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Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900)  
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Most tellingly, he recognizes both peril and potential in the kind of love that Shakespeare felt for Willie Hughes: "It is no doubt true that to be filled with an absorbing passion is to surrender the security of one's lower life, and yet in such surrender there may be gain."

This notion that there may be gain in embracing a truth higher than the security of everyday reality reverberates throughout the story, finally mocking the narrator himself when he rejects his own soul's truth, his homosexuality.

Perhaps even more important than its idealization and cautious defense of homosexuality is the novelette's emphasis on the continuity of homosexual feeling from the past to the present, even as that recognition culminates in an acknowledgment of the dangers of self-discovery and an awareness of gay oppression.

This continuity, rather than the identity of Mr. W.H., is the real secret of the Sonnets and the real connection between the frame-story and the critical sections. In "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.," to study the Sonnets is to recognize a personal affinity with the passion of Shakespeare and Willie Hughes.

As a result of his absorption with Shakespeare's poems, Cyril, Erskine, and the narrator each finds reflected in the Sonnets an image of his own homosexuality. More accurately, they project onto their reading of Shakespeare's sequence their own homosexual sensibilities, discovering in the text the mirror of their own desire.

Thus, the search for the solution "to the greatest mystery of modern literature" finally reveals less about the Sonnets than about Cyril, Erskine, and especially the narrator.

The narrator's ultimate repudiation of the Willie Hughes hypothesis is usually regarded merely as a witty Wildean narrative twist, illustrating the paradox "that in convincing someone else of a belief you lose the belief yourself."

But the narrator's repudiation is also a response to the dangers of self-discovery. More specifically, it symbolizes his sublimation of his homosexual nature, reflecting his awareness and fear of gay oppression.

In "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.," Wilde enacts a parable about the difficulty of maintaining homosexual idealism in the late nineteenth century (particularly in contrast to the Renaissance, which is presented as a romantic, Hellenistic era), illustrating how the age was--in Cyril's words--"afraid to turn the key that unlocked the mystery of the poet's heart."

Although implicated in Cyril's forgery and Erskine's fraud, this idealism nevertheless represents a higher truth than the security of the life of everyday consciousness. But the narrator, prizing safety above honesty, chooses to live in the mundane reality of a philistine world rather than accept his own deepest nature. Thus, "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." both defends homosexuality and regretfully--perhaps prophetically--rejects it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

"The Portrait of Mr. W.H." and Wilde's flawed yet haunting experiment in the gothic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, share a number of similarities, including an ambivalence toward homosexuality.

The similarities may be because Wilde probably revised the story at the same time as he revised the novel, which was originally published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in July 1890 then expanded and reissued as a book in 1891. In a real sense, however, The Picture of Dorian Gray is even more ambivalent about homosexuality than "The Portrait of Mr. W.H."

Whereas the novelette depicts regretfully the failure to attempt a potentially liberating self-realization, the novel risks satirizing the very notion of self-realization by (perhaps unintentionally) equating it with mere dissipation and self-indulgence.

The novel's fascination resides in the discrepancy between its obvious moral and its contradictory tone. The moralism of the novel is apparent from its plot structure, which emphasizes the fall and punishment of a narcissistic young man who makes a Faustian bargain to preserve his youthful beauty.

Wilde himself explained the story as a condemnation of excess. But such moralism is undercut by the fact that the good characters in the novel are weak and passive, whereas the corrupt ones are glamorous and strong. In addition, the ambiguous narrator makes the hedonistic doctrine enunciated by Sir Henry Wotton and embraced by Dorian Gray seductive indeed.

Notwithstanding the retributive ending of the book, the Faustian dream of an escape from human limitations and moral strictures is rendered more appealingly than the superimposed morals condemning narcissism and excess. It is no wonder that in the popular imagination, the name Dorian Gray conjures not an image of evil but of supernaturally extended youth bought at the trivial price of a disfigured portrait.

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