Oscar Wilde




Oscar Wilde

The Man Behind the Stories: Undertones of Homosexuality in Oscar Wilde's Work


By: Melissa Rader

"I turned half way around and saw Dorian Gray for the first time. I knew that I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself" (7). During the Victorian era, this was a dangerous quote. The Victorian era was about progress. It was an attempt aimed at cleaning up the society and setting a moral standard. The Victorian era was a time of relative peace and economic stability (Marshall 783). Victorians did not want anything "unclean" or "unacceptable" to interfere with their idea of perfection. Therefore, this quote, taken from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, brimming with homosexual undertones, was considered inappropriate. Due to the time period's standards, Oscar Wilde was forced to hide behind a thin layer of inference and parallel. Wilde was obsessed with the perfect image. Although he dressed more flamboyantly than the contemporary dress, it was to create an image of himself. Wilde was terrified of revealing his homosexuality because he knew that he would be alienated and ostracized from the society. Through his works, Oscar Wilde implicitly reflected his homosexual lifestyle because he feared the repercussions from the conservative Victorian era in which he lived.

Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 and led a normal childhood. After high school, Wilde attended Oxford College and received a B.A. in 1878. During this time, he wrote Vera and The Importance of Being Earnest. In addition, "for two years Wilde had dressed in outlandish outfits, courted famous people and built his public image" (Stayley 317). Doing so earned Wilde a job with Richard D' Oyly, a producer. His task was to advertise opera in America. While in America, Wilde not only found a producer for Vera, but also wrote The Duchess of Padua for the American actress, Mary Anderson (Stayley 317).

Upon his return to England in 1883, Wilde began lecturing on his experiences in America. This is how he came to meet Constance Lloyd, whom he later married on May 29, 1884. The couple had two children together. However, the marriage began to have problems after Wilde met Canadian, Robert Ross, which "began his involvement in the disordered, destructive homosexual lifestyle so luridly suggested in The Picture of Dorian Gray and catalogued in his sensational trials" (Stayley 318). Robert Ross forced Wilde to confront the homosexual tendencies that he had been trying desperately to suppress. A whole new world opened for Wilde, and his only resource in which to channel this new energy was through his literary works.

In 1888, Oscar Wilde published a set of fairy tales, The Happy Prince and Other Tales and "The Young King." These stories, "revealed another approach to moral situations and human relationships" (Stayley 319). The fairy tales were perhaps the first time Wilde introduced homosexual undertones into his works. For example, in the story The Happy Prince, a male bird and a statue of a Prince fall in love. Although it could be argued that the love between the Prince and the bird was only that of friends, most likely Wilde is expressing his own feelings of homosexuality through the bird and the Prince's relationship. For example, when the bird is preparing to leave for Egypt, the Prince says to him, "you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you" (Wilde 519). It appears that the bird and the Prince have a relationship more sexual than friendship alone.

Wilde's "insidious" undertones appear yet again in the story of The Selfish Giant. In the story, "he (the Giant) had been to visit his friend, the Cornish ogre, and had stayed with him for seven years. After seven years were over, he had said all that he had to say, for his conversation was limited, and he determined to return to his own castle" (Aldington 425). The fact that the ogre and the Giant were living together for seven years sounds like a romantic relationship, which ends when the two lose interest in each other. Perhaps this is a parallel between Wilde and Robert Ross' relationship. When Robert Ross stayed with Wilde, he began Wilde's homosexual affair, forcing Wilde to face the homosexual tendencies he so desperately tried to suppress. Therefore, the Giant is symbolic of Ross; the ogre is symbolic of Wilde.

Wilde had been able to pour some of his homosexuality into these stories, but he was left unsatisfied. He still yearned to tell the world his dark secret. However, he knew that the repercussions would be unbearable. For this reason, Wilde began to write his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which discreetly expressed the homosexuality he was struggling to hide. Bu writing this novel, Wilde would be able to live vicariously through the characters, who were undoubtedly structured to resemble fragments of Wilde's inner self. As Wilde explained, "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be- in other ages perhaps" (introduction X). Wilde went on later to say that Hallward represents suffering and a sacrificed artist; Lord Henry symbolizes a mature philosopher and wit; Dorian is equivalent to a youthful aesthete-about-town, all aspects of Wilde's own self (Stayley 320).

Before one reads The Picture of Dorian Gray, he or she should know about Bosie, Wilde's long time boyfriend. Although The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in 1890 in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, it forged on to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though the novel was published before Wilde met Bosie, knowing about the two is crucial to understanding the parallel between the novel and Wilde's own life.

In 1891, Wilde met Alfred "Bosie" Douglass, son of the Marquis of Queensberry, for the first time. Bosie's good looks and boyish charms captivated Wilde and forced him yet again to give into the homosexual temptations he felt. Bosie had a lust for a more dangerous living and seduced Wilde to make use of the call boys that Bosie himself enjoyed. This began the gradual decline of Wilde's career, marriage and personal life (Fry 2).

The year 1895 brought forth the crippling blow to Wilde's life. The Marquis discovered the affair that Bosie was having with Wilde, and stormed into Wilde's club, leaving a card that read, "To Oscar Wilde posing somdomite [sic]" (Fry 2). Bosie hated his father and therefore used his influence over Wilde to convince him to sue the Marquis for libel. Oscar didn't stand a chance. The Marquis hired the best lawyers money could buy and used Wilde's homosexuality, which was illegal at the time, against him. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor (Fry 2). This torturous relationship between Bosie and Wilde is reflected superbly in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The novel is about Dorian, who wishes that the painting his friend Basil Hallward paints of him will age instead of himself. Dorian's wish is granted and he maintains his youthful beauty for years to come, while the painting bears the burden of age. However, the painting takes on a deeper meaning because it becomes a manifestation of his conscience. Each sin Dorian commits causes the painting to grow more and more grotesque. Perhaps Dorian would not have become so evil if not for the corruptive influence of his friend, Lord Henry. Lord Henry convinces Dorian to live his life with the main objective to please his senses and give no thought to moral consequences. It was even Lord Henry's influence that inspired Dorian to make the wish in the first place because Henry suggested that the most important thing in life was physical beauty, which is almost always diminished with age. This represents Wilde's own struggle to choose between either a socially accepted lifestyle or the supposedly wrong lifestyle of homosexuality.

As soon as the reader opens the book, he/she is struck by the intense love that Basil feels for Dorian. Basil explains, "I couldn't be happy if I didn't see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me" (10). This was the same feeling that Wilde felt for Bosie. Bosie had the same hold on Wilde that Dorian had on Basil. Dorian ends up destroying Basil's talent of art in the same way that Bosie ruins Wilde's talent of writing. After Dorian discards Basil, Basil can no longer paint masterpieces. Similarly, as soon as Wilde goes to jail and is separated from Bosie, his writing suffered greatly.

Before Dorian makes the wish for the painting to bear the burden of aging and his sins, he represents innocence. His innocence is ultimately corrupted by Lord Henry's evil influence. Because Dorian falls in love with Henry, his actions are totally controlled by Henry's decadent influence. In this instance, Lord Henry represents Bosie, and Dorian represents Wilde. Wilde was relatively innocent before being introduced to the corruptive seduction of Bosie's nature. After the two met, Wilde's life and conscience were utterly destroyed by Bosie in the same way that Lord Henry destroyed Dorian's life. Bosie seduced Wilde into a crazy style of living in the same way as Lord Henry convinced Dorian to abandon all moral consideration.

As the story continues, the character's symbolism interchanges yet again. Dorian falls in love with an actress, Sibyl Vane. However, Dorian loves Sibyl for the characters she brings to life, and not for the person that she is. To Dorian, "Sibyl escapes time; she is full of mystery, sacred. She is all the great heroines, never an individual" (Stayley 321). Once Dorian promises Sibyl that he will marry her, he steals from her the only talent that she possessed. Sibyl does not mind the loss. She explains,

Before I knew you, acting was the only one reality in my life. I thought it was all true. You freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality is. You made me understand what love really is." (97-98).

However, since Dorian never truly loved Sibyl for the person she was, he was outraged by her loss of talent and called off the marriage. To Dorian, Sibyl was merely a collectible in the same way that Wilde's wife, Constance, was to him. In other words, Constance was merely another mask to hide Wilde's homosexuality. Dorian not only stole from Sibyl her defining talent, but also her will to live after he selfishly cast her aside after learning she would no longer be able to act if they were together. Bosie did the same thing to Wilde, stealing from him his talent to write, and then leaving him to rot in a cell.

Once Dorian realizes that the painting will bear the affects of his sins, he lives his life carelessly. He follows Lord Henry's theory of pleasure over morals, and lives his life with no consideration to the consequences of his actions. He manages to drive a girl to suicide, destroy the life of the girl's brother because his sister meant everything to him, and even to kill the only person who truly loved him, Basil. Similarly, Wilde estranged his wife and family and breaks the law for mere physical pleasure. In the end, Dorian is so disgusted with his painting, and therefore his soul, he attempts to destroy it by ripping the picture with a knife. Later that day, Dorian is found dead next to a painting of his former beauty while his body is old and decrepit. Dorian kills his conscience; thus he kills himself.

By the end of the novel, despite all of the torture Dorian has endured, Lord Henry remains unchanged. He expresses no remorse in having corrupted the purity that once existed in Dorian, and having destroyed his life. In Wilde's own life, Bosie also remained unchanged. He too never felt ashamed or sorrowful of the corruption of Wilde that he promoted. Dorian dies a bitter man, and this is perhaps the same way Wilde felt at the end of his lifetime. The novel acted as a window to allow the reader into Wilde's life, and be able to discover the hidden homosexuality and tragedy of his life.

When the novel was first introduced into the conservative Victorian society, it was referred to as "mawkish and nauseous," "unclean," "effeminate" and "contaminating" (introduction x). This was because "the homosexual undertones of Wilde's development of his plot roused a critical corruption" (Stayley 320). The people of this time period were not ready for this type of controversy. However, "those who rage and howl suffer from seeing their own savage faces reflected in their artist's creation" (Stayley 320). In other words, the society did not like this book because it forced them to look inside themselves and face the imperfections that the Victorian era was struggling to conceal. This got in the way of the Victorian society's image of perfection.

The people of the Victorian era were simply not ready to confront the fact that there were ideas and concepts out there that did not adhere to their image of perfection, but could not be ignored. Wilde's novel was conducive to change. It brought to light a revelation the Victorian society was trying to avoid. Wilde should have pressed this point more in his novel, however he lacked the courage that was necessary. As James Joyce pointed out in a letter to his brother, Wilde's literary flaw was that, "Wilde seems to have good intentions in writing it- some wish to put himself before the world- but the book is rather crowded with lies and epigrams. If he had the courage to develop the allusions in the book it might have been better" (Joyce qtd. Stayley 323). In other words, Wilde feared self- revelation (Stayley 323). He knew that he was attempting to convey in his novel; therefore, he provided only minimal undertones of his feelings. Had he had the courage to display in full what he struggled so hard to disguise with symbolism and epigrams, the novel probably would have reached worldwide controversy, which is what makes a story a classic.

During his trials, Wilde's own homosexual undertones in his writings, particularly in his novel, were used against him and helped send him to jail. While in his cell, Wilde devoted much of his time to self- examination, and thus wrote a letter to Bosie, De Profundis, explaining why Wilde could never again see Bosie. Due to the torturous love affair between Bosie and Wilde, Oscar's writing had taken a turn for the worse. However, this was Wilde's saving grace. The letter was one of Wilde's most moving writings, and it was the first time Wilde expressed his shame and remorse. A friend of Wilde's, R.B. Cunninghame Graham, explained, "All through the book there is a vein of tenderness, not that false tenderness which sorrow sometimes gives, but real and innate. The love of flowers, of children, of the trees, the sun and moon and stars in their courses, call to us from this crying voice, for pardon" (Graham qtd. Kilvert 409). According to Bosie, "he, a youthful innocent was debauched by the worldly-wise, thirty-eight year old playwright" (Stayley 324). However, Wilde mainly blames homosexuality for his suffering, rather than Bosie and his actions by saying, "she (mother) and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honored. I had disgraced that name eternally" Wilde qtd. Aldington 509). Wilde greatly regretted the shame he had brought to himself and his family and made a vow never to see Bosie again.

However, "Oscar was unable to resist temptation and Bosie were reunited with disastrous consequences" (Fry 2). During the time the two spent together, "Wilde was plagued by financial worries, his relationship with Douglas (Bosie), went through a series of death throes interspersed with short periods of ecstatic reunion, he became paranoid about his friend's loyalty" (Kilvert 417). Wilde's life went downhill and "for Wilde, final consolations lay not in art, but in alcohol, boys and- on his deathbed in a seedy hotel room in 1900- the Roman Catholic Church" (Kilvert 417). Wilde's life had a tragic ending similar to that of his title character in The Picture of Doreen Gray. He died alone and bitter, wishing he could change the past and amend the mistakes he made. It is almost scary how much of a self-fulfilling prophesy Wilde's novel became.

Wilde was an extraordinary writer who used his homosexuality as leverage to take his writing to a higher level. This is something a good author will do, take something within himself or herself and use it to give meaning to their writing. His fear of self- revelation forced him to find other resources to channel his homosexuality into, and he chose his writing. He was ahead of his time in the aspect that he challenged the society that he lived in to explore regions of themselves that they were trying to hide. His life was a tragedy in the sense that he was persecuted for revealing his true life and living the life that he felt was right for him. The Victorian era was relentless in making him ashamed of the way he was born, forcing him to hide who he was, when he was, in fact, an amazing individual who cleared a path for others to follow, to admit to themselves and their community the people they are and live the way they wish to live. Wilde should not be looked upon as the corruptive Lord Henry in his novel, but as the tortured artist Basil, for:

"His joy of life, and all the sufferings which to such a man those two fell years must have entailed, speak for him to us, asking us now, after his death to pardon, and when we speak of him, to call him by his name, to make no mystery of his fall, and to regard him as a star which, looking at its own reflection in some dank marsh, fell down and smirched itself, and then became extinct ere it had time to soar aloft again" (Graham qtd. Tucker).


Work Cited

Wilde, Oscar. The Portable Oscar Wilde. Aldington, Richard, ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

"The Making of the Motion Picture Wilde." (Online)(Internet) Samuelson Entertainment. 6/16/99. Available: http://www.oscarwilde.com

Kilvert, Ian Scott, ed. British Writers. Vol. 5. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982.

Marshall, Kristine E., ed. Elements of Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1997.

Stayley, Thomas T., ed. The Dictionary of Literary Biograph. Vol. 34. Michigan: Book Tower, 1985.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: The Modern Library, 1992.

Melissa is an accomplished pianist and a Virginia resident currently attending community college.

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