The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)

Author: Oscar Wilde

What is the connection between the author and the queer community?

Although Oscar Wilde was married to a woman and had children, he had at least one male lover (Ross). In fact, his lover, Alfred Douglas, was very similar to Dorian Gray because Douglas was extremely beautiful and possessed a cold heart (Ross). However, Wilde only met Douglas after The Picture of Dorian Gray was published (Ross). Unfortunately Douglas’s father discovered his son’s relationship with Wilde, leading to Wilde’s trial and subsequent conviction for “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons” (Ross). In other words, Wilde was imprisoned for being queer. At his trial, the homoerotic language from The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as evidence to prove Wilde’s queerness (Ross).

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

What is the plot of this book?

The story takes place in the elite, wealthy circles of London in the late nineteenth century. As the story begins, the main characters are young men. Basil Hallward is a painter who is obsessed with painting portraits of the extremely handsome Dorian Gray. Lord Henry is their older, witty friend.

Once Basil completes the portrait of Dorian, he gives it to Dorian. Upon seeing this portrait, Dorian realizes the fleeting nature of his youth. Dorian wishes that the version of him in the painting aged so that he could remain young.

Dorian falls in love with a talented and beautiful actress named Sybil Vane. He attends all her theatrical performances, and the two decide to become engaged. Sybil comes from a very humble family with few financial assets. Sybil’s brother James is skeptical of Dorian and the engagement. In contrast, Sybil is so confident in their love that she decides to give a terrible performance one evening in order to end her career and to commit herself solely to Dorian. Dorian brings Basil and Lord Henry to this performance, and the two friends decide to leave early because Sybil’s acting is so bad. Sybil’s bad acting embarrasses Dorian, and his passion for her dies. After the performance, Dorian promptly breaks off the engagement and abandons Sybil, leaving her heartbroken.

When Dorian returns home, he sees that the version of him in the painting has aged and withered from the ugliness of his bad behavior. Realizing that his wish has come true, Dorian hides the painting in a room in his house to which only he has access. While he contemplates getting back together with Sybil, Lord Henry informs him that her grief made her commit suicide. Dorian then becomes very self-indulgent and explores numerous vices.

SPOILER ALERT: Stop reading at this point if you do not wish to know what happens at the end of the book.

Years pass and Basil hears many rumors about Dorian’s hedonism. Indeed Dorian earns a very bad reputation. In addition, as everyone else visibly ages, Dorian maintains his youthful appearance.

Concerned for Dorian, Basil confronts him about his bad behavior. Dorian becomes very angry and murders Basil with a knife in the secluded room in which the painting of Dorian hangs. Dorian then blackmails his friend Alan into disposing of the body. The reader later discovers that Alan’s guilty conscience over helping Dorian makes Alan commit suicide.

For years, James seeks vengeance on Dorian. After James finally locates Dorian, he follows Dorian to the home of one of Dorian’s rich friends. Before James can avenge Dorian, Dorian’s friend accidentally shoots and kills James while they are hunting.

Given this close escape from murder, Dorian decides to reform his evil ways. Dorian kindly ends a relationship that is going nowhere, and he wonders if the version of him in the painting becomes more beautiful. When he discovers that his image in the painting is uglier than ever, he takes the knife with which he murdered Basil and stabs the painting. Screams are heard throughout the house, and the servants force themselves into the room. They find the painting in pristine condition with a youthful, beautiful version of Dorian. On the ground, the grotesque version of Dorian from the painting is dead on the floor with the knife in his heart. Clearly, the two versions of Dorian have changed places.

Dorian Gray
Dorian Gray

How is this book queer?

The three main characters of The Picture of Dorian Gray are queer. Wilde imagined himself in all three characters: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps” (Ross). Basil is infatuated with Dorian, and Dorian is infatuated with Lord Henry. Aloof Lord Henry does not seem very attached to anyone.

From the very beginning, Basil is smitten with Dorian Gray: “I have always been my own master; had at least always been so, till I met Dorian Gray.” Basil lives for Dorian: “I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me.” Further, Basil’s art relies on Dorian: “He is all my art to me now.” Basil even compares Dorian’s face to the face of Antinous, who was a notable inspiration in ancient sculpture for being the gay lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian (“Hadrian—life and legacy”). In a more explicit allusion, Wilde compares Basil’s feelings with those of famous men who were known or assumed to be queer: “It was such love as Michelangelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself” (Ross).

It is no surprise that Basil is disappointed when he hears Dorian will marry Sybil: “A strange sense of loss came over him.” If it were not abundantly clear, Basil explicitly states the intensity of his feelings for Dorian later in the story: “I worshipped you. I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you.”

Although Dorian’s interest in Lord Henry is much subtler, the reader senses Dorian’s admiring gaze: “He could not help liking the tall, graceful young man who was standing by him. His romantic, olive-coloured face and worn expression interested him.” Whereas Basil is in awe of Dorian’s beauty, Dorian admires Lord Henry’s roguish charm. Dorian is drawn to Lord Henry’s witty personality: “And you will promise to talk to me all the time? No one talks so wonderfully as you do.” Lord Henry takes notice of both Dorian’s attractiveness and Dorian’s admiration for him, and Lord Henry feels “the eyes of Dorian Gray … fixed on him.”

Despite this flirting, Lord Henry and Dorian engage in superficial relationships with women. Lord Henry is married, but there is no indication that Lord Henry has any interest in his wife. According to Lord Henry, marriage “makes a life of deception absolutely necessary.” One wonders if the deception includes dating other men. Lord Henry never knows where his wife is. The reader only briefly encounters Lord Henry’s wife, upon which Lord Henry boldly proclaims, “Never marry a woman with straw-colored hair.” Even worse, Dorian’s relationship with Sybil Vane is like a hobby or experiment: “It often happened that when we thought we were experimenting on others we were really experimenting on ourselves.” Dorian’s love for Sybil is insincere, as he loses all interest in her when she gives her terrible performance in Romeo and Juliet.

After Sybil’s demise, Dorian’s self-indulgent hedonism seems to include courting a man, Alan Campbell: “For eighteen months their intimacy lasted.” After Dorian and Alan’s intimacy ends, Alan curiously avoids Dorian at parties. Wilde does not detail what happened between these two men, but Alan appears to be a spurned lover. When Dorian threatens to disclose damaging information about Alan in order to coerce him into disposing of Basil’s dead body, one wonders if Dorian threatens to reveal scandalous, intimate details of their former relationship.

Who would enjoy reading this book?

If you enjoy suspenseful books with witty banter, this book is for you. Wilde is a master of humor and irony, even in this dark tale. Moreover, this book resonates even today, as queer men continue to worry over aging, seemingly more than straight men do. This is a classic book, and every queer man should read this book.

Reference

“Hadrian—life and legacy.” The British Museum, 2017, https://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/themes/leaders_and_rulers/hadrian/life_and_legacy.aspx. Accessed 5 Nov. 2018.

Ross, Alex. “How Oscar Wilde Painted Over ‘Dorian Gray.’” The New Yorker, 8 Aug. 2011, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/08/08/deceptive-picture, Accessed 4 Nov. 2018.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Kindle ed., Open Road, 2018.

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