Dorian Gray: Homoerotic subtext

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Dorian Gray: Homoerotic subtext

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feb 10, 2014, 12:01 pm

Wilde is said to have tried to significantly reduce the homoeroticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray in the face of criticism of the first edition (1890). He changed Basil's fixation on Dorian from one of love to be framed primarily by art.

While Henry's seduction of Dorian is still quite clear, this was also scaled back.

What role does Dorian's obviously erotic attraction to his mentor Lord Henry play in the story? Would it be possible for Henry to have such a profound and compellling effect on his protégé in a more platonic fashion?

Redigerat: feb 11, 2014, 10:53 am

It is clearly important that Dorian is attracted and not repelled by Lord Henry because otherwise he wouldn't have "received" the crucial lesson that transformed him. Physical attraction serves to invite and concentrate attention. We look at those that strike us as beautiful; that's a start.

At their first meeting, Dorian is enchanted by Lord Henry's "beautiful voice", a sensual element without which the message might have had trouble getting through, if it would have been noticed at all. (A sexy, poisonous ode to youth and beauty delivered in squeaky tones by an ugly old slob? That's a different book.)

Dorian consciously notes the power of seduction present in voices. Here he is talking to Lord Henry:

You know how a voice can stir one. Your voice and the voice of Sybil Vane are two voices I shall never forget. When I close my eyes, I hear them, and each of them says something different. I don't know which to follow.

In short, Lord Henry's physical attractiveness, expressed in his voice, style and behaviour, is important in making his teaching momentous.

feb 11, 2014, 11:08 am

Speaking of subtext and homosexual coding of Dorian Gray, one might begin with that name. My reference, as mentioned before, is the annotated edition, although I'm sure a lot of this is already available elsewhere, including online.

"Gray" was seen as an homage to a beautiful young poet, John Gray, whom Wilde knew, admired, and perhaps more than admired. Wilde's biographer Richard Ellmann calls it "a form of courtship". When newspapers latched onto it, Gray sued for libel and broke off his friendship with Wilde; he would subsequently become a Catholic priest.

"Dorian" references Greece, pagan homeland of "Greek love"; "Dorian love", "Greek love", "masculine love" being used interchangeably.

To me, it seems inevitable that Wilde, who was fluent in French, would also hear and see the "gold" in Dorian, or, doré, jeunesse dorée: golden youth, beautiful, wealthy, happy youth.

Redigerat: feb 11, 2014, 12:53 pm

I feel like calling it a "subtext" is like saying baseball is only the subtext of a Red Sox game, so long as we leave before the ninth inning!

That said, I don't think too much stress should be placed on "Greek love." People, and certainly Wilde, thought a lot more about ancient Greece then, and it served as a reference point for entire philosophies, especially aesthetic ones. I don't think this take away one whit from the "not-so-subtext." But this particular facet of it shouldn't be overstressed in an age when knowledge of, references to and the overall role of antiquity in thought are a shadow of what they once were.

As for "Dorian love," I don't know. Certainly there were a million ways of referring or alluding to ancient Greek thought in this area. But "Dorian love" is not an obvious synonym for it. A Google books search for "Dorian love" (1700-1890) finds only one example that is about homosexual love, and, tellingly, it is specifically about Dorian (i.e., Spartan) love.* It is possible "Dorian love" was used interchangeably, but never put in print. If so, it would be different from other terms at issue, which did make it into print frequently. My bet is that it aids the general thing, but by no means telegraphs it as crudely as proposed.

* People like Wilde didn't think Dorian was a synonym for "Greek" anymore than we think "Alabaman" is a synonym for American! We're talking about a man who sight-read Greek for fun.

Redigerat: feb 11, 2014, 1:08 pm


That said, I don't think too much stress should be placed on "Greek love."

Not sure what you mean. Certainly, DG is hardly a disquisition on ancient mores. We are talking about allusions, things contemporaries would have (and did) interpret as pointers to homosexuality.

It is possible "Dorian love" was used interchangeably, but never put in print.

That is a strangely categorical declaration and I'm not sure how you can know, but more to the point... what's the relevance? By the way, two sources quoted are J. A. Symmonds and Karl Müller's The history and antiquities of the Doric race. I have the study of homosexuality by Symmonds--and his memoirs--but not by me at the moment; not familiar with the other book.

by no means telegraphs it as crudely as proposed.

Don't see what's "crude" about it at all, it is merely an allusion. Once it's pointed out it's obvious, but it takes pointing out for the great majority who, to this day, are hardly being raised on Greek and ancient history and philosophy. And let's remember we are talking about the second half of 19th century, not Christopher Street this AM. In Wilde's time, only men of a certain class studied Greek at Oxford; only about that same group of people would have been the "informed" (gay or not) crowd to whom these allusions would be transparent.

That gay men flocked to Hellenistic studies isn't a coincidence either. That's where shelter, hope, encouragement, and more than anything, language and style of behaviour could be found. The love may not have dared speak its name in English, but in things Greek it found a way of expressing itself.

People like Wilde didn't think Dorian was a synonym for "Greek" anymore than we think "Alabaman" is a synonym for American!

Nobody's saying that's what he thought. The note is explaining an allusion for those who DON'T "read" Greek, or "gay".

feb 11, 2014, 1:09 pm

>4 timspalding: I did consider making the title of this thread "Dorian Gay," but thought better of it.

feb 11, 2014, 1:15 pm


LOL! I knew someone's gonna crack that one sooner or later...

feb 11, 2014, 1:20 pm

It was bound to happen.

Redigerat: feb 11, 2014, 1:28 pm

I obviously think the pointers are many and entirely clear.

We are therefore only debating whether calling Dorian "Dorian" is itself a strong pointer to homosexuality, the way, say the comparison between Dorian Gray and Antinous surely is. I think not. Things seem a lot simpler when your range of references is constricted. People today have a very constricted range of references for "Greek." Greek love is near the top of those pointers for most educated moderns. What do you know about Greeks? Uh, didn't the men fuck the men?

Wilde didn't live in that world. His range of reference for Greek antiquity were extensive. He was as fluent in Greek as he was in French. His world was one where, when you said Dorian, it meant something specific, and cast off a thousand specific resonances, to the Dorian invasions, the Dorian mode, and--if pressed--to everything that a reference to Lacedaemonian or Spartan might cast. It wasn't a general synonym for Greek. Wilde's less educated contemporaries may have had a less refined understanding of the topic—although far greater than any modern's—but I balk at the idea that Wilde used sloppy and imprecise allusions that made sense only to people who couldn't parse the specific resonance of an allusion.

It is possible "Dorian love" was used interchangeably, but never put in print.

That is a strangely categorical declaration and I'm not sure how you can know

Uh, I provided evidence. "Dorian love" does not appear in Google books in the way you think it does. If it "Dorian love" were a way of talking about homosexual love, it would probably appear that way. If you want to make the case that this was a code word known from informal contexts, but never put down in print, go ahead and make that—dubious—claim.

On Wilde's Greek, I wish I could find an online source for the story I heard in grad school about his sight-reading exam, where the young Wilde was given a passage from the Gospels about Jesus' passion. He read it very easily, and they moved to stop him after a few paragraphs, to which Wilde replied "No, don't stop me. I want to find out what happens to this unfortunate man!"

feb 11, 2014, 2:01 pm

"Dorian love" does not appear in Google books in the way you think it does.

First, you are the one who introduced the specific "in print"; second, Google Books isn't the be-all and end-all of all books or everything that's ever been in print (for instance, handwritten letters are also "print"); third, I was reporting a note from the annotated edition--see my post again--not my own invention.

I'll quote the whole note if you wish, but not right now.

We are therefore only debating whether calling Dorian "Dorian" is itself a strong pointer to homosexuality,

I'm not sure I'm debating this. I (or Nicholas Frankel, the editor of the annotated edition) did not qualify it as a weak or strong pointer. It is discussed as an allusion--one of many. In aggregate it builds up a certain atmosphere, paints a certain picture. Considering Wilde's preoccupations it's highly unlikely that the choice of the name is wholly irrelevant. I'm fairly sure he didn't debate whether to call his beauteous young man "Dorian" or "Herbert". (No offense, Herberts of the world.)

Incidentally, Wilde is very careful about name choice in all his work.

n Wilde's Greek, I wish I could find an online source for the story

Yes, Ellmann reports it, twice. Wilde was by all accounts an accomplished polyglot. I don't see what the relevance of his knowing Greek well is to whether the name "Dorian" might have held certain associations for (some of) his public. Again, consider the context, not the word on its own.

feb 11, 2014, 2:59 pm

Print isn't really handwritten anything, when referring to modern distribution of printed material. Someone's letters, however, could be in print.

Here is a Google n-gram I quickly made comparing the three phrases "Dorian love", Greek love", and "masculine love", variants in capitalization not taken into account. Interesting to see "Dorian love" circulating after the publication of DG.

Redigerat: feb 11, 2014, 3:25 pm

Ah, but you didn't use quotes. You're looking for the words near each other…

See here

feb 11, 2014, 8:35 pm

So: How would "Dorian Gray" be a different book without the homosexuality?

What if the title character were an entirely heterosexual hedonist?

Does the book have a "gay sensibility"? If so, how does one define that?

(Not to keep the Dorian, Doric, Hellenistic, Greek thing going, but didn't the title character and his would-be lover go to Greece in Forster's Maurice?)

feb 12, 2014, 11:42 am


Interesting questions! I wish we had a literary or queer theorist around to take them on.

Aestheticism and homoeroticism have been entangled, in Western culture at least, ever since Plato, and we know how influential his philosophy has been in shaping Western ideals and ideas. Education was a male privilege, exclusively male elites dominated society and ruled on every hierarchical level. With power and knowledge concentrated in male hands, it is easy to see how the male became an ideal of everything good and beautiful, and how the good and beautiful male became an ideal love object. Who else was there to love? Women were ignorant breeding stock or whores to be used like things.

Thus we have male philosophers, male aesthetes, male collectors, male artists, male clients, teachers and disciples, trafficking with and about Beauty. It's interesting that Huysmans, the author of A rebours (the book that deeply impressed Wilde AND Dorian), while himself straight, chose to make his super-aesthete, Des Esseintes, something other than straight, something ambiguous but obviously inclining away from the dirt-common, ordinary, prosaic heterosexuality.

Of course, we're talking about Decadent texts, and they are consciously transgressive. Clearly there's a higher transgressive charge in homosexuality, which is (was) a crime and a sin. Frankel underlines that in Wilde's time homosexuality was widely seen as a deliberate choice, therefore a wilful, soberly committed crime, therefore much more perverse than giving in to some innate failing would be. And it seems clear that Wilde himself must have shared this view up to a point--never does he defend himself on the grounds of what he may be, only on what he did or didn't do.

feb 12, 2014, 11:55 am

Here's John Waters on "gay culture" in cinematic arts.

Again, it's tantalizingly vague.

Here's another stab by a NYT fashion writer.

Makes me wonder if there are any references to red neckties in "DG"?

Redigerat: feb 12, 2014, 12:40 pm

Don't know about red neckties, but green carnations deserve a mention. It's unclear whether Wilde really wore them and whether they were "originally" a badge of homosexuality. But they became a gay symbol indirectly owing to Wilde nevertheless, after Robert Hichens' The green carnation, satirizing Wilde and Douglas, hit the press in 1894.

It's now a symbol of gay pride.

The recent Folio Society edition of The picture of Dorian Gray has one on the cover:

feb 14, 2014, 10:24 am

The aesthetes were also satirized for carrying various flowers a la Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience:

Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band, / If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand.

feb 14, 2014, 11:11 am

Wilde is said to have carried around a sunflower in Paris. :)

feb 19, 2014, 10:36 am

I don't know if this helps and I'm not a part of this group (found it via searching the groups tool for mentions of books in my library), but you can gauge for yourself the difference between editions as an "uncensored", annotated edition was published in 2011. It's based on the original typescript and it notes where it differs from the published versions (the version published in Lippincott's magazine, which had cuts made by the editor, and also the novel version, which includes further cuts).

In that edition, I've found the subtext to be much less like subtext and much more clearer, but perhaps that's just me.

As to the significance of the name "Dorian", I won't weigh in on the discussion as I'm not a member of this group and I think enough has been said. However, I have to object to this:

>Wilde's less educated contemporaries may have had a less refined understanding of the topic—although far greater than any modern's

While the situation of Classics in education in the modern world isn't looking pretty, I highly doubt that Wilde's less educated contemporaries' understanding of the topic would be far greater than any moderns. The 19th century was not only populated by upper or upper-middle class, educated people who would have known anything at all about Ancient Greece. I fail to see how a nearly-illiterate (if not completely illiterate) factory-worker living in a slum would have had a greater understanding of Ancient Greece than a modern Classics scholar. ;)

It may also be worth considering the fact that someone relying upon translations of classical texts due to not knowing Ancient Greek or Latin would have had a narrower access to the text, not only because many older translations aren't exactly faithful to the original, but also because of the way sexual passages were often handled. It was not uncommon to find them glossed over, ignored, or replaced with a note that the translator found them too obscene to include in his work.

feb 19, 2014, 10:54 am

Yes, I think it's important to keep in mind just how restricted education had been, in Wilde's day. And who would be his readers, in 1891? Probably not masses of factory workers--more likely, middle/upper class men and women.