The Picture of Dorian Gray is a story about a youth whose beauty is unaffected by age or corruption since his soul is placed in his portrait. The cleavage of this dual nature in Dorian Gray deepens as he interacts with Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry ‘Harry’ Wotton, thereby showing their male homo-social world. The story tells readers about its protagonist, Dorian Gray’s life, which was full of immorality and corruption as a result of seeking outward beauty and pleasure.
Dorian Gray destroys his life by seeking only “the beauty of the body” and ends up with “the corruption of the soul” (Douglas 273). The story starts with a meeting between Basil Hallward and Lord Henry where they talk about the extraordinary beautiful youth Dorian Gray. The great painter Basil Hallward has “grown to love” Dorian Gray secretly and he completes his masterpiece of his paintings, the picture of Dorian Gray (Dorian Gray 7). As Dorian sees the portrait of himself, he realizes how bright and beautiful his youthfulness is. He wishes to preserve his precious boyhood forever:
How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older … If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! (25)
However, this longing is the beginning of his tragedy, the corruption of his soul, and the destruction of his life. The portrait comes to represent the changing state of Dorian’s soul, while the real, human Dorian is emptied out – though the outer beauty remains the same.
In this novel, Wilde uses the term ‘beauty’ in two different senses: the outer beauty or a pleasure is contrasted with the inner beauty of the soul achieved through suffering, and self-development. There are two parallel worlds in the novel, heterosexual and homosexual/social. The former is between Dorian and two beautiful women and the latter is between Dorian and Basil Hallward/Lord Henry Wotton. This essay will try to show how Wilde explores the meaning of beauty through comparing these two worlds.
This novel presents a world of heterosexual love of Dorian Gray, first, with Sibyl Vane and then with Hetty Merton through the critical eyes of Lord Henry. Dorian meets those beautiful ladies and spends passionate time together, however, when they lose their value as “beautiful objects”, Dorian suddenly loses his interest and abandons them. His malicious behaviours cause the stunning portrait change to a hideous facial expression by showing his immoralities. Dorian is haunted by its existence and decides to murder Basil Hallward, the creator of Dorian’s distress, with his “an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for” the painter (133), although Dorian is even more horrified at what he had done.
Wilde depicts his protagonist as a willing lover who intends to start a serious heterosexual relationship. However, Lord Henry’s “influence” (18) seems to be at work, and Dorian cannot seem to feel for women as human beings. He sees them as objects of art. When Sibyl dies, for example, Lord Henry gives a remark that represents his critical attitude toward heterosexual marriage. His belief in art for art’s sake—or “Hedonism” (22) is sharply contrasted with the conventional, ordinary marriage with a woman: “If you had married this girl [Sibyl] you would have been wretched” (85). Of course, Wilde does not eulogise the immoral, corrupting influence of Lord Henry, but at the same time, he does problematise the heterosexual institution by making Dorian question marriage, the very symbol of heterosexuality. By representing heterosexual marriage as tedious and commonplace, Wilde is, consciously or unconsciously, negating the social convention.
While negative remarks about heterosexual alliance can be seen throughout the story, the relationships is deeply suggestive of homosexuality, namely, between three characters, Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, and Lord Henry Wotton are divided into two interpretations. Basil’s affection towards Dorian seems to arise out of genuine love since his admonitions for Dorian are given so that he can find his soul. Lord Henry, on the other hand, merely aggravates Dorian’s obsession with his outer beauty and his thirst for pleasure. The novel presents the reader with these two opposed values. We could read this novel as a statement that true beauty exists, but can be corrupted by immoral influences. Like Lord Henry’s close connection with Dorian, homosexuality, or a homosocial tie, is often misunderstood to be “immoral”, but by showing that Basil could have reformed Dorian – if he was not killed, Wilde is able to show that a homosexual subject can be positive, and can produce real beauty.
The main character, Dorian Gray, is based on an actual person John Gray who was a lover of Oscar Wilde around the time the novel was published. An author of Wilde’s biography which focuses on his love and sexual life, Neil McKenna, claims that John Gray “was an exceptionally handsome boy, and likely to grow into an extraordinary handsome young man” (119). Although Wilde could get any boy he was interested in, Gray was an exception. He did not show his interest in Wilde at first, therefore Wilde had to wait in anguish. However, Wilde did not want to leave this “perfectly beautiful, wonderfully poetic and absurdly boyish-looking” youth, thus he never gave up (118). Wilde sent gifts and paid constant attention to the beautiful Gray, therefore he “did eventually consent to become Oscar’s officially beloved, several months after they first met” (118). Finally Wilde’s dream came true.
Wilde changed John Gray’s Christian name into Dorian. It has a suggestive meaning of homosexual relationship in ancient Greece, “which an older man became the lover and the teacher of the youth” (McKenna 122). Judging from this fact, the name ‘Dorian’ represents the relationship of Wilde and John Gray, an older man teaches tips of life to his innocent young lover. In addition to this, the suggestive name also shows the relationships between the characters of this novel, Basil and Dorian, also Harry and Dorian, the older intellectuals and the ‘brainless’ youth. Therefore, the title of this novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, already suggests that the story contains homosexual meanings.
On the other hand, the other two characters, Basil and Lord Henry, are said to be modelled on the author, Oscar Wilde himself. These two characters are artistic and intellectual like Wilde, and Wilde claims that “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me” (Ross 5). Because of his aesthetic taste and flamboyant style, people often consider Wilde as a pleasure-seeking type of person such as Dorian or Lord Henry. However, through Basil’s existence, Wilde tries to show his ideal, or can be said his real nature that is caring, sensible, and moral.
Basil and Lord Henry are in rivalry to gain Dorian’s attention. Basil uses his artistic talent, and Lord Henry uses his beautiful voice and intelligence. Both men are fascinated by the beauty of this extraordinary Dorian Gray, and they try to be intimate with the youth as much as possible.
From the beginning of the story, the talented painter Basil Hallward already admires Dorian Gray and paints his portrait. Basil hesitates to introduce Dorian to Lord Henry. At that time, Lord Henry rarely knows Dorian:
‘Dorian Gray? Is that his name?’
‘Yes, that is his name. I didn’t intend to tell it to you.’
‘But why not?’
‘Oh, I can’t explain. When I like people immensely I never tell their names to any one. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy … It is a silly habit, I dare say, but somehow it seems to bring a great deal of romance into one’s life.’ (7)
From this conversation, we can see Basil’s homosocial or homosexual attachment to Dorian Gray. Basil seems to worry about Lord Henry’s interest in Dorian because Basil wants to monopolise Dorian as his motivation of art. He needs no one but Dorian to create his art. However, importantly, Basil also sees Dorian’s innocent ‘soul’. Thus he tries to avoid all the influence from outside, including his friend Lord Henry. At last, Basil warns Henry not to give any influence on Dorian: “He has a simple and a beautiful nature … Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad” (16).
In the middle of the story, the most affectionate lines of Basil appear. In that scene, Basil desires to see his masterpiece once again because it has already been sent to Dorian, though Dorian refuses the wish. However, Dorian offers that if Basil could tell him his secret he used to mention sometimes, he would show him the portrait. These lines about the secret of Basil are the most obvious and important evidence which relate to the theme of homosexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray:
Dorian, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated, soul, brain, and power by you … 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. When you were away from me you were still present in my art. (97-98)
This confession of Basil Hallward is very strong and moving. Basil hesitates to tell his own feeling to Dorian because he might be offended and their intimacy would be over. However, Basil has the courage to tell the truth, and he somehow gets relieved from his secret love for Dorian by telling him his affection.
In addition to this, in the 1890 version of the story, there are few more lines before the quote above. The confession of the painter even more openly expresses his homosexual desire: “I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives to a friend. Somehow, I had never loved a woman … I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly” (Dorian Gray Norton Edition 250). These lines are deleted in the 1891 version, but their existence would come to have a significant impact on Wilde’s life in the future.
Besides, Lord Henry increases his interest in the unbelievably beautiful Dorian Gray “whose picture really fascinates” him after seeing the portrait (Dorian Gray 6). Lord Henry is attracted by Dorian’s beauty, which comes from his unintellectual innocence. Lord Henry tells Basil, “beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins” (6).
Lord Henry has a huge influence on Dorian, and their psychological bond grows stronger as the story moves forward. One of Lord Henry’s theories he tells to Dorian is, “[t]here is no such a thing as a good influence … All influence is immoral” (18). Dorian is charmed by Lord Henry’s theories, such as “youth is the one thing worth having” (21), and he follows them. Thus, in the end, he is not the innocent youth anymore whose soul charms anyone. Basil mourns about this fact:
Dorian, this is horrible! Something has changed you completely. You look exactly the same wonderful boy who, day after day, used to come down to my studio to sit for his picture. But you were simple, natural, and affectionate then. You were the most unspoiled creature in the whole world. Now, I don’t know what has come over you. You talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you. It is all Harry’s influence. I see that. (93)
Thus, Basil sees that Dorian’s innocence and his exceptional personality have been banished away. At the same time, Dorian says about Basil, “[h]e says things that annoy me. He gives me good advice” (50). Dorian does not listen to Basil’s moral guidance. As a consequence, through Lord Henry’s influential homosocial relationships, the true beauty of Dorian’s soul and personality are corrupted.
By setting the three characters in the homosexual/social world where Wilde believed he belonged to, the author himself seems to explore the meaning of true beauty with the characters. Wilde instructs the readers that the true beauty of one’s inner soul would be destroyed by their own selfishness; if they only follow their thirst for pleasure. The thing human beings must admire is not just their desire, but their innocent soul and inner nature.
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