Victorian Social Concerns

Social Concern Explanation Quotes from The Picture of Dorian Gray
Religion • Victorian England was a religious country• The bible was frequently and widely read by people of every class

• The bible was the foundation of moral behaviour (this became known as Victorianism)

• In 1859 Charles Darwin published his Evolution of the Species theory. Many began to question the beliefs of the Church.

• Religion remained the inspiration of writers, architects, painters and social reformers of the period.

‘But then in the church they don’t think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen’ P7‘I can believe anything provided that it is quite incredible’ P9

‘The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion- these are the two things that govern us’ P20

‘The fashionable substitute for Belief’ P187

‘Pray, Dorian, pray’ ‘The prayer of your repentance will be answered also’ ‘It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we cannot remember a prayer’ P151

Class • Working Class (Proletariat) : men and women who performed physical labour• Middle Class: men performed mental or ‘clean’ work.

• Upper Class: did not work for a living, income came from inherited land and investments

‘and yet I don’t suppose that ten per cent of the proletariat live correctly’ P…This duplicity and indulgence is most evident in Dorian’s visit to the opium dens of London. Wilde conflates the images of the upper class and lower class by having the supposedly upright Dorian visit the impoverished districts of London. Lord Henry asserts that “crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders… I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations”, which suggests that Dorian is both the criminal and the aesthete combined in one man WIKI
Women in society • A woman’s place is in the home. ‘For the huge majority life was easier if they accepted that a woman’s place was in the home.’• ‘The Angel in the house’ – ‘The husband is the head of the household and the moral leader of his family. A wife’s proper role was to love, honour and obey her husband, as her marriage vows stated.’

• Women did not have suffrage rights, the right to sue, or the right to own property.

‘Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals’ P48/49‘Woman are a decorative sex’ P47

“Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.” Chapter 4 page 8

‘They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly’ P47

Sex and purity. • ‘Throughout the Victorian Era, homosexuality held a vexed position in the culture. Homosexual acts were a capital offence until 1861.’• Verbal or written communication of emotion or sexual feelings was also often condemned so people instead used the language of flowers. ‘You are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. Your cynicism is simply a pose’ P8‘Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us…’ P21

‘I have grown to love secrecy’ P7

‘The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret’ P21

Poverty and Jobs • ‘Population explosion, immigration both foreign and domestic resulted in a scramble for any job available.’• ‘Large numbers of both skilled and unskilled people were looking for work, so wages were low, barely above subsistence level. If work dried up, or was seasonal, men were laid off, and because they had hardly enough to live on when they were in work, they had no savings to fall back on.’ ‘You must not think of anything but your acting. Mr Isaacs has been very good to us, and we owe him money’ P59‘Mr Isaacs has advanced us fifty pounds to pay off our debts’ P59
Substance Abuse • ‘The Victorian Era… had major problems with rampant drug abuse and alcoholism. Drugs like heroin, chloral, and laudanum were available and widely prescribed. The rapidly expanding British Empire brought drugs used from other lands into the country and, as a result, to the USA.’

• ‘An opium den was an establishment where opium was sold and smoked’

‘As Dorian hurried up its three rickety steps, the heavy odour of opium met him’ p179‘As long as one has this stuff, one doesn’t want friends’ p179

‘To cure the soul by means of the senses’ p176

‘where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new’ p176


Tragedy of the Artist

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tragedy of the artist’. In light of this comment explore the connection between art and tragedy in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The equilibrium of the narrative sets Dorian Gray up as an ekphrastic character. Lord Henry Wotton compares him to Narcissus – the figure who tragically fell in love with his own reflection and it is this comparison that sets up the connection between Dorian’s beauty (art) and the tragedy that is to follow. Wilde states that ‘the artist is the creator of beautiful things’ and this therefore reinforces the idea that it is not the artist who corrupts the painting but rather those who ‘find ugly meanings in beautiful things’. If the ‘real’ Dorian is the creation of Basil, then we can say The Picture of Dorian Gray proves to be a tragedy of not only the artist but of the art as well.

Lord Henry’s function serves as an Intertextual link to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. After being tempted to eat the fruit, both Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and in the same way Dorian becomes conscious of his own body and its power.  The ‘sense of his own beauty’ came on Dorian ‘like a revelation’ and it is at this point that the tragedy begins. Dorian sells his soul to the devil for eternal youth and the first, almost instant change we can see is the negative shift in the tone of the narrative.  The narrator foreshadows Basil’s death in establishing the image of Dorian, Basil, the portrait and the knife and there is a dispute over what makes up the ‘real’ Dorian. The boy with the simple and ‘beautiful nature’ has been transformed and Basil recognises this when he states that the ‘real’ Dorian is now the picture. Dorian also decides to abandon his plans with Basil and to go with Lord Henry instead. If Lord Henry’s character is a metonym of Doctor Faustus’ bad angel then Dorian’s action serves as a microcosm for the rapid degeneration of his nature that we will begin to see.  Basil’s realization that the Dorian he ‘worshiped’ is now in the hands of Lord Henry is simply illustrated in the ‘look of pain’ that came to his face and reinforces the idea of the tragedy of the artist.

To Dorian, Sibyl Vane is ‘all the great heroines of the world in one’ and he states that she is ‘never’ simply Sibyl Vane. Dorian loved Sibyl because she ‘gave shape and substance to the shadows of art’ but for Sibyl his love ‘freed [her] soul from prison’. When she begins to act badly she can not understand why, but she soon realizes that her love is higher and that she can not ‘mimic a passion’ that she does not feel’. Plato’s ‘Theory of forms’ stated that art ‘could only copy the copies’. Sybil seems to take on this view as she finds that acting Juliet is a ‘pale reflection’ of the reality of love. Because Dorian was only in love with her as an artist, when she looses her art she ultimately ‘kill[s]’ his love. The tragedy of art here is that it not only kills Dorian’s love but it also literally kills Sibyl. It was art that had made her ‘unconscious of her power’ as a woman.  Her suicide was therefore not a piece of theatre but instead recognition that she had lost love and art and for her, there was nothing else left. When Lord Henry convinces Dorian that her death was ‘quite beautiful’ and was art in itself it is then that we see the picture of Dorian Gray is in fact truly a tragedy of the artist.

The connection between art and tragedy is also explored by Wilde as Dorian becomes controlled by the painting. When he shows Basil the degenerated portrait Dorian has an ‘uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil’ one which had almost ‘been suggested to him by the image on the canvas’. Both Sibyl and Mrs Vane are also controlled by their art which has caused Sibyl’s suicide and Mrs Vane’s ‘cunning’ and ‘craft’ words which are associated with criminality. Perhaps Wilde is exploring the problem and fear of art’s influence which often causes tragedy in literature.

In terms of extrinsic attitudes, the Marxist Theory of Art often suggested the idea that art was tied to specific classes and images had the ability of making ‘the status quo seem natural’. This is important when looking at The Picture of Dorian Gray as the portrait is not only often viewed as Dorian’s ‘doppelganger’ but may also be seen as a metaphor for the ‘double’ lives of the upper class.

Lastly, Basil explains that his worship of Dorian and art has ‘punished’ him and Dorian states that it has too ‘destroyed’ him. The metamorphosis of the portrait clearly displays the connection between art and tragedy. It is therefore no coincidence that we see the ‘original’ – portrait before we are introduced to Dorian in the first chapter. Dorian is and will always be bound up with his picture and his fate and, in this way; Wilde explores the connection between art and tragedy. Finally, Basil’s death serves as a Binary opposition between art and the artist and serves to further reinforce the idea that Dorian Gray is a tragedy of the artist. Dorian’s beauty is no longer a gift but is something he must fight to retain -just as Sibyl must retain her art for his love and therefore the characters become controlled by art.



Women in Dorian Gray

‘Women appreciate cruelty’.  How far and in what ways are women victims in The Picture of Dorian Gray?

The 19th century brought forth the Doctrine of Separate Spheres which presented hegemonic ideologies of the roles of the male and the female. Women were expected to run the house and obtain a passive almost spiritual role, whilst the male figure was predominantly the breadwinner. In the Picture of Dorian Dray women (especially of the upper class) are often seen conforming to the custom and this is revealed when the ladies leave the table after dinner. These restrictions are ones which Lord Henry and Dorian would never have to face and from a feminist perspective it is easy to see how women are treated as victims. 

The ‘Angel of the house’ was the Victorian ideal of the perfect women and wife and created an expectation to further maintain their ‘maternal’ and caring nature. Lord Henry states that he doesn’t suppose that Dorian will ‘want [his] wife to act’, once they are married and this reinforces the dominant ideologies of the role of women in the 19th century. Ironically it is Sibyl’s passivity and inability to act or perform, which may be considered a male role (working and earning an income), that ‘kills’ Dorian’s love and therefore it may be argued that Wilde is making a social comment on gender and society.

It is argued that within the novel, women are physically ‘caged’. Sibyl is described by Dorian as a ‘caged bird’ and this possibly represents the idea that, as an actress, Sibyl is trapped by the standards of society. Kelly Powell agues the ‘Actress is a tragic figure torn between domesticity and a career’. Interestingly Dorian himself is later described as a ‘caged beautiful thing’. It has been argued that Sibyl is the girl version of Dorian and the many similarities that Wilde places in the novel tends to give us this notion.  Lord Henry describes Dorian as a ‘rose’ in the opening chapter and Dorian too compares his kiss with Sibyl as ‘rose coloured joy’. There is then an argument to suggest that Dorian’s character is feminine as he seen ‘pouring tea’ and is often objectified by male figures. Dorian is an ekphratic character and he is often seen as a work of art instead of a person. When Basil describes the portrait as the ‘real’ Dorian he adds ‘in appearance’. The comparison to ‘Narcissus’ and ‘Adonis’ that Lord Henry makes to Dorian are two allusions that further reinforce the idea that Dorian is objectified and ‘worship[ed]’ for his beauty and youth.

Laura Mulvey explores the idea of the stereotypical ‘active male’, ‘passive female’ and even though Sibyl is an actress, this is not a choice that she actively made herself – but rather one that she has been forced to make, due to her social conditions. Given a choice, she rejects her acting and even states that she would hate ‘to be free’. She is therefore represented as a victim of society who has been trapped for so long that she would not know what to do if she was truly free. Mrs Vane is too represented as a victim and it is only James Vane (in the family) who actively leaves and pursues his own life. Sybil and Mrs Vane are subject to playing parts and it is also important to note that all of the Shakespeare subjects that Sibyl play are victims of men and this further reinforces the notion that women are condemned to a patriarchal society.

Furthermore, the novel is narrated from a male point of view and examines the lives of three male protagonists.  There is also an authorial presence within the book, due to the preface and this means that the views of the omniscient narrator are often said to ‘reflect’ Wilde’s views. The novel is therefore dominated by a male presence and the construction of female characters seems to suggest that Wilde’s own misogynistic views may be showing through. Notably it is male characters of the lower class that are described in a brute way such as the ‘fat Jew’ and ‘rugid’ James Vane. Whilst, Mrs Vane is described as ‘cunning’ and as a ‘faded…tired women’ and when we first see Victoria Wotten, she is also described as an utter mess. Victoria is a member of the aristocracy and Mrs Vane is of the lower orders and therefore it fair to say that these views are not just inclusive of the lower class.

Women are not given much of a voice in the novel and this is emphasised when Lord Henry tells Gladys that ‘Women are not always allowed a choice’ and before she has time to reply, the guests are distracted by Dorian fainting. As Dorian is often seen as an allegory for Victorian society – then this scene is symbolic of the idea that the society and the ideologies and gender conventions that follow is what prevents women from truly having a voice.

On the other hand, Wilde presents some strong women characters in the novel such as Lady Narborough and the Duchess, who are often competing with Dorian and Lord Henry in a battle of the epigrams. This banter is typical of social comedies and whilst the speed often indicates flirtation, there is also a sense of a battle of power. All the aristocracy women have are their words, and perhaps the Duchess stating that she is on the side of the ‘Trojans’, even though they were ‘defeated’, is symbolic of what women felt like – being a victim in a defeated army.


 By Lauren Lind

Criminal Classes in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde


‘Wilde reinforces popular views on the criminal classes’. How far do you agree with this view?

In the Victorian era there was a popular ideology, among the bourgeoisie, that criminality was rooted in the poorer classes’ and that the lower class made a ‘rational decision to live by crime because of its attractions’[1], rather than the idea that it was poverty or indigence that led them there. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde both reinforces and challenges these views concerned with the criminal classes.

In the text Henry Wotten states that he does not ‘suppose that ten per cent. of the proletariat live correctly’[2] which illustrates the ideology that criminality is associated with class – where living ‘correctly’ refers to living morally. Wilde’s construction of the Vane family also seems to reflect this idea in many ways. Mrs Vane and Sibyl are both actresses and in the Victorian era this was a popular innuendo for prostitution. Wotten also states that he has ‘loved so many of them’[3] (actresses) which reinforces this idea. The reader is also therefore positioned to believe that Mrs Vane is sleeping with Mr Isaacs as he paid off the family’s debts. By representing Mrs Vane as a degraded woman the omniscient narrator seems to elevate the class system and support it. She is described as ‘cunning’ and as having ‘arrows of craft’[4] which represents her as devious and criminal. The Omniscient narrator is therefore suspect of Mrs Vane’s position, which may expose Wilde’s own ideas and misogyny whilst reinforcing the ideology that lower classes are associated with criminality.

A Marxist critical approach would argue that The Picture of Dorian Gray reinforces upper class hegemony as the bourgeoisie are represented as controlling all of the economic aspects of society. This idea is symbolized when a prostitute talks to James Vane and tells him that ‘Prince Charming made me what I am’. The prostitute tells James that Dorian has been coming to the place for ‘eighteen years’[5] and that he is ultimately responsible for her present state. Through Dorian’s money – he was able to buy sex and ultimately control her through economic means. In the same way we suspect that Mr Isaacs was able to ‘buy’ Sibyl and Mrs Vane.

In the beginning of the text Wilde uses the phallic symbol of a ‘pink-flowering thorn’ which suggests that an act of homosexuality between Lord Henry and Basil has been occurring. Homosexuality was a crime that, for a large majority of the nineteenth century, was punishable by death.  Throughout the novel Wilde also suggests that Dorian is homosexual and this is shown when Basil asks him why his ‘friendship [was] so fatal to young men?’ [6] As Dorian commits more and more crimes (sins) the painting becomes uglier and theme of criminology strongly links with the idea of sin. At the end of the novel Dorian’s true character is described as ‘withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage’ which represents the crime of the upper class. Wilde therefore illustrates the idea that it is not just the proletariat who commit or are affected by crime.

The lives of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are riddled with crime; the only difference is is that the upper class can afford to hide or cover it up. Dorian Gray takes drugs, commits black mail and finally murders Basil Hallward. When he blackmails Alan Campbell – this has links to the Labouchere Amendment which made homosexuality a crime and also became known as the blackmailer’s charter. It is said that ‘The practiced way in which Dorian produces a letter written in advance in order to force Alan Campbell to get rid of Basil’s body suggests that he is all too familiar with the mechanics of this process’[7]. Dorian Gray is therefore a practiced criminal. His actions signify the pinnacle of criminality and reflect the true crimes of the upper class. Wilde both challenges and reinforces popular views on the criminal classes by exploiting Mrs Vane’s character, representing the lower classes are immoral and presenting the upper class as concealed criminals. Wilde therefore states therefore that there is not a single criminal class, but that it is the individual who is criminal – not the class that they belong to.

By Lauren Lind.

[1] Brown, Richard, Who were the criminals? (February 2011) Accessed date: 17th March 2011

[2] Wilde, Oscar, The Picture Of Dorian Gray (London, Penguin Books, 1891) p.12

[3] Wilde, Oscar p.51

[4] Wilde, Oscar p.60

[5] Wilde, Oscar p.183

[6] Wilde, Oscar p.144

[7] Gray, Frances The Picture Of Dorian Gray York Notes (Essex, Librairie du Liban, 2009) p.129