Without a Moral – The Story of Oscar and Constance Wilde 

 

This post accompanies our episode A Tale without Moral – The Story of Oscar and Constance Wilde, this is part of our exploration of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the 2009 movie adaption of Dorian Gray as gothic texts.

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Oscar Wilde is one of the greatest literary icons, from his poetry to his plays, his essays to his novels and everything in between. Oscar Wilde oozes charisma and charm, he delights and entertains, but just below the surface, there is a deep sadness and sorrow.

His life has been documented in great detail and I will not be able to go into his life in the depths that many others have. Similar to my summary of Mary Shelley’s life it will be an overview of his life and the impact of his works rather than a deep dive.

 

Oscar_Wilde_portrait_by_Napoleon_Sarony_-_albumen
Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on the 16th October 1854 in Dublin. Similar to Shelley he grew up around theorists, academics and writers. His mother, Jane Wilde, was an Irish patriot and his father, William Wilde was an esteemed surgeon with at best a scandalous and at worst a darkly criminal sexual past.  During his Dublin and Oxford years, he became a classicist of some note and was there at the beginning of the popularisation of aestheticism lead by Walter Paton and John Ruskin. There is a lot to unpack when talking about the emergence of the philosophy of aestheticism so I won’t go into that.

 

Wilde is perceived to be part of the transition between Romanticism and Modernism.

Wilde is modern in the sense that he breaks apart the Victorian and Romantic idealism using wit and witticism. Like Mary Shelley, Wilde stitches together bits of preceding literature, mythology and academic theory and fashions these disparate parts into something that is at once new exciting and familiar on a deep subconscious level. His work deals in Doppelgangers and duality, both in style and in the characters he creates.

The guiding principle of the aestheticism that Wilde would be renowned for is Art for Art’s sake which was proposed by Gautier. This ideology allowed Wilde to interact with the budding consumerism of the late Victorian period effectively gaining sponsorship for wearing the bohemian he was renowned for. As his plays Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and the Importance of Being Earnest became both popular and critically acclaimed he achieved a celebrity status which would be a key factor in his devastating fall from grace.

Wilde had quite a number of girlfriend’s before he married Constance Lloyd, they had two children together and Wilde is commonly thought to have been a devoted father, and potentially even a good husband. He was a poet, essayist, novelist and playwright, he also held a position as editor of Lady’s World during which he strongly advocated for dress reform. It cannot be emphasized how key dress reform was in the early days of feminism. It allowed women to forgo the corsets and prohibitive crinoline hoops for clothing that allowed them to move freely and didn’t cause the dramatic health issues of the earlier period of Victorian dress. Whilst it is thought he only took the position as a means of regular income as freelance writing was not covering Wilde’s somewhat lavish lifestyle, he certainly was a force for good and progressive voice advocating for female independence. I’ve written a little about the dress reform movement before so here’s the link to that.

There was a sort of Social doubling happening in the England into which Wilde released The Picture of Dorian Gray published in 1890. Being openly gay was not considered as immoral as we might think, looking back on the repression of the Victorian era. Oscar Wilde was among the men who maintained a heteronormative family life whilst also engaging in homosexual relationships that were not so much hidden as relatively unspoken of outside of those social spheres. But the tides were changing and a law had been passed that would allow gay men to prosecuted under gross indecency laws. These laws weren’t really taken very seriously but all that was about to change.

 

NPG x28098; Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas by George Charles Beresford
By George Charles Beresford – National Portrait Gallery

It was during this time that our Protagonist met Lord Alfred Bosie who regularly frequented sex workers and brought out a particularly indulgent and decadent side in Wilde.

 

It was Bosie’s father who sent the inflammatory and misspelt note to Wilde saying that he was “posing as a somdomite” yes… somdomite. Which was the genesis of what was to be an almost complete social rejection of Wilde.

Wilde, encouraged by Bosie, sued Bosie’s father the hyper-masculine Marquess of Queensbury for liable. This move backfired dramatically with the suit for liable being dismissed and Wilde was arrested for gross indecency.

Here is a passage describing the events leading to the trial from the Trials of Oscar Wilde, please bear in mind when reading this that it was published in 1906 and there is a fair amount of insulting language directed at Wilde and homosexuality in general. Obviously, I am not okay with this kind of attitude and bigotry, but this will give you a bit of an insight into how Wilde’s reputation would be damaged for decades and decades:

He was addicted to the vice and crime of sodomy long before he formed a “friendship” which was destined to involve him in irretrievable ruin. In London, he met a younger son of the eccentric Marquis of Queensbury, Lord Alfred Douglas by name. This youth was being educated at [Pg 8]Cambridge. He was of peculiar temperament and talented in a strong, frothy style. He was good-looking in an effeminate, lady-like way. He wrote verse. His poems not being of a manner which could be acceptable to a self-respecting publication, his efforts appeared in an eccentric and erratic magazine which was called “The Chameleon.” In this precious serial appeared a “poem” from the pen of Lord Alfred dedicated to his father in these filial words: “To the Man I Hate.”

Oscar Wilde at once developed an extraordinary and dangerous interest in this immature literary egg. A being of his own stamp, after his own heart, was Lord Alfred Douglas. The love of women delighted him not. The possession of a young girl’s person had no charm for him. He yearned for higher flights in the realms of love! He sought unnatural affection. Wilde, experienced in all the symptoms of a disordered sexual fancy, contrived to exercise a remarkable and sinister influence over this youth. Again and again and again did his father implore Lord Alfred Douglas to separate himself from the tempter. Lord Queensberry threatened, persuaded, bribed, urged, cajoled: all to no purpose. Wilde and his son were constantly together. The nature of their friendship became the talk of the [Pg 9]town. It was proclaimed from the housetops. The Marquis, determined to rescue him if it were humanly possible, horsewhipped his son in a public thoroughfare and was threatened with a summons for assault. On one occasion—it was the opening night of one of the Wilde plays—he sent the author a bouquet of choice—vegetables! Three or four times he wrote to him begging him to cancel his friendship with Lord Alfred. Once he called at the house in Tite Street and there was a terrible scene. The Marquis fumed; Wilde laughed. He assured his Lordship that only at his son’s own request would he break off the association which existed between them. The Marquis, driven to desperation, called Wilde a disgusting name. The latter, with a show of wrath, ordered the peer from his door and he was obliged to leave.

At all costs and hazards, at the risk of any pain and grief to himself, Lord Queensberry was determined to break off the disgraceful liaison. He stopped his son’s allowance, but Wilde had, at that time, plenty of money and his purse was his friend’s. At last the father went to the length of leaving an insulting message for Oscar Wilde at that gentleman’s club. He called there and asked for Wilde. The clerk at the enquiry office stated that Mr. Wilde was[Pg 10] not on the premises. The Marquis then produced a card and wrote upon it in pencil these words, “Oscar Wilde is a Bugger.” This elegant missive he directed to be handed to the author when he should next appear at the club.

From this card—Lord Queensberry’s last resource—grew the whole great case, which amazed and horrified the world in 1895. Oscar Wilde was compelled, however reluctantly, to take the matter up. Had he remained quiescent under such a public affront, his career in England would have been at an end. He bowed to the inevitable and a libel action was prepared.

One is often compelled to wonder if he foresaw the outcome. One asks oneself if he realized what defeat in this case would portend. The stakes were desperately high. He risked, in a Court of Law, his reputation, his position, his career and even his freedom. Did he know what the end to it all would be?

Whatever Wilde’s fears and expectations were, his opponent did not under-estimate the importance of the issue. If he could not induce a jury of twelve of his fellow-countrymen to believe that the plaintiff was what he had termed him, he, the Marquis of Queensberry, would be himself [Pg 11]disgraced. Furthermore, there would, in the event of failure, be heavy damages to pay and the poor man was not over rich. Wilde had many and powerful friends. For reasons which it is not necessary to enlarge upon, Lord Queensberry was not liked or respected by his own order. The ultimate knowledge that he was a father striving to save a loved son from infamy changed all that, and his Lordship met with nothing but sympathy from the general public in the latter stages of the great case.

Sir Edward Clarke was retained for the plaintiff. It is needless to refer to the high estimation in which this legal and political luminary is held by all classes of society. From first to last he devoted himself to the lost cause of Oscar Wilde with a whole-hearted devotion which was beyond praise. The upshot of the libel action must have pained and disgusted him; yet he refused to abandon his client, and, in the two criminal trials, defended him with a splendid loyalty and with the marked ability that might be expected from such a counsel. The acute, energetic, silver-spoken Mr. Carson led on the other side. It is not necessary to make more than passing mention of the conspicuous skill with which the able lawyer conducted the case for the [Pg 12]defendant. Even the gifted plaintiff himself cut a sorry figure when opposed to Mr. Carson.

Extraordinary interest was displayed in the action; and the courts were besieged on each day that the trial lasted. Remarkable revelations were expected and they were indeed forthcoming. Enormous pains had been taken to provide a strong defence and it was quite clear almost after the first day that Wilde’s case would infallibly break down. He made some astonishing admissions in the witness-box and even disgusted many of his friends by the flippancy and affected unconcern of his replies to questions of the most damaging nature. He, apparently, saw nothing indecorous in facts which must shock any other than the most depraved. He saw nothing disgusting in friendships of a kind to which only one construction could be put. He gave expensive dinners to ex-barmen and the like: ignorant, brutish young fools—because they amused him! He presented youths of questionable moral character with silver cigarette-cases because their society was pleasant! He took young men to share his bedroom at hotels and saw nothing remarkable in such proceedings. He gave sums of thirty pounds to ill-bred youths—accomplished blackmailers—because they were hard-up and he felt they [Pg 13]did not deserve poverty! He assisted other young men of a character equally undesirable, to go to America and received letters from them in which they addressed him as “Dear Oscar,” and sent him their love. In short, his own statements damned him. Out of his own mouth—and he posing all the time—was he convicted. The case could have but one ending. Sir Edward Clarke—pained, surprised, shocked—consented to a verdict for the Marquis of Queensberry and the great libel case was at an end. The defendant left the court proudly erect, conscious that he had been the means of saving his son and of eradicating from society a canker which had been rotting it unnoticed, except by a few, for a very long time. Oscar Wilde left the court a ruined and despised man. People—there were one or two left who were loyal to him—turned aside from him with loathing. He had nodded to six or seven friends in court on the last day of the trial and turned ashen pale when he observed their averted looks. All was over for him. The little supper-parties with a few choice wits; the glorious intoxication of first-night applause; the orgies in the infamous dens of his boon companions—all these were no more for him. Oscar Wilde, bon vivant, man of letters, arbiter[Pg 14] of literary fashion, stood at the bar of public opinion, a wretch guilty of crimes against which the body recoils and the mind revolts. Oh! what a falling-off was there!

 

Witnesses came forward, Wilde’s letters to Bosie were read aloud and Wilde’s sex life was dragged into the courtroom and paraded around for all to see.

Despite all this, Oscar Wilde sat poised in the witness box and even managed to elicit laughter. Playfully taunting the Prosecution Mr Gill. I highly recommend reading the transcripts on Project Gutenberg, who by the way I am not sponsored by, by the way, because the entire thing relies on volunteers and it is amazing and you should go to gutenberg.org right now.

Despite Wilde’s wit, he was unable to appeal sufficiently to the jury.

He was found guilty and sent to gaol.

That night there was an exodus of 6 hundred single, thought to be gay, men fled England for Paris.

Oscar Wilde was imprisoned from 1895 to 1897, During which time he wrote a letter to Bosie which was published as De Profundis.

He died 3 years after his release on the  30th November 1900 in Paris. The cause may have been syphilis, but most likely it seems to that is was meningitis. His accuser The Marquess of Queensbury died earlier that year from syphilis, Bosie would survive a further 45 years.

Constance_LloydThere is a pivotal player in this story that is frequently overlooked and underestimated and we are going to spend a bit of time getting to know Constance Wilde. The woman who was as much a victim of the scandal that was to follow and her very deep suffering is often a mere footnote in the story both in its earlier incarnation as a scandalous tale of debauchery and our contemporary understanding of the story as one of sexual freedom versus Victorian repression.

“So sweet, so pretty and good, how came she by her outrageously intellectual husband? It was impossible not to predict suffering for a woman so domestic and simple mated with a mind so searching and so perverse, and a character so self-indulgent.”  – Richard Le Gallienne.

This quote doesn’t do the brilliant woman justice

Constance Lloyd was also born in Ireland in 1859, she was an acclaimed writer of children’s stories and this legacy is almost entirely eclipsed by the looming shadow of Oscar.

There is speculation that maybe she delighted in her family’s disapproval of her choice in husband. There appears to be a meeting of minds, particularly in their early relationship with Constance embracing the dress reform movement and softer, more practical wear for women as a form of female independence. Constance is not the shy retiring woman at home that history wants to paint her as. While it is true that she was steadfast and supportive of Oscar, even when it seemed like he was ignorant and indifferent to her suffering. But this support and strength in the face of scandal and censure paint the picture of a woman whose strength of character is quite phenomenal. She had to flee England with her two children in a kind of exile to shelter her young family from aggressive societal disgrace. They changed their name to Holland and she tried to sustain a relationship with Wilde, visiting him in prison and kept a dialogue going between the father and his children.  She died, possibly from spinal damage caused by a fall and possibly from syphilis contracted from her husband in 1898, in Italy.

20130810_dublin045
By Jean Housen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27713103

There is a nude, pregnant statue of Constance in Merion Dublin.

The moral of the Story? Can there be a moral to this story? Or is it like any one of Wilde’s fictions that defies a moral. No one can know enough about the life of another person to provide a satisfactory moral conclusion.

If it was syphilis that claimed Wilde, then perhaps we could draw a moral conclusion about a life of decadence, but we will never know. If Constance had been rewarded for her strength and loyalty then we could claim a moral about the strength of spirit, but there is no clear reward for our heroine, in fact, it is her ‘goodness’ that leads to tragedy. Bosie outlived them all despite being the somewhat amoral catalyst of the Wilde’s undoing. 

The Picture of Dorian Gray has a moralistic end but not moralistic intentions. He finalized his stories with a moral finish, tying up the ends in or to provide closure and satisfaction, but not to provide a morality or judgement. We get a satisfactory conclusion, which is more than can be said of the tragic story of Oscar Wilde.

 

Here is an excerpt from De Profundis, his extended letter to Bosie, which he wrote while serving his sentence for gross indecency to take us out. I’ll see you soon.

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age.  I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards.  Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged.  It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away.  With me it was different.  I felt it myself, and made others feel it.  Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion.  Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.

The gods had given me almost everything.  But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease.  I amused myself with being a flâneur, a dandy, a man of fashion.  I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds.  I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy.  Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation.  What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion.  Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both.  I grew careless of the lives of others.  I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on.  I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop.  I ceased to be lord over myself.  I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it.  I allowed pleasure to dominate me.  I ended in horrible disgrace.  There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.

For a great account of Constance Wilde’s life  check out Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle

 

The Monstrous Beauty – Dorian Gray

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.

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Text: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, 1890/1891
Does he survive the novel? No

Motivation:

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-Gray-1029

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.

Favourite Quote:

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.”

Art For Art’s Sake – Basil Hallward

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.

Text: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, 1890/1891
Does he survive the novel? No

Motivation:

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.

Favourite Quote

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.”

A Man Without Substance – Lord Henry Wotton

Meet Lord Henry Wotton, a living, breathing epigraph machine. If there is something clever and cold to be said in The Picture of Dorian Gray, then Lord Henry will probably say it. He appears to be the surface that Wilde alludes to in the Preface, but there is something a little troubling and problematic about Lord Henry that does not quite fit this theory. Throughout the text, people poke fun at Lord Henry for not practising what he preaches. It is possible that the deep hypocrisy and envy of a particular kind of youth and beauty is at the core of his desire for power and destruction over his fellow man.

Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton
Colin Firth as Lord Henry Wotton
Text: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, 1890/1891
Does he survive the novel? Yes
Family: Wife is Victoria Wotton, separated by the end of the novel

Motivation:

In the beginning, we can easily dismiss Lord Henry’s motivation as being curiosity, but as we are drawn deeper into the story it becomes apparent that there is a kind of dark voyeurism and the desire to dominate that governs Lord Henry’s actions. He is determined to exact an inescapable influence over Dorian Gray. But this desire to control is unsustained after he opens the door to Dorian’s corruption and the damage is done he just leaves him to his own devices. As a gothic villain, Lord Henry falls right into the category of the tempter, see also Dracula.

 

DoriangrayLord Henry as the Creator

Whilst Victor Frankenstein and Lord Henry are quite dissimilar in nature they both undertake the process of creating a “monster”. Lord Henry talks of scientific experiments on Dorian’s psyche, and his he bombards the young man with dangerous ideas that foster this the corruption of this naive man. He builds the creature that is Dorian Gray by appealing to his vanity and desire for sensation. His tools of creation are indeed sensation and ideas. There is no one to hold Dorian’s hand as he navigates his way through the consequences of his diabolical pact and his debaucherous lifestyle. Sir Henry has created a monster and has then let him roam the world unchecked.

 

Favourite Quote:

“It is only the sacred things that are worth touching, Dorian,” said Lord Henry, with a strange touch of pathos in his voice. “But why should you be annoyed? I suppose she will belong to you some day. When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.”

 

Decorative Sex – The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

 

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.

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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

The_Picture_of_Dorian_Gray
By Ivan Albright (1897 – 1983) – en:File:The Picture of Dorian Gray- Ivan Albright.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757597

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.

 

Oscar Wilde

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.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas By Apollomelos~commonswiki – http://www.web.apc.org/~jharnick/cemetary.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64045

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:

 

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Where the Hell are We Going?

New-Mind-Map (1)

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:

Nick and Vince’s Podcast – Frankenstein Part 1 with Morgan from The FrankenPod

Cult of Domesticity – FrankenCult; Mary Anne Cotton with Morgan from The FrankenPod

The FrankenPod – The Body Snatchers – It’s a Cult of Domesticity guest minisode feat Gallus Girls and Wayward Women

There are some other collaborations in the pipeline and hopefully many more to come. Please send me an email thefrankenpod@gmail.com if you want to collaborate in some way.

A Quick Word with Mr Wilde

The PREFACE

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. 

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.

Oscar Wilde.

 

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas By Apollomelos~commonswiki – http://www.web.apc.org/~jharnick/cemetary.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64045

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.

A small child can read a Disneyified version of Cinderella in a very different way to an adult.

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?

A story about the creation of a monster?

Can we compare The Picture of Dorian Gray to Frankenstein?

 

References:

The Picture of Dorian Gray on Project Gutenburg

Paradise Lost in The Poetical Works of John Milton on Project Gutenburg