Dorian Gray – Guilty of “Corrupting” Youth

Oscar Wilde

The students in my Theories of the Reader class have been sharing their research on books that had a concrete impact on readers, and their presentations are proving fascinating. Last week Lilian Timpson told us that she agrees with the prosecution’s charge against Oscar Wilde that The Picture of Dorian Gray corrupted young men, specifically Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Only, Lilian added, one should substitute “liberated” for “corrupted.”

The situation was as follows: Douglas, a young gay man at Oxford, was drawn to Wilde after reading Dorian Gray and soon afterwards became Wilde’s lover. His father publicly called Wilde out as a “sodomite,” Wilde was honor-bound to sue him, and in the subsequent trial Wilde was found guilty, both of “gross indecency” and of having written an immoral book. He was sentenced to two years of hard labor, an experience which broke him.

Drawing on Richard Ellmann’s great biography, Lilian noted that Dorian Gray became a kind of guidebook for young men and women, who read it with “a cult-like passion.” Ellmann writes,

Many young men and women learned of the existence of uncelebrated forms of love through the hints in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The prosecution set out to prove this influence. The cross-examination included the following brilliant back and forth between prosecutor Edward Carson and Wilde:

C–Then a well-written book putting forward perverted moral views may be a good book?
W—No work of art ever puts forward views.  Views belong to people who are not artists.
C–A perverted novel might be a good book?
W–I don’t know what you mean by a “perverted” novel.
C–Then I will suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel?
W–That could only be to brutes and illiterates.  The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid.
C–An illiterate person reading Dorian Gray might consider it such a novel?
W—The views of illiterates on art are unaccountable.  I am concerned only with my view of art.  I don’t care twopence what other people think of it.
C–The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?
W—I have found wonderful exceptions.
C–Do you think that the majority of people live up to the position you are giving us?
W—I am afraid they are not cultivated enough.
C–Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book?
—Certainly not.
C–The affection and love of the artist of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary individual to believe that it might have a certain tendency?
W—I have no knowledge of the views of ordinary individuals.
C–You did not prevent the ordinary individual from buying your book?
W—I have never discouraged him.

The prosecutor then proceeded to read the passage from Dorian Gray where painter Basil Hayward expresses his adulation for Dorian. (You can read the excerpt and entire literary exchange here.) It appears that the prosecution used Dorian Gray as an illustration of what happened between Wilde and Douglas. In a passage Lilian quoted, Wilde noted that he was seen by the public as Lord Henry, who corrupts the young Dorian, whereas he saw himself as Basil, who is in search of a consuming passion. In both scenarios, Douglas would fit the role of Dorian.

Interestingly, Lilian pointed out that, even while Wilde claimed that he was not responsible for the effect his book had on readers, he describes the corrupting (or liberating) impact of a book on Dorian. The book is Huysman’s decadent French novel A Rebours (Against the Grain), and Wilde writes in his novel, “for years Dorian Gray could not free himself from the influence of that book.” Lilian also points out Dorian’s susceptibility to poems: “How exquisite they were! As one read them, one seemed to be floating down the green waterways.” In other words, literature can indeed have an impact.

Lilian concluded by citing the idea of German reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss that a great work of art will expand an age’s “horizon of expectations,” and she sees Wilde’s novel as having done that.

“Ultimately,” she said, “Wilde himself proves himself very wrong that ‘no work of art ever puts forward views,’” and then points out that “The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s defense of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ gave voice to the unspoken identification of a large minority. . . At this time, there was no open gay community and to so publicly suggest that there might be one, Wilde challenged the authority of the church and the existing laws, for which he paid a great price.”

Put another way, the novel got people to think differently than the authorities wanted them to think. So by the standards of the time, Dorian Gray was indeed guilty of corrupting youth.

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  • Carl Rosin

    A wide gulf seems to separate the undeniable “literature can have an impact” from the point that literature may be responsible for any particular social effect. Wilde’s marvelously brusque commentary from the trial (I’m a fan of the word “impolitic”) is not without sense. Because Dorian, a tragically flawed figure, acts in a “corrupted” [sic] way, that no more makes the novel corrupted than does Huck Finn’s use of racial slurs and racist thoughts entail that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a racist novel.

    Of course, many people apparently find both clauses from the previous sentence to be valid; the position seems to me to represent an obtuse misinterpretation of art, and it saddens me to hear it. I do believe that there are such things as grotesque and corrupted works, but depicting grotesqueness and corruption in the art falls far short of being necessary and sufficient conditions for that critique.

  • Robin Bates

    You raise a whole different set of fascinating questions, Carl. My student was just focusing on how the book affirmed that same sex love was all right. But of course, if it influenced people to do the darker things–like killing a man–that Dorian does (as Wilde seems to admit that A Rebours does), then perhaps it should be banned. If young gay men, rather than just having their self worth confirmed (which my student thinks is good), used the book to become Dorians, then there’s an interesting ethical dilemma. But, as I suspect you would say, people often attack books and movies when a seeming copycat situation arises and one really can’t hold the book responsible in that case. So even if there were copycat Dorians, the book can’t be held guilty.

    Interestingly, Dorian Gray has a conventionally moralistic ending. Surely the prosecutor wouldn’t disagree that someone who is purely decadent loses his soul. And while Douglas wasn’t out to destroy Wilde, Wilde went to jail for Douglas’s sodomy (Ellmann tells us that Wilde didn’t do sodomy and that the fecal traces on the sheets weren’t his). In the end, it seems as though it is the idealists and dreamers, like Basil and Wilde, that get destroyed. Did Wilde sense that he was entering into martyrdom when he gave himself over to Douglas?

    I agree with your reading of Wilde’s response to the prosecutor: the prosecutor is trying to reduce Wilde’s interactions with Douglas to dirty sex (that’s always the way with prosecutors) and Wilde knows that there’s something more elevated about such friendships–and he doesn’t expect most of the Victorian public to understand this or agree with him. He’s responding to the prosecutor with truth and integrity (okay, and with naivete and some self-destructive snobbishness as well). And the prosecutor is responding with the smug assurance that most of society, including the jury, agrees with him. Wilde never had a chance and should have fled to France. Prosecuting him was like shooting a fish in a barrel.

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