'The picture of Dorian Gray' and Gothicism

Seminar Paper 2005 16 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Gothic genre
2.1 Origins of the Gothic tradition
2.2 The Gothic Return in the 1890s
2.3 Scientific Theories of the Victorian fin de siècle
2.4 Main Characteristics of the New Gothic

3. The Gothic in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography
5.1 Primary Literature
5.2 Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

Today, a Gothic novel is commonly defined as “a story of terror and suspense, usually set in a gloomy old castle or monastery”[1]. This definition is based on the traditional Gothic novel, which was originated by Horace Walpole in 1764[2]. A number of elements came to be classed as Gothic and by the end of the century, the genre was fully established[3]. However, when examining different Gothic works that have been published since the beginning of the Gothic tradition, one finds that the Gothic cannot be reduced to a scary story with a medieval setting.

The Gothic is a genre that changes over time. The traditional elements usually persist, but new features are added to enrich the genre and to catch the spirit of the time. Kelly Hurley made the important observation that the “Gothic is rightly […] understood as a cyclical genre that re-emerges in times of cultural stress in order to negotiate anxieties for its readership by working through them in displaced (sometimes supernaturalized) form.”[4] When a nation is exposed to either internal or external threats, which often cannot be clearly defined, the people begin to feel uncomfortable. The Gothic novel then, according to Hurley, can help these people in distress by giving concrete shapes to their fears.

When the Gothic novel first came up at the end of the 18th century, people in Britain were coping with the impact of the French Revolution. The tradition flourished until the 1820s, when Charles Maturin’s work Melmoth the Wanderer failed to reach a large readership[5]. In the 1890s then, which is known as the time of the Gothic revival, new Gothic figures emerged with even greater force than at the previous fin de siècle[6]. The Victorian public had undergone great changes, resulting from the British Empire being threatened by external and internal forces. Interestingly, the setting was now no longer removed in time and space; Gothic occurrences at this point revolved around the city of London.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is an important work of this era; it shows most of the new features of the New Gothic. This paper will focus on the changes in Victorian society that led to a revival of the Gothic novel and discuss the traditional as well as the new elements that have arisen in the Gothic tradition at the end of the 19th century. Wilde’s novel will hereby provide the textual evidence.

2. The Gothic genre

2.1 Origins of the Gothic tradition

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), which is the first known Gothic novel, marks the beginning of the Gothic tradition.[7] The work’s subtitle, A Gothick story, shows the author’s intention to produce a novel with Gothic content. Gothic was then associated with old castles, the Middle Ages and superstition[8].

The story already shows most of the characteristics of the later Gothic tradition. Such features are the medieval setting, the use of “antiquated spaces”, some hidden secrets from the past rising from these antiquated spaces that haunt the protagonist, the prospect of the supernatural, the presence of a powerful and often aristocratic villain who exercises pressure on his subjects, the decline of primogeniture and of aristocratic rights and the rise of a new middle class, the portrayal of women in victimized positions…[9] As in later Gothic novels of the 18th century, the author does not go into great detail when it comes to describe customs and traditions of the supposed historical era the novel is set in. The treatment of history thus remains relatively superficial.[10] This can be explained when considering that the authors did not intend to teach their readers about history but to delight their growing audiences, in large part female, which were newly demanding “popular entertainment”[11].

Ever since Walpole had succeeded in supplying this ‘entertainment’ to his readership, there was a growing demand for such novels and by the end of the 1790s, one could almost speak of an ‘addiction’.[12] Jane Austen later successfully parodied the female obsession with Gothic stories in Northanger Abbey (1818).[13] The Gothic novel had great success until the 1820s, the most prominent writer of this period being Ann Radcliffe with her novel The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), when Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer failed financially.[14] By the mid 18th century the Gothic as a literary genre was basically extinct. The term ‘Gothic’ was then predominantly applied to certain recurrent motifs in architecture.

As has been mentioned before, the audiences showed a great desire to be entertained while reading. The Victorian public at that time was characterized by a great interest in the Middle Ages which stood in strong contrast to the growing industrialization, a sense of “pleasure in horror and darkness”[15] and a “growing interest in sexuality, sexual taboos and gender-roles”[16]. Besides that, there were other cultural conditions that had given rise to the Gothic novel. There were fears about ideas prompted by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, anxieties about new insights in empirical science and a discomfort with respect to the crumbling of epistemological certainties[17]. The Gothic novelists then were able to provide the readers with gruesome stories that on the one hand quenched their thirst for horror and on the other hand helped the Victorians work through their fears by giving concrete shapes to their anxieties. The ideas that were present at the end of the 18th century survived and arose with an even greater force at the turn of the 19th century[18].

2.2 The Gothic Return in the 1890s

At the turn of the 19th century, the British Empire, threatened by new economic rivals such as Germany and the United States of America, was in a state of decline.[19] The loss of overseas markets, the frequent rebellions and massacres in the colonies and the doubtfulness of the “imperial mission” were additional factors that showed the British they had to accept they no longer held the leading naval and military position[20].

Besides the fears concerning the status of the British Empire, there was unease with respect to the state of society[21]. The nation at this point in time had to cope with the negative side effects of industrial progress. High crime rates and diseases in the city slums along with uprisings of factory workers and farmers threatened social stability[22]. Furthermore, the middle classes saw the traditional values and family structures under pressure as Britain witnessed a “ loosening of moral, aesthetic and sexual codes associated with fin de siècle decadence”[23]. These fears largely sprang from the confusing of traditional gender roles linked to the emancipation of women. Women, who had been subordinate to their husband in all social respects, were granted important rights towards the end of the 19th century. Since the Married Women’s Property Acts (1870-1908), women were allowed to handle their own property. It was also made easier for them to divorce their husbands in case of adultery. Homosexuality in this context was seen as a threat to the social order as well, in that it differed from the norm and “signaled the irruption of regressive patterns of behaviour”[24].


[1] Baldick, p. 106

[2] Sage, p. 81

[3] Sage, p. 83

[4] Hurley, p. 194

[5] Sage, p. 84

[6] Sage, p. 85

[7] Sage, p. 81

[8] Baldick, p. 106

[9] Sage, p. 82; Hogle, p. 2

[10] Sage, p. 82

[11] Sage, p. 83

[12] Sage, p. 83

[13] ibid.

[14] Sage, p. 84

[15] ibid.

[16] ibid.

[17] Sage, p. 85

[18] ibid.

[19] Byron, p. 132

[20] ibid.

[21] Botting, p. 136

[22] Byron, p. 132

[23] Botting, p. 138;Byron, p. 132

[24] Botting, p. 138


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Institution / College
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz – Seminar für Englische Philologie
Dorian Gray Gothicism Hauptseminar Gothicism Literature Oscar Wilde



Title: 'The picture of Dorian Gray' and Gothicism