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literature

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Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900)  
 
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Homosexuality is an important aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the novel deserves credit as a pioneering depiction of homosexual relationships in serious English fiction. But it is important to emphasize that Wilde hints at homosexuality rather than expresses it directly.

Homosexual readers would certainly have responded to the book's undercurrent of gay feeling and may have found the very name "Dorian" suggestive of Greek homosexuality, since it was Dorian tribesmen who allegedly introduced homosexuality into Greece.

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But Wilde purposely leaves the exact nature of the sins of Dorian Gray mysterious and vague; his dissipations are by no means exclusively or even primarily homosexual. More clearly homoerotic, however, is the competition of Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton for the attentions of Dorian.

Wilde's attitude toward homosexuality in the novel may best be seen in his portrayal of Basil. The character most clearly defined as homosexual, Hallward is also the most morally sensitive character. He represents an idealized, platonized homosexuality, linked to a long tradition of art and philosophy.

Tellingly, however, Basil's love for Dorian is presented ambiguously. On the one hand, its power is confirmed by the transformation of Basil's art that it effects. On the other hand, it is the source of guilt and fear, and the very art that it inspires is ominous, for that art culminates in the sinister portrait.

By presenting the naive and unformed Dorian with an image of himself (the artist's own image of him), by awakening him to his beauty and thereby encouraging his vanity, Basil may even be said to initiate the entire tragedy.

The diabolism of the painting may be dismissed as a gothic plot device, but Wilde's serious purpose in implicating Basil in the corruption of Dorian Gray is to underline the major theme of the work, the wickedness of using others.

This theme is clearest in Dorian's heartless exploitation of others and in the amused, detached voyeurism of Lord Henry, but it is involved as well in Basil's reduction of Dorian to "simply a motive in art" found "in the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours."

If Basil is to blame for objectifying Dorian, so too is Lord Henry. Although Basil and Henry are at first glance extremely dissimilar--the one earnest and idealistic, the other cynical and disillusioned--the rivals share an artistic impulse. They both want to transform and re-present reality, a desire that may be a psychological compensation for their essential passivity. Basil's artistry finds expression in painting, Henry's in the exercise of influence.

Tellingly, Henry's homoerotic attraction to Dorian is whetted voyeuristically by Basil's worship of the young man, and Henry is thereby roused from his characteristic languor to a desire to influence Dorian, a process that is itself a sublimated expression of homosexuality. The worldly cynic undertakes as his goal the "making" of Dorian much as a poet or sculptor might shape a work of art.

The central irony of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that the Hellenic ideal of "the harmony of soul and body" pursued by Basil and Henry alike, and localized in their separate visions of Dorian, is not realized largely because they project onto the young man their own unbalanced and fragmentary images.

Moreover, in the corrupt and materialistic world of late-nineteenth-century London, Dorian's project of self-realization amounts simply to a self-indulgence that mocks both Basil's idealism and Henry's tendentious (mis)interpretation of Pateresque epicureanism.

Rather than harmonizing, in the course of the novel, Dorian's soul and body become increasingly disconnected and finally separated entirely, as symbolized in the increasing disjunction between the unaging beauty of Dorian's body and the hideous representation of his soul (that is, the picture).

This irony suggests that the Faustian theme is by no means confined to the gothic diabolism of Dorian's supernatural bargain for a youthful appearance. By assuming godlike powers of creation, Basil and Henry also partake in the Faustian desire to escape human limitations.

But if Basil and Henry are finally condemned for their objectification of Dorian and for their Faustian aspirations, the romantic dream of an idealized harmony of body and soul nevertheless survives the moralistic conclusion to protest against an unsatisfactory reality and a tragic history.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a text divided against itself, but its creative tensions yield both a poignant sense of loss that the world cannot be recreated and made whole and an implied vision of a world at ease with homosexuality, a world in which sensual enjoyment has been made an element of "a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic."

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