You’ll Be the Prince and I’ll Be the Princess: The Aesthetics of Heterosexuality in Dorian Gray

this is soooo us – Dorian

“Romeo and Juliet” by Julius Kronberg (1886)

I think it is safe to say that heterosexual love is the most perennially popular of Western literature topics, for better or worse. Even the Odyssey is framed with a heterosexual marriage. And Taylor Swift has reportedly become a billionaire this week. All this love stuff has to make a mark on the psyche, and it certainly does for our lovebirds Dorian and Sibyl.

Dorian Gray becomes infatuated with Sibyl when he sees her acting in Shakespeare plays. Dorian says, “She is all the great heroines of the world in one. She is more than an individual… I want to make Romeo jealous. I want the dead lovers of the world to hear our laughter and grow sad. I want a breath of our passion to stir their dust into consciousness, to wake their ashes to pain. I love her, and I must make her love me,” (Chapter 4). Dorian sees no value in Sibyl Vane herself, only what she can become in his and the world’s imagination. He hopes that when he makes her love him, he will become a part of this long and storied tradition of lovers. He may not be fully immortalized until he is part of a conventional straight narrative and must be the very best of these. There is also a sense of this making him prove his masculinity: to make Romeo jealous is to emasculate him, to cuckold him.

Sibyl also desires to be part of this tradition, but deeper, stronger emotions underly her affection. When thinking about her “Prince Charming,” “A rose shook in [Sibyl’s] blood and shadowed her cheeks,” (Chapter 5). By putting flowers (which have romantic and sexual connotations) in Sibyl’s very blood, Wilde already draws the deeper connection between Sibyl and this fantasy. Sibyl’s love is surely caught up in images, though, as she says she loves him because “he is like what love himself should be,” (Chapter 5). Dorian is an ideal, and being loved by this ideal makes her “feel proud, terribly proud.” Being the object of Prince Charming’s affection feeds her ego, like becoming Prince Charming feeds Dorian’s ego. She also echoes Dorian when she says “to be in love is to surpass one’s self.”

When Sibyl performs poorly, she cites the reason as her really falling in love with Dorian. But for Dorian that isn’t the case. He loses all love for her when she grows “sick of shadows,” (Chapter 7). When Sibyl becomes real, when Galatea comes to life, she disgusts Dorian. Real love, according to Wilde, makes convention feel like a sham, and Dorian is only interested in appearances.

Sibyl before and after Dorian showed his true colors (smh)

Is Greece a social construct? How Dionea Orientalizes Greece

In his book Orientalism, Edward Said defines orientalism as a system of ideas that has many manifestations. One is the style of popular and literary thought that makes a distinction between the “West” and the “East”: the east is everything other: feminine, sexual, lazy, evil, dark, non-Christian. Another is the academic discourse of “Oriental scholars” who seek to define and study “oriental” cultures and codify them for Western audiences.

Because Greece is thought the seat of “the occident,” or the West, the orientalization of Dionea shows how the unfiltered ancient Greek is now so “other” to British culture. The story takes place in Montemirto Ligure, near Genoa in northeastern Italy. Our narrator, Dr. De Rosis, is “a priest-hater and conspirator against the Pope” and writes in French, Italian, Latin, and English (Lee 4). He even denies Evelyn’s invitation to Rome on the grounds that he has become “a northern man,” (Lee 7). Though he is Italian, he remains apart from the people in the village and bears resemblance to an educated man of this English audience’s mileu. This serves to make him relatable and able to otherize both his village (because he is somewhat English-coded and high class) and especially Dionea.

Though the Italian villagers are foreign (they speak Italian and are superstitious), they are characterized as more rustic, whereas Dionea is truly alien. As De Rosis is our only narrator, he and his “northern” perspective alone construct Dionea’s foreignness. The “little brown mite” who washes up on the shore “is doubtless a heathen” because she has no cross around her neck and speaks “some half-intelligible Eastern jabber” with “a few Greek words embedded in I know not what,” (Lee 4). That last part is emblematic of Dionea’s whole existence to De Rosis: Dionea has flecks of recognizable Greekness, but contains something more foreign and mysterious.

When some of Lady Evelyn’s friends, Waldemar (presumably a German) and his wife, come to visit, they decide to use Dionea, representative of an older and more deadly version of Greece, as a model for a beautiful pale Venus statue a-la Venus de Milo. Waldemar attempts to Westernize, or Italianize, Dionea by making her white and marble, but eventually sets fire to the building with both of them in it. I think this was Dionea’s doing, as she has been known to make people do destructive, and Pagan, things in the past, such as buy her potions. Her influence makes him create a “votive pyre,” a dangerous part of Greek religion (Lee 26). Though “northerners” like Waldemar try to “Westernize” the rough and ancient Greece, the terrifying and “oriental” one lurks beneath. There are two Greeces: one Westernized and one Oriental. This Orientalized Greece has so much power because it is supposed to be the very origin of Western civilization, yet is actually sinister.

Here is my source, the first chapter of Said’s book: said orientalism

How to Cure Vampirism: Lucy vs. Victorian Medicine

Content warning (how do I keep getting myself in these situations?): genital mutilation, bad doctors

Dracula wants and expects us to trust the experts. In a scene from Seward’s diary, Van Helsing explains that Lucy is “Un-Dead” and that the only way to save her is to put a stake through her heart while she sleeps (with some garlic for good measure).  Keep in mind that this “Un-Dead” paradigm, and, in fact, most paradigms about the Vampires are information Van Helsing has supplied. Seward is initially upset: “It made me shudder to think of so mutilating the body of the woman whom I had loved. And yet the feeling was not so strong as I had expected. I was, in fact, beginning to shudder at the presence of this being, this Un-Dead, as Van Helsing called it, and to loathe it. Is it possible that all love is subjective, or all objective?” (Stoker 214, emphasis mine). He admits that he has accepted Van Helsing’s theories. It is a gradual process, but eventually Seward says he would kill the vampire Lucy “with savage delight” (225).

Stoker’s handling of Lucy’s treatment is in some ways analogous to those of hysteria. Take this account from 1844: a young, middle-class Frenchwoman is thwarted in a love-match by her parents and noticed symptoms that her doctor diagnosed as hysteria. They included irregular menstrual periods and convulsive attacks which led to a “lethargic coma.” The doctor treated her with topical oils and “vaginal douches of anti-spasmodic drugs.” She awoke later with only a vague memory of what had happened, and her senses restored (Hellerstein 111). Treatments for hysteria also included genital stimulation and leeches to the vulva (112). These doctors have levied a diagnosis and used it to perform invasive and violating experiments and procedures to cure their patient. In this way, these proceedings would have been somewhat familiar to a Victorian audience.

Other feminine diseases were more peculiar to the anxieties of the day, and their treatments more horrific (and not in a fun way). William Acton, expert on VDs in the fin de siecle, mentions in a footnote that a rival expert’s cure for nymphomania is to cut off the clitoris (Hellerstein 177). As we see with this and the leech treatment, too much sexual arousal in a woman calls not only for violation but mutilation. Lucy’s staking is a violating procedure if I ever saw one. Arthur’s lack of reticence shows how wholeheartedly he endorses Van Helsing’s recent explanation that doing this will save Lucy’s soul. Staking Lucy and destroying the clitoris of a nymphomaniac, for example, do the same thing: they brutalize a woman to save her from the horrors of a big appetite, whether that be for blood or sex.

Lucy’s symptoms are not completely analogous to either of these “conditions,” and I think diagnosing her is beside the point. Dracula asks us questions of what trusting a diagnosis and treatment path can lead people to do, and how and why people are diagnosed with illnesses in the first place. Apart from the mentally disturbed, Acton says that women feel little to no sexual desire, and little sensation in the clitoris. The only sexual pleasure, and it is slight, is felt in the vagina. Also, “loose women” are faking their sexual appetites (Hellerstein 177-8). This is the scientific truth to Acton and women who do not follow this are unnatural and probably ill. It sounds like lunacy to the modern reader, but in his day, he was highly respected. Though he was an “expert” and a “scientist,” he is obviously a product of his time. The hysteric, the nympho, and the vampire were all born of Victorian anxieties, as we explored Christopher Craft’s claims about Dracula as an anxious text.

Below are my sources. The book is called Victorian Women: A Documentary Account of Women’s Lives in 19th Century England, France, and the United States, edited by Erna Olafson Hellerstein, Leslie Parker Hume and Karen Offen.

Hellerstein Documents Victorian Women Part I

Hellerstein Documents Part Two

Trussst in me, jussst in me

Content warning: discussion of sexual assault

It is no surprise that John Gray, a Catholic priest, would include a subtil serpent in his poetry. In Gray’s poem “The Vines,” there is a snake who facilitates the immoral sexual activities of personified plants; he does this by using words and social position to create a stupefying environment. This leaves the feminine plants prone sexual predation. In this way, the poem depicts and condemns rape and the people who let it happen.

The first characters introduced are Bramble and Woodbine, a newly married couple. Bramble “clutches for his bride, / Lately she was by his side,” implying a dazed bedroom scene, as if the Bramble is groping through his bed half asleep. The second part of the quotation may be a paraphrase of Bramble’s words, like he is mumbling and looking for the Woodbine. The next line introduces Woodbine as having “gummy hands.” It may be a criticism from Bramble, that Woodbine sticks to other things and is unfaithful to him. However, it could also be the speaker undercutting Bramble’s expectation that Woodbine is sexually available to him. She is clinging to anything she can to get away from the Bramble.

Stanza four has two of the same lines as the first, those being “Bramble clutches for his bride” and “Woodbine, with her gummy hands,” which establish a return to the scene after stanzas two and three. Now, Bramble has found Woodbine, and “All his horny claws expands; / She has withered in his grasp.” The word “horny” carries its modern meaning of “lecherous.” The word “claws” makes this image explicitly menacing. The peculiar choice to use an antiquated plural (“claws expands” instead of “claws expand”) works to posit Bramble as old, ugly, lecherous, and violent. The Woodbine cannot get away, but why?

Her gummy hands may be one reason. But before this scene, other scenes of languid violence littered this picture. Something terrible has happened to “painted ivy”; she is “stretched upon the bank, all torn, / Sinewy though she be.” The combination of her being “painted” and “torn” evoke a pretty woman, maybe even a prostitute, brutalized and left “stretched” in a vulnerable position. This was once a strong woman, however, as she is “sinewy.”  This confirms that the “winter” has made a change to these plants, possibly including the Woodbine. Convolvuluses are “love-lorn” flowers that “cease to creep” as they did before. Flowers are associated with female genitalia and youth. Such a verb as “creep” implies furtivity. I posit that the convolvuluses are young girls who are frightened and saddened by what they see has happened to the ivy, as if they had crept closer to see.

These plant characters are in a stupor, unable to stop themselves or others from acting on their impulses. But let us not assume that this is an organic phenomenon. I propose that the snake has dictated this condition. The poem starts with a quotation from an unnamed speaker: “have you seen the listening snake?” The snake who dictates when winter is over is one that no one has seen, at least not lately. They may even doubt if he is real. The other characters must know that he is their watchman, because they trust his authority about when the dawn is coming, although he is underground. This act of “listening,” and telling plants to “listen” as he does in the last stanza, is his way of denying what is happening to the female plants. Someone asks “who tells dawning,” and he  continues stalling, saying “listen, soon.” I am watching, he says, trust me. He will do this until the “day burst winter’s bands” and brings the plants back to full consciousness. In this stanza, it says the snake “listens for the dawn of day,” but in the last stanza he moves the time to the afternoon. He is doing this is in self-preservation. He is “listening death away,” meaning his life is being sustained by making these heinous things happen. If we interpret “death” as the French “La Petite Mort,” he is also observing the sex out of existence.

The “half-born tendrils” in the last line may be the offspring of these plant unions. They, too, are grasping, just like their father “clutche[d] for his bride.” The evil done here creates more evil. This serpent is a facilitator only truly evil sex: rape.