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Desire and Dorian Gray It is essential that when we think of desire we realise that the historical context is of massive importance. The Oxford English Dictionary shows no record of the word homosexual before 1892. Michel Foucault’s A History of Sexuality (1981-8) makes clear that desire is bound by social and institutional discourses as apparent in law, medicine, theology, economics and so on. Freud also sees desire as being a product of the socialisation of an individual. However, in the time of excessive Victorian moralism in which the novel was first published, desire would be simply categorised as either right or wrong. Interestingly, Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick argues that Western culture is largely structured by a ‘crisis of homo/heterosexual definition.’ She talks of something she terms as ‘homosocial desire.’ In many novels, films etc the driving relationship is not the one between man and woman but the one between man and man. This is to some extent unsurprising in the patriarchal society that we live in. The locker room, men only clubs etc are traditionally places of male dominance and male bonding. The overt subject of a text may be that of a man’s desire for a woman but this is nearly always underpinned by the actual desire to be accepted by other males. Indeed, in Dorian Gray the potential marriage to Sybil is a short affair that is determined more by how Henry and Basil react to her rather than Dorian’s desire for her. Dorian desires their approval more than anything and thus casts her aside after they, especially Henry, have cast a poor judgement on her. Perhaps Wilde is commenting on society and the popular literature of the time. Another interesting way of thinking about literary texts is that they do not only concern themselves with desire but they also produce desire in the reader; desire to read on, to find out more, to finish. This is an interesting way of thinking about Dorian Gray, as we, by extension, desire to see him become more entrenched in evil and wrongdoings. Paradoxically, we end up desiring the same things that Gray desires and we revel in them. If we think that each man brings his own sin to a reading of Dorian Gray then it is fully plausible that Wilde is also forcing us to face the fact that we desire Secrets Every text has its secrets. We read texts so that we can discover their secrets. The relationship between literature, secrets and secrecy is fundamental and can be thought to be a relationship that Wilde explores in this novel. The omniscient narrator also allows Wilde to set up all sorts of secret knowledges. Some secrets are revealed whilst others remain hidden in much the same way that Gray hides his picture and people hide their faults. Aestheticism The Aesthetic Movement tends to be linked to the late nineteenth century movement. Aestheticism was adopted in Britain by Walter Pater, with Oscar Wilde soon becoming a devotee. The focus was always on pure beauty and its power in the moment. The main aim was to preserve the arts from having moral, didactic or political purposes. Beauty is an end in itself. This can very clearly be linked to the novel and the influence that Aestheticism has clearly had on the writer. Aestheticism was summed up in the slogan, ‘Art for Art’s Sake.’ Decadence This is a fairly complicated literary term. It is derived from writers looking at a period from the past that was great and focusing on all that was good about that period in contrast with the apparent decay of the period in which the writer is producing work. Many of those involved in the Decadent Movement were also closely associated with the Aesthetic Movement and longed for a time that was more ‘cultivated,’ as symbolised in Greek and Latin societies. Gautier and Baudelaire expounded the basic principles of this movement in the 1860s. They believed that decadence was in complete opposition to Nature: hence its systematic cultivation of drugs, cosmetics, ‘unnatural’ sexual practices and sterility and artificiality in all things. These features are clearly exposed by Wilde in Dorian Gray, a novel partly based on Joris-Karl Huysman’s novel A Rebours (Against the Grain or Against Nature 1884). The decadent movement came to an end when Wilde was imprisoned in 1895. Fin De Siecle This is a French phrase literally meaning ‘end of the century.’ This refers to the literature of the end of the nineteenth century that was weary of Victorian moralism. They rejected any moral or social function for art, focusing instead on beauty that was entirely removed from the imperfections of nature and contemporary society.
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