Let’s Get Started with Dorian Gray!
I’ll be starting my literary analysis/review series with The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I’ve decided to start with the preface, general introduction, and textual introduction to give context to both my readers and me as we journey into this classic story.
All three of these introductory sections have similar information as far as history, and so I will be using examples from all three instead of going over each section individually—I will label the section these examples come from to maintain clarity and consistency throughout. Let’s get started!
The general history of Dorian Gray is an interesting one, and it’s also one that I didn’t know much about. Coming into this book, I had a general idea of the story, including the fact that there were bits of homosexual subtext throughout the narrative. Apparently, the subtext used to be much more overt, bordering on and crossing the border into actual text. Before the original novella was published in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, Oscar Wilde submitted a typescript to J.M. Stoddart, who was shocked and apprehensive about publishing it in its original form. He wrote to his employer, Craige Lippincott, “Rest assured it will not go into the magazine unless it is proper that it shall…In its present condition there are a number of things which an innocent woman would make an exception to. But I will go beyond this and make it acceptable to the most fastidious taste” (Preface, p. x) He consulted with a group of literary associates including Mr. H. C. Walsh (a regular reviewer of the magazine), Miss Anne Wharton (a regular contributor), Mr. J.B. Lippencott (founder), Mr. Julian Shoemaker (employee), and, supposedly, Melville Phillips—though this has not been proven. Phillips was, according to Stoddart, going to “[pick] out any objectionable passages” (Textual Introduction, p. 43-44).
Most of the changes that Stoddart made to Dorian Gray involved sexual matters. There were many passages of homosexual feelings between the painter, Basil Hallward, and the protagonist, Dorian Gray. These were toned down or cut altogether, reflecting the anxiety and paranoia of the Victorian era regarding homosexual acts. Surprisingly, there are also many passages relating to heterosexual matters that are edited by Stoddart, especially when referencing “promiscuous or illicit heterosexuality.” The deletion and alteration of passages referencing Dorian’s female lovers Sybil Vane and Hetty Merton as his “mistresses” and speculating on Hetty’s happiness as Dorian’s mistress show that the attitudes toward sexuality, in general, were prudish and secretive (Textual Introduction, p. 46).
Other changes that Stoddart made, surprisingly, had to do with Wilde’s grammar and punctuation. These changes may seem innocuous, but they do change the tone and meaning of Wilde’s phrasing into something different. For example, in Chapter V, a whispered remark by Sybil is repunctuated from “Take me away, Dorian. Take me away with you,” to “Take me away, Dorian—take me away with you.” This changes the tone from “wistful” to “imploring and desperate” (Textual Introduction, p. 49). These changes affect the intent of the words, therefore changing more than just the seemingly significant passages about sexuality but also changing simple phrases and the way they are said. Other changes are more expected, like the change from British to American spelling, which is still common practice today to keep formatting consistent from country to country.
One of the most interesting changes to me is the examples of decapitalization of Wilde’s capital letters in words like “Queen,” “King,” “Club,” etc. While some may be defensible changes to keep capitalization consistent (Wilde was known to be somewhat inconsistent in this area), there are some more arbitrary instances. An example of this happened when Stoddart took the list “Genius, Beauty, and Nocturne,” and changed it to “Genius, Beauty, and nocturne.” There seems to be no real reason to only put “nocturne” in the lower case, and it takes away the weight that seems to be behind the specific words Wilde capitalizes. In the typescript, and later in the full novel, these are restored, for the most part, showing that Wilde did take issue and felt comfortable reversing these changes for his longer publication.
Speaking of Wilde’s changes to the novel version of the story, when he expanded Dorian Gray for publication as a full-length book, he kept many of the changes that Lippincott’s version had made to his original typescript (General Introduction, p. 20). He toned down even more of the homoerotic and sexually explicit material than Stoddart did, and this was a response to the backlash that even the original edit in Lippincott’s got from reviewers in papers like the Daily Chronicle, St. James’s Gazette, and the Scots Observer. These reviews included phrases like “a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” In the St. James’s Gazette specifically, the anonymous reviewer writes, “The puzzle is that a young man of decent parts, who enjoyed (when he was at Oxford) the opportunity of associating with gentlemen, should put his name (such as it is) to so stupid and vulgar a piece of work” (General Introduction, p. 5). Wilde seemed to have taken these opinions to heart in his work on the novel version of Dorian Gray when keeping and expanding the edits that were begun by Lippincott’s. He describes the story as “an essay on decorative art” and describes the morality of the story like this: “far from wishing to emphasize any moral in my story…the real trouble I experienced…was that of keeping the extremely obvious moral subordinate to the artistic and dramatic effect…I think the moral to apparent.” However, though he doesn’t want to “emphasize any moral,” by leaning into the editing and self-censorship for his novel, he shows that he did care about de-emphasizing what was seen as immoral by the Victorians of the time (General Introduction, p. 32)
This self-censorship reflects an attitude that is still felt today by writers who want to include LGBTQ+ elements in their stories but are hesitant for the sake of publication and/or sales. This attitude is slowly changing as these themes are becoming more mainstream and “normal,” but there are still groups who try to tear down stories that aren’t about heteronormativity. In a similar way that society rejected Oscar Wilde to the point of trying and convicting him to two years in prison just for being involved in homosexual actions, conservatives and certain religious groups advocate for things like book banning or the banning of discussions of LGBTQ+ people’s existence (i.e., the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida) to slowly undo any progress that has been made.
I’m excited to get into the body of this work to see what the original intent of this story was from Oscar Wilde. Having the context of his life and the publication history of this novel helps me to understand the weight that these words had and still have today. I hope that you will stay with me throughout this journey, and I hope that updates will come more quickly now that some of the more historical and technical stuff is out of the way. I’m going to tentatively put the next post about 2 weeks from now, so you should expect it to be up around then.
Until then, I hope you all have a good couple of weeks! See you soon!