Perversion and degeneracy in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Many reviewers denounced Oscar Wilde’s novel as perverse and immoral. Roger Luckhurst explores the work’s sexual and moral ambiguities.
Oscar Wilde’s only novel appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, after being commissioned by the American editor at the same meal where Arthur Conan Doyle agreed to write the Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of Four. Wilde (1854-1900) was a celebrated professional ‘aesthete’, a dandified man about town, an early ‘celebrity’ figure, famous for being famous. He had not only been mocked in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, he had happily toured America with it, ‘performing’ the role of dandified aesthete. Wilde had written a little and worked as a professional journalist and editor, but between 1888 and 1890 he published a series of essays, stories and books that made him a serious literary figure too. His fame as a playwright and the scandal of his downfall, when he would be arrested and imprisoned for acts of ‘gross indecency’ with other men in 1895, still awaited him. His relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas would prove literally fatal. He died in exile, his health broken after two years in prison, in France in 1900. His novel would play a part in his downfall, excavated for ‘evidence’ by his prosecutors.

The Picture of Dorian Gray as first published in Lippincott's Magazine

Front cover to the Lippincott’s Magazine publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, July 1890.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray was a Gothic novel that skirted scandalous behaviour: the transgressive, supernatural elements of the genre provided a frame for speaking unspeakable things. The book tells the story of the beautiful young man Dorian Gray, who is given the capacity to explore every possible vice and desire while his moral decay is hidden away in his painted portrait that bears all the marks of his degeneration. Victorians, trained in moral physiognomy, believed that sin was written on the body, so despite the ugly rumours, no one can believe anything ill of the unageing beauty of Dorian. It is Stevenson’s story of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1885) told in reverse, Dorian keeping perfect public command of himself while his double rots in secret. As the novel progresses, Gray becomes increasingly immoral, indulging in all manner of vices, eventually including the murder of the portrait-painter. Gray only ends the split by plunging a knife into the painting and killing himself. The portrait is found as it was first painted, with a hideous, deformed creature sprawled beneath it.

Henry Keen's illustrations to The Picture of Dorian Gray

Cover to 1925 illustrated edition of Dorian Gray. The butterfly symbolises two central themes in the novel: transformation and beauty.

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‘Effeminate’, ‘unmanly’ and ‘perverted’

Almost as soon as it was published in Lippincott’s, reviewers expressed their disgust. It was called ‘effeminate’, ‘unmanly’, ‘leprous’, and full of ‘esoteric prurience’ . Worst of all, it was openly French – written under the influence of naughty French decadence. Very recently, the translator of an Emile Zola novel had been prosecuted for obscenity, for daring to issue an English edition of Zola’s vile Parisian filth. The book that corrupts Dorian Gray, an unnamed ‘yellow book’, was self-evidently the weird and perverse French novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature (1884), about a decadent last scion of a degenerate aristocratic house pleasuring himself and defying boredom with a series of increasingly perverse investigations.

The most famous review of Dorian Gray was in the conservative Scots Observer (edited by the poet W E Henley), which came very close to accusing Wilde of the crime of gross indecency that had been made illegal in the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act. Dorian Gray, the review said, was fit ‘for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.’ This was a reference to the recent ‘Cleveland Street Affair’, the discovery that a male brothel had been used by aristocrats to pay telegraph boys for sex. In the novel, Dorian Gray is openly asked by Basil Hallward, ‘Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?’ There is a litany of suggestive rumours listed about Dorian that imply blackmail, ruin, exile or shameful suicide. Dorian’s portrait is completed by an artist who openly expresses ‘that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly’ (ch. 12).

The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885

The 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act outlawing ‘gross indecency’ between men.

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Coded ‘gay’ sensibilities

As a result of this and other reviews, the main lending library, W H Smith’s, withdrew this edition of Lippincott’s. Wilde defended the novel in the press, but was pressured by George Ward, who was to publish a single volume version, as well as his friends, to tone things down in the book form. For the 1891 version, Wilde added an extra six chapters and lots more detail, but did little to alter the tone of the book or the tendencies the novel explored. Indeed, in the long chapter eleven, a litany of Dorian Gray’s life as a collector and researcher of exotic and esoteric objects of beauty, Wilde even coded in a long history of what might now be regarded as ‘gay’ taste or sensibility, with references to Alexander the Great, decadent Roman Emperors and Latin poets, Edward II and his lover Piers Gaveston, Walter Pater’s injunctions to experience only the most intense pleasures in his Studies in the Renaissance (1873), trips to Algiers to appreciate the beautiful boys, and murky doings with sailors in Blue Gate Fields, the notorious dock area in London’s East End. Wilde would do this kind of coding again in his most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest. The opening night of that play on Valentine’s Day in 1895 confirmed Wilde as the greatest literary celebrity of his day, but also began the series of events that would result in his complete disgrace and downfall only a few weeks later.

‘Those who read the symbol do so at their peril’

Of course, reading Dorian Gray as just a ‘gay’ text, looking for clues, tends only to repeat the way the awful prosecuting counsel (Wilde’s university friend in Dublin Edward Carson) mined the book for prurient clues at his trial in 1895. Wilde wrote a brilliant epigrammatic preface that was designed to catch out readers looking for secrets: ‘Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.’ His defence of the aestheticist ‘art for art’s sake’ doctrine was there too: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all’ (Preface). There is actually no explicit statement of what Dorian’s vices really are: it is left to the lurid imagination of the reader to detail them. The trajectory of the book is seemingly towards the punishment of the abandonment of morals by the aesthete. Yet these defensive tactics did not, in the end, protect Wilde from an Establishment that disliked his political, aesthetic and sexual transgressions.

'Dogmas for the Use of the Ages' by Oscar Wilde

'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’: Oscar Wilde’s manuscript drafts of epigrams,  here titled 'Dogmas for the Use of the Ages', later used for the Preface to Dorian Gray.

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Copyright: © Estate of Oscar Wilde

The British Library houses the Lady Eccles collection, one of the most extensive collections of Wilde and Wilde-related materials in the world, containing over 1000 volumes and a variety of ephemera. It includes a signed copy of this novel, designed by Charles Ricketts, and with a personal inscription to the very young Lionel Johnson, soon to become one of the ‘Tragic Generation’ poets of the 1890s. It was this copy that Johnson leant to his Oxford friend Lord Alfred Douglas, and both young men went to meet Wilde for the first time in June 1891. This was the beginning of the relationship that would end in Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading Gaol in May 1895.

1891 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray

The copy of Dorian Gray, inscribed by Oscar Wilde to Lionel Johnson, that was lent to Lord Alfred Douglas with whom Wilde later formed a relationship with.

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Photographs of Oscar Wilde, 1877-1905

Photograph of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.

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  • Roger Luckhurst
  • Roger Luckhurst is a specialist in Late Victorian literature, Gothic and Science fiction literature and film, and the history of the supernatural. He is the author of Science Fiction (2005), The Mummy’s Curse (2012) and editor of the Oxford World’s Classics editions of Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula, and H P Lovecraft. His book on the film Alien appears in 2014 from the BFI and one called Zombies is out with Reaktion Press in 2015.

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