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.


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.

Corruption of Beauty

After reading the “The Ballad of a Barber,” and some of The Picture of Dorian Gray, I started to think again about the idea of creation of beauty, artist as creator, and corruption of beauty.

In “The Ballad of the Barber,” the barber is known for his abilities to make things beautiful. Just as much as an artist in any other sphere of art, the manipulation of hair and one’s face with makeup is an act of creation. But the barber suddenly loses his ability to do so when he is confronted with the young princess, an already stunning girl. The princess is naturally beautiful. Perhaps, like in “The Decay of Lying,” one’s natural state being beautiful is something hard to understand. If it is not man-made, then it can’t be beautiful. But since the princess already is, perhaps that is why she was killed by the Barber. His act of murder may be a sort of morbid creation itself. He could not understand or handle her natural beauty, and so had to get rid of it, or one-up it with her murder, in a twisted way.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is also already beautiful. With Basil, he is admired for such beauty. He is confined to the inside world, where he sits for portraits and enjoys his influence over Basil. He’s like a princess sitting in a castle. But Lord Henry gets him out of the castle. Again, this sense of twisted manipulation comes in. Lord Henry enjoys corrupting Dorian, he has this power over him that he utilizes. Dorian is described using flower-like imagery, showing he is beautiful, pure, fragile, and corruptible. Henry likes to think that he created Dorian out of his influence, like I’m sure the Barber felt he created beautiful things out of his influence. Perhaps, like the Barber, Lord Henry does not know what to do with something so naturally beautiful except to corrupt it. That is the only thing you can do to something that you can’t make any more beautiful: try to ruin it. Or maybe, to try and make it one’s own. Murdering the princess gave the Barber a tie to her. I’m not sure yet if Lord Henry is really trying to “ruin” Dorian, but I get the sense that he has this compulsion to corrupt, and a compulsion to make Dorian his own.

I’m interested to see how Lord Henry and Dorian’s relationship develops throughout the rest of the story, and if it is going to go down a similar path as the princess’s fate.