If Oscar Wilde had been a man of our time, he might have had rather mixed feelings about the LGBT liberation agenda. Though Wilde himself had homosexual tendencies and would probably have approved of the gay rights movement, he probably would not have been a public advocate. Decadent dandy though he was, Wilde considered his homosexuality his “pathology:” a guilty pleasure and predilection he indulged behind closed doors.
This double life was in accord with the Victorian era in which he lived, and also with a philosophy that pleasures are most pleasant when they are private. No sin is as seductive as the secret sin. There is reason to believe that Wilde would have recoiled at the tendency to wear one’s sexuality upon one’s sleeve—as many do today—instead of making such inner desires the substance of subtle, furtive gratifications. “Illusion,” as he famously quoted, “is the first of all pleasures.” Wilde was able to rationalize his temptations while enjoying the thrill of forbidden fruit—but in his heart of hearts, in his inmost conscience, what guilt lurked?
Just as homosexuality in Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is obvious without being overt, many wish their sins could be unrestrained without being seen. The Picture of Dorian Gray explores the fantasy of invincible vice only to discover that, while justice can be dodged, there is no escape from conscience. Written in 1890, the homosexual undertones of the novel were used as evidence in the criminal-libel suit of Wilde vs. the Marquess of Queensberry in 1895, who accused the writer of homosexual promiscuity with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency, and sentenced to two years hard labor—from which he never recovered. He died in poverty and disgrace in 1900. Like his tragic hero, Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde tried to conceal something about himself in art, and in the end was betrayed by art.
When Dorian Gray first beholds his portrait, he is both enchanted and enraged. The captivating picture promises to mock the self-centered, insecure boy, commanding the beauty of youth that he must slowly surrender. The image immediately provokes the negative self-image Dorian subconsciously harbors, which will only accentuate over time as his physical appearance falls away from the perfection of his portrait. The picture of Dorian Gray is at once a complex icon of narcissism and self-hatred. Embracing the thought that he has no other worth than his beauty, Dorian Gray utters a prayer that it may never fade; and that the picture would bear the effects of corruption instead of he.
Dorian Gray’s prayer was a Faustian bargain with the devil, however, who grants his terrible wish. Thus, Dorian Gray launches out upon a life bent on justifying the supremacy of beauty, rendering himself unworthy of any type of admiration or love, though retaining the face of a saint. He worships sensualism, making aesthetics his anesthetic; and his picture mercilessly records this deliberate self-mutilation. Dorian Gray luxuriates in comparing the hideous face in the portrait to his own reflection in a mirror. These revels occur in the dusty schoolroom where he spent his miserable, orphaned boyhood and now keeps his secret locked away from the world—the very chamber where he learned the lesson of self-loathing. Dorian Gray’s attempt to feign dignity is eventually crushed by a mountain of guilt, which swells as his picture deteriorates. There is no circumvention of the consequences of letting vice run rampant behind the mask of virtue. There is no security for the stealthy sinner. There is no immunity, no escape from the depravity which evil breeds or from avenging guilt.
The guilt that simmers in the novel is not stereotypical. Dorian Gray is no Raskolnikov or Markheim. In a genre known for feverish, passionate psychopaths, Dorian Gray is eerily even-keel in his debauchery—sometimes tending to the neurotic side, always maintaining a low-temperature (with the exception of one mad, murderous moment). The reason for this is the psychological element that Wilde introduces to the structure of the gothic tale. Dorian is preoccupied with intellectual rationalizations that are ultimately self-deluding and self-destructive. When sophistry holds the moral compass, morality is left by the wayside. Even though Dorian Gray is a hypocrite, “no man,” as Samuel Johnson put it, “is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” Hence Dorian Gray leads an existence of hollow experience and emotion: smoking opium, flirting with cynical friendships, frequenting brothels and Algerian homosexual havens, and indulging in every public and private extravagance. The picture is the only true thing about Dorian Gray. “It had been like conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience.”
The dream of Dorian Gray is to live a full and fruitful life according to the dictates of appetite and unadulterated beauty. But it is nothing more than a dream—a distraction from the reality of the picture, which eats at him like a cancer. Even in the pointlessness of his life, he takes a sick and cathartic fascination in the painted putridity of his soul as compared to the beauty of his countenance. This hubris, this bravado, is merely a tactic to slow his sinking into guilt. If only he might drown guilt before he himself drowned in guilt. For throughout his veneration of beauty, disfigurement leered at Dorian Gray from the canvas. “He looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful.” It was only a matter of time…
England in Oscar Wilde’s time was just as two-faced as Dorian Gray, and just as guilt-ridden. Victorian society preached a pseudo-morality that denied the sway of temptation for the well-to-do, lauding virtue and beauty but lusting over wealth and social status. The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s brutal call for recognition of Victorian duplicity. Like society, and Oscar Wilde himself, the novel roils in a war of ideals—the war between ethics and aesthetics. As a student, Oscar Wilde imagined that he might reconcile these two factions of truth and beauty in the Catholic Church, with its paradoxical richness and rigidity. Mighty demons were summoned to this front: Hedonism and Hellenism. The battle was lost for Mr. Wilde, but not the war—not as it was for Mr. Gray. Dorian Gray’s refusal to heed the call of conscience led to a tragedy sparked by guilt. Oscar Wilde converted to Catholicism two days before he died. Perhaps his concession to heed the call of conscience led to a comedy sparked by guilt.
In our time, by choosing to be proud of our sins, we become the picture—unless pricked by guilty conscience to be otherwise. Wilde’s deathbed conversion bespeaks a type of guilt that the Church assuages. For all its bad reputation, perhaps there is something to be said for the good of old-fashioned Catholic guilt.
The Picture of Dorian Gray issued by Ignatius Critical Editions and edited by Joseph Pearce is ideal for the modern reader. The accompanying essays offer classic criticism and insight that are both profound and accessible. This is the edition for those drawn to the philosophical traditions that drew Oscar Wilde, centering on the question, “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?”