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Into the Wilde

In search of the real ‘Dorian Gray.’

Imagine the portrait that is the subject of Oscar Wilde’s classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the famous story of a beautiful youth whose portrait alters to reflect the depravity of his life, while his face remains forever unchanged. Wilde describes it as a picture of a “young Adonis, who looks as if he was made of ivory and rose-leaves.” In one artist’s vision, Dorian’s long black coat is tight-fitting, with a white flower in the lapel, and his white shirt is crisply starched. His face wears an insouciant half-smile, with a flirtatious suggestion in his limpid eyes.

Now mentally pluck a few petals off the lapel flower, poke a hole in that elegant coat, or put a blindfold over those searching eyes. This, more or less, represents the fate suffered by Wilde’s novel, which was censored repeatedly for its homosexual content—by the editor of the American magazine Lippincott’s, who was the first to publish it, and also by Wilde himself, who made changes in the wake of hostile reviews. Tragically, the changes did not suffice to protect Wilde from criminal prosecution: passages from Dorian Gray were read as evidence in his trial for “gross indecency” in 1895, which resulted in his sentencing to two years of hard labor.

Now Nicholas Frankel, a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, has restored the original version of Dorian Gray, which Harvard University Press has just published in a handsome “annotated, uncensored edition.” It reproduces the full 1890 text that Wilde submitted to Lippincott’s for publication, as well as extensive notes tracing the alterations made by J.M. Stoddart, then the editor of Lippincott’s, and some of the changes made by Wilde for a later expanded version that appeared in book form. A comparison of the various editions makes it clear that, as Frankel writes in his introduction, in both his life and in his writing, Wilde was “playing a dangerous game of hiding and revealing his sexual orientation.” But Frankel’s extensive notes also demonstrate that the removal of a few overtly damaging phrases—Stoddart cut only about 500 words from the text—could not alter the true nature of the novel, which, even in edited form, reveals its hand in its liberal use of symbols and terminology that allude to homosexuality.

“Gross indecency,” meaning any kind of sexual activity between men, became a prosecutable offense in England with the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. (The Act would not be repealed until 1956.) When Stoddart read Wilde’s typescript, he recognized the danger of publishing it in its unaltered form. The primary issue was the nature of the relationship between Dorian and the painter Basil Hallward, who is clearly in love with his young model. And so, in Chapter Seven, in the scene in which Hallward speaks of his “grand passion” for Dorian, Stoddart took a few opportunities to tone down the language. His alterations were moderate: Where Hallward says in the original that he has worshipped Dorian “with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend,” Stoddart changed it to “… than a man usually gives to a friend.” He also deleted the line “There was love in every line, and in every touch there was passion.” Later in the chapter, when Dorian reflects, “There was something tragic in a friendship so colored by romance, something infinitely tragic in a romance that was at once so passionate and so sterile,” Stoddart deleted the last clause of the sentence, ending it after the first “romance.” In another revealing indication of the sexual mores of the time, Stoddart also took out references to Dorian’s illicit relationships with women, perhaps imagining that they would complicate rather than mitigate the suggestions of homosexuality.

But Stoddart’s changes, in the context of the novel as a whole, were quite minor. And they were insufficient to protect Wilde from the critics who immediately denounced the novel: One newspaper called it “a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odors of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” These insults, Frankel points out in the new edition, were coded terms to describe homosexuality, which would have been readily recognized by readers at the time. (Interestingly, the word “homosexual” did not officially enter the English language until 1892, when it appeared in a medical textbook.) Considering the potential consequences, the act of writing a novel in 1890 that made even indirect reference to homosexuality was either astonishingly brave or astonishingly stupid—perhaps both.

In response, Wilde himself, in revising and expanding the novel for its re-publication the following year, actually went much further than Stoddart in bowdlerizing his own work. He took out the entire line about Hallward worshipping Dorian and several sentences that followed, including: “Somehow, I had never loved a woman. I suppose I never had time.” He took out a line that read, “I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly,” and replaced it with, “I was dominated, soul, brain and power by you. You became to me the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal whose memory haunts us artists like an exquisite dream.” More than a surface change, this represents an attempt to alter the fundamental character of the relationship between Hallward and Dorian: Rather than the controversial and even prosecutable pairing of lover and beloved, they are presented as the much more acceptable artist and muse. And this is the way many critics over the years have read the novel: When I studied it in college, certainly far more attention was paid to the novel’s theories of aesthetics than to its homosexual subtext.

But Frankel’s extensive annotations reveal that the homoerotic qualities of the novel are deeply encoded within it and cannot be excised by the removal of a few phrases. To begin with, there is the name “Dorian” itself, a reference to Dorian or Greek love—another coded term for homosexuality. In an early scene, Dorian pours tea for two other men, a role normally played by a woman. Even the bees that appear throughout the novel have a masculine sexual connotation. These are just a few examples of a constellation of allusions that are largely lost on the general reader today. But Wilde’s late-Victorian audience would likely have had little trouble recognizing that the dramatic tension animating the novel is based in homoeroticism.

In the end, though, knowledge of the homosexual subtext does not necessarily make Dorian Gray a better novel, and possibly even works against it. The book deals in large ideas—about aesthetics, about morality, about degradation—of which the love of men for each other is only one part. And a greater problem with any edition of the novel that does not include Wilde’s revisions—whether it be the original typescript or Lippincott’s version of it—is that we do not know whether Wilde was motivated solely by legal considerations. There might have been artistic reasons, too, for his decision to de-emphasize Hallward’s romantic feelings for Dorian before book publication—not to mention for the five new chapters, mostly with background information about Dorian’s family and personal history, that he added to the later edition.

The tragedy of Dorian Gray, then, is that there can never be a definitive edition of the novel, because the poisonous political climate of the time makes it impossible to know which of Wilde’s revisions might have been voluntary. Yet, if the restored text is interesting primarily as a social document of what was and was not permissible in England in the 1890s, it poignantly reveals an author desperately at war with his society and with himself. In one of the many aphorisms from Dorian Gray that would later become famous, Wilde wrote, “There is nothing that art cannot express.” He paid a tragic price for this faith.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor for The New Republic.

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