Course Blog

Perception vs. Objectivity

Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper published their collection of poems, Sight and Song, under the pseudonym Michael Cooper in 1892. In the preface of their collection, Bradley and Cooper reveal that their poems are supposed to be “objective” reflections of art, void of subjective “theor[ies or] fancies” (https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/node/228). Objectivity in poetry is difficult, however, because art in itself is interpreted by a subjective audience.

The preface of their book quotes Gustave Flaubert, who said: “Transport yourself, by mental effort, into your characters, not attract them to yourself” (https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/node/228). The act of transporting oneself into a character is bound to reflect one’s own interpretation and association of people with certain actions and events. Even if Cooper and Bradley are to go “into [the] characters” of whom they write, they are going into their perception of those characters.  For instance, in their poem “L’Indifférent,” they write that the boy “dances.” Since the painting displays only a snapshot of the character, Cooper and Bradley have no way of knowing whether he truly “dances,” or is simply walking or posing. Furthermore, the poets connect his presence to that of Mercury, the Roman messenger god (https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/l-indiff%C3%A9rent). Although the Victorian Era is known to invoke mythological figures, the intentional choice to connect his “wingy hat” to Roman mythology reflects the poets’ understanding—conscious or not—that this boy is himself a messenger (https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/l-indiff%C3%A9rent). Perhaps if other members of society had seen this painting and were writing about it, they would see the boy as a young aristocrat, not a messenger at all.

L’Indifférent https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/l-indiff%C3%A9rent

Additionally, Cooper and Bradley are caught up on the age of the “gay youngster” (https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/l-indiff%C3%A9rent). They write that “though old enough for manhood’s bliss,/ he is a boy,/ who dances and must die” (https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/l-indiff%C3%A9rent). Whereas another viewer might see the painting differently, Cooper and Bradley’s gaze falls on his age and mortality, leaving out, for instance, a description of the background, which is full of trees and a mix of light and shadowy colors. This could reveal another symbolic element of the painting that Cooper and Bradley are unable to convey to readers because their perspective accentuates different elements of the painting.

Michael Field’s other poem, A Pietà, incorporates ideas of decadence when describing Christ.  The poem begins by stating: “By a swathe of the delicate, lifted skin :/  The half-closed eyes show grey,/ Leaden fissures ‘ the dead man’s face is clay” (https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/a-piet%C3%A0).

A Pietà https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/book/a-piet%C3%A0

The extremely descriptive language of “delicate” skin, and “half-closed,” “grey,” eyes around a “clay-like” face allows Cooper and Bradley to paint their own picture in the readers’ heads. This is influential because many of the readers would not have seen the painting first-hand, or if they had it would have been in a newspaper. The freedom to rewrite the painting and influence how the audience would picture its details gives Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper the liberty to put forth their own spin on the effect of the painting. They can manipulate how the audience perceives it and what the audience should take away from it. Thus, their ability to adjust the audience’s perception contradicts the preface of their collection of poems, Sight and Song, which states that art should be more than “subjective enjoyment” (https://michaelfield.dickinson.edu/node/228).

Looking Through the Opera Glass

The influence of technological advancements on the nerves of the average Victorian is evident in Jean Lorrain’s short story Magic Lantern as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, more specifically with the presence of opera glasses in both texts. In both texts, male characters use the opera glasses to analyze and critique the women around them, however in Magic Lantern, the narrator is tricked into thinking that the cosmetic fashions of the women at the theater make them appear to not be human, whereas, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian all of a sudden sees that Sibyl Vane is all too human – a quality that is much too repulsive his taste.

Within the text Magic Lantern, it is only by looking through the opera glasses that our reader-in-the-text / narrator is able to see the other people – specifically the women – in the theater as nonhumans due to Andre Forbster’s instructions. Under the influence of the opera lens, the user becomes open to potentially being manipulated into seeing things in a new, and in this case, horrific light. The preluding conversation between the narrator and Forbster is in support of this technological manipulation, as the narrator was complaining that the current climate of technological advancements ruined horror as an active genre by being too analytical and logical: “You suppress it in the end … after you have analysed it, explained it, determined it, localised it, you heal it as required – and by what means! By electricity and therapy! You have killed the Fantastic, Monsieur” (Lorrain 172). Forbster counters this argument by literally showing the narrator through opera glasses the women of the theater as roaming supernatural predators, proving that technology like opera glasses can instead be used as another medium through which to view the fantastic: “What is the magic that emanates from such creatures – for they are not even pretty, these marrow-crushers, but rather frightful, with their mortuary tint and their blood-tinged smiles?” (Lorrain 174). The descriptive language used here is particularly curious: “Take note of those eyes, with their irises of crystal, and that gleaming tint of porcelain! Her hair is silken, her teeth authentically pearly, like those of dolls” (Lorrain 174), as it is focused on the woman’s physical appearance, but twists it so that what should have been normal and beautiful, meaning silky hair and shining eyes and teeth, instead serves as indicators of her lack of humanity.

This is somewhat echoed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, however, instead of seeing Sibyl Vane as a supernatural creature, Dorian Gray is instead disappointed that she is not any of the persons she portrays on stage and is simply a beautiful young girl. This text also differs in that the opera glasses were used by Lord Henry and not Dorian: “Basil Hallward leaped to his feet and began to applaud. Motionless, and as one in a dream, sat Dorian Gray, gazing at her. Lord Henry peered through his glasses, murmuring, ‘Charming! Charming!’” (Wilde 80), however, it can be argued that the inclusion of the opera glasses indicates that Dorian used his companions’ eyes as lenses in lieu of the glasses. Instead of using the glasses and seeing things in a different light, the mere suggestion of examining another person closer was enough to alter his opinion. While Sibyl’s performance, as opposed to her beauty, was what had shifted in Dorian’s opinion, the language used to describe her acting was still focused on her physical attributes: “She looked charming as she came out in the moonlight. That could not be denied. But the staginess of her acting was unbearable and grew worse as she went on. Her gestures became absurdly artificial. She over-emphasized everything that she had to say” (Wilde 81). Much like in Magic Lantern, the languages can be twisted to read like a critique of her performance as a woman, where her exaggerated movements are not considered charming and instead are annoying and fake.

The Reappearance of Vivisection

The definition of “vivisection” is “1: The cutting of or operation on a living animal usually for physiological or pathological investigation. Broadly: animal experimentation especially if considered to cause distress to the subject. 2: Minute or pitiless examination or criticism.”  (from Merriam Webster)

The definition makes explicit that the word is meant to be negatively connoted with cruelty. It is a word that is not commonly used in modern day-to-day language, and yet appears frequently in The Island of Doctor Moreau and is echoed in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Moreau vivisects various animals to interface them with humans, a process that, as definition 1 describes, causes extreme distress to the animals—not only during the surgeries themselves, but in post-operational life as well as they are forced to ignore their animal instincts and behave like men. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the word appears in Lord Henry’s thoughts after a discussion with Dorian. The passage reads, “[Lord Henry] had been always enthralled by the methods of natural science, but the ordinary subject-matter of that science had seemed to him trivial and of no import. And so he had begun by vivisecting himself, as he had ended by vivisecting others” (56). Although this does not mean literal surgical vivisections, it is almost unclear whether or not Lord Henry is talking about “minute or pitiless examination or criticism” or if he still means to invoke the imagery of surgery in a more metaphorical sense. In any case, Lord Henry’s choice of the word with all its connotations is referencing Dorian’s physical appearance. If he means it in the surgical sense, one can imagine one of Moreau’s beast men, whose body is drastically altered by operation. If he means it in the critical sense, it is as an art critic critiquing a painting. The casual use of the word invokes a tone of nonchalance and carelessness with which Lord Henry others. This passage shows that he regards Dorian’s life as some sort of project, caring only for Dorian’s physical being and not for his emotional or mental health. Lord Henry’s disregard for anything beyond the surface of Dorian’s life is a reflection of the aesthetic art movement, since Lord Henry treats Dorian like a piece of art. He only values Dorian for the pleasure brought by looking at him, manipulating him, and watching his life unfold, without concerning himself with the mind and emotions behind all this. Although Oscar Wilde is promoting aestheticism, as we can see from the preface, Lord Henry’s callousness under the guise of appreciation for the aesthetic seems to be a critique of the movement, suggesting that perhaps aesthetic views should be reserved for art and not for human lives.

 

 

Dorian’s Decadence and Desire

When Dorian Gray rejects and verbally abuses Sybil Vane after her one (and only, may I add) horrendous performance, he declares that she has killed his love: “I loved you because you were marvellous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadow of art….You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name” (85). In short, Sybil’s bad acting in the role of Juliet ripped the rose colored glasses off of Dorian Gray’s vision of her. Without her artistry, and her decadence, she is nothing to him. He really drives his cruelty home with the repeated use of “never,” which is really just very dramatic for the moment—afterwards, he still thinks of her and even contemplates returning, but it is these words that deliver Sybil to death’s door.

Much like Dorian is objectified by Basil and Lord Henry, the objectification of Sybil Vane is even more severe. For Dorian, she was just an object of artistry and desire. For Basil and Lord Henry, when they see her, she is only a pretty thing, and she is not even described as human to them: “the curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily. Her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory” (81). This objectification of the woman places further emphasis on the idea of materiality and decadence in the Victorian era, as Sybil here is placed among the men’s collection of exotic objects—alongside the Japanese tea table and Georgian urn, as well as Dorian himself (unbeknownst to him). With the decline of Queen Victoria’s reign, the people of England developed all consuming anxiety about the state of their affairs, looking to the accumulation of wealth and beautiful things to drown their feelings. Now lacking intellect and genius, Sybil no longer upholds Dorian Gray’s upper class standards of decadence, despite her remaining beauty. Theater itself is a decadent industry, and Dorian even expressed his desire to exploit Sybil’s image as an actress with his own fancier, more refined theater production geared towards a higher class audience. Without theater, Sybil lacks any valid substance for Dorian, who loves to collect pretty, decadent things.

This scene of The Picture of Dorian Gray relates to Lionel Johnson’s poem “A Decadent’s Lyric” in the subject matter and form. Decadence is demonstrated in the poem through alliteration and rhyme, as well as the repetition of “she and I.” Dorian’s dismissal of Sybil is decadent in its word choice, repeating “never” and using words with grander meanings such as “marvellous,” “genius,” and “intellect.” The same can be said for Johnson’s poem with the alliterations of “ardour and agony” and “desire, delirium, delight,” all of which are strong words on their own.

The “she” of the poem is attributed to a sense of performance, just as Sybil is an actress: “Her body music is: and ah, / The accords of lute and viola!” Like Sybil, without the artistry and musicality that this woman exudes, there is no performance, and there is no sex. It bolsters the act with the idea of romance. Johnson’s poem begins with the idea of the “very joy of shame,” as sexual acts were often seen as immoral at the time, but goes on to justify such thinking in the idea of decadence—if something is beautiful, it’s okay to indulge. Selfishness is justified as it demonstrates one’s appreciation for art, which is a major aspect of The Picture of Dorian Gray overall. Dorian is really quite selfish in his disposal of Sybil Vane, as he does so without any sympathy for her feelings and merely scowls at her. His foul treatment of Sybil is validated by both Dorian and Lord Henry, who claims that such behavior, which resulted in her suicide, returned her to her art form by aligning her own life with a melodrama to mirror that of Shakespeare’s Juliet.

In both Johnson’s poem and Wilde’s character of Dorian Gray, decadence is used as a form of legitimization for one’s shameful actions.

Lord Henry’s Fascination with Vivisection

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the narrator mentions Lord Henry’s fascination with vivisection, as applied to himself and others. Reading The Picture of Dorian Gray through The Island of Dr. Moreau contextualizes this reference to vivisection as alluring in the eyes of Victorians because it was a manner of scientific research, though gruesome, that could possibly answer great questions in the medical field and about our own selves.

Although both took stake in vivisection, Dr. Moreau and Henry pursued it in different ways and for different purposes. According to Wilde’s narrator, Henry “had been always enthralled by the methods of natural science, but the ordinary subject-matter of that science had seemed to him trivial and of no import. And so he had begun by vivisecting himself, as he had ended by vivisecting others” (Wilde 38). That is, Henry has a sick fascination with vivisection that Moreau shares, but Henry’s seems to stem from a general interest in science for entertainment purposes. Vivisection appears to be a stumbled-upon method that happens to serve Henry’s need to learn about and manipulate himself and others psychologically, not a consciously chosen and pursued path. Moreau, however, consciously dedicates his life to “the study of the plasticity of living forms” with the original goal of applying his research to medical advancements for humans (Wells 53). Moreau’s focus seemed to shift throughout The Island of Dr. Moreau, as his test subjects “were animals—humanised animals,” “animals carven and wrought into new shapes” in a creation-esque way (Wells 52, 53). Moreau convinces himself that he has a godlike ability to craft these new forms. Henry’s pride in his manipulation of Dorian is akin to that of an experiment-gone-right, which could foreshadow the magnification of Henry’s ego and god complex as his experiment progresses.

Currently, Henry observes Dorian “with a subtle sense of pleasure” because he has changed so much from the “shy frightened boy” Henry met in Basil’s studio (Wilde 36). Henry notes that Dorian’s “nature developed like a flower, had borne blossoms of scarlet flame” (Wilde 36). Through the lens of The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which Moreau’s experiments ‘betray him’, this observation of Dorian’s blossoming can be read with a sense of warning. Dorian “developed like a flower,” and is strongly associated with beauty, but his “blossoms of scarlet flame” foretell a dangerousness in this transformation that may come back to harm Henry as Moreau’s vivisected animals caused his downfall.

Further, Henry describes the “crucible of pain and pleasure” seen when watching life as “curious,” which connotates the mixture as merely an entertaining curiosity that he is interested in observing. Henry does, however, go on to note that “pain and pleasure” are infectious, and that “one could not wear over one’s face a mask of glass nor keep the sulphurous fumes from troubling the brain and making the imagination turbid with monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams” (Wilde 38). By comparing the observation of “pain and pleasure” in life to “sulphurous fumes,” Wilde (through Henry) labels it as toxic, a poison that inevitably harms the observer. As we are reading about Henry’s views on vivisection, we can assume that he has been a victim of these “sulphurous fumes,” “monstrous fancies and misshapen dreams,” and yet he continues to experiment with Dorian and watch for Gray’s newfound experiences with pleasure and pain. Moreau takes a more aggressive stance towards these sensations, claiming that “pleasure and pain have nothing to do with heaven and hell. Pleasure and pain—Bah!” To Moreau, “[t]he store men and women set on pleasure and pain… is the mark of the beast upon them, the mark of the beast from which they came” (Wells 55). Read through this belief, Henry’s vivisection of Dorian, which introduces him to pleasure and pain, brings out the bestial nature within him and within Henry himself, marking them as inferior in the eyes of Moreau.

Overall, Moreau and Henry practice vivisection in different ways, but both explore the push and pull between humanity and bestiality. The death of Moreau and degradation of Henry by pain and pleasure both lead to the conclusion that messing with humanity results only in the ascension of bestiality.

Is Basil in love with Dorian?

I have only read three chapters in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the homosexual and homosocial undertones are impossible to ignore as a 21st Century reader. During the first few chapters, there are many moments where we can read Basil’s intrigue with Dorian as romantic. Basil talks about Dorian in ways that makes me think he has feelings towards Dorian that are not simply of a “friendly” nature. While explaining the first time he sees Dorian, Basil says he came “face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself” (Wilde 8). While one can certainly find a friend’s personality to be fascinating, the fact that Dorian could have such a strong effect on Basil’s nature, soul, and art is what makes me think that Basil sees Dorian as more than a friend. Basil goes on to explain the first time he interacts with Dorian, stating, “I found myself face to face with the young man whose personality had so strangely stirred me” (Wilde 9). It is not unusual for a friend to enjoy the personality of another friend, but Dorian’s personality stirred Basil, which is something that normally does not happen by someone who is just a friend. It is not unusual to meet someone and have his or her personality stir feelings of anger or annoyance, but this does not seem to be the feelings that are being stirred in Basil. Basil’s statement that Dorian and he “were quite close, almost touching” (Wilde 9) shows that Dorian and Basil must be comfortable around each other, as you do not stand close to someone you are not comfortable around (unless you are angry with them, which is not what is happening here). It also suggests that the men are experiencing a moment that is more than “friendly”, as words like “close” and “touching” evoke images of romance or sex, rather than friendship. Basil also appears to be quite possessive of Dorian, not wanting to introduce him to Lord Henry. He gets jealous when Dorian and Lord Henry appear to be fond of each other, and tries to get Lord Henry to leave. While it is not unusual for friends to be possessive of each other and get jealous when people are bonding without you, it is also highly possible that Basil is feeling romantic jealousy.

While there is evidence in the text that suggests Basil has romantic feelings towards Dorian, it is also possible to read this evidence as them simply being friends. I believe Wilde did this intentionally, as during the fin de siècle, “acts of gross indecency between men were criminalized” (Ledger and Luckhurst xviii). By writing a story in which homosexual ideas or actions could be seen just as homosocial, it allows Wilde to talk about ideas that were taboo at the time. After all, if anyone tried to make a fuss about this book having homosexual ideas, Wilde could just claim that he wrote the book to be strictly about friends, so it must in fact be that person who has the homosexual ideas.

The Epidemic of the “High Class” Know-It-All

From a sociocultural perspective in the Victorian age, there was anxiety surrounding “the rising” of the middle class. Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst describe this time as the “emergence, in their modern configuration, of the forms and definitions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture” (14). David Damrosch and Kevin J. H Dettmar further this idea in The Longman Anthology by noting that “it was the burgeoning middle class… that formed the largest audience for new prose and poetry and produced the authors to meet an increasing demand for books that edify, instruct, and entertain” (1066). However, new books were still a “luxury” during the Victorian era, and “writers had to censor their content to meet the prim standards of ‘circulating library morality’” (D&D 1066, 1067). Thus, it could be argued that the middle class, while becoming more and more literate, was subject to great (and often dishonest) influence. These dynamics call into question the ways in which information was disseminated in the Victorian Era. Who relayed the information and who received it? What biases caused the information to be skewed?

“The Magic Lantern” by Jean Lorrain is a compelling short story that comments on this tension. The story is driven by two men conversing while waiting for an opera to begin. One man clearly dominates the conversation as he spews his opinions at his fellow opera-goer for the majority of the interaction. He begins by stating that art is becoming infected by “darkness” (173). He furthers this by claiming that one “could very easily convince yourself that we live, even in the fullness of modernity, in the midst of the damned, surrounded by the spectres of human heads and other horrors; that everyday we brush up against vampires and ghouls” (173). This idea of “infection” suggests that something that was once healthy (the upper class) is now sick with the introduction of a foreign body (the middle/lower classes). In claiming this “infection” is effecting art suggests that this new audience for literature and performance is not welcome. Additionally, the man likens people of this lower class to horrific mythical creatures, calling them “vampires” and “ghouls,” and effectively suggesting they are sucking the decency and beauty from this “high” culture. This man continues the conversation with his friend to say: “I put it you that every evening, every arena of Parisian society—including the Opera and the gatherings of the great and the good of France—is a rendezvous of necromantic mages” (173). The inclusion of the phrase “I put it to you” is important. It signifies that the man is drawing on nothing but his own opinion when speaking to his friend. The friend (and more importantly the reader) is therefore receiving only the information the man chooses to share. The man makes it very clear that this infection has “the great and good of France” as well as “the opera.” The effect of this is two-fold: the man not only aligns himself and his friend with the “great and good of France,” but he establishes the fact that these people of “low” culture were sitting amongst them. The result of this, according to the man, was “necromantic mages”—the death of art and “high” culture.

The man, apparently feeling unsatisfied with this persuasion, proceeds to point out to his friend instances of “infection” he sees in the audience of this opera. Of course, most of these examples are scathing judgments of women. It is important to note that the man encourages his friend to “use the opera-glasses” to watch these people. This puts into question the validity of what this friend sees, as his view is tainted not only by the man’s opinion on the subject, but also his complete control of where this added lens is pointed.

The man asks his friend to look at one woman in the “depths of the ground-floor boxes” (175), forming a physical hierarchy of “high” and “low culture.” He takes note for his friend the characteristics of the woman: “those flared nostrils, those linen pallors, those hypnotic eyes, those bloodless arms” (175). The repetition of the word “those” establishes a barrier between the men and the woman. He continues by calling “those” women “the wives of Merchant Bankers and Sugar-Refiners, all of them morphinated, cauterized, dosed, drugged” (175). The man observes for his friend the “physical” sickness of these women and suggests that the very fibers of their being are tainted and dirty. He makes the direct connection between these women and the men of the middle class, suggesting with the severity of his judgment that these people are not worthy of being at such a high-class event.

 

The Threat of Gender Inversion in Dracula

As Christopher Craft outlines in his article “’Kiss Me with Those Red Lips’: Gender and Inversion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, there are models of what masculinity and femininity should look like, defined by the symbolism of blood and biting. The Count blurs the boundaries of those models, and influences others to do the same. The presence of gender roles and sexuality in Dracula are important to Dracula’s characterization as a threat to England’s values, something that will disrupt the status quo.

Craft notes the symbolism of the mouth in the novel; it holds the power of conveying sexuality, the fangs acting as a phallic substitution in the metaphor of biting as sexual penetration. Victorian gender norms dictated that the act of penetration was masculine, while the female’s role is to submit. These roles are quickly reversed in the novel when Jonathan Harker is attacked by the three vampire women. The sexuality of vampirism is emphasized by the decidedly erotic language used to describe the scene. The “voluptuous lips”, the “hot breath on [Jonathan’s] neck” (Stoker 45), and the detailed sensuality all draw comparisons to sex. But Jonathan, a man, is submitting to the vampire women. He even describes his passionate anticipation of the act of his neck being bitten, his eagerness to be penetrated by the women. The penetration is averted by Count Dracula’s discovery of the situation. The Count angrily claims that the right to Jonathan’s penetration is his own, while the women tauntingly argue that he is incapable of love, making the erotic connotations of vampirism even more explicit.

Jonathan makes clear in his writing that he is conflicted about the desire he felt towards the vampire women; he realized it was wrong, but felt strongly attracted to the women regardless. Jonathan is susceptible to the influence of Dracula through his effeminate tendencies, but avoids a complete transformation into a vampire through his recognition of the taboo of masculine submission.

The fates of the other characters who are preyed upon by Dracula are determined by their attitudes towards the power dynamic represented in the act of conversion into a vampire. In order for the conversion to be completed, the victim must suck the blood of the vampire who infected them. Count Dracula’s next two targets, Lucy and Mina, would have to penetrate the Count with their fangs to finalize their transition into a vampire. Lucy, whose secret wish to marry multiple men foreshadows her susceptibility to breaking societal taboos, becomes a vampire. It is worth noting that Lucy’s “purification” from vampirism is accomplished by her husband driving a stake through her heart. Her complicity in the reversal of the masculine nature of penetration is cured by Lord Godalming, characterized as a strong and noble man, penetrating her with a stake. The vampire is defeated by the reclaiming of penetration by an ideal masculine figure.

Mina is forced to drink the Count’s blood, but avoids Lucy’s fate through her sheer conviction and horror at being made to penetrate the Count. Mina is also characterized with traits that other characters identify as masculine, such as resourcefulness and courage, while also being a prototype of the pure and modest woman. This duality could also have played a role in her ability to resist becoming a vampire; her “masculine” intellect allows her to recognize her submissive nature as a woman.

In my earlier analyses of the xenophobic themes in the novel, Dracula can be seen as a threat because he is a foreigner with values that are incompatible and harmful to English society. The Count’s intentions of subverting Victorian gender roles are another reason his invasion of England must be prevented; his infection would also result in males and females taking alternatively dominant and submissive roles. The inversions of gender dynamics in the sexual metaphor of vampirism are another reason why Dracula is such a threat to English society

Ugliness in Moreau vs. Grey

The Island of Dr Moreau and The Picture of Dorian Grey both contain characters who are ugly or impure. The core difference lies in where this ugliness is found; on the outside or the inside. The novels, when compared, seem to reveal that as long as a character’s repulsiveness remains on the inside, they are free to be as sinful as they would like.

For the Beastmen of Moreau’s island, there is a constant focus from Prendick on their outward repugnance; “their bodies were abnormally long… they were an amazingly ugly gang,” (Wells 17), “the creature had exactly the mild but repulsive features of a sloth,” (Wells 41), etc. These creatures designed by Moreau are under near-constant scrutiny Their outward monstrosity has deemed them unfit to be a part of the both the animalistic society they came from and the human society they were experimented on to become. There is almost a desire from the Beastmen to prove they can be just and civil like humans; “Not to go on all fours… are we not men?” (Wells 43). This is because their appearance prevents them from blending into any sort of society. They are prejudged not by their actions but by their looks.

Contrastly is Dr Moreau, a Godlike figure who is hardly criticized despite his deplorable experiments. Moreau, seen as a beacon of good because he is firmly, attractively human, can get away with the work he is doing.

Dorian Grey features the same concept. Our young and attractive aristocrat, at the end of chapter 8, resigns himself to living a life of beauty and sin so long as the painting is the thing that changes, and not himself. “…who, that knew anything about life, would surrender the chance of remaining always young…” (Wilde 120). Grey makes explicit that what the painting will reveal now is his soul, just as it had before revealed his looks. What’s worse, Dorian believes “there [will] be real pleasure in watching it [change]” (Wilde 120). Knowing that his sin will never touch his shell, but instead the canvas, is an excuse for Grey to do what he wants and not regret it.

Lord Henry seems to agree that outward beauty is an excuse for sinful behavior. “Some day, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly…” Lord Henry argues, Grey’s life will not be as worth living. “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you” (Wilde 29-30). The message is clear; those who are lucky to have youth and beauty should take advantage, because it is rare and fleeting. What advantages one chooses to take are not specifically sinful, but that seems to be the direction Lord Henry is leading Dorian in; “Be always searching for new sensations… be afraid of nothing… a new Hedonism” (Wilde 30).

The primary complication with outward looks determining one’s behavior is its natural bias towards the attractive. If you are beautiful, you have the freedom to do whatever you please. This happens in society today; beauty is a focus and looks are rewarded; the “bad boy” trope is popular – the sinful but dangerous figure. Looks are used as an excuse to judge, and this superficial outlook allows a lot of sinful behavior by Grey and others to go unchecked.

Another Pretty Thing

Throughout the 18th century, there was a constant looming of changing gender norms and movement in what defined male and female. With the new woman and sexuality being defined in new ways, the world was beginning to change in ways that people hadn’t known before, leaving an air of unease throughout England. What is sex and how do we define it? People were left with questions and others began to experiment and push the boundaries, leaving England in a sort of cultural dissonance.

One of the biggest questions of the time were women and the way in which they were seen. Women weren’t meant to be smart, they were expected to be docile creatures that were considered the property of their husbands. Throughout novels like Dracula and other Victorian literature, we see these gender norms being pushed and twisted as people began to blur the lines of what was expected. In Dracula, characters like Mina Harker, previously Mina Murray, stand to show the complications of a woman standing in a role not priorly taken by a woman. Mina Harker is a brilliant young woman whose problem solving skills and creativity saved not just the men around her but the entirety of England. Despite the fact that Mina had saved all of the men her credit remains ungiven and her brilliance unrecognized by those around her, as women were not expected to be intelligent and skilled in things other than cooking, cleaning and household chores. In one scene one of the men claims, “[Mina] has a man’s brain—a brain that a man should have were he much gifted—and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination.” This quote in specific holds a huge part in what was expected of women throughout the 18th century, and being intelligent was not something expected of women. What seems out of the ordinary in this section is that it is a female that is taking the characteristics of a male, or in particular a man’s brain.

Similarly, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is a stark comparison of what is expected of women and what is expected of men. According to Lord Henry, “Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.” Quite a cynical view is cast on the women throughout this book, treating them as if they have nothing to say or as if they, once again, do not compare to men in terms of intelligence. Within these terms, Dorian himself could similarly be considered in the terms of decorative, as the people around him seem to keep him around not for his brilliance but for his attractiveness and beauty. Lady Henry, although not a beautiful lady according to her description of untidiness, is described as being an incredible romantic. According to her husband, she is too sentimental, yet in a similar vain Dorian holds the familiar sentimental flush of love, speaking of his new found love of Sybil Vane. While women in this novel are described as lovers of romance, men like Lord Henry speak of a differing view, one quite less romantical. Whereas Mina Harker takes on roles of a man, Dorian takes on the roles of a woman, even taking care of the pouring of tea, which could be seen as his submissiveness as he is taking care of household chores.

This swapping of roles only further alludes to the confusion of sexuality and gender expectations that were being twisted throughout the 18th century. Sexuality was changing and people were expressing themselves in a way that was unknown to the public. There is an extreme distaste of women who are expressing themselves in a masculine way, whereas men like Dorian are simply belittled, spoken to as if they needed to be taught. This leaves a clear question in not just the minds of the people of the 18th century, but the people of the modern day: Can gender be defined?

 

((Similarly in P!nk’s “Beautiful Drama” music video we see a similar swapping of sex characteristics))