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.

One thought on “History”

  1. I had pretty much the same reaction when I learned this and I appreciate you writing your blog post about Wilde’s timeline and the seeming impossibility of it. Given what we all know, or think we know now, about Wilde it really seems almost impossible that he didn’t know Bosie while writing it — and the fact that he didn’t makes “Dorian Gray” all the more eerily prescient about the trajectory Wilde’s life took. But, as you very aptly point out, that’s largely a factor of us and what we’ve made Wilde into contemporarily, the way we characterize him today coloring our readings of his texts. It’s a curious and fine line to walk when reading critically, because we can’t help but bring ourselves and our contemporary moment to a text — and sometimes it can reveal something new and interesting — but how far can we actually take that and when does it lead us astray? I have no answers, but I appreciate sitting in this puzzle with you and am looking forward to continuing to read Wilde with a greater attention to his chronology.

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