Based on the sometimes diverging views on Wilde's life and personality by
Danielle Esposito and Raja Farah
|Raja reacts to Danielle's page on "The picture of Dorian Gray"|
Wilde's homosexuality and its relation to "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
Raja: First and foremost, Wilde has for a very long time been taught with almost a complete lack of focus on his homosexuality, even though it is the thing that has driven and influenced most of his writing. You seem to almost completely ignore the homosexual aspects of Dorian Gray, and that really surprised me.
In your introduction, you also mention that Wilde "became" a homosexual. Wilde never "became" a homosexual. He was always a homosexual, though his introduction into the gay lifestyle was brought upon by his friend. You repeatedly seem to think that Wilde felt a disgust with his sexuality. He did not. He felt it was part of him.
In the section in which you discuss the reason for the controversy with the book, you say that the relationship with the men is not alluded to. This drives away your students from seeing exactly what Wilde was doing with the text. The relationship between the men is not subtle at all, and is very much part of the text. Remember, this is 1891. Itís as much as he could have done.
On a more interpretive level, it is interesting to see the portrait of Dorian as a representation of his homosexuality, forced into the closet by society, and rendered hideous due to societyís views.
Danielle: I don't think I've ignored Wilde's homosexuality but I'm quite sure he didn't feel at ease with it. Practically all of Oscar Wilde's tales are its transposition. Most of them depict an impossible, unatural love between two beings that are not naturally meant to love each other like "The Fisherman and the Mermaid", the Nightingale and the Prince (the story is called "The Nightingale and the Rose" but it's with a human being the bird is in love), or the swallow and the statue of "The Happy Prince". This seems quite a clear indication that Wilde was not at ease with his homosexuality. Another very clear one is the fact that he sued Lord Douglas's father for libel, knowing very well that he had very few chances of winning the case, that it would expose him to public accusations. Subconsciously he was obviously trying to get some sort of punishment, to expose his guilt and shame. It was certainly not to fight for the cause of homosexuals. As you very well said, all this took place one century ago.
If I've written that Wilde "became" a homosexual at one point, I've never meant that he liked women before that and then decided he liked men better. I was mostly talking about his "coming out".Wilde probably felt different, special as a little boy. When did it exactly dawn on him that he liked men? I don't think any of his biographers can give a clear answer to that question.
I don't think I've ignored the homosexual aspect of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" either. It is more than clear that all the relationships between the male characters are of that nature. But it is never said openly in the novel.
Even at the end, when Dorian spends a lot of time in squalid places in the dockland area, sexual relationships between men are never mentionned. Wilde refers to "horrible sins" but doesn't say anything more. And the prostitute who recognises him is a woman.
However it is very easy to read between the lines.This is what a lot of people did and this is why Wilde passed from the status of most admired wit to that of most unwanted guest at London dinner parties.
Raja : I disagree with you regarding Wilde being uneasy about his sexuality, but here again, I think it is more on an interpretive level than anything. His tales address a forbidden love, and this is, the way I see it, more of a criticism of society. He wants these opposing parties to get together, but usually because of society or culture or something of the sort, it can't happen. They are stories that attempt to prove that "unnatural" (for lack of a better word) relationships should be able to take place.
As to what you said about the last part of the novel and the "squalid places" in the dockland area, it is true that sexual relations between men are never mentioned there, but those places were known to be the places where such activity took place. And while Wilde says a woman recognized Dorian, I remind you that homosexuals and drag queens were very often referred to as girls.
You've mentioned that you didn't see Wilde as being a person fighting for gay rights. While I agree with you, I think it is important for one to understand that Wilde truly felt that his love was natural. Robbie coined the very famous phrase "the love that dare not speak its name", and it was a very strong case against Wilde in his trial. When he was asked to explain what this secret love was, Wilde said a very moving and very touching speech that my professor let me read. Wilde spoke full heartedly of a love very similar to the love Whitman discusses in his poetry (though Whitman had a very different view of the homosexual, and did not consider himself a homosexual,
though he was involved in sexual relations with men).
Wilde's relationships with women
This aspect of Wilde's personality was mostly discused after a four-hour long program about Oscar Wilde on French TV. Of course, it was in fact an excellent English programme by Annie Paul (1995) followed by another very interesting one about Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), Wilde's lover. It contained among many other interesting documents long interviews of Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson and Alice Douglas, Bosie's grand niece. Holland, who is in his 50's now, says that he decided to get to know his grandfather twenty years ago and has dedicated these last twenty years to answering the question : what sort of man was he, really? He hasn't been able to find a satisfying answer.
Danielle : What was unusual in this program was that the different persons interviewed (professors, distinguished scholars) talked a lot about Wilde's marriage and all said that his love for Constance was not feigned at all. Indeed they read passages from the passionate love letters he sent her and from her passionate answers as well. Some professor then said that of course Wilde had known for a long time that he was also attracted by men, but that nobody knew when this became an essential element of his way of life. So, he was rather presented as a bi-sexual than a homosexual.
His drive for homosexual experiences was first explained as a desire for extreme sensations and then as dependent on his love for Bosie which was, they said, absolute.
Raja: I found the part about Wilde's bisexuality interesting, but unusual. I always thought that his marriage with Constance was purely a marriage of convenience, as Wilde repeatedly says in his works, it is just something to do. Just like Dorian was going to marry Sibyl. I think you can explain the passionate love letters as being just the work of a fabulous writer.
Lillie Langtry, Rosalind in As You Like It
Danielle: I don't think Dorian's marriage to Sybil would have been a marriage of convenience. He was ready to marry a form of art, not a real woman.The minute Sybil stops acting, the minute she becomes a bad actress because she loves him too much to be other than herself, he stops loving her. He only loved the actresss, her roles, Shakespeare through her. Wilde himself was fascinated by actresses and worshipped Sarah Bernhard. When she came to England for a series of performances, he went to Dover and threw lilies under her feet when she landed. It was of course a "coup d'éclat" but there was an important part of sincerity in it. Didn't he write "Salome" in French for her? wasn't that a proof of love? of this same sort of love Dorian felt for Sybil?
Regarding his love for Constance I suppose this is one of the other things we'll never know about Wilde. Did he sincerely, at one point, fall in love with Constance? The letters that were read suggested it and they suggested a very sensual relationship between husband and wife.
The fact that he was an excellent father for his children was also repeatedly stressed. That what affected him most when disgrace fell on him was that he would never see his children again.This is due, I suppose to the fact that the program was dominated by Merlin Holland's presence. It is undoubtedly more satisfying for him to believe that his father was the fruit of his grandparents' love. However the other participants agreed.
Raja: I have no doubt that he truly loved Constance, but not the way a man loves his wife. He admired her, no doubt, but perhaps she was just a "shoe that fits." Regarding the relationship between Dorian and Sybil, yes, Dorian fell in love with an actress (it is interesting to point out that the first time he sees her she plays Rosalind, and the first time he talks to her she is playing Rosalind, Rosalind being the most famous "cross dresser" of Shakespeare). But it is through her that he finds an "escape" from homosexuality. This is very obvious in the chapter follwoing his breakup with her, before he finds out she is dead.
Danielle : Yes, the obvious androgynous nature of Rosalind is one more clue for the readers. I am quite conscious of that and I think Wilde's interest in Shakespeare was partly if not mostly due to such characters.
Raja : You said that in the documentary they said that Wilde loved Constance and was bisexual, mainly due to his great love for his kids. I'm sorry, but that is not a convincing argument whatsoever. I have a few friends who have kids and are gay or lesbian, and their love for their kids is unbelievable.
Danielle : Don't mistake me. What I said about his love for his children is not for me related to sexuality at all. It's quite obvious to me that you don't have to be heterosexual to love your children.
Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas
Danielle : The Picture of Dorian Gray has become a myth. Nearly everybody on this planet has heard the story of the ageing portrait So it shows Wilde's incomparable genius because very few men are able to create a myth.
Writers, poets mostly use or develop existing ones.
After having created the myth he more or less went searching for it, and found its incarnation in Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas). The latter whom W. met just after the publication of the novel told him he had already read it several times and had been fascinated by it.
Raja : Dorian Gray is autobiographical in many ways, but it was published, as you said, before he met Bosie. I
think that is the most interesting thing about Wilde, personally: he wrote a story, and then made it true.
Danielle : What is sometimes ignored is that Bosie was a poet in his own right. In his youth he wrote some interesting and beautiful poetry. It is unfortunately completely overshadowed by Wilde's works.
Bosie was Wilde's dark angel. It is he who led Wilde to search for the company of very young men to satisfy their sexual needs. Their own sexual relationship was rather short-lived and replaced by a sort of friendship based on sharing pleasures and adventures. They were constantly together from 91 to 95. The Marquess of Queensburry (Bosie's father) started hunting them, chasing, persecuting them. Bosie hated his father so much that when the latter sent Wilde an insulting card (calling him a sodomite), he asked Wilde to sue him for libel, hoping his father would be sent to jail for two years. Wilde, who was then under Bosie's complete domination, complied and ran to his ruin.
Raja : Bosie's father, forgive my language, was a very big ass. It seems no one liked him. He was overly controlling, and his authority was threatened by what he saw as Wilde's influence over Bosie. But it was actually the other way around. Bosie was extremely controlling over Wilde, and threatened to walk away whenever Wilde didn't do anything he wanted. Bosie brought Wilde young men to sleep with, but very often, it was Bosie sleeping with them, and Oscar simply watching.
Now when Bosie's father left an insulting note to Wilde, Bosie used this as an excuse to mess up his father's reputation. Robbie knew this would not be a good idea, but was hushed by Bosie.
Raja : I see the trial with Bosie's father as typical of something Wilde would do. I don't see Wilde just sitting there doing nothing while the Marquess of Queensbury, Bosie's father, accused him of being a sodomite. Wilde ended up dropping the case after 2 days, but then the judge went back and accused him of homosexual offenses. Wilde never hid his homosexuality. He was extremely flamboyant, and I don't see his actions as a sort of self-flagellation. I don't think he had anything to expose.
Danielle : OK, this is what took place on the conscious level. But it is quite unbelievable that a man with Wilde's intelligence might not have felt at least subconsciously that he was going to destroy himself.
Raja : I think I see your point, but judging from his wit and social presence, I think he saw it more as a way to be notorious, which he certainly was. And also, we really don't know how much influence Bosie had on him.
A random fact: during Wilde's trial, there was a HUGE migration of homosexuals. Most practicing homosexuals fled the country in the days following Oscar's trial, and settled in Paris, mostly, where the gay rights movement gained inertia as a result.
Wilde and Robbie
Danielle: Wilde's first homosexual lover was Robert Ross who remained his friend and was appointed his literary executor.
Raja : Yes, Wilde and Robbie Ross may have been involved sexually at the very beginning, but the latter is more important for being the one positive influence in Wilde's life. He took care of all his property after his death, and as you said is in charge of his estate.
If Wilde is appreciated today, it is greatly due to Robbie's hard work after Widle's death. He tried extremely hard to change Wilde's reputation, and obviously, did so quite well. Robbie must have been madly in love with Oscar, and as a result, always stuck by him.
In 1950, Robbie Ross' ashes were put in Wilde's tomb.
Bosie after Wilde's death
Danielle : After W's death Bosie remained prostrated for two years then came back to life and fell in love with a woman, a poetess (Olive something). He couldn't marry her because his reputation was so bad but he lived with
Olive for a while and had a son with her called Raymond. He started persecuting Robert Ross exactly in the way his father had persecuted him and Wilde. He sued him and when he came back from the trial Olive had left him. Later Raymond became schizophrenic.
During WWI he was sued for libel by Winston Churchill because, as a journalist he had written something that was proved wrong about the young Churchill (it was political, not sexual at all). As a result he spent some time in jail and wrote a long poem called In Excelsius which was a sort of answer to De Profundis.
Bosie became a devout catholic and professed that the only kind of love that was worth living was platonic love.
He died at 76 (if I remember well)
Raja : In a letter dated February 12, 1894, Oscar Wilde wrote "Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be-in other ages, perhaps."
I just think it is important for students to realize that Wilde, homosexuality, and his works, are VERY hard to separate.
Danielle: I agree with you 100% when you say "Wilde, homosexuality, and his works, are VERY hard to separate."
Salome, The Peacock Skirt (detail)
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