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The Picture of Dorian Gray's Attitudes Toward Sexuality in the Context of Specific Attitudes or Debates from the Late 19th Century
The Picture of Dorian Grey can be considered as one of the most intriguing and one of the most eccentric books in the history of world’s literature. Discussions and debates around it and its main themes will continue for many years. This book, which was written by a famous English writer and poet Oscar Wilde is one of those books the lines of which are on the tongues of many people and are repeated for centuries. Without a doubt, The Picture of Dorian Grey is a literary masterpiece, the complexity of which cannot be described in just a few words. This novel was written in times of great changes, not only technological ones, but also the changes of the society and mankind as a whole. Historical aspects of the 19th century were reflected in the text of the novel in very specific ways. Major topics of the 19th century appear to be closely connected with matters of our times.
Although the times of witch-hunting and inquisition have passed, the society and its manners in the 19th century still remained prejudiced. People’s fears were mirrored exactly in the same way in their laws. Although the 19th century is considered as a century of great progress, it seemed like old habits were dying hard. The society was afraid of everything new. Any new passion became a subject of gossips. Any new opinion became a crime against God and the whole mankind. Many people were executed or put to jail for nothing. One of them was a famous and extravagant writer and poet Oscar Wilde. This man was considered as a mad one, a libertine, and a fool captured by demons in those times. However, nowadays, everyone speaks about him as of a genius of world’s literature. The Picture of Dorian Grey is considered as the only Wilde’s novel, which was considered to be a cursed one back in1890 (the year it was published) and the most popular today. During all his life, Oscar Wilde was playing dangerous games by creating secrets around his private life and then revealing them very easily. The same thing is true about his sexual orientation. That is exactly why his novel was re-printed for several times in order to hide homosexuality in those years. In 1885, the House of Commons of the British Parliament adopted the Bill that was later called the Labouchere Amendment. This Amendment to the Criminal Law of 1885 prohibited any sexual or romantic relationships between men, calling it gross indecency. The chief editor, who was supposed to review Wilde’s novel and publish it in the Lippincott’s magazine, saw the danger that was created by the writer in the text. As all readers and fans of The Picture of Dorian Grey can remember, the scene spoken about was the indecent moment of passion between Basil and Dorian. According to the novel, a painter Basil was very fond of with his young model Dorian Grey. Due to scandalous nature of such text at that time, the editor of the magazine deleted several moments from the novel. However, although the text was edited, the changes were minor, and the new version of the novel still contained controversial scenes. Nobody could save Oscar Wilde from critics and their cruel comments regarding The Picture of Dorian Grey. The very same year Oscar Wilde was convicted of the indecency under Section 11of the Labouchere Amendment. This section contains a warning and refers to the evidence of indecent act between two men, whether it happened in public or in private. Imprisonment of Oscar Wilde included two years of hard labor together with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Not only Oscar Wilde was convicted for his affairs with males. Because of the Labouchere Amendment, many Victorian writers and poets were living in fear during those times even though not all of them had relationships with men in reality.
During his whole life, Oscar Wilde was struggling against the norms of society, always wanting to be accepted with all his paradoxes. However, at this one certain time, both Wilde and his literary child The Picture of Dorian Grey were seriously judged. The good thing was that Wilde stayed for the trial and did not flee to France. During this trial, Wilde stated that in his novel The Picture of Dorian Grey he saw and described himself. The sincerity of his words and the narration in the novel became the evidence to Wilde’s words on the trial. Aside from that, the writer concluded that he saw himself in Basil character, while the society, to his mind, was seeing him as cruel and cunning Mr. Henry, who seduced Dorian by showing him all temptations of the world. However, being Basil, Oscar Wilde always dreamed to be Dorian Grey instead with his opportunities, freedom, youth, and beauty. However, the case about the novel was solved in less than 28 days, and the apology for the whole trial and conviction of the famous writer were made only in a century.
As one can see, gay people had much fewer rights in the 19th century than nowadays. Back then, trials were held against homosexuals, while today the trials are held in order to support gay people and their rights for expression of their feelings and even a right to get married. At the end of 19th century, Wilde wrote a book, a novel, which had comments on the controversy and constraints of the society and which survived with its main ideas through the centuries. His every character is the expression of this world, its fears, sins, and prejudices. The Picture of Dorian Grey reflects on the most problematic and one of the most complex paradoxes – the paradox between the human body and the text of the novel. If one reads this novel omitting allusions of its homosexuality theme, The Picture of Dorian Grey will be nothing more than a Gothic novel, an allegory between a dark mythology and the death of the author, his body and soul. Although the paradoxes around the soul topic are described more, there is also one more paradox that needs to be mentioned. This paradox is described around the desire. Desire, according to Oscar Wilde, has no differences in bodies and words. It just exists and prospers. However, in the case of Dorian Grey, his desire to live and love was fading with time. The desire expressed by Basil, otherwise, was not so apparent physically at first. However, later, after the painter finished his masterpiece, one can see how accurate and perfectly beautiful Basil had painted his role model, how he worshipped him through the art. In the novel The Picture of Dorian Grey one can find a description of Dorian and the aura of a strong desire around him made by Basil. According to painter’s words, Dorian with his youth and his beauty was the killer of many young boys’ souls. He also stated that the affection around Dorian is something out of human control, something unnatural, it is more a gift of God. There is also a fact that even the name of the main character of the novel has its specific connotation. By describing Dorian as naturally beautiful young man, Wilde describes him as Adonis of the 19th century. Moreover, some critics even said that the name Dorian, which Oscar Wilde gave to his main character was chosen to draw the connection between his time and the time of ancient Greeks. In the ancient times, there were tribes called Dorians, and as in any Greek tribe of those times, everything was allowed there, including homoeroticism and intimate relationships between everyone, whether they are two men or two women.
In the end of the 19th century, two movements in literature, such as Aestheticism and Decadence Aestheticism, were the most popular in Britain and France. The famous slogan of Aesthetics was “Art for art’s sake”. The meaning of this slogan was in the beauty expression through the art. For instance, one described and expressed the drawbacks of real life through the beauty of nature and perfection of the art. The beauty of life was shadowed by its own imperfections. According to this movement, the artist should not be interested or anyhow deeply concerned with any political or social issues. Aesthetic Decadence, in its turn, was mostly associated with the Gothic style implemented in art. The Picture of Dorian Grey borrowed remarkable features from both Aestheticism and its decadent movement. At first, there were only thirteenth chapters. However, after being edited for several times, the novel was extended to include seven more chapters. Extensions were made in order to provide readers with a deeper description of Dorian’s character and his family. Aside from that, these extensions were made in order to help readers with understanding Dorian’s psychological portrait.
The Picture of Dorian Grey was on the tongues of many critics for many years. The trial of 1890 was not the only one regarding this novel and its author. Although Oscar Wilde has moved to France after his imprisonment, in 1895, there was another trial concerning The Picture of Dorian Grey. Some called this novel as a sodomitic one, while others pointed out how shameful and sinful this novel was. Five years after this trial, Oscar Wilde died in one of the French hotels in Paris. Almost right after a night of his death, Oscar Wilde was proclaimed as a knight, a martyr, a homosexual rebel. Later, when the movement for gay rights has started, Oscar Wilde was proclaimed its icon. Unlike the main character of The Picture of Dorian Grey who lost his fight with the society by losing his soul and stabbing his portrait, Oscar Wilde with his courage and his view on things has finished the fight as a winner. Nowadays, Oscar Wilde is admired by many young and not only young readers along with his writing characteristics such as sarcasm, idealism, gloominess, melodrama, conflict, and games. The Picture of Dorian Grey is a unique novel, sincerity of which has touched everyone who started reading the novel. The whole novel seems to contain the story of Oscar Wilde’s life written even before he has lived it. By freely expressing his sexual position, fighting over prejudices, and defending his rights to freely express his opinion regarding any matter, Oscar Wilde died as a legend and literary genius of the 19th century. Oscar Wilde can be considered a writer and a poet who managed to free his art from Victorian age morality doctrines.