The Sexual Awakening of Ophelia in John Gray’s “On a Picture”

“On a Picture” by John Gray conjures the image of Sir John Everett Millais’s painting entitled “Ophelia.” By reading this poem through Christopher Craft’s “’Kiss Me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which is included in the Norton Critical Edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this poem’s treatment of Ophelia can be read as twisted by images of deviant sexuality.

The poem begins by placing Ophelia in “the river’s arms,” which are described as “steadfast” (Gray l. 4). This stagnant position evokes a sense of entombment in her watery grave, as Dracula is when in his box. Ophelia, however, is surrounded by the “[p]ale petals [that] follow her in very faith” (Gray l. 5). Flowers are, in themselves, representative of sexuality and sensuality in their hermaphroditism (flowers have both pistils and stamens, both reproductive parts), which leads to the supposition that Ophelia may be enveloped by the intersection of sexualities or gender norms. Her “maidly hands,” which carry the connotation of youth, femininity, and possibly innocence, “look up, in noble sloth / To take the blossoms of her scattered wreath,” and thus reach towards this androgynous sexuality (Gray l. 7-8). Even in her “noble sloth,” one of the seven deadly sins that may be viewed as “noble” because of its languorousness, her reach for the “blossoms” is as if to grasp and accept the sexuality sprinkled around her that is marked as her property, as it’s “her scattered wreath” (Gray l. 7-8). The androgynous sexuality belongs to her, and she yearns to embrace it.

In her immobile state, though, “[n]o weakest ripple lives to kiss her throat” (Gray l. 9). In Craft’s article, “Dracula’s authorizing kiss, like that of a demonic Prince Charming,” is what “triggers the release of this latent power and excites in [Mina and Lucy] a sexuality, so mobile, so aggressive, that it thoroughly disrupts Van Helsing’s compartmental conception of gender” (p. 452). This quote describes the kiss as the inciting incident to Mina and Lucy’s mobility, whereas Ophelia experiences the additional step of needing the “weakest ripple” to occur before she can achieve this liberating kiss, a kiss from mobility itself. In Dracula, Craft writes that this kiss results in a “sudden sexuality” for Lucy, who “grows ‘voluptuous’ (a word used to describe her only during the vampiric process), her lips redden, and she kisses with a new interest” (p. 452). Here, the sequence of events places Lucy’s sexual emergence as after the kiss upon her throat, which has, presumably, not yet happened to Ophelia.

In the last stanza, the narrator’s voice fades while recognizing that “[u]ntil some furtive glimmer gleam across / Voluptuous mouth, where even teeth are bare, / And gild the broidery of her petticoat…” (Gray ll. 12-14). This seems to reflect that while the narrator knows that a change will occur after “some furtive glimmer” glances across her, they’re not sure or unwilling to write what the presumed change will be. This disruption of the status quo segues to the new, overtly sexual description of Ophelia: “Voluptuous mouth, where even teeth are bare” (Gray l. 13). Craft defines the mouth “as the primary site of erotic experience in Dracula,” noting that it “[lures] at first with an inviting orifice, a promise of red softness, but [delivers] instead a piercing bone” (p. 445). More, “the vampire mouth fuses and confuses… the gender-based categories of the penetrating and the receptive” (Craft p. 445). In having this hyper-sexual mouth that represents the intersection of traditionally masculine and feminine sexuality, Ophelia is marked as already corrupted by the intersection she seems to reach in the flowers that surround her. If Ophelia is already sexually fluid, then, why highlight the “broidery of her petticoat,” which seems like such a delicate, traditionally feminine thing, directly after noting her sexual mouth (Gray l. 14)? Maybe this points to the ability of traditional femininity and sexuality to coexist. If that, can they only coexist in death, as Ophelia remains in her watery grave, or is the “petticoat” simply a remain of her life before her sexual awakening?

"Ophelia"by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-1852
“Ophelia”by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-1852