Table of Content
Homosexuality in England in the 1890s
Comparison Chapter I
Comparison Chapter VII and IX
Adding a Chapter
In the course “A Survey of British Queer Fiction” we discussed the topic of homosexuality in fiction and used that knowledge to analyse several poems in the terms of homosexuality. Since I was always interested in “famous” writers such as Shakespeare etc., I decided to write about Oscar Wilde´s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, for he is one of the best known writers and the title “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is nearly known by everyone.
In this essay I will compare the two different versions of his novel, the censored version from 1891 and the uncensored version from 1890 in terms of the theme of homosexuality. I will try to show that there are big differences between these two versions and that they are significant enough to be even noticed by our generation which is fairly open about the topic of homosexuality.
In order to do so I will first give a short account about homosexuality in England in the 19th century in the first chapter of the main part and then in the second and third chapter I will compare directly two chapters of the novel and show the changes that are made and analyse their effect on the mood of the scene and therefore on the novel. Lastly I will show that also the adding of a chapter changes a lot of the intention of the novel. After that I will, of course, draw a conclusion. To be able to draw my own conclusion I will only use a few sources about homosexuality in England for the first chapter of the main part such as Jeffrey Weeks “Sex, Politics & Society”, but for the comparison I will only use the Norton Critical Edition of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and my own interpretations and analyses of the scenes.
As I said my thesis is that there are significant changes between the two versions, which may not change the intention of the book completely to the sophisticated reader, but which make the intentions a lot clearer and more obvious even to the unsophisticated reader.
Homosexuality in England in the 1890s
When talking about homosexuality we have to understand that the concept of homosexuality did not exist in the 19th century the way we us the term today. There was not even a proper term for it until it was derived from Germany in the 1870s. Without the existence of even a term to identify oneself with, or a category to belong to, it was rather difficult for gay men at that period of time to find an identity and a place in the sexual stratification system. Even today homosexuality is a rather vague and misunderstood term that is generally defined as sexual desire for relations between members of the same sex, but it may extend from repressed longings to an active participation1.
In England the only legislation directly affecting homosexual behaviour was the law against sodomy. The law against sodomy was a central aspect of the regulation of all non-procreative sex and it was directed at men, for lesbian behaviour was seen as less “dangerous”. In this context homosexuality was seen as a sin against nature and it was punishable by death until 1828. Although the death penalty was not applied after 1811. But it is difficult to trace the enforcement of the law, for its enforcement varies throughout time and class. In 1806 there were more executions for sodomy than for murder2. Also it appears that the law has been particularly severe on members of the armed forces. In 1861 the death penalty was completely removed from the law and changed to sentences of between ten years and life imprisonment3. Severe as the law was in theory, it was a catch-all rather than a refined legal weapon, because it often seemed that juries were reluctant to convict, while the police directed a blind eye to private activities4.
Still in the 1870s, as I mentioned before, the concepts of homosexuality were extremely undeveloped both in the police and in high medical and legal circles, suggesting the absence of any clear notion of a homosexual category or of any social awareness of what a homosexual identity might consist of. This gets clear in the arrest of Boulton and Park in 1870 for indecent behaviour5 ( they were cross-dressing). Both of them were examined for evidence of sodomy by a Dr. Paul who had never encountered such a case. He and other doctors could not agree on what the signs for sodomitical activity were. It can be said that around this point in time the medical circles started to analyse homosexuality and from there onward homosexuality was seen as both, a disease and a crime.
In 1885 the “Criminal Law Amendment Act” was put in place to protect women and girls from procuration:
“(1) Sodomy is a felony, defined as the carnal knowledge (per anum) of an man or of any woman by a male person; punishable with penal servitude for life as a maximum, for ten years as a minimum.
(2) The attempt to commit sodomy is punishable with ten years´ penal servitude as a maximum.
(3) The commission, in public or in private, by a male person with another male person, of ´any act of gross indecency´, is punishable with two years´ imprisonment and hard labour.”6
As we can see the law was still only directed at men and it left a lot of room for interpretations for it is not specified what a “act of gross indecency” is. This is the law under which Oscar Wild was
charged because he was the first novelist to defy literary conventions and write about homosexuality in a manner that was obvious to the sophisticated reader. After the three trials a wave of homophobia came up and “effeminacy became the main stigma attached to male homosexuality in the eyes of English society”7 and for the first time a kind of public homosexual identity emerged, but it is still to bear in mind that after the trials homosexuality had to face repression and censorship. The homosexuals feared that, even though it was widely accepted in the Victorian society to have a strong and emotional relationship with another man, a greater publicity concerning homosexuality would make such relationships more difficult.
Nevertheless it was perceived that Oscar Wilde violated the gender conventions of his time and what constituted “manly” behaviour8. His flamboyant appearance was perceived as indecent, decadent and effeminate. Wilde was the embodiment of the Dandy, leading a flamboyant lifestyle, indulging in extravagant clothes and being witty.
So all in all it can be said that homosexuality was in some ways part of the Victorian society and was tolerated by it, which I think is shown in the way the juries only reluctantly convicted men, but on the other hand it was not really accepted by it, therefore it should not be shown in public and was still illegal by law. But the problem was as Foucault describes it in his book “ The History of Sexuality” that during the 19th century the “interest” in the topic sexuality increased and that it became a discourse and that the centres of the discourse were medicine, psychiatry and criminal justice, meaning that sexuality became popular topic with all of its facets, even the ones society was not ready to accept, to talk about or to understand9.
Comparison Chapter I
The first chapter is also a chapter with a lot of significant changes. In this scene Lord Henry is admiring the portrait of Dorian which was painted by Basil. He asks Basil about Dorian and the painter tells him how he met Dorian.
He starts with describing his reaction when he first saw Dorian Gray. Basil says that from the very beginning he was astonished by the looks of Dorian and that he could feel that this boy had a fascinating personality.
Oscar Wilde deletes the sentence here in the censored version from 1891 that Basil “knew that if [he] spoke to Dorian [he] would become absolutely devoted to him, and that [he] ought not to speak to him”10. Through deleting this sentence Wilde takes a little bit away from the context.
Without his sentence this passage could be understood as if Basil was just surprised by the good looks of Dorian, but with this sentence there seems to be more to Basil´s feelings than just surprise and admiration for Dorian´s looks. Because through the notion of getting devoted to him, Wilde takes away the objectivity of Basil simply saying that Dorian is good looking. In Addition to this obvious change, Oscar Wilde also omits before that, when, in the uncensored version, Basil says: “Well, this is incredible, incredible to me at times.”11. These spoken words leave a lot of room for interpretations as it can be read as Basil is surprised by his own ´strange´feelings towards Dorian the, at this point; unknown person and these feelings may go beyond the admiration of Dorian´s looks.
Another significant change in this chapter is in a short description from Basil of the relationship between him and Dorian Gray. When Lord Henry asks him how often he would see Dorian, in the uncensored version Basil answers: “Every day. I couldn´t be happy if I didn´t see him every day. Of course sometimes it is only for a few minutes. But a few minutes with somebody one worships mean a great deal.”12. In the censored version Oscar Wilde deletes the last sentence about worshipping and he omits the follow-up question from Lord Henry and Basils short answer: “But you don´t really worship him?”, “I do.”13. This is a really significant modification for this is the first time Basil kind of reveals that his feelings for Dorian go further than friendship; otherwise he would have used another word instead of ´worship´.
The next modification is a bit different and more subtle. Basil explains that one of his best works, a painting of a landscape, was done by him while Dorian sat beside him. In the censored version Wilde adds the following sentence: “Some subtle influence passed from him to me, and for the first time in my life I saw in the plain woodland the wonder I had always looked for, and always missed.”14. I would interpret this additional sentence that it gives Dorian the function of a muse and not like in the uncensored version the role of a person who is loved and for whom Basil tries harder to do his best.
After that there is another major change on the pages 194 (uncensored version) and 14 (censored version). Lord Henry asks why Basil does not want to exhibit the picture and the painter answers, in my opinion, differently in the two versions. In the censored one he says:
“Because, without intending it, I have put into it some expression
of all this curious artistic idolatry, of which, of course, I have never
cared to speak to him. He knows nothing about it. He shall never know
anything about it. But the world might guess it; and I will not bare my
soul to their shallow, prying eyes. My heart shall never be put under
their microscope. There is too much of myself in the thing Harry – too
much of myself!”15
In contrast to this Wilde lets Basil say the following in the uncensored version:
Because I have put into it all the extraordinary romance of which of course, I have never dared to speak to him. He knows nothing about it. He will never know about it.”16
1 Jeffrey Meyers: Homosexuality and Literature 1890-1930, p. 4.
2 Jeffrey Weeks: Sex, Politics & Society, p. 100.
3 Paul Hammond: Love between Men in English Literature, p. 175.
4 Jeffrey Weeks: Sex, Politics & Society, p. 103.
5 Jeffrey Weeks: Sex, Politics & Society, p. 101.
6 Jeffrey Meyers: Homosexuality and Literature 1890-1930, p. 5.
7 Joseph Britow: Effeminate England: Homoerotic Writing After 1885, p. 2.
8 Michael Foldy: The Trials of Oscar Wilde, p. 89.
9 Michel Foucault: The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, Part 2, Chapter 1.
10 Oscar Wild: The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 190.
11 Oscar Wild: The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 189.
12 Oscar Wild: The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 192.
13 Oscar Wild: The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 192.
14 Oscar Wild: The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 13.
15 Oscar Wild: The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 14.
16 Oscar Wild: The Picture of Dorian Gray, p. 194.