Just Guys Being Dudes, Dudes Being Guys

In my blog post last week, I talked about how the references Wilde made to the Symposium in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” and at his trial were used as a defense for having close relationships with men and admiring their beauty. In class on Wednesday, we talked about homosocial relationships between men and how that featured in The Picture of Dorian Gray. To me, it seems like this use of homosocial relationships in Dorian Gray is used as a defense for Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian’s relationship in the same way that the Symposium is used as a defense for Shakespeare and Willie Huges’ relationship in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”

In class, we talked about how certain homosocial behavior is viewed as acceptable only if all the participants in this behavior are straight. For instance, during a men’s basketball game, it’s perfectly acceptable to give your teammate a butt pat. However, if either of those players isn’t straight, the act is viewed with entirely new meaning. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry and Basil being completely obsessed with Dorian’s beauty can just be viewed as, to use a colloquial turn of phrase, dudes being guys, guys being dudes. Straight is often seen as the default, even today. Therefore, unless explicitly stated, Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian can be read as completely straight, and the admiration of Dorian’s beauty is just perfectly acceptable homosocial behavior. In fact, if you see anything queer about their relationship, you’re probably the weird one. 

This can all tie back to the Preface of Dorian Gray, where Wilde says that this work is just meant to be a thing of beauty, and if you find anything off with it, there’s something off with you. He’s saying that no one should try to look past the surface level of Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian’s relationship with each other. They’re all just good buds, and it’s perfectly cool for good buds to be obsessed with each other. What’s interesting to me is that this defense actually worked for a while, because as mentioned in class, for years, queerness wasn’t even mentioned when studying The Picture of Dorian Gray. Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian were just viewed as friends, albeit friends who corrupted each other, but just friends nonetheless. I just think it’s interesting how for so long, no one really wanted to peer beneath the surface of Dorian Gray.

One thought on “Just Guys Being Dudes, Dudes Being Guys”

  1. This is an excellent post, with an excellent title, on the ambiguities of queer readings. I think that the complexities of male homosocial behavior are particularly interesting from a historical perspective. I took a course on Gender and Sexuality in Irish Literature after James Joyce last spring, and we discussed the differences in male and female homosocial behaviors. The texts we read were all from the mid- to late 20th century, and in these texts, female homosocial behavior was much more accepted than the male version. We discussed how, in this time period, gay men were much more visible than lesbians because of the often affectionate nature of female friendships. We can see this still applies in the modern day like how going to the bathroom is a group activity when you’re “out with the girls” or how straight girls kissing at a party is more of a performance than straight men kissing which would immediately draw suspicion. Especially in the context of toxic masculinity, any break in this social code is immediately suspicious and labeled as gay. It’s interesting how the relationships between men in Wilde’s time, at the turn of the 19th century, were so different. As you say, Basil and Lord Henry’s admiration of Dorian’s beauty was completely justifiable as long as one does not “look beyond the surface.” I don’t have a specific answer as to what changed between the 19th and 20th centuries that made relationships between men subject to so much more scrutiny. Perhaps it’s Oscar Wilde’s trial itself that brought about more attention to the matter.

    Returning to Dorian Gray, the way Wilde codes homosexuality is not new. In decades, even centuries prior, a similar code was used with male characters in literature. The first examples that come to mind are Mr. Fairlie in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) and Captain Whiffle in Tobias Smollet’s The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748). Both Fairlie and Whiffle are highly sensitive men always seen with a male companion. However, the way Collins and Smollet write these characters is similar to Wilde, in that those who knew the code could identify them as queer characters, and those who did not could simply dismiss them as peculiar. I think that our queer expectations of Wilde as modern readers particularly affects how we approach his works because we are always looking for signs of homosexuality in his work, intentionally or not, and we attempt to connect these signs to his identity.

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