During the Fin de Siecle, as discussed by Ledger and Luckhurst in the reading under the same name, the topic of contemporary identity, “whether concerning gender politics, sexual identity, or conceptions of subjectivity itself,” was not a clear-cut issue (xvii). According to the reading, “Such problematic complicities and ambivalences at the beginnings of modern feminist thought have proved productive sites for thinking through the articulation of gender with other significant markers of identity” (xvii). With this quotation we see room for differentiation between gender and identity, opening a whole new realm of discussion for what it means to be male or female, homosexual or heterosexual.
Within The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde takes these ideas of relatively fluid lines between the two sexes and alters them, changing them in the way that mentalities were changing during this time of “complicities and ambivalences.” One of the ways in which he does this, at least in this particular scene from the book, is by clearly defining gender lines while the readers already know that the characters cannot be defined so simply.
When Dorian and Harry are visiting with the Duchess of Monmouth, exchanging rhetorical and witty banter amongst other conversations, the Duchess says, “We women, as some one says, love with our ears, just as you men love with your eyes, if you ever love at all” (88). This seems like a straightforward statement, placing men and women into their own gendered categories, not allowing room for overlap between the two.
However, Basil and Dorian, two of the novel’s primary characters, complicate this almost immediately. Basil is clearly a male character, meaning he should align with the latter part of the Duchess’s statement. The fact that he is an artist should also, and does, align him with the latter because he loves Dorian with his eyes and he loves his artwork through his eyes. But throughout the novel, it is made clear that Basil lusts after Dorian, aligning his sexual preferences with that of a female, indicating that he could very easily fit into the first category of “loving with his ears.” Yet Basil cannot hear his paintings and prefers to see Dorian rather than hear him, since he does not always agree with the words Dorian speaks. Regardless of the words that exit Dorian’s mouth, his face and image do not change and Basil continues to lust for him due to that. These factors of his profession and the way in which it is clear he loves with his eyes makes his masculinity appear a clear-cut issue, but the fact that the one he loves with his eyes is male makes the issue not as simple.
In the case of Dorian, these ideas are reversed. Although Dorian is a male, never portrayed as showing serious lust for any of his male friends and instead giving voice to the fact that he wished Basil would not complicate their friendship with talk of love, he does not align with the latter part of the quotation. Dorian appreciates women, rejects the notion of feelings for Basil, and holds his male friends in general at a distance. Despite this, when Sibyl is introduced, Dorian arguably loves her with his ears more than he does his eyes. Surely he does, to a degree, love her with his eyes as a man is “supposed” to do, but more than that he falls in love with her through his ears. It is through her acting, in particular the audible delivery of text and her verbal conveyance that she has fully transformed into the characters she plays, that he falls in love with her. The night she falls fully in love with Dorian is the night he falls out of love with her, the change coming about through the fact that she delivers a dry and awful portrayal of Juliet, an assault on Dorian’s ears. Through his ears he falls both in and out of love with Sibyl, so although his sexual desires match with what is considered ordinary for those of his sex, the way in which he loves is the opposite of what the Duchess declares it should be.
In this manner, the characters of Basil and Dorian have almost swapped traits because the two men love opposite the way that they supposedly should. This returns to the question of the artist permeating his work because Wilde’s choice to blur these lines speaks to his own issues of blurred lines in terms of sexuality, potentially saying more about his beliefs than those of his characters.