Scandal and storytelling in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Scandal and storytelling in The Picture of Dorian Gray


‘The love that dare not speak its name’ is generally understood to be a euphemistic reference to homosexuality. The phrase is commonly associated with Oscar Wilde; indeed Wilde was cross-examined about it by the prosecuting counsel Charles Gill when he was put on trial in 1895. But the phrase has its origins in the 1892 poem ‘Two Loves’ written by Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, known by Wilde as ‘Bosie’.

As perhaps with some of Wilde’s own world-famous aphorisms, it can be useful to look with new eyes at words that have become so familiar to us. For me, the line raises two questions that can be really valuable starting points for A-level students when teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel. What are the risks of daring to speak freely? And, given these risks, how might the love that dare not speak its name dare to express itself at all?


Storytelling, sexuality and scandal

How – and in what form – The Picture of Dorian Gray came to be published is an interesting tale in itself and one that will leave students in no doubt about the risks of writing overtly about sexual attraction and love between men at this time. Sections of Wilde’s original draft were redacted by the editor before the story went to press in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890, and some unfavourable reviews led to further changes being made by Wilde – including the addition of new chapters and a rather cryptic and riddling preface – before the novel was re-published in lengthier book form in 1891.

Among Wilde’s changes, certain passages in the later version refer to the admiration of one man for another in a more indirect and therefore less controversial way than in the earlier version. These earlier versions of the novel were published in 2011 in a paperback volume edited by Nicholas Frankel. Students could examine extracts side by side and draw comparisons, and their own conclusions, about the differences and possible reasons for these differences. Wilde’s own short preface is also fascinating to explore with students, not least as an introduction to Wilde’s theories about the value and purpose of art, and to the guiding principles behind the Aesthetic Movement with its motto of ‘art for art’s sake’. As Wilde says in the preface, ‘there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’

Asking why an oblique approach to the topic of homosexuality was so necessary at the time of publication will prepare students for researching attitudes towards homosexuality in the late nineteenth century. Students would do well to find out about the Cleveland Street Affair, the Labouchère Amendment, and the accusation of sodomy levelled at Wilde by Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, that led Wilde to accuse his accuser of libel, ultimately culminating in the infamous trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for the crime of ‘gross indecency’.

The British Library, among other sources, provides online access to some fascinating documents from this period including reviews of Wilde’s plays, cartoons caricaturing Wilde, and newspaper front pages about the high-profile trial. Such documents can be the basis for analysis and discussion about how Wilde as a cultural figure was viewed by the general public; polite society had flocked to admire Wilde and his plays but they – and a great many of Wilde’s inner circle too – distanced themselves from Wilde after the trial.

This discussion can also be broadened out into a discussion about how men and women, love and marriage, and art and fashion are represented more generally in this period and the values and attitudes that were signalled by these different representations. A lexicon of useful terms including dandy, effeminacy, foppishness, muse, hedonism and narcissism can be established and added to over time as students explore the novel and relate these observations back to more traditional representations of Victorian mores.


Encoding taboos

How might taboo subjects be voiced in such a way as to appeal to fashionable young aesthetes without entirely alienating a more general readership? One way in which Wilde does this is through the rich diversity of cultural references throughout the text. The quantity of cultural allusions in the novel – in particular in the extraordinarily densely allusive Chapter 9 – may seem overwhelming or even off-putting to readers, but there is much to be gleaned by exploring the connotations and covert symbolism contained within them.

Motif activity

Students could work in small groups with each being given a motif to explore and present back on:

  • Hellenism (for example references to mythological youths such as Adonis, Ganymede and Hylas can be read as encoded references to male beauty and tragic youth)
  • Flowers (the Victorian loved floriography or ‘the language of flowers’)
  • The fine arts; precious gems and metals
  • The Renaissance (particularly Shakespeare and Michelangelo)
  • France and French culture
  • Theatre and spectacle
  • Hunting, suffering and martyrdom.

Extracts hand-picked by the teacher beforehand will guide students towards key passages, but it will be for students both to research the significance of these allusions and to link them back to what else the novel has to say about beauty and its fading, time and its passing, and the enduring power of art.


A hybrid text with strong links to other set texts

Students are likely to be studying The Picture of Dorian Gray in relation to another text containing a supernatural element, and many will have experience prior to their A Level studies of reading A Christmas Carol, Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and even An Inspector Calls – all of which combine social realism with uncanny occurrences. Students could compile and/or brainstorm an extensive list of Gothic ingredients (including characters, settings, typical linguistic and structural devices, common motifs, and deeper themes and concerns) and identify examples of them in the text. If the novel is being studied alongside Dracula, the novels make fascinating counterparts, having been written within a decade of each other, by Anglo-Irish writers who knew each other (Bram Stoker’s wife was once engaged to Wilde), and who both worked in theatre. Another key literary context in which to interpret Dorian’s life of excess and pleasure is that of Decadence represented most clearly in The Picture of Dorian Gray by the ‘yellow book’ from Paris – generally thought to be Joris-Karl Huysmann’s A Rebours – that holds Dorian in thrall for years.

Wider reading and context

While The Picture of Dorian Gray is Wilde’s only full-length novel, he wrote many shorter works of fiction. Reading ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ (1891) could be set as a home learning task as it provides a further example of how deftly Wilde is able to weave together social realism, mystery, the supernatural, and comedy. The dialogue is characteristically sparkling throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, with Wilde the celebrated playwright of witty social comedies much in evidence, but there is melodrama and mystery here too, with Wilde’s use of limited third person narration showing us the perspectives of Lord Henry, Basil and Dorian and of other characters too, and drawing the reader increasingly and disturbingly close to the workings of Dorian’s corrupted mind.

Some background knowledge of the story of Faust will also pay dividends in terms not only of Wilde’s treatment of key themes but also in the way the novel is structured; as Wilde himself wrote, ‘In every first novel the hero is the author as Christ or Faust’ and certainly in this novel the reader witnesses the ‘hero’ almost nonchalantly entering into a Faustian pact and living indulgently, immorally and with impunity, until a chilling denouement unfolds in the closing pages.

By Emma Page


Book cover of Collins Classroom Classic The Picture of Dorian Gray

Emma Page is a writer, consultant and tutor who has worked in secondary English education for twenty-five years. Emma also wrote the introduction to the Collins Classroom Classic edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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