Young, Wilde, and Free

Many critics have interpreted Dorian Gray as an autobiographical novel about artistry and homosexuality during the Victorian Era; however, the evidence that supports their claims exists mostly in “subtle” forms such as coded botanical language and expository dialogue. During the 19th century, an explicit story about romantic same-sex lovers would have too scandalous for the general population to grip because sodomy was illegal and homosexuality was seen as a crime. Yet, Wilde was sent to prison because lawyers were able to analyze and exploit the revealing dialogue between characters and the thinly veiled Victorian “language of flowers.” Henceforth, Wilde’s art was wielded as a weapon against him and I will be conducting a dialogue analysis in order to emulate the techniques that lawyers may have taken advantage of during the trials.

During the Victorian Era, various types of flowers held specific meanings and could convey emotional sentiments. Interestingly enough, basil is an herb that signified hatred and offence in the 19th century (138, Engelhardt). Wilde’s choice to name the creator of Dorian Gray’s picture Basil is extremely curious. If the novel of Dorian Gray is meant to mirror the artwork in a metafictional manner through self-exploration and indulgent allusions to itself, then it is safe to presume that Basil, as the main artist, is Wilde’s interpretation of himself. So, why would Wilde name himself after an herb that symbolizes hatred? Perhaps Wilde despised the artwork that Basil created because it revealed far too much information about him.

When prompted to display his artwork, Basil refuses while stating, “I know you will laugh at me, but I really can’t exhibit it. I have put too much of myself into it” (6, Wilde).   After hearing this, Lord Henry calls Basil ”vain” and tells him to get over himself by saying, “Don’t flatter yourself, Basil: you are not in the least like him” (7, Wilde). Basil’s confession reaffirms Wilde’s fear that he has placed too much of himself within the novel, but Lord Henry, as a representation of the general audience, fails to understand his friend’s coded language because he assumes that appearance is the main indicator of likeness. Since Lord Henry dismisses Basil’s statement, the reader is inclined to do the same. However, Basil’s anxieties are so strong that he is determined to convince Henry that he must look beyond the surface of the painting in order to find meaning.

Basil delights in his use of coded language and secrecy as he claims that, “The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it” (8, Wilde). The painting of Dorian Gray is the same as the novel in the sense that the artist who created it has infused the work with some essence of himself. Similarly, Wilde disperses advice through Lord Henry’s dialogue in which he states, “People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self” (23, Wilde).

Since Wilde incorporated so much of what appears to have been his own personal beliefs and anxieties into his novel, I wonder if he was surprised to have been sent to prison or whether he had written Dorian Gray in order to taunt authorities. The idea of Wilde as a supreme troublemaker is extremely alluring and far greater than the notion that Wilde was an accidental criminal who didn’t conceal his identity well enough through covert language.





Works Cited


Engelhardt, Molly. “The Language of Flowers in the Victorian Knowledge Age.” Victoriographies 3.2 (2013): 136-60. Web.


Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1985. Print.

3 thoughts on “Young, Wilde, and Free”

  1. I find your idea to analyze dialogue as the lawyers in Wilde’s trial very interesting! I agree that Wilde seems to be taunting authorities or at least his critics throughout the text by basing the characters of Lord Henry and Basil on different aspects of his personality (Basil- the artist and Henry- the witty socialite) and making their homosexuality so overt. It’s almost as if Wilde is using introspection to pick out his most obvious personality traits and flaws to bestow them on his two supporting characters while Dorian is the object of his desire both in the novel and in real life as his inspiration was almost undoubtedly inspired by Lord Alfred Douglas.

  2. I think it’s very interesting that you evoke our image of Wilde as a “troublemaker” at the end of this post. His place in literary history looms large above many other queer and/or subversive writers. However, as you’ve identified, there is another side of Wilde that is much more tragic. It makes me wonder about what narrative sticks through history. Did Wilde want to be remembered as the troublemaker or the troubled artist or both? Does it matter how this narrative creates a lens through which we view his texts?

  3. I definitely agree that Oscar Wilde did not accidentally reveal himself through Basil and the coded language (he also make use of Polari, a language used by gay and bi men since the 16th century as a code, in his other works to convey inside jokes), although he seems to have mitigated the homosexual desires a little by having almost everyone be attracted to Dorian Gray on some level. The introduction to the novel reveals that Dorian’s name could be coded as a reference to Greek love, specifically love between men and boys. However, this also refers to the idea of cosmic beauty and the ideal appearance and that all must worship Dorian, making it acceptable to be attracted to him no matter your gender identity or sexuality (Wilde xv).

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