Jack Clark

The late Victorian period saw the publication of some of the most enduring and popular Gothic texts in English literature. These texts were controversial as they often scrutinized and critiqued social and cultural structures of the period and simultaneously sensationalized them with romantic notions, sexual depravity, immorality, and grotesque monstrous forms. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a key example of these trends in Victorian Gothic literature. Upon its publication, the text fell under scrutiny for being controversial, vulgar, and immoral but is now regarded as one of the most provocative and philosophical texts of the late nineteenth century. Wilde had intended the text to be simultaneously controversial and provocative as a critique of Victorian aesthetic obsession with beauty and its culturally believed correlation with moral sensibility. The Victorians use of art as a tool for social education and moral enlightenment, and to reinforce the superficial nature of this idealistic moral society. Wilde identifies these hypocritical dualities of beauty and immorality, the sublime and the grotesque, and influence and the monstrous, and creates Dorian Gray as the embodiment of these observations and how a monstrous individual can remain morally infallible if they are physically beautiful. The Gothic trend of the late Victorian Gothic novel was a philosophical observation of the absurdities inherent within the society. But these texts were considered disturbing and were something that you read behind closed doors and hid under your mattress as a sensational controversial piece of erotic literature that you would not show to anyone else. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a comedy of manners and a horror of beauty that corrupts the soul and the picture acts as a mirror to the soul to show the monster within. Subsequently, the text acts as a good example of the late Victorian prototypical Gothic novel that presents themes that challenge key cultural narratives.

Social and Religious Upheavals

To further understand the context of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is important to understand the social issues present within Victorian society. The Victorian period was wrought with a multitude of complex cultural oscillations surrounding societal expectation, technological innovation, religion, and moral panic. It was a period of revolution; the steam engine changed the nature of transport, industry and the economy which also lead to rapid urbanization as the rural working class and immigrants began to migrate to the city center for refuge and work in the growing industrial city which held a population of over three million toward the end of the nineteenth century (Schwarz 1-2). This also meant that the once physically separated social classes now lived closer together than ever before. The result of this was a call for social segregation of the working class for any further successful development of London suburbs (Ackroyd 523). Social entrepreneurs such as Charles Dickens advocated for the rights of women and children and spoke often about education reform for the working class (House 10). He would often use his observations to inspire characters for his own texts such as Oliver Twist (1837) A Christmas Carol (1843), and Great Expectations (1861). The advent of scientific empiricism and education furthered the development of technology and led to the subsequent publishing of layman’s scientific texts meant that that the average person was able to gain an understanding of scientific theorems (Harkup 22). Mary Shelley’s father William Godwin was instrumental to this movement for accessible education by opening a library and publishing house called Juvenile Library and believed that his daughters should also be well educated despite their gender (Harkup 23). Shelley’s education plus having the benefit of being privy to intellectual conversation among her father’s friends would become a significant influence for her in creating Frankenstein (1818).

The influence of religion over the general populace was also subject to change; the focus on scientific research into the origins of creation, and post-Enlightenment rationale claimed that religion was part of prior superstition before natural phenomenon could be explained through the scientific process. Subsequently, public faith in Christian Orthodoxy began to wane in the wake of Enlightenment rationalist thinking that deliberately undermined the church and the monarchy. As a result of these key factors, England began to secularise. Scholars such as Fred Botting, Joseph Carroll, Richard Ellman, and Angela Kingston discuss the conflict between “homoeroticisms correlation with male sexual phycology and the Christian ethos of good and evil as Wilde conceives it” that seemed to correlate with this secularisation (3). This branch of scholarship typically argues that the text offers “two competing visions of human nature… the first derives from the aesthetic doctrines of Walter Pater, and the other from a traditional Christian conception of the soul” (2). Pater’s faith in Christianity waned as he began advocating for human character and morality driven by sensational pleasures, a philosophy that Wilde was partial too in his advocacy for “art for art’s sake” rather than the Victorian necessity to assign moral lessons for the middle and upper classes and social education to the artwork. While this is the case, the text also alludes to Christian themes surrounding the sanctity of the soul and the role of corruption.

Due to the ever-evolving class structure and secularisation, societal moral panics surrounding sexuality, consumption, and etiquette were a common thread. Much of this could be attributed to class reform, as the middle classes were beginning to gain wealth, power and ambition to rise in the social stratosphere through education and industrialization. As a result, a need developed for engineers, accountants, lawyers, and politicians among other professions. (Guy 177). While this revolution was gaining momentum in England and social revolutions raged over the world, the Victorians also reigned over one of the most powerful economic empires in the world due to the cotton industry, that produced immense amounts wealth. After the defeat of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 by the English at Waterloo, there was no significant rival to this economic expansion (Cornwell 342). This, however, did not stop threats from being created to take advantage of the fear of the empire’s populace losing their position. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) manifested an eastern threat that could upset modern technological might with ancient supernatural power. Robert Louis Stevenson also perpetuated this fear of internal threats from human nature itself with the publication of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson stipulated that “within each of us two natures are at war” as humanity struggled to control its more animalistic natures and conform (54). Stevenson’s work was an inspiration to Wilde when conceptualizing the duality of Victorian society.

These changes in power, culture, and control meant the period was a turbulent time where previously believed truths and facts were under scrutiny. This cultural upheaval caused uncertainty and anxiety across the class threshold (Ackroyd 599). Because of this, there was also resistance to Enlightenment rationality that believed that romanticism and faith still played an important cognitive role within European culture (Saul, Tebbutt 43). Gothic literature was a significant aspect of this counter-revolution in England, often being classed as romantic texts, while simultaneously invoking supernatural themes, reacting to the picturesque paradigm that was inherent in Victorian mentality which gave Wilde his inspiration (Whelan 100).

A modern graffiti portrait of Oscar Wilde on a crumbling urban wall perfectly encapsulates the Victorian period's anxiety that surface beauty could hide moral corruption.
A modern graffiti portrait of Oscar Wilde on a crumbling urban wall perfectly encapsulates the Victorian period’s anxiety that surface beauty could hide moral corruption (Thierry Ehrmann).

Aestheticism and Morality

The arts became a fixation of the Victorian middle-class population who believed that morality and virtue could be taught through its sophisticated appearance and could be simultaneously mirrored in the public forum. Art was to be an influence upon the impressionable which Wilde highlights in the beginning of his text upon first introducing Dorian Gray. In the beginning of the text, Basil Hayward has been in the process of finishing a portrait of Dorian, whose physical beauty has inspired him. His associate Lord Henry is very interested to meet the boy who could inspire such artistic inspiration, but Basil is very protective of Dorian as he fears that his character could be manipulated under the wrong Influence. The text contends that influence is a predominantly negative force. Basil makes this assertion to Lord Henry by saying, “…don’t spoil him (Dorian). Don’t try and influence him. Your influence would be bad” (15). Wilde once again, adds another level of irony as Basil had just finished a monologue about the captivating influence that Dorian has over Basil’s artistic creativity which he concludes by stating that, “as long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me” (13). Lord Henry reinforces this point by bluntly suggesting to Dorian upon meeting him that “there is no such thing as a good influence… all influence is immoral…” (18). Ironically Basil and Lord Henry are the two key influences over his character development throughout the text and in keeping with the theme of aestheticism, both present Dorian with a piece of art that aid in Dorian’s character development. Basil paints the portrait and presents it to Dorian, having intended to capture the innocence and beauty of the man but instead introduces him to vanity and a rival. Lord Henry presents Dorian with an obscure book without a title that in his youth had shaped many of his opinions that he promotes (19). As the two key signifiers of art of the nineteenth century, the book acts as a road map for Dorian into his immortality as he attempts to mirror Lord Henry’s philosophy. The portrait reflects Dorian’s soul and shows him the consequence of his sin. Together the two symbolize the resounding influence that the two men have had over Dorian’s development.

The influence of Basil is the symbol of moral aestheticism, constantly observing all that is physically beautiful and maintaining the duality between morality and said beauty; a philosophy that “argues for a healthy balance between our inner and outer selves. Wilde frequently has Basil consistently use adjectives that typically pertain to personality characteristics when discussing physical beauty. Basil is at the center of this ironic juxtaposition, often composing monologues about beauty and then referring to Dorian’s personality (13). A deeper level of this is Basil’s inability to separate Dorian from the portrait in the second chapter where he states that, “as soon as you (Dorian) are dry, you shall be varnished and framed, and sent home” (25). It is this dramatic irony and treatment of the portrait as if it were an autonomous being that sets the foundation for the symbiotic relationship that Dorian develops with the portrait as a reflection of his soul and the proposition of the portrait acting as a rival that Dorian is jealous of and cannot overcome or escape. For example, the portrait briefly acts as a moral compass that mirrors the soul after the death of his fiancé, Sybil Vane when Dorian realizes the underlying nature of the portrait; “but here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls” (78). Dorian deduces that if he can keep the beauty of the portrait unsoiled then he has successfully maintained the purity of his soul (78). Here, Wide is exploring his alchemic combination of aestheticism and Christian moral virtue through the use of the portrait as a gauge to detect sin. The climax of the text surrounds Dorian’s decision to hide the portrait and allow it to bear his sin as he becomes more obsessed with his own beauty and youth stating that, “eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins – he was to have all these things… the portrait was to bear the burden…” (85). Within this moment, Dorian briefly removes the influence of the portrait by locking it up, so he can freely publicly observe his hedonistic lifestyle without the shame of the portrait’s degradation thus subscribing to the influence of Lord Henry rather than Basil.

Public versus Private

The coexistence of public and private affairs in the same space became a zeitgeist of the Victorian social atmosphere which is exemplified by the theatre where private boxes were constructed to separate the aristocracy from the other classes and the stage curtains of the theatre “serve to frame rather than hide what happens on stage” (Sampson 30). This fascination with this juxtaposition also extended to the home which was an example of how individuals could occupy both public and private space (30). The Victorian period was one of excess, social change, empire, and a symbiotic relationship between beauty and moral fidelity. The duality of morality and beauty was a key nature of this modern urban structure that was unfolding. The Victorians became very aesthetically focused on surfaces and surface beauty. As Lara Whelan states, the picturesque nature of the city became a representation of progress (100). Stark differences could be drawn between the sophisticated aristocratic dwellings in Kensington and the derelict mean streets of Whitechapel because of the way they are visibly perceived rather than their internal natures. Wilde uses the Metaphor of the picture in the attic to juxtapose Dorians own simultaneous superficial and visceral duplicity. While Dorian and Lord Henry open up the public areas of his house to maintain outward appearances and charm the other members of the aristocracy with celebrated musicians, dinners, exotic artworks, and decorations of gold and silver, the portrait is hidden in the same space (103). Thus, illustrating the ability of the gentry to have both public and private affairs simultaneously occupying the same environment.

Lord Henry represents the nature of this hedonistic aestheticism, as he constantly makes controversial statements surrounding the nature of beauty and experiencing every sensation and pleasure. These are the words that initially influence Dorian to unwittingly trade his soul for eternal youth and Lord Henry convinces him that beauty and youth are the only things worth having (21). It is only after that the portrait is removed from view that Dorian finds the book that Lord Henry has sent him. With the influence of the portrait removed, Dorian finds himself captivated by this new influencer (102). As stated above the book is never identified but Wilde does describe the contents of the text through Dorian’s eyes. The text focuses on a supposed psychological study of a Parisian man who experimented with the pleasures and sensations that are renounced as sin for the sake of nineteenth-century virtue (100). However, it is important to note that Lord Henry does not necessarily believe every word that he states, nor does he live by his own philosophy. Edouard Roditi specifies that the perversion of Lord Henry’s true doctrine a key element to the text. He argues that Lord Henry’s true philosophy is one of “inaction… beyond good and evil… Lord Henry never acts and never falls” (124). Whereas Dorian naively enacts Lord Henry’s philosophy whilst maintaining the façade of his manners and morality within the Victorian social landscape.

An antique street lamp illuminates a dark street.
An antique street lamp illuminates a dark street, recalling the urban landscape of Victorian gothic works.

Subsequently, late Victorian Gothic novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray are often immersed in the darker elements of the urban landscape of London: Mary Shelley’s (1815) creature of science is cast out into the urban and rural landscapes amongst civility, Bram Stoker’s (1897) Count Dracula is an invading foreign entity with ancient supernatural abilities that could counteract modern progression, Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1886) Mr. Hyde is let loose on the streets of London to conduct murder and depravity. Likewise, Dorian Gray’s immorality makes him monstrous though, unlike previous iterations of the monstrous Gothic antagonist that donned a grotesque aesthetic, Dorian is considered beautiful. Through this duplicitous characterization, Wilde creates a more sinister creature outside the typical good and sublime, evil and grotesque binary of Victorian Gothic. One that is harder to identify that could exist right next to the spectator to challenge the Victorian duality of morality and beauty through the paradox of Dorian’s influential sinful nature yet unblemished physicality. Despite the fact the portrait has been removed from his sight, the portrait is always on his mind and he begins to visit it periodically after consumption and indulgence as another form of pleasure seeing how much damage he has done (103). However, the pleasure quickly turns to paranoia as Dorian feels that he cannot leave the country or house for very long in case someone comes across his secret (112). Akin to other Gothic literature, Dorian’s portrait becomes the grotesque phantom that haunts his existence. The environment is key to the trope and sets the atmosphere as the supernatural trope needs the appropriate atmosphere to be effective: Dracula’s castle, Frankenstein’s lab, and the Phantom’s opera house to name but a few.

Scholars such as Jerrod Hogle, Kenneth Womack, specifically evaluate the use of the Gothic and its inherent supernatural elements as the tool of Wilde to express his ethical criticism of society and artistic culture (169). James Twitchell contends that the text best represents Gothic revival of the late-nineteenth-century sharing the same “deathless limbo, the same disdain for living, the same sadistic glee at the pains of others, and the same almost uncontrollable desire to destroy what is innocent and good” with the likes of Bram Stoker’s character, Dracula (173). However, he indicates that Wilde was not interested in terrorizing his readers as he was in “saying something quite specific about the dynamics of artistic creation” (173). However, Twitchell does not take into account that Dorian’s attic is where the true face of the Gothic monster resides and where the climax of Basil’s murder eventually takes place after Dorian reveals the painting’s nature. In doing so, Wilde unmasks Dorian beyond the supposition of his perceived morality based on his beauty and instead reveals him as the corrupt creature that is seen in the portrait (126). The text does not begin with a skin-crawling atmosphere typical of other popular Victorian Gothic horror texts so this event that sparks the decline of Dorian is one that is intended to shock the spectator. While other Gothic novels portray Victorian London was the embodiment of the empire to be invaded or corrupted due to its virtuous civility and morality and supreme nature, Oscar Wilde maintains that the city as an environment is already corrupted through its population’s moral ambiguity and unethical practices despite its beautiful aesthetic.

The novel’s theme of aestheticism is a critique of  Victorian moral panic. Though Dorian engages in a hedonistic lifestyle that is never fully explored in the initial text, leaving much to the imagination, Dorian’s reputation in the public sphere does fall under scrutiny and scandal. Though many of his social entourage know or have heard of his exploits, they don’t ostracize him due to the fact that “civilized society is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and fascinating… manners are more important than morals and… the highest respectability is of much less value than the possession of a good chef” (113). It is the outward appearance and wealth that determine the quality of the man despite any controversy. It was this hypocritical nature that Wilde seeks to expose with his challenge to the cultural normative. Dorian eventually realizes the emptiness of his life and believes that he may be able to change for the right reason after he meets a woman he is genuinely attracted too (174). But upon seeing portrait after his attempt to reverse the damage that he had caused, all he saw was hypocrisy appear on the face of the portrait (176). In a desperate fit of rage and anguish, he believed that destroying the portrait was the only way he could undo the damage and in doing so he destroyed himself.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is an exemplary piece of Gothic literature of the late nineteenth century but is also a glimpse into common trends of the Victorian mind and nuances of their society. Where other Gothic texts seek to expose insecurities of external pressures or anxiety, Wilde illuminates the danger of the superficial morality inherent with the confines of the fast progressing industrial urban empire. It expresses a commentary on many of the issues surrounding the sole aesthetical nature of Victorian society but also the issues that Wilde had to deal with personally, surrounding social expectations and his own identity and sexuality. Dorian Gray not only symbolizes the hypocrisy of this duplicity but also the complex nature of a nation undergoing a significant industrial, social and cultural revolution.

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A Guide to the Gothic Copyright © 2019 by Jack Clark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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