Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) explores London at the turn of the century. Dorian Gray’s duality is a reflection of the division between east and west, as portrayed in poetry and novels. Wilde uses London’s decadence, hedonism sexual promiscuity to portray the duality in Dorian Gray. Dorian’s East End allows him to experience new, sensuous sensations and break free from the constraints of the bourgeoisie. The West End represents aestheticism and riches, as well as the establishment and an aristocratic social class. The East End is Dorian’s corrupted spirit and decadence. According to the OED, decadence is ‘the process or decline from a previous state of excellence, vitality and prosperity. Deterioration; decay.
Wilde juxtaposes the wealthy West End with the decaying East End. The contrast in locations highlights the wealth of the upper class and the poverty of the working class. Basil’s Studio is where we first encounter the luxury and wealth of the bourgeoisie. It is described that the upper class enjoyed beautiful objects. Professor Joseph McLaughlin has described these interiors as’sumptuously oriential’ which, in my opinion, is a good reflection of the indulgent attitude of the upper classes. Wilde uses another simile to describe the dim roar in London. By placing the ‘distant-organ’, Wilde separates his characters from London. The reader’s only exposure to London is the West, where the rules and wealth are. Other parts of London have a completely different physical and cultural makeup. Dorian Henry’s home and the rest London are completely different. This contrast shows their selfishness and corruption in pursuing only their own desires. This reinforces 19th-century hedonism. Wilde explores Dorian’s home as well the West End or East End. In the house’s attic, the painting depicting Dorian Gray is located. The duality of Dorian Gray is emphasized by the painting’s transformation from beauty to that of a corrupted soul. The painting is hidden to try and hide Dorian’s double life. The painting was painted in the ‘old-school-room’, a place of innocence. Wilde uses the location as a way to show Dorian’s attempts to hide the corruption of his soul and the duality behind the innocence of the nursery in his attic. The tension between the innocence of childhood and the corruption of adulthood is obvious. He goes to the East End to try and escape his family but only finds corruption.
Dorian Gray discovers a new side to London by visiting the East End theatre. Dorian Gray first meets Sibyl in the theatre. As of yet, we only know rumours regarding the East End. This shows how safe Dorian’s world is. It is a great adventure for him to go to the theatre because he gets to experience a different life. This is his first step into a new life. Dorian is taught to appreciate beauty and art. Sybil’s talent for acting is what initially makes him do this. The East End setting is revealed to him when he goes back to see her. The theatre was oppressive and hot. The huge sun flamed like an enormous dahlia, with yellow petals. This imagery represents the discomfort that Dorian feels in a place where his friends Basil and Henry don’t feel comfortable. The ‘dahlia symbol’ symbolizes a lasting bond, which is ironic because Sybil and Dorian’s relationship ended that night. The fire at the theatre symbolizes the corruption Dorian will commit. The transition from East End to West End shows the transformation of Dorian’s corruption into his identity as a gentlemen. In the book, Dorian represents his physical form by describing it as perfect, beautiful and purified. Linda Dryden, a scholar, asserts that ‘illicit acts are located in the East’ and’social elegance is found in the West.’ Wilde’s choice to begin the novel with the West’s elegance is a good one. The theme of aestheticism is introduced in the first section: “The studio was filled with a rich odour, and the summer breeze blew among the trees of the gardens” The heavy fragrance of the roses, and the sensory overload that follows, highlight the wealth, luxury, and luxury. The opening of the novel using sensual images is an effective way to introduce the theme and concept of new-age hedonism. The apparent innocence of Dorian is represented by the lightness of the wind in this novel. Dorian walks home from the theatre after the catastrophe. The reader can clearly see the division between the different locations in this map.
Rosemarie Landheimer, an expert in the field, says Dickens connected different parts London just by describing their walking routes. Wilde also uses this method in order to gain a deeper understanding of his setting. He chooses, however, to exaggerate it for the sake of his aesthetic novel. Dorian recalls “wandering in dimly-lit street, past gaunt dark-shadowed pillars and evil looking houses”. The Gothic setting reflects the fact that Dorian’s destruction of Sibyl’s life has taken him to a more dark and corrupt world. London has been transformed into a dark, ominous place with its ‘dimly-lit street’ and gaunt’ black-shadowed arcways. The absences of light suggest Dorian’s lack morality and innocent. Dorian’s soul becomes beautiful and youthful as soon he enters Covent Garden. Dorian is surprised to see that the sky has become a perfect, pearl-like, hollowed out pearl. Huge carts laden with nodding flowers rumbled along the empty, polished street. The tone is now more positive. The metaphor of the pearly sky reflects Dorian’s desire for purity and youth. Wilde’s use of lilies as a symbol for death is a reference to Sibyl’s suicide, which Dorian may not be aware of. Even though the flowers’ beauty and fragrance were interpreted as ominous, they seemed to be a soothing anodyne. Dorian feels calm and peaceful when he sees the beautiful flowers. The flower symbolizes the aesthetic appreciation and desire for beauty of the aristocracy. Dorian is allowed to temporarily forget the argument with Sibyl. The contrast between Dorian’s darkness and the moment when the ‘darkness was lifted’ shows the dual nature of his soul. Dorian, who is trying to live a double-life and maintain his innocence while terrible things happen in the darkness, is playing a game of deception. The West End has a slick, polished street that is in direct contrast to the East End which is described as ‘like a web of black spiders’.
The contrast between light-and-dark represents Dorian’s beauty on the surface and his corrupted heart. East End on the contrary is animalistic. It’s labelled as “Other”. Dorian’s double-mindedness is shown in his exploration of opium slums. Wilde uses animalistic images to illustrate the East End as the return to an animal state. The verbs such as ‘chattering and shrieks’ echo animal noises. Therefore, they imply that these men are savages. Paul Newland, a scholar, recognizes this in the book and says that “individuals who were spatially located within a concept of ‘east,’ for example, tended to represent as aliens or ‘Othereds'”. Wilde’s use of apes as a metaphor to represent the cultural anxiety about the “Other” is a perfect example of this. The Victorians were afraid of the truth they might reveal. The animalist/nature imagery shows how Dorian tries to identify more with his position as a gentleman, but it also reveals his bestial tendencies.
London’s East End was portrayed as a monstrous place. Dorian is seen wandering the streets. He says “I felt like this grey monstrous London must have some surprises in store for him”. There is a dramatic irony in this scene as we all know London has bad things for Dorian but he perceives it to be exciting and thrilling. London is growing with’myriads people’. Dorian, however, is trying desperately to escape both the city and himself by exploring the East End. The grey and monstrous London reflects Dorian’s corruption due to Lord Henry’s influences. Dorian still feels the pressure of the old aristocratic values despite the growth of the city. Wilde uses East End as a place for Dorian’s escape from the restrictions. Dorian is initially liberated by the East End, as London’s’monstrous idea’ is presented as something exciting and new. Dorian struggles to live a double life as the story progresses, but he fails. The settings of London as well as the’monstrous bodies’ reflect the decaying aesthetic. Dorian finds himself drawn to East End even though it is full of corruption and horror.
East End allows upper-classed men to feel free, as they can break from the uptight rules imposed by the bourgeoisie. Dorian is able to explore his two sides through the duality of the scene. Through the concealment, he is able to explore both sides of his life. Dorian is drawn to ‘the crude brawl, vile den, and the crude violence in disordered lives’. Dorian’s attraction to this part London comes from its wildness and disorder. He lives a life of hedonistic pleasure. West End can’t fulfill these desires, so he retreats to the East End. Paul Newland says that the novel “imagines East End’s decadent playground”. This is because these bourgeoisie characters have no responsibility in this area. It is their “decadent play area” because they can do whatever they want. Paul also says that ‘east London offers the space where bourgeois sexual desires are repressed and projected’.
Dorian Gray, in his exploration of East End’s East End Opium Den, is looking for himself. However, he only ends up losing identity. Robert Mighall says that the trip to opium conveys Dorian Gray’s divided existence. The trip to the opium den, according to Robert Mighall, ‘conveys his divided existence. Doran would escape to the East End from the West End, and indulge in his addiction to opium. The opium dens are no longer a place of freedom. He cannot continue to live a divided life. Wilde shows his readers how the pressure of Victorian society to always be good is what leads people to live a double-life. London shows that a double-life cannot coexist with society. Dorian arrives at the dens of opium after leaving with members the bourgeoisie. He notices how the shadows’moved and gestured like monster marionettes’. London’s East End is alive with’monstrous creatures’. This is not a glamorized image, but his hedonistic life has caused a moral decline that is reflected by the area around him.
Wilde uses London, as the setting for his story of Dorian Gray and how his double life led to him falling. It can be said that his debauchery is not the result of this. London offers a lot of opportunity, but also has rules and regulations. The West End’s moral code is broken, causing a series events that lead to the downfall of Dorian Gray. East End had been portrayed as an area of new possibilities and experiences. In the end, however, it was a place of chaos and corrupted. Dorian’s double-life was inevitable and ultimately led to his ruin and reputation.
Robert Mighall (London: Penguin, 2003) Robert Mighall, London: Penguin 2003
Rosemarie Bodenheimer. ‘London In The Victorian Novel’. The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of London. Lawrence Manley (New York: Cambridge University Press 2011)
Laura Di Michele: ‘Nineteenth Century London As Monstrous Body’ in Monstrous Anaatomies, Literary and Scientific Imagination In Britain And Germany During The Long Nineteenth Century. Ed. Raul Callzoni and GretaPerletti, (Gottingen: V&R Unipress, 2015), pages 193-216
Dryden Linda. The Modern Gothic: Stevenson Wilde and Wells. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke. 2003. McLaughlin John. Writing the Urban Jungle. Reading Empires in London from Doyle Eliot. Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia. 2000.
Mighall Robert. The Picture of Dorian Gray: Introduction. London, Penguin 2003. Pages ix to xxv. Newland Paul. The Cultural Construction of London’s East End. Urban Iconography. Modernity. Specialisation of Englishness. Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2008. Google ebook OED Online. S.v. ‘decadence’. Accessed 16.12.18. OED Online, S.v. ‘Dualism’, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/58113#eid> (accessed 16.12.18).