Aestheticism and Dorian Gray

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Laura Donahue
Professor Margaret Wiley
ENG160
December 3, 2012
A Picture of Dorian Gray: A Queer and Aesthetic Text
Oscar Wilde lived in 1800s Victorian England, during the Aesthetic Movement. He had been known for his involvement in the movement, however more infamously for his crime against homosexuality. In 1895, Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for homosexual offenses, and used against him in court was his own novel, A Picture Of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde’s novel has been argued to function as a queer text, a term coined during the 1990s that “…challenges either/or, essentialists notions of homosexuality and heterosexuality within the mainstream discourse…and instead posits an understanding of sexuality that emphasizes shifting boundaries, ambivalences, and cultural constructions that change depending on historical and cultural context” (Goldberg). Although the novel is a fictional text, it had been used against Wilde for proof of his homosexuality. It can be argued the novel functions as a queer text, however it also delves into aestheticism. Oscar Wilde’s novel delves into both topics of aestheticism and queer theory through a fictional story line.

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Oscar Wilde had been an active member in the Aesthetic movement and in the introduction of his novel he made a reference to the concept of art. “All art is quite useless” (Wilde 4). Relating to the movement, Wilde explains that art should not have any meaning deeper than only for art to be pleasing to the eye, which sets the reader up for the plot of the novel. Dorian Gray, the model for the painter Basil Hallward, becomes obsessive over the portrait of himself. Dorian idolizes the idea of youthfulness being the most important quality one can have. Wilde reflects on the idea of Aestheticism: “To the aesthete, the ideal life mimics art; it is beautiful, but quite useless beyond its beauty, concerned only with the individual living it. Influences on others, if existent, are trivial, at best” (Duggan 61). Aestheticism focused on that art was worth little if it was without beauty, which is exactly what Dorian has become so worried of.

Dorian Gray becomes frantic of the idea of preserving his youth, although he did not come up with this conclusion on his own. Much influence was done by another character, Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil’s. Lord Henry is a close friend of Basil, who takes on a keen interest in young Dorian Gray. Lord Henry became a certain mentor for Dorian and based on the mentorship, Dorian came to the conclusion “never accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate

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experience. It’s aim, indeed was to be experienced itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they may be” (Wilde 125). Wilde makes a reference to both aestheticism and homosexuality. He suggests that the concept of two men becoming romantically involved with one another should only be for the experience itself, instead of the benefits.

This is not the only example that the novel functions as a queer text. Much of Lord Henry’s suggestive comments towards Dorian not only have an influence on Dorian’s obsession with preserving his youth, but also delves into the topic of homosexuality. Lord Henry begins by lamenting on the Victorian Society. “’We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle our broods in the mind, and poisons us…resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden itself’” (Wilde 9). Although Lord Henry discusses the idea of not being able to enjoy what he truly finds beautiful, he hints at his homosexuality.

Lord Henry also hints at his sexual interest towards Dorian on several occasions. He begins by complimenting on Dorian’s youthful appearance. “’You, Mr. Gray, you yourself, with your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood, you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror,...
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