The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde
Sexuality in the Victorian era seems to have resembled the old adage about the duck¾ everything above the water gliding serenely, everything below paddling like crazy. And sometimes paddling in different directions, as shown by the wildly differing receptions that met two late Victorian novels about divided personalities, published only four years apart. I’m referring, of course, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, discussed last Wednesday, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Stevenson’s Hyde could play the bad boy, but at least readers could be sure he wasn’t playing with other boys.
Between Hyde and Gray lay the nineteenth century’s most titillating sex scandal, the Cleveland Street Affair of 1889-1890. “In late 1889, when Wilde began writing The Picture of Dorian Gray,” editor Nicholas Frankel notes in his introduction to the 2011 Harvard College edition, “rumors emerged in the press surrounding a number of aristocratic and military men ¼ and a ring of male prostitutes.” Make that, young male prostitutes.
“Wilde’s emphasis on Dorian Gray’s youthfulness, or susceptibility to the ‘corruption’ of an older aristocratic man (Lord Henry), is one of the features of the novel that most outraged reviewers,” Frankel writes.
The story opens in the studio of painter Basil Hallward, contemplating the full-length portrait of the young man Dorian Gray. Hallward’s friend Lord Henry jeers at Hallward’s infatuation with the “brainless, beautiful thing.” When Gray arrives for the final sitting for the portrait, Hallward charms him while exuding the poison Gray is too young to bear: “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it¼ (and) you will suffer horribly.”
Gray accepts Hallward’s gift of the portrait but hides it, watching anxiously as he realizes its face, rather than his own, is being marred every time he succumbs to the temptations offered by Lord Henry, as he stoops lower and lower, finally to murder and to blackmail that drives a friend to suicide. By the end, the portrait might have looked like the one painted by American artist of the macabre, Ivan Lorraine Albright for the 1945 movie version of the story, which illustrates this post.
“(He knew) that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so,” Gray realizes at last. Taking a final look at the portrait, he finds it “more loathsome if possible than before, and the scarlet dew that spotted the hand seemed brighter, and more like blood newly-spilt.”
In a fury of self-hatred, Gray rips the picture to shreds, using the same knife he had done murder with. His servants enter the room to find the beautiful youthful portrait they expect and at its feet a dead man 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 recognised who it was.”
For decades, The Picture of Dorian Gray was available to general readers in the thirteen-chapter novella originally published by Lippincott Magazine in 1890 (and edited without Wilde’s input) and the longer but more bowdlerized 1891 novel. I was delighted to come across the 2011 Harvard College edition, which reproduces the original typescript offered to Lippincott along with additions in Wilde’s handwriting and editor Nicholas Frankel’s insightful comments on Wilde, his times and his text.
(Next Wednesday -- I originally planned to blog about Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire today, but succumbed to the temptation to show the progression, if that’s what it is, of sexuality as monstrous, chronologically from nineteenth to twentieth century. Rice and her vampires get their due, completing an October of Halloween horror.)