:
Some of the critics, wishing to reconcile present enthusiasm with past indifference, or with past obloquy, have been suggesting that De Profundis is quite unlike any previous work of Oscar Wilde -a quite sudden and unrelated phenomenon. ... In De Profundis was he, at length, expressing something that he really and truly felt? ... He was still precisely himself. He was still playing with ideas, playing with emotions. 'There is only one thing left for me now,' he writes, 'absolute humility.' And about humility he writes many beautiful and true things. And, doubtless, while he wrote them, he had the sensation of humility. Humble he was not. Emotion was not seeking outlet: emotion came through its own expression. The artist spoke, and the man obeyed. ... In prison Oscar Wilde was still himself -still with the same artistry in words, still with the same detachment from life. We see him here as the spectator of his own tragedy.
Contrary to most critics who look for a social message in Wilde's work, Beerbohm always stressed Wilde's aesthetic detachment from life. As he argues in this excerpt:
... beautiful and profound though his ideas were, he never was a real person in contact with realities. He created his poetry, created his philosophy: neither sprang from his own soul, or from his own experience. His ideas were for the sake of ideas, his emotions for the sake of emotions.
According to Beerbohm, this disengagement from life explains why Wilde frequently stooped to plagiarism. The value of an idea did not depend on its originality or the authority of its creator, but on its convincing form. When Wilde was of the opinion that an idea was profound or beautiful enough, he just annexed it regardless its origins.
Unlike Beerbohm, Richard Ellmann in his biography of Wilde attempts to reconcile Wilde's aesthetic disengagement from life with an idealistic impulse to improve the world. Yet, art can only reform the world provided that the artist recognises that his art can influence the public, whereas two opposite views of the influence which art exercises on life, can be found in Wilde's writings. On the one hand, Wilde stresses the sterility of art, but, on the other hand, he talks about the need of expression for life through art in for instance The Decay of Lying.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the discussion of whether art is sterile or 'infectious' continues. Dorian Gray blames Lord Henry of having poisoned him with a book: "Yet you poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm." Yet, Lord Henry stresses the sterility of art and replies: "As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all."
To reconcile these opposite attitudes to art, Ellmann proposes the following union between the sterility of art and its influence on life:
Wilde never formulated their union [sterility and influence of art on life], but he implied something like this: by its creation of beauty art reproaches the world, calling attention to the world's faults by disregarding them, so the sterility of art is an affront or a parable. Art may also outrage the world by flouting its laws or by indulgently positing their violation. Or art may seduce the world by making it follow an example which seems bad but is really sanctuary. In these way the artist moves the world towards self-recognition, with at least a tinge of self-redemption, as he compels himself to the same end.
I agree with Ellmann that Wilde thought that his art moves its audience to self-recognition, but this does not mean that his art urges its public to reproach and to reform the world. On the contrary, the insight which is gained by the contemplation of art, is completely sterile as Lord Henry argued in his discussion with Dorian Gray.
Dorian Gray, for example, discovers his beauty through Basil Hallward's portrait, but the knowledge of his beauty awakens his vanity. This does not mean that the painting makes him vain (as Dorian Gray thinks and Richard Ellmann would presume), but that the painting confronts him with his beauty and his reaction reveals his innate narcissism. If Dorian Gray had not been vain from the outset, he would have reacted to the discovery of his beauty in a more sound way. As one of the maxims in the Preface states : "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde exposes the demonic side of art as he shows that its moral effects depends on the moral standards of its spectator. Art may refine someone but also further corrupt weak people like Dorian Gray. Because Wilde viewed art as potentially moral and immoral in its effects, it is hard to maintain that he believed in reforming his audience through his art.
As a matter of fact, Ellmann's view of Wilde's aestheticism ignores its decadent aspects. It is true that Wilde urges his readers to live up to the beauty of art, but he, at the same time, acknowledges that every form of beauty (in life and in art) is founded on evil and suffering. When Lord Henry has heard about Dorian Gray's unhappy childhood, he, for instance, concludes:
The mother snatched away by death, the boy left in solitude and the tyranny of an old and loveless man. ... It posed [sic] the lad, made him more perfect as it were. Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic. Worlds had to be in travail, that the meanest flower might blow. (my italics)
Moreover, the self-recognition which Wilde's decadent writings (like Salomé and The Picture of Dorian Gray) impose on the reader or the spectator is that human nature is essentially demonic. In Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia defines 'demonic' by referring to the word daimon. A 'daimon' is a nature spirit who both destroys and creates, and symbolises the duality of fertility and waste in nature. I would like to interpret 'demonic' as a pejorative term for 'ambivalent'. Like a good Epicurean, Wilde urges his readers to recognise that both evil and good belong to human nature and that both are necessary to enjoy life.
The Picture of Dorian Gray warns against the narrowing interpretation of this ambivalence by the decadent. Dorian Gray cannot resist the temptation to explore his evil side, once "the musical voice" of Lord Henry has made him realise that his nature is both evil and good. Whereas the decadent like Dorian Gray decides to yield totally to his evil impulse and tries to find pleasure and beauty in evil and corruption, Wilde insists that one should keep one's good and bad side in balance.
The same message can more or less be found in Wilde's fairy tales. In Into the Demon Universe, Nassaar noted that most of these fairy tales start in a childlike world of innocence when beauty is still separated from suffering. The protagonist then moves from innocence to experience when (s)he realises that the enjoyment of beauty and art is founded on evil and suffering. Only when the main character is able to come to terms with the demonic side of life by embracing not only the beautiful but also the evil side of life, can (s)he reach a higher degree of innocence.
Whereas the fairy tales explained how one can come to terms with the ambivalence of life, Wilde explores what happens when one yields to the evil side of human nature in his work after 1886 (like The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salomé). Nassaar attributes this change of scope to Wilde's initiation into homosexuality by Robert Ross in 1886. Hereafter, his work altered since he considered homosexual contact to be evil and now wrote in full awareness of a demonic impulse within himself. Wilde himself feared to lose his balance by surrendering to his discovered homosexual appetites.
Like Nassaar, Melissa Knox takes the year 1886 as the turning point in Wilde's life and career but for another reason. According to her, Wilde found out in 1886 that the mercury treatment had not fully cured the syphilis which he had probably contracted as a young student at Oxford so that he might have infected his wife (he presumably did so) and his two sons (as syphilis is hereditary) with this hideous disease. Syphilis may explain Wilde's obsession with sin, corruption and unattainable purification in his writings. As Dorian Gray, for example, cannot remove the traces of his actions from his portrait, Wilde could not purify himself nor his family of the possible effects of syphilis.
the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart."
Hamlet, VI, 7, lines 95 - 96
About the hostile reactions to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Vyvyan Holland, Wilde's son, wrote:
The English Press was almost unanimous in its condemnation of the book. The ostensible objection was that it was prurient, immoral, vicious, coarse, and crude. But the real reason for the attack was that it did so much to expose the hypocrisy of Victorian Englishmen who, living in one of the most vicious cities in the world, kept priding themselves, sanctimoniously, upon their virtue.
Oscar Wilde retorted with letters to the St James's Gazette, the Daily Chronicle, and the Scots Observer. He defended his novel by a publication of a list of epigrams in the Fortnightly. He later added these epigrams as a Preface to the novel. This Preface contributed to the ambivalence of the novel. While the novel warned against the excesses and dangers of a decadent aestheticism such as the one promoted by Wilde himself, the Preface vigorously defended this theory of art despite all its possible faults. As Ellmann observes: "Wilde the preface-writer and Wilde the novelist deconstruct each other" I shall focus on the nature of this deconstruction in a later chapter.
Vyvyan Holland assumed that the press attacked The Picture of Dorian Gray so severely because it exposed all the social vices that the establishment desperately tried to cover up. However, it seems to me that the critics were not so much annoyed by the novel's exposure of the Victorian hypocrisy, as by the lack of moralising comment on this hypocrisy. Wilde's frivolous aestheticism was responsible for the absence of moralising in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was this moral ambiguity that most Victorian reviewers could not accept as it endangered the authority of all Victorian values.
This can be proved by comparing the reception of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890-1891) with that of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reads like a detective story in which the lawyer Mr Utterson investigates why the respectable Dr Jekyll protects the repulsive Mr Hyde, who has trampled a little girl and later even murders an MP. Only at the end, when the corpse of Hyde is discovered in Jekyll's cabinet, does Utterson find out that Jekyll and Hyde were actually the same person. In a letter which Jekyll wrote to Utterson just before he (transformed in Hyde) committed suicide, he repudiates his double life. Even before he could transform himself into Hyde with a chemical draught, "a profound duplicity" dominated his life:
And indeed, the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached the years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of change. (my italics)
This passage explains how Jekyll degenerated not as a result of "a certain impatient gaiety of disposition" in his character, as he himself and some Victorian critics assumed, but because he could not come to terms with his own nature. Good and evil are absolutes for him, so that he suppressed his craving for quite harmless pleasures like (presumably) drinking and women. As a result, Jekyll grew frustrated and perverted. To indulge his forbidden pleasures without risking his reputation, he started to lead a secret night life by transforming himself into the hideous Mr Hyde. Yet, the separation of his evil and good side does not solve his problem as it even enforces his dual nature. At the end of the novel, Mr Hyde has completely taken over the personality of Dr Jekyll and now uses the respectable Dr Jekyll as a disguise to escape from the police. When the chemical draught finally runs out for transforming himself in Dr Jekyll, Hyde commits suicide.
Unlike The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was favourably received by the literary press at the time of publication, although some critics were conscious that it exposed the hypocrisy of Victorian respectability. The reviewers may actually be divided into two groups according to their explanation for Jekyll's moral degeneration, The first conservative group attributes Jekyll's downfall to his gradual submission to "a gaiety of disposition", like in this unsigned review in The Times of January the 25th, 1886:
... this delineation of a feeble but kindly nature steadily and inevitably succumbing to the sinister influences of besetting weaknesses. With no formal preaching and without a touch of Pharisaism, he works out the essential power of Evil, which, with its malignant patience and unwearying perseverance, gains ground with each casual yielding to temptation, till the once well-meaning may actually become a fiend, or at least wear the reflection of the fiend's image. (my italics)
The other critics do not ascribe Jekyll's moral decay to his failure to resist the desires of the flesh, but to his hypocrisy. Stevenson himself interprets his story in this way. In a letter to John Paul Bocock, dated November 1887, he explained that there is no harm in a voluptuary, but that the harm lies in Jekyll's hypocrisy which gave birth to the monster Hyde. Jekyll's too strict morality is responsible for creating Hyde since his desire "to wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public" forced him to deny and suppress all his lusts which became thus perverted.
The same idea that one will become perverted when one totally suppresses one's lusts, can be found in Lord Henry's advice to Dorian Gray, when he declares: "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful." Lord Henry insinuates that temptations are only unhealthy when society takes an unhealthy attitude towards them. Like Dorian Gray, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde could be read as a warning against the perversion to which a morality of absolute evil and good can lead. A harmless voluptuary like Dr Jekyll may transform into a hideous monster like Hyde.
If Stevenson and Wilde both warn against hypocrisy, why could The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde get away with its social criticism whereas The Picture of Dorian Gray could not? The answer lies in Wilde's aestheticism which refuses to subordinate art to a moral message. The positive reception of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde proves that Victorian society could accept social criticism, but only within certain boundaries. As opposed to Stevenson's novel, the moral ambivalence of The Picture of Dorian Gray challenges these limits.
This may account for the different reception of both works, though both novels share a lot of motives and themes. Both Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll transform themselves, so that they can free themselves from all moral constraint. Dorian Gray turns into the innocent image of his portrait, while Dr Jekyll can transform himself into Mr Hyde with a chemical draught. Both novels use the doppelgänger-motif. Furthermore, Dorian Gray (by accident) as well as Dr Jekyll (out of terror) commit suicide when they do no longer control their doubles. Yet, both novels differ from each other in moral tone and the treatment of the relation between evil and beauty.
While critics praised Stevenson for having written a sensational tale with a plain moral, faithful to Horace's utile dulci principle, they charged Wilde with a lack of moral earnestness and -worst of all for a Victorian writer- frivolity. Take for example this unsigned review in the Daily Chronicle of June the 30th, 1890:
There is not a single good and holy impulse of human nature, scarcely a fine feeling or instinct that civilisation, art, and religion have developed throughout the ages as part of the barriers between Humanity and Animalism that is not held up to ridicule and contempt in Dorian Gray, if, indeed, such strong words can be fitly applied to the actual effect of Mr Wilde's airy levity and fluent impudence.
This critic does not so much take offence at the criticism of society, but at "Wilde's airy levity and fluent impudence" in his dealing with moral matters. In a playful way, Wilde analyses all sorts of conventions like marriage, duty, sincerity, etcetera but without reaching any moral conclusions. This moral ambiguity of The Picture of Dorian Gray can be ascribed to Wilde's aestheticism which affects the narrative devices like the narrator's point of view, the subject matter and the message of the novel.
Wilde, the aesthete, refused as a narrator to moralise. In his poetics, vice and virtue were just raw materials for the creation of beauty. The narrator's amoral, almost pseudo-scientific point of view in The Picture of Dorian Gray and the moral ambiguity which it causes, provoked extreme comments in reviews, like this one in the Scots Observer of July the 3rd, 1890:
Mr. Oscar Wilde has again been writing stuff that were better unwritten; and while The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he contributes to Lippincott, is ingenious, interesting, full of cleverness, and plainly the work of a man of letters, it is false art- for its interest in medico-legal; it is false to human nature- for its hero is a devil; it is false to morality- for is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health, and sanity. (my italics)
Moreover, the possible confusion between the views of the narrator and Lord Henry intensifies the moral ambiguity of the novel. In many ways, the narrator's moral detachment resembles that of Lord Henry Wotton who states in chapter six:
I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life. We are not sent into the world to air our moral prejudices. I never take any notice of what common people say, and I never interfere with what charming people do.
Like Lord Henry, the narrator refuses "to air his moral prejudices" in his story, but he is not afraid of 'airing' his cutting epigrams. When the narrator, for instance, describes the feelings of James Vane for his mother, he cannot resist to write the following epigram: "Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them." which Lord Henry could have invented, but is alien to the mind of a melodramatic character like James Vane. One could say that while classical writers wished to link up a moralising content with a delightful form, Lord Henry preaches everything that is demoralising, provided that it is delightful.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a third person narrative with neutral or godlike omniscience. For example, in the first chapter, when the narrator presents the characters to the reader, he already predicts the disappearance of Basil Hallward in order to create suspense: "... Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago caused, at the time, such public excitement, and gave rise to so many strange conjectures." In spite of this, Wilde, sometimes, restricts his godlike omniscience and invites the reader to interpret the blanks. This strategy is used especially when he could otherwise be accused of recommending homosexuality or other vices. Basil Hallward's "curious idolatry" of Dorian Gray, which the reader now reads as a homosexual affection, is vaguely described as "curious", "wonderful" and "very strange". The secret with which Dorian Gray blackmails Alan Campbell, is only suggested by Campbell's fear to be disgraced:
A groan broke from Campbell's lips, and he shivered all over. The ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece seemed to him to be dividing time into separate atoms of agony, each of which was too terrible to be borne. He felt as if an iron ring was being slowly tightened round his forehead, as if the disgrace with which he was threatened had already come upon him.
Except for the rejection of Sibyl Vane, the murder of Basil Hallward and a visit to an opium den, Dorian Gray's vices are never specified, but only exhibited by the deformity of his portrait and hinted at by vague rumours that he ruined the reputations of many women and corrupted various young noblemen. Consequently, the interpretations of Dorian Gray's corruption "which writes across the face", widely vary from homosexuality and venereal diseases (Elaine Showalter) to a drug addiction (Hans Mayer) or masturbation (Alan Sinfield).
These various interpretations indicate that The Picture of Dorian Gray tries to reflect the different ideological views of the readers instead of proposing a new system of norms. Like Wilde, I do not wish to exclude any interpretation. About the atmosphere of corruption surrounding Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote in a letter in reaction to the above quoted review:
To keep this atmosphere vague and indeterminate and wonderful was the aim of the artist who wrote the story. I claim, sir, that he has succeeded. Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray. What Dorian Gray's sins are no one knows. He who finds them has brought them.
By leaving blanks in his story and avoiding any moral stance as a narrator, Wilde elegantly makes the reader responsible for possible unorthodox interpretations. As one of the maxims in the Preface asserts: "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors" and "To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim."
Not only does aestheticism affect the narrative strategies of The Picture of Dorian Gray, but also its subject matter. Wilde's novel treats the downfall of a decadent aesthete. This has important consequences for the nature of Dorian Gray's vices. A decadent aesthete does not just yield to the temptations of sin, but he is determined to find beauty and pleasure in sin and corruption. Stevenson's Mr Hyde is a brute whose primitive violence harms his environment, but Dorian Gray is a sophisticated dandy who corrupts his friends and insists to have been corrupted by a poisonous book. At the end of chapter eleven, Dorian Gray has turned into a real decadent when the narrator notes that "[t]here were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful." It should be noted that this eleventh chapter is strongly indebted to Huysmans's À Rebours (1884), which is often called the Bible of Decadence. Like Des Esseintes in this French novel, Dorian Gray tells about his quest for new sensations in different spheres of art, like perfume, music, jewels, tapestries and embroideries. As Des Esseintes explored the decadence of Ancient Rome, Dorian in chapter eleven also gives a survey of decadent figures in the Renaissance.
Unlike Wilde, Stevenson portrays evil without ambiguity. When Dr Jekyll is free of moral constraints, he changes into the hideous and disgusting Mr Hyde whom everybody dislikes at first sight. Evil is written on his face. Even the lawyer Utterson is disgusted by Hyde's deformity, though he is used to deal with criminals:
Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish; he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice, - all these points were against him; but not all these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him. 'There must be something else,' said the perplexed gentleman. 'There is something more. If I could find a name for it. God bless me, the man seems hardly human! ... O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan's signature upon a face, it is on that of your friend!' (my italics)
Stevenson equals evil with a deformity which is "hardly human" in its appearance. In contrast, Wilde portrays evil not as disgusting but as attractive. Lord Henry, who seduces Dorian Gray to sell his soul for youth, does not speak with the "husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice" of Mr Hyde, but with a tempting "musical voice".
The Picture of Dorian Gray actually corrupts the Greek principle of kalos k' agathos or that beauty is necessarily good and that evil is disgusting. Mr Hyde's deformity fulfils this principle, but Dorian Gray disrupts this classical principle about beauty by using his personal charms as a mask and by finding pleasure in the decay of his soul. Dorian Gray summarises his immorality in the last chapter as follows:
He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives he had crossed his own it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame.
An important difference with Hyde is that everybody likes Dorian Gray at first sight despite his amorality. Take for instance Mr. Hubbard, a tradesman who moves Dorian's portrait to the attic:
In two or three minutes there was another knock, and Mr. Hubbard himself, the celebrated frame-maker of South Audley Street, came in with a somewhat rough-looking assistant. ... As a rule, he never left his shop. He waited for people to come to him. But he always made an exception in favour of Dorian Gray. There was something about Dorian that charmed everybody. It was a pleasure even to see him.
Besides, Dr Jekyll and Dorian Gray differ from each other in their repentance. While Dr Jekyll confesses in a letter to Utterson and repents for having yielded to his lower nature, Dorian Gray never feels guilty for his deeds. An annoyed reviewer reacted as follows:
Dorian's only regret is that unbridled indulgence in every form of secret and unspeakable vice, every resource of luxury and art, ..., by every abomination of vulgarity and squalor is -what? Why, that it will leave traces of premature age and loathsome sensualness on his pretty face, rosy with the loveliness of endeared youth of his odious type to the paralytic patricians of the Lower Empire.
Dorian Gray's portrait aestheticises his moral conscience. Morality becomes a matter of aesthetics. Dorian Gray is only concerned with his sins insofar as they mar the beauty of his portrait. Lord Henry is fascinated by Dorian's artistic amorality. When Dorian Gray cries: "I can't bear the idea of my soul being hideous.", Lord Henry replies: "A very charming artistic basis for ethics, Dorian! I congratulate you on it!"
To the accusation that Wilde desperately tried to vamp up a moral in his novel, he gibed that he regretted that The Picture of Dorian Gray had such a plain moral and generously admitted that this was the only error in his novel:
Yes; there is a terrible moral in Dorian
Gray -a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but which
will be revealed to all those whose minds are healthy.
Is this an artistic error? I
fear it is. It is the only error in
* * *
That I want to say is that, so far from wishing to emphasise any moral in my story, the real trouble I experienced in writing the story was that of keeping the extremely obvious moral subordinate to the artistic and dramatic effect.
The obvious moral for Wilde was that all excess, as well as renunciation, brings its own punishment. To escape the hubris of excess, one must accept the duality of life in all matters. Good and evil, life and art, youth and old age, innocence and experience, beauty and decay, etc. are no absolute opposites which mutually exclude each other, but they need each other to be meaningful. Each term is defined by its opposite. There would be no understanding of good without the complementary term evil. Instead of preferring good to evil or life to art, Wilde's paradoxes often reverse the order of terms to demonstrate their relativity.
It is precisely this fundamental duality in life and in semiotics that Dorian Gray fails to understand. He cannot accept that youth and beauty depend on their foils, namely old age and decay. His attempt to escape the suffering of life is doomed to fail. As De Saussure would argue in his theory of semiotics, signs are only meaningful through their differences with other signs. The word black has no meaning without its opposite white. If the differences between the signs are decreased, the language system will break down in meaninglessness. Similarly, to enjoy the pleasures of life, one has to be prepared to accept the suffering and sorrows which are attached to these pleasures. Without its opposite pain, pleasure would be meaningless and degrading.
In conclusion, Stevenson's The Strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde illustrates that evil is an essential part of human nature which cannot be denied, while simultaneously portraying it as disgusting and inhuman. Oscar Wilde goes further by presenting evil as attractive, beautiful and essentially human. For example, Dorian Gray, the prototype of the decadent aesthete, endeavours to look for beauty in sin and the corruption of his soul. The Epicurean moral of The Picture of Dorian Gray refuses to prefer good to evil as Stevenson still did, urging us to balance the good and evil side of human nature so that one would be able to enjoy life as fully as possible. In his review of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he published in the Bookman of November 1891, Walter Pater made this remark concerning the Epicurean message of Wilde's novel:
Clever always, this book, however, seems to set forth anything but a homely philosophy of life for the middle class -a kind of dainty Epicurean theory rather-yet fails, to some degree, in this; and one can see why. A true Epicureanism aims at a complete though harmonious development of man's entire organism. To lose the moral sense therefore, for instance, the sense of sin and righteousness, as Mr. Wilde's heroes are bent on doing so speedily, as completely as they can, is to lose, or lower organisation, to become less complex, to pass from a higher to a lower degree of development.
Since Wilde's Epicureanism and his aestheticism refuse to place good above evil in life as well as in art, the novel leaves unclear whether its author prefers wickedness to moral behaviour. This produces the novel's ambivalence in its morals; a stance that Victorian reviewers could not accept.
The philosophy of hedonist epicureanism and decadent aestheticism, collided with the Victorian mimetic and moralistic view of literature. Most Victorian reviewers disapproved of The Picture of Dorian Gray for its amorality and condemned it as "the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart." Witness this annoyed reviewer in the Theatre of June the First, 1891:
Looking at it from the point of dramatic possibilities, we are bound to recognise in great attractions, saving, alone, in its almost utter lack of humanity. As a book, it is from cover to finish, an elaborate work of art, extremely clever, wonderfully ingenious, and even fascinating; but not convincing, from the same absence of human interest.
As this critic admitted willy-nilly, The Picture of Dorian Gray, finally, became itself the ultimate evidence that beauty and good art do not necessarily reflect the moral conventions of its time.
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Beckson, The Critical Heritage, pp. 81 - 82.