The poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is a subtle yet insistent condemnation of the society that allowed for the prosecution of Wilde. In depicting the final moments before Wilde’s arrest Sir John Betjeman talks of The Yellow Book.
“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.
-Sir John Betjeman
To unpack this passage we need to know a little about the aforementioned Yellow book. The Yellow Book was a yellow clothbound publication that featured salacious and subversive stories, many of them French. Many note that a yellow book, similar to the future periodical was given to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde in 1891.
Is it possible this could be part of the inspiration for the name of the periodical?
Well kind of. The phenomenon of the illicit French narrative was very much alive during the time Oscar Wilde was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the yellow bound book is not an invention of Wilde’s but rather a common mode of publication for these transgressive tales. It follows that if Lord Henry was to procure such a corrupting, violent and heavily sexualized book it would more than likely have been presented in this yellow bound format. The periodical The Yellow Book is named after this publication presentation phenomenon that preceded The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It was also known as “The Yellow Nineties” due to its decade of publication.
The quarterly publication is cited as running from 1894 to 1897 and came under heat when Oscar Wilde was seen to be carrying a similar book, leading to outraged crowds throwing stones at the office of the publication. That gives you a bit of a clue as to the kind of societal outrage Oscar Wilde was facing. In this time of crisis in Wilde’s life, his arrest for gross indecency, surely seeing the publication whose name could have been inspired by his prose, give way to a style of writing so distanced from his own aesthetic style would be another blow to the great author.
The implications that this has for the poem is that these tales that challenge social mores are being supplanted by John Buchan’s more tame prose.
I am not entirely sure what Wilde’s opinion of Buchan’s writing really was but Wilde, as written by Betjeman, positions himself and aestheticism as the unconventional to Buchan’s conventionally appealing writing. By the Yellow Book publishing the work of Buchan, Betjeman is implying that challenging works such as Wilde’s that have achieved hard-earned success have been pushed aside to make way for less groundbreaking potboilers. This is a gross simplification of the two author’s works but that is not a reflection on the beauty of the poem.
The poem is the essence of the societal rejection of Wilde, his fall from favour and the sense that the world of literature will continue on without him.
John Buchan and his brand of thriller are the future and Wilde’s aestheticism is the past. Literature may have suffered greatly from the loss of Wilde’s unwritten work, but what is done is done. And in 1937 when Betjeman is writing this poem the literary scene had undergone a massive transformation, he seems nostalgic but resigned to the change that sweeps through everything eventually.
As the poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is the creative property of Betjeman I will not be reproducing it in full but I am providing a link to the poem in full from Poetry By Heart who has permission to reproduce the poem.
So with that, we say goodbye to Wilde for now. The world of mystery and espionage that Buchan’s work forms part of could be in our future.
The passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray which introduces the nature of the yellow book:
“His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed. It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.”
If you have read the 1891 book or even watched the first season of Penny Dreadful you will be asking… Hey Dorian what’s with all the weird flower sniffing?
In his gothic masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde is pretty blatant in his symbolism, he basically hits us over the head with a laburnum branch (symbolic of forsaken, pensive beauty apparently). That doesn’t mean that the symbolism is worthless by virtue of its visibility. There is something charming in Wilde’s insistence that we acknowledge the collective symbolic weight of flowers. It is what makes Wilde easy for students to dissect for meaning and also what upsets those who like their literary motifs and themes more artfully hidden.
So what is with all the flowers?
The flowers can be read as a representation of sensory temptation as in this passage from the very first meeting between Dorian and Lord Henry:
“Lord Henry went out to the garden and found Dorian Gray burying his face in the great cool lilac-blossoms, feverishly drinking in their perfume as if it had been wine. He came close to him and put his hand upon his shoulder. “You are quite right to do that,” he murmured. “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”
Lord Henry is using Dorian’s little sensory indulgences as a gateway to more lascivious behaviour. Henry is the ultimate voyeur, his corruption of Dorian Gray is purely experimental, creating a spectacle to observe. Is it possible Lord Henry is a sociopath?
Henry also uses flowers to open the door to paranoia, fear of the passing of time and the advent of old age. Flowers are temporary and wilt and wither like youth. But flowers renew seasonally Dorian will not.
“The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty, becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!”
This passage of Lord Henry’s evangelism is followed by an important visual representation of Dorian’s naivety surrounding the rapid loss of youth in which he drops “a spray of lilacs” (lilacs being symbolic of purity and innocence) discarding the first protective layer of his innocence. Then there is a weird bit of action with a bee and a flower that some read to be sexual, and it is a bit weird but I think it might have to do with pollination and the beginning of Lord Henry’s corruption of Dorian. But what do I know?
On the subject of Lord Henry’s manipulation here is a weird flower laden passage in which creepy Henry is creepy.
“Lord Henry watched him with a subtle sense of pleasure. How different he was now from the shy, frightened boy he had met in Basil Hallward’s studio! His nature had developed like a flower, had borne blossoms of scarlet flame.”
Basil, however, establishes the flower as Symbolic of the soul very early on in the novel as he describes his relationship with Dorian:
“Then I feel, Harry, that I have given away my whole soul to someone who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day”
In the final confrontation between Dorian and Basil, Dorian crushes a flower which could signify Basil’s soul or Dorian’s innocence or both as he is about to murder his friend who was completely besotted with him from the outset. Later as Dorian has resolved to murder his friend he crushes the flower which could be a stand-in for Basil’s soul as alluded to previously. Or it could be Dorian crushing his last semblance of innocence or humanity:
“Years ago, when I was a boy,” said Dorian Gray, crushing the flower in his hand, “you met me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks. One day you introduced me to a friend of yours, who explained to me the wonder of youth, and you finished the portrait of me that revealed to me the wonder of beauty. In a mad moment, that, even now, I don’t know whether I regret or not, I made a wish, perhaps you would call it a prayer….
Flowers as Symbolic of Innocence and Virginity
The flowers can also be interpreted as a symbol of innocence with the three key players, Basil, Dorian and Lord Henry practically engulfed by flowers as the story opens, perhaps signifying the innocence that would gradually disappear as we go deeper into Dorian’s downward spiral.
There is also a great deal of floral imagery surrounding the innocent Sybil, with Sybil being explicitly likened to a flower;
A low moan broke from her, and she flung herself at his feet, and lay there like a trampled flower. “Dorian, Dorian, don’t leave me!” she whispered. “I am so sorry I didn’t act well. I was thinking of you all the time. But I will try—indeed, I will try.
Particular features of Sybil are also referred to in floral terms such as her lips being like petals. However late we find that not all flowers can be considered innocent and pure, there is one flower that is given monstrous connotations.
The Monstrosity of Orchids
Orchids are traditionally symbolic of beauty, luxury and love, they also have associations with sexuality, virility and lust depending on the colour. The potential of orchids to represent qualities of than innocence depending on their colour becomes apparent during the corruption of Dorian as he reads the Yellow Book that was given to him by Lord Henry:
There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour
The orchid as a monstrosity and the relevance of its colour is relevant when we consider this interchange between Dorian and Francis after the death of Basil:
“Yes,” said Dorian. “And I am afraid, Francis, that I have another errand for you. What is the name of the man at Richmond who supplies Selby with orchids?”
“Harden, sir.” “Yes—Harden. You must go down to Richmond at once, see Harden personally, and tell him to send twice as many orchids as I ordered, and to have as few white ones as possible. In fact, I don’t want any white ones. It is a lovely day, Francis, and Richmond is a very pretty place, otherwise I wouldn’t bother you about it.”
The absence or removal of white orchids (traditionally symbolic of innocence) is perhaps symbolic of the removal of the last of Dorian’s humanity, now he only wants what is seen as dark and monstrous.
I am aware that the above image is of an upper-class quadrille, but I figure that they led a charmed existence compared with the Victorian sex workers referred to in Wilde’s deathly quadrille, so I think they can take the hit on this one.
In this poem of Wilde’s, we get another dose of heady voyeurism, such as would delight Lord Henry himself. We have an unfortunately common example of Oscar Wilde fetishizing or othering the poor and underprivileged, potentially taking advantage of the terrible conditions force some of them into sex work, for the narrator’s own voyeuristic intentions. This poem seems to be moralizing in a way that, if you had read the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grayalone you would have thought he was entirely uninterested in.
The main reason to attribute morality to this poem is by way of the very clear link between the voyeurism of the couple beholding the spectacle of the brothel and the woman being tempted into joining the spectacle. The spectacle of the brothel is partially obscured to the casual observer who might find the scene tantalising and irresistible. But as soon as one passes over the threshold they find that there is nothing but corruption and death on offer in “The Harlot’s House”.
The sex workers, who are often interpreted as all female due to their shrill voices, and the description of one clutching “A phantom lover to her breast”, attempt to behave seductively and succeed on a surface level but they are simply going through the motions, they have become just another cog in the machinery of industrialised Victorian England. They attempt to play and dance like their heart is in it, but the implication (if we are to be generous to Wilde) is that they have become jaded. If we are less generous to Wilde then he is simply viewing the poor and underprivileged sex workers as mere objects that imitate human form. For all Wilde’s dress reform advocacy and beliefs about female independence, he is still a Victorian gentleman whose advocacy didn’t quite breach class divides.
I have a question, and I would love input so feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org :
Is the “tune” going “false” the corruption of the narrator’s partner or is it simply the discovery of the true nature of the brothel? It seems like the illusion is shattered, but also it seems like enough time has passed for the dawn to “with silver-sandalled feet, [creep] like a frightened girl.“. We are told it happens suddenly, but they appear to be there for quite some time, at least outside. So is it merely voyeurism and disappointment, or voyeurism and corruption?
Among other references, I used this as a springboard.
I think we can agree that this macabre spectacle of the brothel and the part human automatons therein is inherently a gothic spectacle with imagery such as skeletons, phantoms and ghostly apparitions used to paint the picture of the decadent and ostensibly lively Victorian brothel. The othering of the sex workers as the undead and unnatural makes them of the Creature’s kin in Mary Shelley‘s novel Frankenstein or the Modern Day Prometheus.
Meet Dorian Gray. He enjoys just about everything and in copious amounts. Like any quality gothic anti-hero there is a whisper of a family history that involves passion, death, scandal and abuse. Whilst there is an idealised image of the guy there is something more damaged and vulnerable that is ripe for Lord Henry’s exploitation. As a muse for Basil, he has been the source of pure inspiration, but that is about to change.
Dorian seems to be motivated by curiosity, vanity and a diabolical indulgent streak. His lack of care for those around him begins with the flippant way he treats Basil’s affections and then plays out in the most devastating fashion in his treatment of Sybil Vane. The capacity for this cruelty was always within Dorian, Basil mentions it in the opening chapter, Lord Henry simply offers new possibilities. Lord Henry is still one of the most terrible and unfortunate influences a young man with Dorian’s particular flaws could come across. Appealing to Dorian’s curiosity and desire he exposes him to the seedy underbelly of London and deploys witty epigrams to stun him into believing that it is all perfectly acceptable. I’m not sure that Dorian is particularly intelligent. He does seem to be easily confused.
Dorian as the Destroyer
The guy seems impervious the damage he is doing. He does not seem to care that, whilst he has been given a free pass by swapping fates with the portrait, none of the people he corrupts or endangers has such a reprieve. He leaves a trail of ruined men and women, some who have become addicted to drugs that he introduced them to, or have a had to turn to sex work because he destroyed their reputations. He is not permitted into high society as he once was, excepting the society of those who tolerate Lord Henry gladly. His destruction and degradation of those around him only begin to gnaw away at him after Basil’s death, and it is largely for selfish reasons. He doesn’t like feeling guilty or being tied to the loathsome visage of the portrait so he tried to follow a path of redemption. When these attempt at redemption don’t yield immediate results he cannot handle it and throws a tantrum, stabbing the picture and bringing about his own demise.
To Lord Henry
“You know how a voice can stir one. Your voice and the voice of Sibyl Vane are two things that I shall never forget. When I close my eyes, I hear them, and each of them says something different. I don’t know which to follow.”
Meet Basil Hallward, he enjoys painting on hilltops and painting in his studio. He just really likes painting and Dorian. Basil exudes warmth in the same way that Lord Henry can chill a person to the bone. Until Dorian came along, we get a distinct impression that Basil had friendships, but none that he was particularly invested in, to the point where they would interfere with his art. Then came Dorian Gray who became his art, and consequently his ruin.
It seems that Basil would love to be motivated by art for art’s sake and beauty for beauty’s sake, but something has gone terribly awry for the painter who wished to hold up the mirror to the world and has instead found his own reflection front and centre in his work. Henry is quick to point out that Basil is not as good looking as Dorian, and he is right, but the artist’s concern that he has painted himself into the picture has more depth than Henry seems capable of fathoming. It is Basil’s desire for Dorian and his utter worship, obsession and dependence upon him that Basil sees as he looks at the picture. It is these factors that motivate Basil at the beginning of the novel. However, as Dorian’s innocence and purity diminish, his hold on Basil appears to lessen somewhat and it is his old the desire to display his art that forms part of the events that will lead to his death.
Basil as the Victim
Every gothic tale needs a victim, and Dorian Gray has many.
Why does Dorian kill Basil? Is it because he is tired of keeping his secret? Do Basil’s horror and revulsion of the painting in its new monstrous form provoke his wrath? Or is it the simplest of all the answers, Basil is a threat to the painting, therefore Basil must be destroyed.
But why show Basil the painting at all? Yes, his constant questions were getting annoying, but surely Dorian could have said he destroyed it or it got damaged. I always got the impression that the murder of Basil was premeditated to an extent. Dorian was alert to the possibility when he walked his friend to the room where the painting lay. He may have acted on impulse, but he was acutely aware of that impulse and the ability to make good on it beforehand.
Why does Wilde kill Basil?
Basil is the last vestige of Dorian pre-Henry. Basil as the person who opened the door to vanity, left it open for corruption and Dorian blames him for that. Basil represents the last of Dorian’s virtue, and he must be destroyed for Wilde’s novel to begin the final stage of the narrative; the complete downfall of Mr Dorian Gray.
Basil in happier times:
“You know we poor artists have to show ourselves in society from time to time, just to remind the public that we are not savages. With an evening coat and a white tie, as you told me once, anybody, even a stock-broker, can gain a reputation for being civilized.”
Disclaimer: Yes, I’m sorry, I called Lord Henry Sir Henry… I’m very very sorry
This is the blog post for our episode Decorative Sex – The Picture of Dorian Gray in which we explore Oscar Wilde’s construction of a unique gothic monster, Mr Dorian Gray. Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has an esteemed place within the gothic literary canon despite the fact that Wilde may have adopted the tropes of the gothic genre as a kind of set dressing similar to the way that Jane Austen uses gothic tropes in order to satirise Mysteries of Udolpho, and ends up accidentally crafting a superior gothic tale in Northanger Abbey.
In a world of dance cards, chaperones and presentations, the sexuality of Victorians were very heavily regulated. Women were not supposed to enjoy sex, and love and marriage were still not quite synonymous. There is a thinly veiled and thriving gay community that was common knowledge but not commonly acknowledged.
It is in this time of formality, etiquette and highlighted class division that Oscar Wilde unleashes the pleasure-seeking missile that is Dorian Gray. The Picture of Dorian Gray bridges the gap between our idea of uptight Victorian society and the seedy underbelly concealed just below the surface. The story was first published in Lippincott’s monthly magazine in 1890, the publisher feared that the story would insight public outrage and 500 words were deleted prior to publication. Despite this censorship, the story offended mainstream Victorian sensibilities and was reprinted in censored, revised and lengthened form in 1891.
For this episode, I read the edited, and by all reports significantly less scandalous, 1891 novel. In the book after a very revealing preface, which I discussed in a mini-episode called “A Quick Word With Mr Wilde” we are introduced to Lord Henry, a voyeuristic, amoral character with a knack for corruption and manipulation and his friend Basil Hallward a sincere and dedicated artist who has become enraptured with a young man called Dorian Gray who has become his muse. Basil does not want to introduce the impressionable Dorian to Lord Henry for fear that he will lead him astray.
Dorian is a Sulky Pain. He is as you might have guessed the protagonist of the piece, but he is very much not our hero. There are however a series of heroes who present themselves and are vanquished during the process of the story. I’m not going to get into too many plot points in this article but surface to say in the end it is Dorian’s own conscience, such as it is, that eventually defeats him, not the series of well-meaning, kind-hearted people who he evades, destroys or ruins during the course of the story.
This seems to have translated into the film, however, the film needs a force of inextinguishable good and in this case, the force of good injected into the story is Emma, Lord Henry Wotton’s daughter. She is a character who just plain doesn’t exist in the novel. Wilde’s story is much more troubling and complex in that Lord Henry, arguably the most corrupting human force outside of Dorian himself is the only pivotal character to survive the story.
Lord Henry is, well, the worst. He is flippant, immoral and entitled. He is the personification of how Oscar Wilde’s beloved aestheticism can go horribly wrong. He cares incredibly little for those around him, instead of pursuing pleasure and vice in any manner that suits him. Dorian is a good looking guy, so Lord Henry Wotton sets upon actively corrupting him. I really Don’t think Wilde meant for Lord Henry to be as deeply objectionable as he is. Like Frankenstein, I think that through the lens of our 21st century thinking these two men come off as privileged and unchecked. While the characters are very different I think they fall victim to the same fate, their author’s simply could not have foreseen how the
In discussing Lord Henry we have to have a chat about the Male Gaze.
The Male Gaze
The male gaze is a thing in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Okay, that is an understatement. The male gaze is THE thing in The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is the chief motivation of the vast majority of the characters and the catalyst that spurs on most of the action. Males objectifying males, males objectifying females, the whole novel the fraught with depictions of people beholding others as a spectacle of beauty or ugliness. In the case that anyone is judged by anything other than beauty, it is to dismiss them by means of class judgement or by virtue of poor reputation. The men in the text are unrivalled and unquestioned in their position of power and their ability to be standard bearers by which all others are judged.
Beauty is conflated with morality and innocence, and ugliness is conflated with immorality and degradation. The picture absorbs the ugliness that is presumed would manifest itself on Dorian through the ravages of time and the evilness of his deeds. But even with the supernatural assistance of an enchanted picture, there are still signifiers that Dorian’s pure beauty has been compromised. The signifiers are subtle such as the changing of the adjective for his hair from “golden” in his time of innocence to “yellow” when his virtue has been compromised.
As for Dorian’s acts of cruelty and indulgence, they are somewhat underwhelming to a
modern audience but his vices and scandals, though slightly hidden and coded behind Wilde’s flawless use of metaphor and innuendo, would have been somewhat shocking to Victorian readers. His treatment of Sybil, however, still seems cruel and inhumane to a modern audience. He chastises her for not living up to his unrealistic expectations of her, and rather than being delighted in her love for him, or even a little disappointed in her performance but ultimately unchanged in his affections, he completely tears her down for being distracted by the notion of a future with him. How dare she not be able to act? Dorian shows himself to be an absolute arse. Who cares if she can’t act! He supposedly loves her but she gives one shitty performance and the glass shatters.
The Fate of Sybil Vane
It is, of course, a horrible irony that his false love for her has lead to her perceiving everything that she would leave behind in being with him to be false. He completely upends her life, making him her whole world and then takes that whole world away. He is culpable in her death to the extent that anyone who has exerted emotional cruelty is responsible for the events that they set in motion. His ignorance and self-centeredness is, of course, no excuse, but he does not have a direct hand in her death and it is not until he kills the creator of the painting, Basil Hallward that he becomes an actual murderer.
From the moment Sybil Vane is introduced in the book we are hit with wave after wave of foreshadowing. It becomes pretty clear that this relationship is doomed. Dorian drags his two friends along to one of Sybil’s performances in an attempt to convince Basil and Henry of her genius, which is a hard task as Henry makes it very clear early on that he believes women are quote “a decorative sex”. The direct quote goes
“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.”
To which Dorian cries “Harry How can you?”
And Henry continues
“My dear Dorian, it is quite true. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rouge and esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can’t be admitted into decent society.”
Poor Sybil meanwhile is telling her brother, James, and her mother how much she loves Dorian who she only knows as prince charming which is a red flag right there. If you are seeing a guy who only wants to be known as prince charming you need to get the fuck out of there. Dorian has changed this 16-year-old girl’s perception of the world so much that she has trouble pulling together the enthusiasm for pretending to fall in love with the balding middle-aged guy playing Romeo, and consequently gives a shitty performance. Dorian is embarrassed and confronts her, basically calling off the arrangement due to her crappy performance which has got to be one of the worst reviews in history.
And Poor Basil. Poor smitten, sappy Basil. He pretty much saw disaster on the horizon but was powerless to stop it. He knew how shitty Lord Henry was, and although he was blind to Dorian’s true nature he certainly saw his potential for corruption.
Is Wilde being funny when he depicts the death of Basil in the 13th chapter or is he being poetic?
I refuse to believe that Wilde was not conscious of this fortuitous coincidence, and it certainly marks the downward spiral upon which Dorian will slowly begin to descend. He begins to lose his grip on reality and starts in motion the events that will lead to his demise at his own hand.
I adore Oscar Wilde and hopefully, I can find a relatively fleshed out adaptation of “The Portrait of Mr W.H.” that we can cover in a later episode as that is one of my absolute favourite of Wilde’s stories. Wilde’s relationship to Victorian masculinity and the almost exclusively homosocial relationships in many of his books is reflective of a life torn between his desire for and love of other men and his feeling of obligation and love for his traditional Victorian family. As a man who dared to defy convention, despite his attempt to avoid direct public scrutiny for his personal life, no sooner did he begin to enjoy the success and acclaim that he deserved, he became a man under siege. The Picture of Dorian Gray was written before Wilde met the man whose family would shepherd in his downfall, Lord Alfred Douglas. The book, however, is seen by many Wilde fans as foreshadowing the relationship between the writer and the young lord. Dorian is young, attractive and, by the end of the book irredeemably corrupted, Lord Alfred Douglas was young, attractive, frequented sex workers and was a little less naive than his partner Wilde. It is Basil’s relationship with Dorian that is his downfall and one could certainly draw parallels between Basil and Wilde, but I think he would like to think he had the quicker wit of Lord Henry.
That young Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie, was the self-absorbed tornado that turned Wilde’s life upside down, or even that he was some sort of diabolical architect of Wilde’s destruction is to potentially oversimplify what is a real human relationship between two people. To paint Wilde as simply an unwitting victim is to do little justice to the author’s intelligence. I think there is one thing most people agree on…
John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry was a nasty piece of work. The originator of the Queensbury rules of boxing, father of the aforementioned Bosie and all around hyper-masculine bastard, he is the one who started making public accusations against Wilde which lead to public scrutiny and the potential destruction of his career. Rather foolishly Wilde sued for libel, and in the process of trying to prove that Queensbury’s accusations of “Gross Indecency” were groundless, he gave the state enough cause to prosecute him. Wilde was given a heads up and it is implied that he was given a chance to flee, but he did not. Much is made of his motives to stay and face the criminal charges that would send him to gaol in 1895. This is not a great rundown of events, have a look at the references for better sources of information.
The Final Passages of The Picture of Dorian Gray
He looked round and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it. It was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it.
There was a cry heard, and a crash. The cry was so horrible in its agony that the frightened servants woke and crept out of their rooms. Two gentlemen, who were passing in the square below, stopped and looked up at the great house. They walked on till they met a policeman and brought him back. The man rang the bell several times, but there was no answer. Except for a light in one of the top windows, the house was all dark. After a time, he went away and stood in an adjoining portico and watched.
“Whose house is that, Constable?” asked the elder of the two gentlemen.
“Mr. Dorian Gray’s, sir,” answered the policeman.
They looked at each other, as they walked away, and sneered. One of them was Sir Henry Ashton’s uncle.
Inside, in the servants’ part of the house, the half-clad domestics were talking in low whispers to each other. Old Mrs. Leaf was crying and wringing her hands. Francis was as pale as death.
After about a quarter of an hour, he got the coachman and one of the footmen and crept upstairs. They knocked, but there was no reply. They called out. Everything was still. Finally, after vainly trying to force the door, they got on the roof and dropped down on to the balcony. The windows yielded easily—their bolts were old.
When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.
For more information and much clearer articulation of the intricacies of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the life of Oscar Wilde see the below references:
Whilst I know that I am largely doing this for my own benefit as our listenership is far from large I want to plot our meandering, rambling and somewhat overgrown path through the gothic, mystery and noir genres.
At this stage, there will be a new book/movie comparison with both Brent and I (Morgan) on the 13th of each month. Every Saturday that I can I will release a new mini (or not so mini) episode. These extra episodes offer extra information on the texts we are discussing and other topics that relate to Frankenstein and the Gothic genre.
At the moment I’m busy writing and recording the last of our Oscar Wilde episodes for the time being. Oscar Wilde has a unique place in the Gothic canon that we will probably revisit, but I think there are about 4-5 episodes in total featuring Mr. Wilde in this chunk of releases, with our second proper episode Decorative Sex 🌺 – The Picture of Dorian Gray due for release on the 13th of February. Once those are done our major focus will turn to more bloodthirsty creatures.
Our Frankenstein episodes are far from done. They will be peppered throughout the run of the podcast through perpetuity. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say the final word on Frankenstein, but I promise I’ll try to keep the additional episodes fresh and relevant.
As for our brief foray into true crime with The Body Snatchers, there will be a couple of crime and history related podcasts, but they will usually be collaborations and they will also be linked to a Gothic, mystery of noir text.
At the moment we are firmly entrenched in the 19th century legacy in the Gothic canon. We’ll probably be in this territory for a while, however, some of this may link directly with contemporary Gothic fiction. We want to explore a few more creatures of the monstrous kind before we delve into the world of the genius detective and the hostile city.
I’m banking up readings of gothic short stories as my life is going to get very busy again as I go back to uni. Hopefully, my readings aren’t too awful.
We’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with some lovely people and podcasts. At this stage, there are 3 released collaborations:
To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.
The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.
The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book.
Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.
The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.
The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.
No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable
mannerism of style.
No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.
Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.
Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.
From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type.
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
This gorgeous epigraph at the beginning of The Picture of Dorian Gray might be my favourite part of the whole book. It performs the same function as the modern day disclaimer that we are all so familiar with. This is Wilde getting in the first and hopefully the last word in a hypothetical debate with his contemporary literary critics. Wilde’s work was not by any means universally popular. In fact, there were several critics who took particular delight in eviscerating his works. The mere cheek and eloquence of this epigraph make it one of the most endearing defences of aestheticism in literary history.
Wilde today is acknowledged as being one of the most influential writers of the aestheticism movement that advocated art for art’s sake. Art that does not provide us with commentary or allegory, art that is just beautiful and enjoyable.
This epigraph dares critics to find fault with the narrative that follows, because if they do they will be guilty of the flaws they see in the text.
In summary, fuck you. It’s art and if you don’t like it then that’s your problem.
Calling literary criticism autobiography certainly has its merits for there are as many readings of a text as there a readers. We, as readers, bring the full scope of our life experience along for the ride when we read a book.
The small child sees a lady who is sad and lonely, who gets to go to a party, and, through a series of intervening events isn’t lonely or sad anymore.
As we grow up our understanding of the book changes, it becomes more complex and potentially, as in my case, less uplifting and more problematic. And very discriminatory against people with large feet.
So too does our understanding of more complex gothic stories like the tale of Dorian Gray.
There is no one right way to understand The Picture of Dorian Gray.
And now it is confession time…
This is a poorly worded epigraph or preface to a conversation I would like to have in the future, a conversation that Wilde may have hated.
Can The Picture of Dorian Gray be read as an allegorical cautionary tale?
A tale about the hubris of man wanting to interfere with nature?
Before our podcast release next week I thought it might be a good idea to have a bit of a chat about Gothic literature and what exactly that entails. I am not assuming that everyone knows or doesn’t know about the gothic genre and this certainly won’t be a deep dive because I am simply not qualified. This is just to define the parameters of the initial genre we will be focusing on with Frankenstein and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
First up we need to acknowledge that the gothic genre is super problematic. There are stories that give a strong voice to people of all shapes, sizes, gender identifications, sexual orientations and nationalities but this progressiveness is a pretty recent development. Gothic literature can be racist, homophobic and is frequently classist and misogynist. Whilst we could dismiss these issues as being products of the time in which they were written I think it is important that we are aware of the problems in the things we love and to acknowledge them. The only way we can move forward is to understand the issues of our past. Frankenstein is classist, misogynistic and racist. It is my favourite novel of all time, but I completely acknowledge it’s flawed.
Let’s get into my barebones overview of Gothic Literature.
Particularly popular in the 18th and 19th century, Gothic literature typically draws on a spectre of evil
from the distant past that threatens to reach forward and destroy the present. Bram Stoker creates a particularly threatening creature who oozes ancient evil in Dracula. With vampire myths existing in every culture, some tied to the bible, some tied to ancient Egyptian mythology Bram Stoker had a wealth of ancient evil to draw from. His Count is descended from Attila the Hun and himself is a spectre of ancient or at the very least medieval evil, being virtually immortal. He has been around for centuries, but in Stoker’s narrative, he ventures into Victorian industrialised society to act all creepy around the ladies of London.
The Corruption of the Innocent
The predatory sexuality of Dracula is one of the most blatant examples of the corruption of the innocent, a trope that is revived again and again. He preys on young vulnerable and virginal women in the same way that monsters of his kind will again and again in the novels we cover. But the innocent does not have to be a young virginal woman. The good Doctor Jekyll is corrupted in The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the innocent Dorian is corrupted by his own vanity, Sir Henry and a supernatural lack of accountability, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, it is usually a girl or a woman who gets shortchanged. Even in contemporary gothic tales, the innocent vs. the beast is trotted out regularly, look at Buffy and Twin Peaks. I promise this will not become a Twin Peaks podcast but that won’t be the last reference to the series.
Locked Doors and Secret Passageways
Often gothic literature features mysterious castles, decrepit houses or monasteries. Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) is commonly cited as the first gothic novel, which is a whole ridiculous story that we will get to in another episode. The Castle of Otranto has a lot of the features that would come to be prevalent in the gothic novels that would come after it; an old castle, a family curse, the corruption of the innocent, the supernatural and the sublime.
The Other Goths
The word Goth does allude to a mysterious Scandinavian people who come into the verifiable historical record suddenly in the first century A.D. and this part of the story I am horrifically underqualified to talk about, even more than everything else I have been talking about. If you know a lot about the Goths, the Visigoths or the Ostrogoths please get in touch. Absolutely willing to revisit this! All I know is that as a teenage goth it was a source of very real and deep disappointment that the goths were not pale skinned eyeliner wearing robed people with black hair lounging about nonchalantly waiting for The Cure to be formed.
The Gothic became a pejorative term that was used to dismiss architecture as ugly or barbaric which is a little harsh not to mention more than a touch racist. I also know basically nothing about this aspect of the gothic so again… if you know your way around gothic architecture please get in touch. Gothic literature has a lot more to do with the emergence of the goth subculture as we know it today than the Germanic Goths and gothic architecture.
This architectural notion of the terrible, dramatic and brutal has carried over into the gothic as it pertains to literature. With gothic plots being frequently brutal and dramatic in their content. Gothic literature also blurs the lines between the natural and the supernatural.
The Indefinable Threat
The gothic does not require a ghost or a ghoul but needs an analogous threat. In fact, some of the most ambiguously supernatural gothic novels are the most troubling. Oscar Wilde’s protagonist does not have to wrestle with a literal physical monster, but with his own bargain with a malevolent force and we never conclusively find out if the governess of Henry James’ Turn of The Screw (1898) is actually experiencing a haunting or a psychotic break.
Stemming from the romantic supernatural gothic novel is the detective novel which dabbles in the macabre and the mysterious. These stories might start with a supernatural interpretation, as in the Sherlock Holmes novels, and a shown by the genius detective to be wholly natural, however improbable. The blurring of the gothic and the detective novel is particularly prevalent in The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, in which we get an appearance of the moors which feature so heavily in gothic fiction, they are like naturally occurring labyrinthine castles full of mystery and unpleasant surprises.
The gothic film genre is closely tied to horror as it often features a lot of evil, death and destruction, however, it is also closely tied to the genre of period drama as the movies that draw inspiration from the classic gothic novel often keep their narratives within the same time and space as the original narrative. Most of the films we will focus on will have a Victorian or Vintage flavour, but the neo-gothic and gothic noir film has moved the gothic movie into the city and the modern world so there is a rich vein, no pun intended of material to work with.
So what makes Frankenstein gothic?
Well aside from the cliché that it happened on a dark and stormy night. Victor Frankenstein is beholden to a deep ancient desire to create life from whole cloth. The Doctor’s drive to emulate god has a lineage tracing back to ancient Greece. Mary Shelley even renders the curse of the doctor explicit in the title of the novel Frankenstein, or the modern-day Prometheus. The Prometheus myth is a huge thing to unpack so I might have to do that another time. The creature of the novel is not born of God, so while he is a creature of science and consequently science fiction he is also a supernatural innocent that seeks to find his way in the world. There is the corruption of the innocent, death and the fall of a great noble family.
So what do you ideally need for a gothic novel or film? Not all novels will have all these but these are the factors to look out for…
The Gothic Text Wish List
□ A Haunting
□ A Curse
□ A Challenge to the conventional
□ An Artefact imbued with magic or supernatural properties
□ The Corruption of the innocent
□ Creepy architecture
□ Preferably a labyrinth of some kind
□ And an Ancient Evil
*Bats and ambiguous shadows optional
I’ll see you next week with Brent to compare the 1931 movie Frankenstein and the 1818 novel in which we officially apply the concepts of galvanism to the unsuspecting creature that is our podcast.
How could this possibly go wrong?
You can watch the fall out from this act of hubris in real time @thefrankenpod on twitter and thefrankenpod.wordpress.com has all the resources I was diligent enough to include.
In the meantime hit up Project Gutenberg and Librivox for a free copy of Frankenstein and any other gothic tales in the public domain.
Smith, Andrew. Gothic literature. Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
My copy of many gothic texts discussed are drawn from:“A Gothic Treasury of the Supernatural: The Castle of Otranto; Frankenstein: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; The Picture of Dorian Gray; Dracula; The Turn of the Screw” 1981
The feature image, which was originally posted to Flickr, was uploaded to Commons using Flickr upload bot on 17 August 2008, 12:59 by Yuriybrisk. On that date, it was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the license indicated.