Friday, June 24, 2016

What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows.

When The Picture of Dorian Gray was serialized, it was widely and snarkily reviewed.  Wilde engaged, with a couple of the reviewers, leading to exchanges of letters that are worth reading.  I mean Wilde’s – come to think of it, maybe I should read the other side, but only Wilde’s letters are included in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde (ed. Richard Ellmann, 1969).

The publicity was obviously good for all parties involved.

The letters contain a number of Wilde’s aesthetic principles, cleanly stated.  “The supreme pleasure in literature is to realise the non-existent,” that sort of thing (p. 240).

Dorian Gray magically acquires eternal youth and beauty, and thus enters into a life of sensuality and vice.  Setting aside the homemade perfumes and stamp collecting and so on, many readers, including this one, have been puzzled by the vagueness of Dorian’s vices, at least before we watch him commit a murder. 

It was rumoured that he had been seen brawling with foreign sailors in a low den in the distant parts of Whitechapel, and that he consorted with thieves and coiners and knew the mysteries of their trade.  His extraordinary absences became notorious, and, when he used to reappear again in society, men would whisper to each other in corners, or pass him with a sneer, or look at him with cold searching eyes, as though they were determined to discover his secret. (Ch. 11)

Brothels and opium would be the usual candidates, but in his response to the Scots Observer, Wilde is clear:

To keep this atmosphere vague and indeterminate and wonderful was the aim of the artist who wrote the story.  I claim, sir, that he has succeeded.  Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray.  What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows.  He who finds them has brought them.  (248)

So the novel is different for each reader.  In my case, that “low den” is a apparently a fried chicken shack, or a taqueria, or maybe a barbecue stand.  Dorian gets to eat and eat and it only his picture that suffers, while I have to be virtuous.  Wilde to the newspaper:

But, alas! they will find that it is a story with a moral.  And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.  (240)

So true.  Other readers, other renunciations, or excesses.

The reason the exact nature of the vice does not matter, and why there is all that stuff about perfumes and tapestries, is that the moral of the novel is not really what Wilde claims here, but is rather a warning about living an over-aestheticized life, just like in his earlier fairy tales, where birds and statues martyred themselves for a beauty that was ignored or obliterated.  Dorian’s first crime, early in the novel, is cruelty to Sibyl Vane, a young Shakespearean actress, who he wants to marry when he thinks she is good but dumps when he discovers she is bad.  He is in love with Juliet, not the actual person.

“The moment she touched actual life, she marred it, and it marred her, and so she passed away.  Mourn for Ophelia, if you like.  Put ashes on your head because Cordelia was strangled…  But don’t waste your tears over Sibyl Vane.  She was less real than they are.”

There was a silence.  The evening darkened in the room.  Noiselessly, and with silver feet, the shadows crept in from the garden.  The colours faded wearily out of things.  (Ch. 8)

Even though it is written in Wilde’s own voice, Wilde thinks this idea, especially the end of the dialogue, is monstrous, aesthetics as crime.  The curious thing is the authorial commentary that immediately follows.  I will try to follow that thread tomorrow.


  1. The introduction to the Oxford edition I read had that quote from Wilde about keeping the nature of the sins vague. From at least the late 20th century, probably much earlier, “Victorian” has been synonymous with repressed or hidden sexuality. So, when reading a Victorian novel where something is described as “sinful” without further specifics, something of a sexual nature tends to be assumed by the modern reader, especially so as it is hinted, or perhaps more than hinted, that other people have been ruined by association with Gray in these sins. I wonder to what extent contemporary readers would have drawn similar conclusions from the author’s reticence about the sinful specifics.

  2. I think that's right. And what's more, since it's Wilde, the hidden sex must be homosexual. Completely natural to think this way. But then, "thieves and coiners"? Maybe Dorian's vices, like his collecting, are a little bit of everything.

    Otherwise, it's basically opium and prostitutes, opium and prostitutes. Sin is so boring.

  3. Sin is so boring.
    That's Wilde's problem here. If he is specific - if he could be specific - people might think "Is that all? I could think of worse sins myself." I don't think we are meant to think of Dorian's sins as sexual but as "sins of the soul" - it is driving Sybil to suicide and so to - presumably - damnation that Dorian carries resposibility for. The problem is that Wilde takes Dorian more seriously than Huysmans takes Des Esseintes - or than Des Esseintes takes himself. À rebours ends with Des Esseintes reluctantly trying to accept reality which Dorian and Wilde wouldn't.

  4. Yes, that's very good, on the difference between Huysmans and Wilde. It gets at some of the clashes between the different parts of Wilde's novel.