Space and Sexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray
In Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, interior decoration is one means to analyze character interiority and representation of self that resists Victorian society’s norms. Dorian Gray’s homosexuality is hinted at throughout the novel through coded language and a series of images that cover up overt instances of masculine desire; musical allusions, references to Greek culture, and taking art as simply art for art’s sake have all been applied to analyze closeting. Extending this theme of coding and concealment into the realm of home decoration offers illuminating points to studying Wilde’s text and the Aesthetic movement. In studying Dorian Gray’s London apartment, one can determine that the house acts as another layer of masking as a means to code same sex desire. The successive placement of Dorian’s portrait in his bedroom, then in the library, and finally in the attic schoolroom does more than mark locations; it becomes a lens through which to analyze a Gothicized grotesqueness of self-identity reflected in objects and furniture, in a space that does not conform to either the Victorian ideal or the Aesthetic idea of a “house beautiful.” This essay will examine Aesthetic interiors alongside Renaissance and Gothic décor, decorating styles that act as a means to express Dorian Gray’s identity. Whereas Aestheticism begins as a means for closeting same sex desire for characters like Lord Henry, Dorian’s closeting is layered in the text to further conceal an identity deviant from societal standards.
Aestheticism evokes names like Théophile Gautier, William Henry Morris, Walter Pater, J. McNeil Whistler, and E. W. Godwin. The movement contains a mix of craftspeople, painters, designers, intellectuals, and writers. Perhaps two of the most notable exemplars of Aesthetic design are the green dining room at what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum designed by Godwin and the luxurious Orientalist Peacock Room designed by Whistler. Each Aesthetic space, though slightly different in design principle and decor, contains similar elements and an appreciation for texture and detail. According to Elizabeth Aslin, Aesthetic interior spaces favored subdued, dull colors like green, lightweight furniture, walls covered in dado, woodwork, and friezes, shelves holding small porcelain objects or “bric-a-brac,” and patterned Morris wallpapers (64). Such design was a reaction against High Victorian style, an effort to resist the heavy, Gothic architecture and clutter which had been in previous popular interior decoration practices. While some Aesthetic decoration did utilize the darkened woods or heavily carved pieces associated with earlier Gothic forms, many chose to avoid such details. Aslin argues that for aesthetes, “[h]eavily carved furniture, large mirrors in gilt frames, white ceilings and bright colours were regarded as vulgar, while shades of soft green, blue and white porcelain, Japanese fans and peacock feathers, and William Morris wallpaper were the marks of an enlightened home” (64). To have an “enlightened” home was to adhere to the Aesthetic standards, with a focus on lightness, softness, and subdued color. Yet surprisingly, Oscar Wilde seems to diverge from these patterns within The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Though Wilde was associated with the Aesthetic movement and spent eighteen months touring the United States lecturing on Aesthetic ideals and the home space, there is little connection between dado and Morris printed walls with the Gothic interior designs found in the novel. As Aslin also notes, Wilde loathed French decoration with “scorn,” quoting him as saying that “The gaudy, gilt furniture writhing under a sense of its own horror and ugliness, with a nymph smirking at every angle and a dragon mouthing at every claw” (111) should be avoided in decoration when referencing earlier Victorian styles that relied on Renaissance or Gothic influence. However, this “gaudy” furniture that “writhes under a sense of its own horror and ugliness” becomes a metonymic stand-in for the shame that Dorian feels in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde chooses to place Dorian’s home in London within the context of the gaudy and gilt as a stand-in for his dark secret in the painting, which in itself is a stand-in for homosexuality.
Art and aesthetics are a concealing means for Wilde to explore deviant sexuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Andrew Smith rightly notes that “Art and masculinity are thus linked by Wilde, and his aesthetic theory simply extends this because it rests on a theory of latency which also makes links between Art (as self-realisation) and a new Camp masculinity (as a form of Art, or ‘performance’)” (159). Camp masculinity and performance combine with art through home decoration in Wilde’s text. In the novel, Dorian’s portrait becomes a “self-realisation” for feelings of erotic, same sex desire. His “fiery-coloured” life awakening (Wilde 22) in the novel’s opening pages turns viewing art into a life-changing experience and instills in objects a coded sense of desire and the ability to inspire a sublime effect on the viewer. Objects become a “camp masculinity” and a refuge for Dorian Gray’s sexuality, going beyond aesthetic performance (the display of objects and furniture as art) into concealment. Dorian Gray’s non-Aesthete style in his apartment (especially the attic), which favors the Renaissance and Gothic, the gilt and gaudy, the exotic and chilling, is a marker that ties into his portrait’s representation of its subject’s reality. In place of aesthetic beauty in things is abject horror in things, which are pushed away to closeted sections of a private space, not shared in public, but studied in private by their owner. Gothic decoration acts as a metaphor for monstrosity, exhibited in Dorian’s apartment as a medium of expression.
Domestic relations and the home sphere are a large part of Victorian literature. Tamara Wagner asserts that “For the Victorians, social and cultural anxieties largely centered around the home: its sanctity, or rather, the need for such a shelter at a time of unprecedented cultural, social and technological change” (111). Fear of a changing class dynamic, shifts in gender relations, a potential crumbling between the human/animal division are all present in an array of Victorian Gothic fictions. They become a way to examine disruption, and Wilde’s text is enmeshed in the conversation of public self and private reality. Wagner continues, claiming that in Victorian Gothic literature, “[d]omestic problems create their own terrors. There are both proverbial and real skeletons in the most homely cupboards, and intruders often act as catalysts” (115). Such an emphasis on domestic terror is manifested in Dorian Gray’s home space, objects, and things. The “proverbial” skeleton in the text is his homosexuality hidden in the portrait; some “real” skeletons are his disastrous engagement to Sibyl Vane, opium use, frequent trips to London’s slums, and eventual murder. Intruders in the novel are those who get too close to Dorian’s true self, characters like Basil Hallward, James Vane, and Alan Campbell, who all die before the novel concludes: to get too close to Dorian’s attic space is to see too much of the home’s owner. In studying the text’s Gothic components, it is important to consider how the home space becomes a “mirror for the outside world, collecting its pieces and framing them in a way that could make sense” (Betsky 135). Dorian’s home and things are a mirror for his true self and are places the reader can view and visit in order understand his hidden terror.
By Gothicizing Dorian’s home space, Wilde presents it as having a sinister secret existing beyond the aesthetic cover of artistry and beautiful objects. Aesthetic spaces are usually realms where owners would cloak sexuality in spatial designs: C. R. Ashbee’s home at 37 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea is an extreme example, where “door handles were shaped like naked boys” and peacock feathers were painted on a large-scale dining room mural (Hatt 121-22). These areas could be argued as liminal. Unlike the mysterious count of the castle abbey who harbors a family curse, or the gentleman with a madwoman locked in his attic, Dorian holds his secret desire and masked sexuality in portrait form. The labyrinthine twists and turns found inside a Gothic castle are translated into curious objects and design features within Dorian’s home; as his portrait moves through spaces in his home, from the bedroom to the library, then finally to the attic schoolroom, the things surrounding it take on meaning. As E. H. Gombrich suggests in The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, an intensely Gothic or “grotesque” decor is a means to “break the taboos of convention and decorum” (279), which is how Wilde uses space and things in Dorian Gray’s Grosvenor apartment.
Spaces and objects take on coded meanings in the novel, generally under Aestheticism’s “art as surface level only” styled commentary. Appreciating objects as forms without true moral meaning blends with thoughts on artistry and selfhood, understanding how much of the artist can be revealed in their work. In one exchange, Basil Hallward insists that artists can never be revealed through their work: “Art is always more abstract than we fancy. Form and colour tell us of form and colour—that is all. It often seems to me that art conceals the artist far more completely than it ever reveals him” (Wilde 111). Such philosophy is not substantiated for Basil himself, however, as he considers the portrait of Dorian he has painted to be too intimately tied up with his emotions for public display in France. Nor is the passage relevant for Dorian, for whom concealment and coding end in a terrific attic scene revelation. Form and color are not simply form and color, tables and porcelain are not simply tables and porcelain. Furniture, color, layout, and design mark the representation of Dorian’s sexuality in the novel and go beyond aesthetic surfaces. Dorian’s character is explicitly tied to material worth and beauty in things, and as his portrait, the “mask of his shame” (93), becomes more grotesque, it needs to be housed in an area with similarly eerie or grotesque things. Dorian uses his home to project a version of himself that changes, based on how much others see. In acting as the artist in selecting his home’s decorations, he chooses to present one view of his selfhood as he conceals another. While Michael Hatt argues that Wilde and other Aesthetic Movement members could use home spaces as places that integrated “private desire and public self” (105), Dorian’s true self is too horrific to be represented even under an aesthetic cover. His real selfhood must be further hidden in his home’s attic space, which is locked away and protected despite attempts at coded concealment.
Before analyzing Dorian’s homosexuality in connection with the portrait and its placement in his home, it serves as an interesting note of contrast to study Lord Henry’s home space in the Mayfair district of London. Lord Henry represents a type of Wildean aesthete in the novel, consistently giving bits of witticisms and advice to Dorian as he plays up an image based almost entirely on words. While it can be said that Lord Henry instills bits of the aesthetic lifestyle into Dorian, urging him to live life for pure sensual pleasure rather than meaning, he does not seem to follow his own advice. Whereas Dorian frequents opium dens and has the “large Florentine” cabinet in his library with hidden compartments for opium use in the novel—described as “a thing that could fascinate and make afraid, as though it held something that he longed for and yet almost loathed” (Wilde 174)—Lord Henry’s connection to opium is more refined, tied to the novel’s aromatic opening pages. Lord Henry is seen smoking a “heavy opium-tainted cigarette” (6) while calmly chatting with Basil about art and its functions. There is no fear or loathing in Lord Henry’s opium use, just a sense of enlightened frivolity. This type of contrast between action and obsession with sensual pleasure extends throughout the novel and can also be seen inside the two characters’ homes. Though his library is not entirely Aesthetic and is done in a more Rococo or Louis XIV style, there are still multiple elements that create the effect of an Aesthetic decor. Lord Henry’s library is described in terms that are lighter and more astute than those in later passages detailing Dorian’s home:
It was, in its way, a very charming room, with its high panelled wainscoting of olive-stained oak, its cream-coloured frieze and ceiling of raised plasterwork, and its brickdust felt carpet strewn with silk long-fringed Persian rugs. On a tiny satinwood table stood a statuette for Margaret of Valois by Clovis Eve, and powdered with the gilt daisies that Queen had selected for her device. Some large blue china jars and parrot-tulips were ranged on the mantelshelf, and through this small leaded panes of the window streamed the apricot-coloured light of a summer day in London. (45)
Wilde includes this lengthy description as a means for the reader to grasp the atmosphere within Lord Henry’s library, which is seemingly luxurious and focused on the senses. The room contains the right amount of logical clutter on tables: a statue of a French princess, daisies, china, and tulips. Though the style is eclectic, the wainscotting and green colored wood with a mix of frieze and plaster wood align with Aslin’s earlier comments on Aesthetic walls. The mix of textures (felt, silk) and Persian rug within the space paint the space as Aesthete, as do the Chinese porcelain and daisies. There is just enough clutter to remain logical and aesthetically staged in Lord Henry’s library, and its effect upon the viewers is “charming” rather than horror-inducing. There is light streaming in from the outside as well, suggesting some comfort in accordance with the outside world and emphasis on brightness inside the space.
Lord Henry, a character often tied to Wilde himself, has a home with a decidedly Aesthete influence and one that merges public persona with private self, as Michael Hatt writes of Oscar Wilde’s “House Beautiful” at 16 Tite Street in Chelsea (118). As aforementioned, Wilde and Henry can exist in the public space by closeting their homes in Aesthetic beauty and in heterosexual marriage fronts. Though he is the one who “touched some secret chord that had never been touched before” in Dorian, sparking a close friendship that showed Dorian the way to living for sensual pleasures only, Lord Henry creates a home space that seems untouched by his homosexuality. Perhaps his sexuality was more discrete, closeted in his library’s shelves—his character does have a certain attachment to French novels, one carried over into Dorian’s appreciation of Gautier’s poetry—rather than in its open spaces. In contrast, Dorian’s space is too horrific to be seen and must be further masked and closeted. A disguised sexuality cannot exist for Dorian.
In the novel, Lord Henry also represents the character who sparks Dorian’s interest in Aestheticism and living for sensual pleasure as well as for material objects. Dorian remarks to Basil that his preference for “beautiful things that one can touch and handle,” like “old brocades, green bronzes, lacquer-work, carved ivories, exquisite surroundings, luxury, pomp” (Wilde 107), are from Lord Henry’s influence. Lord Henry does not just inspire Dorian to appreciate their beauty, but also to study “the artistic temperament that they create, or at any rate reveal” (107). Examining the objects as carriers of temperament that can infect their handler is a point that influences Dorian’s descent into moral misbehavior. Mezei and Briganti assert that in novels, houses create a “spatial construct” that “invites the exploration and expression of private and intimate relations and thoughts” through an individual’s objects (839). In Wilde’s novel, objects carry weight and meaning that influence the individual, found in things like Lord Henry’s gift of the yellow book and in Dorian’s portrait. To study these spaces is to analyze how objects are presented and function within them. Whereas Lord Henry’s home remains a light and bright space, Dorian’s is a starkly dark and dingy contrast. To understand Dorian’s Gothicized concealment of self and the private parts of his selfhood, it is imperative to track his portrait’s place in his household. As the portrait moves from the apartment’s lower level near the public space of the street to the school room attic space further away from the outside world, Dorian’s home decor shows a similar transformation. When the portrait becomes gruesome and hideous with age and sin, Dorian begins to move it inside his home into rooms with varied decors, each space revealing more about its owner.
Dorian’s bedroom is the first space relevant to my discussion on his portrait’s journey through his apartment. The room is described as a “large octagonal chamber on the groundfloor” decorated by Dorian with “curious Renaissance tapestries that had been discovered stored in some disused attic at Selby Royal” (Wilde 87). Though the bedroom space is associated with privacy and interiority, it is of note that it is on the ground floor. Reading spatial relations is another way to imagine Dorian’s divergence from design standards and conventions. Gaston Bachelard suggests in his Jungian reading of the home that the cellar space is the area that is the “dark entity” (18). Bachelard argues that cellar space in city dwellings is connected with castles, “mysterious passages” underneath “enclosing walls,” where the individual keeps the entangled self hidden away (20), whereas the attic space is the “mark of ascension to a more tranquil solitude” (26). This hierarchy between self and subconscious is reversed in Dorian Gray, where Dorian’s “mask of shame” (Wilde 93) moves from the ground floor to the attic schoolroom space. Dorian’s bedroom is decorated with Renaissance tapestries and contains little to no overt ties to Aesthetic interior save some Sevres china and his olive-satin curtains with blue lining (91). Though the space is given less attention than the library or schoolroom in regard to the portrait, it should be of note that Dorian chooses to keep the portrait so close by his room in the novel’s beginning. The library is a short distance from the bedroom in Dorian’s home, a fairly easy way to ensure concealment; the bedroom is a private space meant only for its owner or their intimate relationships. Dorian’s library is a bit more public in the text and is the first space where the portrait is displayed and then concealed for fear of other people seeing its grotesqueness.
After Dorian wakes up and leaves his room in Chapter VIII, he sits in his library and thinks about his portrait’s relationship to his inner self. The scene is juxtaposed with his proposal to Sibyl Vane, as well as his decision to make the portrait carry his shame and sin: heterosexual marriage is a turning point which makes Dorian evaluate his changing portrait’s prominence in his home, the type of “intrusion” Wagner mentions that acts as a catalyst for change in the Gothic novel. The library represents a still public space that is open to visitors, but one that sets up Dorian’s fear of people viewing his portrait, which would reveal his hidden desires. Much like the bedroom, and unlike Lord Henry’s library at Mayfair, Dorian’s library combines aesthetic design with Renaissance or Gothic furniture. A blue-dragon bowl with yellow roses inside the space—Asian objects utilized in Aesthetic décor—contrasts with the Florentine cabinet and Chinese opium box, which are referenced in detail once the text focuses around Dorian’s moral decline. Though this paper will not focus on each piece within the library, it is important to study one particular piece in the library that relates directly to Dorian’s portrait and closeted sexuality: the gilt Spanish leather screen he uses to conceal the portrait. The screen is described in the text as “an old one” with a “rather florid Louis-Quartorze pattern” (92), signifying a contrast to Aesthete design and a connection to the gaudy and grotesque. Moreover, Dorian wonders if the screen had ever “concealed the secret of a man’s life” (92), which clearly places the piece as a means to hide the portrait and its horror. When Dorian chooses to place the screen in front of his portrait, described in dramatic diction as the “visible symbol of the degradation of sin” and “an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls” (93), he is choosing to conceal the image of homosexual deviance from public view. Such concealment represents the privacy and secrecy in sexuality that culminates in the attic schoolroom space and its decor.
Once Basil visits Dorian and asks to display the picture at a gallery, the portrait moves to its final location in the novel, the schoolroom attic space in Dorian’s apartment. When unlocking the attic space door, Dorian concludes that the room’s function will be to “keep for him the curious secret of his life and hide his soul from the eyes of men” (117) in terms that position secrecy and interior desire against public gaze. Once placing the portrait in the attic, Dorian locks the door and feels comforted by its concealment: “He felt safe now. No one would ever look upon the horrible thing. No eye but his would ever see his shame” (Wilde 119). Again, safety is keeping hidden desires that are manifested visually in the portrait among similarly hideous furniture pieces, and the “horrible thing” that the portrait represents is a “shame” akin to private thoughts. Shame, secrecy, heaviness, burden, concealment, and death come to mark this space in the novel. Dorian chooses the old schoolroom for the portrait because of it is away from the public sphere, but this placement links his adult moral corruption with his boyish innocence: “He recalled the stainless purity of his boyish life, and it seemed horrible to him that it was here the fatal portrait was to be hidden away” (118). Dorian’s schoolroom also comes to represent what Aaron Betsky refers to as a “heterotopic” space in his book that studies distinctions between architectural spaces and sex. Betsky writes that heterotopic spaces are “points of crisis, when we must confront our bodies or our psyches in transition,” as “they juxtapose a refined version of the world with the reality of use” (66). Whereas Betsky refers to these spaces in terms of sex and gender, as women’s spaces inside the abbey, monastery, and cathedrals, heterotopic spaces begin to represent an area for repressed sexuality in Dorian’s home. The “point of crisis” is the realization that the portrait, and therefore his true desire, could be on view for public eyes at a gallery, and in the attic, the “refined version of the world” becomes a curated space for hideous items used to closet Dorian’s identity in place of the reality that exists on the ground floor and public space of his apartment. As Betsky also writes, “[t]he heterotopia is that place where we make our mental maps real in sensual delight or horror” (66). Dorian’s attic becomes a place where there are no traces of Aesthetic principle but instead a realm of horror and hidden shame.
Dorian’s attic is described in lengthy terms as something otherworldly and imaginative, a space to escape into, which furthers the heterotopic image:
In the mystic offices to which such things were put, there was something that quickened his imagination. For these treasures, and everything that he collected in his lovely house, were to be to him means of forgetfulness, modes by which he could escape, for a season, from the fear that seemed to him at times to be almost too great to be borne. Upon the walls of the lonely locked room where he had spent so much of his boyhood, he had hung with his own hands the terrible portrait whose changing features showed him the real degradation of his life, and in front of it had draped the purple-and-gold pall as a curtain. (Wilde 135)
The passage is a stark contrast to Lord Henry’s library and an even further descent into masked sexuality. To describe the space as a “mystic office” and a “lonely locked room” verges on depicting a liminal space, and again, calls to mind heterotopic setting. Its contents, or “treasures,” are a part of the rest of the items Dorian uses to project himself into. An escapist narrative is furthered by the text, as for Dorian the home space is “a means of forgetfulness, modes by which he could escape” away from “fear”; in other words, to be cloaked in things and objects to hide from the reality of his deviant sexuality and actions. Here in the old schoolroom, Dorian can see the “real degradation of his life” in the portrait as well as the things in the room. While there is some degree of a similar experience in the bedroom and library, the schoolroom represents Dorian’s highest degree of secrecy and screened sexuality, as its objects are entirely antiquated and sinister. When Basil visits the room, he sees that space as empty, “as if it had not been lived in for years,” with “A faded Flemish tapestry, a curtained picture, an old Italian cassone, and an almost empty bookcase” in addition to a chair and a table (148) amid dust and disarray. Unlike the rest of the house, this space is markedly dusty, dingy, and wholly forgotten. The wainscot, the only referent to Aesthetic design, is dampened and musty from years of decay. In short, the schoolroom space and its contents represents Dorian’s true grotesqueness. The narrative for each character who sees the attic space (Basil Hallward, Allan Campbell, and Dorian) ends in death.
The Picture of Dorian Gray does not suggest that living can be entirely escapist. Dorian cannot simply retreat into his objects and their beauty, nor can he survive gazing into the horror that eventually consumes his portrait. As Hatt explains, “Wilde’s most trenchant comments on the surface are probably to be found in The Picture of Dorian Gray,” where surfaces “are largely what turn Dorian into a spectator of his own life” (117). Going beyond mere appreciation for surfaces, categorized in a wider variety as things, Dorian becomes obsessed with capturing beauty. He begins shrouding himself and his spaces in what could be considered deviant from the Aesthetic norm, eventually turning into an object himself in the novel’s last pages, where the non-aging portrait becomes the aged and terrifying body. Dorian’s sexuality and moral representation should continue to be studied in the novel’s representations of spaces and expanded to include the country estate, Selby Royal (a space in which the Renaissance obsession and connection to material things like tapestries, jewels, and family portraits almost takes over the novel’s standing plot), creating more criticism to trace how the text represents the closeting and perverting of Aesthetic principles through Dorian’s interest in objects and their meanings.
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Wagner, Tamara. “Gothic and the Victorian Home.” The Gothic World, edited by Glennis Byron and Dale Townshend, Routledge, 2014, pp. 110-18.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Penguin, 2000.
- As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes in her introduction to Epistemology of the Closet, Wilde’s text is “among the texts that have set the terms for a modern homosexual identity” (49), thus subject to “many stigmatized but extremely potent sets of relations involving projective chains of vicarious investment: sentimentality, kitsch, camp, the knowing , the prurient, the arch, the morbid” (62). Her insight can be applied to my reading of home décor and things acting as a means of layered closeting in Dorian Gray. Closeting is a necessity for authors like Wilde as well as characters like Dorian, whose true sexuality would have been viewed as degenerate. ↵
- Godwin’s and Whistler’s rooms appeared throughout my study of Aestheticism. High quality images and additional descriptions of these rooms can be found on the Victoria and Albert Museum website. ↵
- Taking objects in Victorian texts to have metonymic readings “beyond the covers of the text” is an idea exhibited in Elaine Freedgood’s introduction to The Ideas in Things (5). Freedgood makes a “thing theory” case for studying objects in novels like Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, which I have extended to include Dorian Gray. ↵
- Michael Hatt offers an interesting comparison between Oscar Wilde’s “House Beautiful” at 16 Tite Street and G. R. Ashbee’s 37 Cheyne Walk home. More information on these spaces can be found in his essay “Space, Surface, Self: Homosexuality and the Aesthetic Interior.” ↵
- Additional information on the seventeenth-century Venetian pall or coverlet, another means of concealing the portrait in Dorian’s attic space, can be found on page 115. In a Gothic fashion, the piece comes from a convent and is described as a means to “hide something that had a corruption of its own, worse than the corruption of death itself—something that would breed horrors and yet would never die,” or, in my reading, Dorian’s homosexuality. ↵
- When Wilde first mentions the attic space and cassone on page 118, he makes reference to Dorian hiding himself in it as a boy. This is another example of a literal closeting in the text. ↵