This is the kind of cover that made me think I'd love this book when I was eleven years old.
What is it?
One of the first novels in English literature to feature homosexuality. It was published in 1891.
I think we can skip the usual “what is it about” question. But what are the themes, in your opinion?
Well, it’s not a horror story! I first read it when I was about eleven years old. It was in our school library and had a cover and a blurb that suggested it would appeal to anyone who liked the Saturday afternoon horror films of that era starring Boris Karloff. I remember I didn’t like it much. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that an eleven-year-old couldn’t make head nor tail of it. It’s a very philosophical novel. It’s really about the existence of the soul.
Crikey. That does sound dry.
I mean to say, it does have a good story, involving a couple of suicides, a murder, a death by misadventure. It even has some quite creepy bits. But all of this is in service to a story about the reality of the soul, and how meaningless life is without one.
So where does the homosexuality come in?
The painter of the picture, Basil Hallward, is clearly homosexual. Dorian himself appears to be bisexual. My theory as to why the characters need to not be heterosexual is to evacuate from the story the notion of sex as a means of reproduction. These are characters for whom love has a nobler, or at least more intellectual, purpose. Basil’s love for Dorian is highly romantic and soulful; it’s love on a higher plane, if you will. For Dorian, on the other hand, having sex with men and women is a search for the widest possible experience so as to fill the void left by the absence of a soul. Sex is never about starting a family with these guys.
It all sounds a bit rarefied.
I think queer sexuality can be rarefied, although it’s not usually seen through that lens today. But homosexuality, I believe, can represent a spiritual search. At one point, Dorian describes Basil’s love for him like this: “The love that he bore him—for it was really love—had nothing in it that was not noble and intellectual. It was not that mere physical admiration of beauty that is born of the senses, and that dies when the senses tire.”
But that seems to be entirely denying the physical side of gay love. This book will never sell among the gay community!
Well, but the whole book is an expression of the physical side of homosexual attraction. It’s all about male beauty—the desire for it, and what one will do to hang on to it. I suspect there aren’t many gay men who won’t relate to that. Half the fun of reading this novel is imagining what Dorian looks like (as well as his portrait). But Wilde is suggesting there is a whole other dimension to same-sex love.
What I understood about Wilde from reading his biography is that he was all about multiplicity. He didn’t believe in being one thing or the other, but always being both. He was both Irish and English. Both Christian and pagan. Both an intellectual and a sensualist. Both a gentleman and a scamp. And I think he’s saying here that homosexual love isn’t about either attraction to physical beauty that borders on obsession or the search for a perfect spiritual love. It’s both.
Stars (using the Michelin system)?
Three. This isn’t a perfect book by any means (there are some purple prose passages that I almost found myself skimming over, something I haven’t done since I first learned to read), but at its best it is sublime. It’s a milestone, an inspiration, a book to read and reread, an absolute must for anyone interested in queer lit.