Class in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

I am interested in what The Picture of Dorian Gray has to say about class, particularly through the eyes of Mrs. Vane and her two children.  Mrs. Vane seems to have conflicting visions of the world.  On one hand, she seems excessively practical about money and supporting her son and daughter, but on the other, she seems deeply devoted to the world of theater and how she presents herself to the world from an artistic perspective.  She feels obligated to Mr. Isaacs because of the money she owes him and how he has given them the opportunity to work.  She thinks he has treated them very well (though Sibyl disagrees with this).  She is also obsessed with the idea that her daughter’s Prince Charming might be very wealthy, in which case “there is no reason why she should not contract an alliance with him” (Wilde 60).  In Mrs. Vane’s eyes, if Dorian is a member of the aristocracy, there could be nothing wrong with him. 

Her son, James, on the other hand, seems very distrustful of Dorian and other members of the upper class.  He worries very much about his sister’s safety and reputation as she pursues a relationship with a man she hardly knows.  He thinks that Dorian’s intentions in becoming involved with a poor actress is that he “wants to enslave” Sibyl (Wilde 62).  He worries that Sibyl will share the same fate as their mother, who is now a single mother in much debt after being wronged by a “highly connected” gentleman like Dorian (Wilde 64).  Sibyl seems very naïve in her approach to Dorian, not caring about the fact that she knows nothing about him other than that he adores to watch her act.  She cares not at all for money, exclaiming, “what does money matter?  Love is more than money” (Wilde 57), and “Poor?  What does that matter?  When poverty creeps in at the door, love flies in through the window” (Wilde 62).  It will be interesting to see how her relationship with Dorian plays out, and how her family and Lord Henry affect it.


As we discussed the first third of The Picture of Dorian Gray in class on Wednesday, I found myself struck by two details. First, the way in which Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) kept coming up in conversation felt notable because so many people saw him in the story. Second, the fact that Oscar Wilde did not meet Lord Alfred Douglas until the year after Dorian Gray was published would indicate that Bosie could not have been in the story in any intentional way. I was somewhat surprised by the way in which, even after we learned the chronology of their meeting–something I did not previously know–Bosie continued to be central to our conversation. It felt as if we were so tied to what we know of Wilde’s life that we see it in all that he does, regardless of whether or not we should.

This conversation felt like a good representation of a point that has been brought up throughout the semester: we project onto the past using what we know about the present. I am a history major, so I spend a lot of time–probably most of my day while school is in session–thinking about events of the past and the way in which we try to understand them in the present. Every historian has a different answer to the question, “why does history matter,” and their answer shapes the way in which they contextualize the past. For me, history is a study in compassion. I believe that most of history can be summed up by saying, “people tried to do what they believed was good and failed.” That failure comes from a variety of factors from prejudice that blinded historical actors to the true cruelty of their behavior to an inability to see the side effects of a decision. Of course, there are exceptions to this narrative, but I think that it works as a general rule. For that reason, it is important to study and understand the past in order to build empathy in the present. We must look at historical actors with compassion in the hopes that the people who come after us view us the same way. Part of that process is actively studying the way in which one event led to another, and remembering that historical actors did not have the full picture that we now do.

When it comes to talking about Oscar Wilde, it is important that we remind ourselves that he did not know the trend his life would take before it happened. It is easy for us to view Wilde with compassion, but it is sometimes hard to get the idea of inevitability out of our heads. When Dorian Gray was published, Wilde had not met Bosie and did not know what the long term effects of that meeting would be. For that reason, I believe that we should try to read The Picture of Dorian Gray with the chronology of Wilde’s life in mind. After we do that, we can take the next step and try to explain why Dorian Gray was used against Wilde at his trial without using that fact as indication enough that Bosie is–even accidentally–in the text.