Wilde and Petronius: The Satyricon as a Template for The Picture of Dorian Gray
It is no secret that the prominent aesthete Oscar Wilde was familiar with the work of Petronius of Rome. In fact, it’s so far from a surreptitious topic that it remains undecided whether Wilde can be held responsible for a translation of Petronius’s The Satyricon. His familiarity becomes quite apparent as well when we see Petronius’s text specifically referenced within Wilde’s work, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s texts were often thought to have subtle hints of homoeroticism while Petronius’ The Satyricon demonstrated time and time again the blatant and unmistakably Roman depictions of homoeroticism. Furthermore, Wilde’s texts were eventually condemned for their suggested homosexual connotations, while the homosexual events in The Satyricon were dismissed as standard. However, Wilde’s reference of Petronius goes well beyond a mere scholarly allusion to demonstrate his well-read nature.
What emerges as relatively extraordinary, on a closer examination, is that one can find concrete and thorough similarities between both texts; similarities between plot, characters, and theme run strongly in cooperation. I propose Wilde consulted, if not outlined from, the work of Petronius to develop a framework for his own tale. This task, by no means a rickety reproduction, was fashioned with a specific purpose in mind: The accounts of homoeroticism within The Satyricon would expertly masquerade what he wished to keep discreet within The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though we are able to read the novel in a non-homosexual light, it is clear “a male homoerotic passion remains, in the dominant representational codes of the period” (Alley 7). The use of Petronius and his novel would only propagate and strengthen these encodings.
And so the general public found it quite easy to believe Wilde wrote a translation of The Satyricon. After all, does it not remain obvious that a decadent homosexual would have an attraction to such an explicit resource? However, indeed a translation of The Satyricon was thought to have been written in 1902 under the name of Sebastian Melmoth (a pseudonym used by Oscar Wilde). In “Oscar Wilde’s Translation of Petronius: The Story of a Literary Hoax,” Borough argues Wilde’s name was attached as a publicity stunt. The publisher, Carrington, “may have counted on his customers' awareness of Wilde's public references to Petronius, as well as their knowledge of the writer's homosexuality, to lend weight to his claim that Wilde had actually translated Petronius” (Boroughs 14). Wilde’s name still held certain connotations post-trial, and it isn’t undemanding to assume this move could be strictly financial. The respect and renown traits of a name could bring great riches.
Whether Carrington obtained permission to use Wilde’s name or not (another debatable issue), attaching it would surely encourage some sort of recognition, or arouse significance. His scandals and trial surely brought his name farther into the spotlight, but his talent as a writer was already well established. After all, “Wilde had indeed proved himself an accomplished classical scholar and translator at Trinity College, Dublin” (Borough 14). His name commanded a great deal of attention on multiple levels.
Whether or not Wilde can take responsibility for the translating is debatable, but ultimately irrelevant. References to Petronius and rampant homoeroticism place Wilde in a position to have written it. Attributing a gay text to a gay man who was known to have been familiar with Petronius makes more sense than to attribute it to another. For the purpose of this paper, the public’s willingness to accept Wilde as the translator informs us of all we need to know.
Let us assume Wilde did not translate, nor had any involvement with, the creation of this rendition. We are left without a clear link between them; a resource providing fathoms of assistance vanished and useless. What we are left with though, is two tales riddled in similarities. These similarities are more than enough for us as readers to notice certain connections. Let us first dive into these similarities with the help of an overarching plot that holds true between both.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the novel discusses an adolescent man, Dorian Gray, who is being painted by an artist of the name of Basil Hallward. Basil is positioned on the boundary of infatuation, marveling at Dorian’s beauty. Dorian Gray is soon hesitantly introduced to one of Basil’s long time friends, Lord Henry. It is he who verbally makes Dorian aware of his fading beauty. Dorian, in turn, desires that Basil’s portrait would age instead of himself to ensure him of his youth. Dorian’s curse comes true, and the portrait eventually begins to reflect sins committed.
Now we move back in time roughly 1,800 years, to the satirical works of Petronius. Within The Satyricon, Petronius recalls the tale of three men and their misadventures in ancient Rome. It begins with Encolpius and his youngster devotee, a marvelously handsome sixteen-year-old by the name of Giton. Encolpius consistently worries about the faithfulness of his lover, for he is constantly being tempted and persuaded away by others. Eventually, a close friend of Encolpius, Ascyltus, entices Giton to leave his former lover. Ascyltus and Encolpius generally remain rivals for the affection of Giton throughout the story.
From exclusively the plots of our Irish and Roman authors, obvious comparisons begin to appear. With the background of similar plots in mind, we can further construct similarities with the use of similar concepts flowing in one tale and out the other. Three other like qualities will be referenced and analyzed to help create a tangible understanding of how these two texts share similar shapes. Our goal, after all, is to be able to fit the text of Wilde into the text of Petronius.
If we can accomplish the task of situating these novels as parallels, we will move on to attempt to understand why Wilde would wish his text to be noticed alongside the work of Petronius; it is his goal if you will. We will accomplish the task by voyaging further into a cross examination of the characters, the use and placement of homoeroticism, and how “relationships” function in a related approach, we will be able to position ourselves with the perspective that The Picture of Dorian Gray is remarkably similar to, and in a way drawn from, The Satyricon. If we are to understand why Wilde wished to draw from The Satyricon, we must first understand how he did so.
The similarities between Giton and Dorian are uncanny. Though Giton is a slave, and Dorian a wealthy noble, their purpose within the narrative is virtually identical. They both exist as a resource of beauty, attracting the attention of their two male counterparts. Dorian’s “finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair,” (Wilde 24) match up with the descriptions of Giton’s “beautiful mouth…” and “rare…combination of wisdom and beauty” (Petronius 43). But their youth and good looks are of secondary importance only to that of their role as temptations. “Dorian is truly the man in the middle,” much like that of Giton (Leibman 319). Charles Knight proclaims in his essay “Listening to Encolpius: Modes of Confusion in the Satyricon,” that Giton functions “as a slave who seeks his fortune through his body” (Knight 14). Dorian, with the beauty instilled within him by the affection of Basil and Henry, acts much the same through a series of vane events.