The Monstrosity of Orchids – Floral Arrangments in Dorian Gray

This is the last Dorian Gray post for a while for The FrankenPod I swear!

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.

Bye Bye Dorian, you selfish pain in the butt.

Go sniff flowers elsewhere!

Sincerely

Morgan

 

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Strange Mechanical Grotesques, The Harlot’s House By Oscar Wilde

We caught the tread of dancing feet,
We loitered down the moonlit street,
And stopped beneath the harlot’s house.

Inside, above the din and fray,
We heard the loud musicians play
The ‘Treues Liebes Herz’ of Strauss.

Like strange mechanical grotesques,
Making fantastic arabesques,
The shadows raced across the blind.

We watched the ghostly dancers spin
To sound of horn and violin,
Like black leaves wheeling in the wind.

Like wire-pulled automatons,
Slim silhouetted skeletons
Went sidling through the slow quadrille,

Then took each other by the hand,
And danced a stately saraband;
Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed
A phantom lover to her breast,
Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette
Came out, and smoked its cigarette
Upon the steps like a live thing.

Then, turning to my love, I said,
‘The dead are dancing with the dead,
The dust is whirling with the dust.

But she–she heard the violin,
And left my side, and entered in:
Love passed into the house of lust.

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

“The Harlot’s House” by Oscar Wilde, can be found in Selected Poems of Oscar Wilde, first published in 1911.

The_First_Quadrille_at_Almack's

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 Gray alone 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 thefrankenpod@gmail.com :

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.

Thanks for reading!

Morgan of The FrankenPod

P.S. Obligatory Frankenstein and Gothic Literature links

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.

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