Study Guide

The Picture of Dorian Gray Sexuality and Sexual Identity

By Oscar Wilde

Sexuality and Sexual Identity

Chapter 1
Lord Henry Wotton

"You seem to forget that I am married, and the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing. When we meet -- we do meet occasionally, when we dine out together, or go down to the Duke's -- we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces. My wife is very good at it -- much better, in fact, than I am. She never gets confused over her dates, and I always do. But when she does find me out, she makes no row at all. I sometimes wish she would; but she merely laughs at me." (1.10)

We're not entirely sure to make of this comment from Lord Henry – we find out as the novel goes on that his relationship with his wife is certainly not one of mutual attraction. What is Lord Henry attracted to, then?

Chapter 2

"I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream -- I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal -- to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful." (2.8)

Wilde doesn't come out and say it, but we can think of one so-called "forbidden" desire that not just the soul, but the actual government of nineteenth-century England made "monstrous and unlawful" – homosexuality, which we might associate here with the "Hellenic ideal."

Chapter 4
Lord Henry Wotton

"[…] And now tell me -- reach me the matches, like a good boy -- thanks -- what are your actual relations with Sibyl Vane?"

Dorian Gray leaped to his feet, with flushed cheeks and burning eyes. "Harry! Sibyl Vane is sacred!"

"It is only the sacred things that are worth touching, Dorian," said Lord Henry, with a strange touch of pathos in his voice. "But why should you be annoyed? I suppose she will belong to you some day. When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one's self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance." (4.10-11)

Trust Lord Henry to bring Dorian's idealistic talk about love back to the physical heart of the matter – sex. Henry's cynicism about love seems to boil down to the rather tragic idea that we're all deluding our selves with fancy, poetic emotions; "sacred" love can be reduced, in his view, to physical passion.

"My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals." (4.9)

Lord Henry's derogatory, condescending view of women is a theme that lingers through the entire book. Women seem simply not to interest him at all, and even when they're his equals (like Gladys), he tires of them immediately.

"Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed." (4.8)

OK – if Lord Henry thinks that men and women are never happy married, what then is the best and most fulfilling state of companionship? He doesn't offer us any answer.

Chapter 8
Lord Henry Wotton

"My dear Dorian," answered Lord Henry, taking a cigarette from his case and producing a gold-latten matchbox, "the only way a woman can ever reform a man is by boring him so completely that he loses all possible interest in life. If you had married this girl, you would have been wretched. Of course, you would have treated her kindly. One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing. But she would have soon found out that you were absolutely indifferent to her. And when a woman finds that out about her husband, she either becomes dreadfully dowdy, or wears very smart bonnets that some other woman's husband has to pay for. I say nothing about the social mistake, which would have been abject -- which, of course, I would not have allowed -- but I assure you that in any case the whole thing would have been an absolute failure." (8.16)

Yet again, Lord Henry expresses his discontent with the institution of marriage, and of the relationship between men and women. He seems to think that there is no way for the two sexes to successfully be together.

Chapter 9
Basil Hallward

"Don't speak. Wait till you hear what I have to say. Dorian, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated, soul, brain, and power, by you. You became to me the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal whose memory haunts us artists like an exquisite dream. I worshipped you. I grew jealous of every one to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you. When you were away from me, you were still present in my art.... Of course, I never let you know anything about this. It would have been impossible. You would not have understood it. I hardly understood it myself. I only knew that I had seen perfection face to face, and that the world bad become wonderful to my eyes -- too wonderful, perhaps, for in such mad worships there is peril, the peril of losing them, no less than the peril of keeping them…" (9.11)

Basil's obsessive idolatry of Dorian has the desperate quality of unrequited love – his jealousy, "worship," and adoration all speak of feelings that extend beyond mere friendship.

Chapter 10
Dorian Gray

He shuddered, and for a moment he regretted that he had not told Basil the true reason why he had wished to hide the picture away. Basil would have helped him to resist Lord Henry's influence, and the still more poisonous influences that came from his own temperament. The love that he bore him -- for it was really love -- had nothing in it that was not noble and intellectual. It was not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses and that dies when the senses tire. It was such love as Michelangelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself. Yes, Basil could have saved him. But it was too late now. The past could always be annihilated. Regret, denial, or forgetfulness could do that. But the future was inevitable. There were passions in him that would find their terrible outlet, dreams that would make the shadow of their evil real. (10.7)

The idealized romantic (and implicitly sexual) love that Basil has for Dorian is articulated here by two of the names Dorian drops in relation to the painter, Michelangelo and Winckelmann. Both were famous for their fervent admiration of the male form in art, and were known to be gay (in fact, a ground-breaking, openly gay version of Michelangelo's biography and a translation of his sonnets was published shortly after Dorian Gray by gay activist John Addington Symonds).