Oscar WIlde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray presentation of women in the opening chapters
In the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde presents the image of women and the idea of marriage in many different ways, sometimes heavily negative, through dysfunctional relationships as well as saintly imagery. This presentation can be said to be influenced by several aspects such as contextually, Wilde himself lived in a patriarchal society, whose stereotyped women in a degrading manner, which is established in this novel.
This degrading of women and the views of marriage can be seen immensely through the opening chapters; leading up to the death of Sibyl Vane. Oscar Wilde wrote and set this novel in late Victorian London, which manifested the patriarchal society central to the novel; this can be viewed most importantly through the mannerisms of Lord Henry; who has been said to be the voice box of Wilde himself. Lord Henry’s heavily degrading attitude towards women “no woman is a genius.
Women are a decorative sex” conveys a significantly critical representation of women; this can further be seen through Wilde’s description of Sibyl Vane using floriography “he was like a common gardener walking with a rose” this metaphor manifests the indication that a woman should be used as a show piece, reiterating the demeaning outlook exposed in this novel, through the dehumanisation of Sibyl Vane.
In addition, Wilde was often scrutinised to be a misogynist, which can be indicated through this belittling presentation of women “women represent the triumph of matter over mind” this idea that women have no apparent depth, and are only useful to look at reflects Oscar Wilde’s belief in aestheticism, which was wholly present in the times fin-de-siecle society.
Moreover, Wilde divulges into this critique of women and marriage through the contrasting sustainment of relationships between the men and women of the novel; as the men share attachments which are sustained as the novel progresses, somewhat insinuating homoerotic undertones “as long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me” contextually, this displays various links to Wilde’s own life; being a closet homosexual himself.
Furthermore, these closely wound relationships juxtapose the affiliations shared with women; the marriage of Lord Henry and Victoria is shown to be highly dysfunctional “I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing” depicting the tradition, that marriage is for money not for love “this young man might be rich, if so, marriage should be thought about”. Additionally, Wilde also fashions women possessing short life spans with no meaningful progression of character, as one critic states “these women are portrayed like pretty pictures; they are lovely but discardable…
in the same way a flower is- lovely in bloom, but always on the brink of a withering death”. (J. S. W. – paradoxical femininity in the picture of Dorian Gray Furthermore, the relationship between Lord Henry and Lady Henry, Victoria, is significant in the portrayal of women and marriage in The Picture of Dorian Gray; the description of Victoria is considerably diminishing next to the description of Lord Henry, her first entrance shows the gender dynamics of the era “you thought it was my husband.
It is only his wife” the isolation of “it is only his wife” shows the harsh segregation between the genders established in the late nineteenth century. The juxtaposition between the couples characteristics further exhibit the hierarchy present in a patriarchal society; as Lord Henry is praised during his description “there was something in his low, languid voice that was absolutely fascinating” Lady Henry is distinguished by “a shrill voice” this harsh sound mirrors the views thought of as women, they should be seen and not heard.
The character of Victoria continues to reveal the idea of a marital facade; “the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties” through this facade, the theme of duality is shown creating an critical presentation of marriage, that is it all just a sham, as well as portraying Wilde’s own life, as Lady Henry is said to be based upon his own wife Constance Lloyd.
In addition, Lady Henry’s fidelity is questioned “she was usually in love with someone” the infidelity of their relationship again creates the assumption of a public facade both present throughout the novel and Wilde’s experience of his long running affair with Lord Alfred Douglas; this presents a harsh critique of marriage as well as the characteristics of women, who as one critic summarises “are portrayed as pretty furniture, slightly batty and unaware of the goings-on that surround them, only serving to plump up the personalities of the men in their life”.) Basil Hallward, also presents a similar negative view on the subject of marriage “I don’t want to see Dorian ties to some vile creature, who might degrade his nature” this almost jealous exclamation again raises the theme of homoerotism, as well as the description of a woman seen as “some vile creature” presents a harsh image Wilde presents of women. Throughout the novel a central image of women is presented by Sibyl Vane, constantly battling between reality and the melodrama which is the theatre “acting was the one reality of my life”, which is the reason for Dorian’s love “I kissed Juliet…
I left her in the Forest of Arden, I shall find her in an orchard in Verona” this description of her innocence and fascination with the world of theatre can be portrayed in a mocking light as her immaturity with ‘reality’ is what leads her to her suicide. Sybil Vane’s infatuation with Dorian Gray adds to Wilde’s critique of women, displaying oxymoronic statements “the joy of a caged bird was in her voice” and “she was free in her prison of passion” which brings connotations that she is his personal possession, stereotypical of the times, this dehumanisation adds to the critical presentation Wilde has established.
Furthermore, Sibyl Vane is elevated through the supposed love of Dorian Gray “Sibyl Vane is sacred” “I want to… see the world worship the woman who is mine” through the religious expressions shown Wilde creates a blasphemous proclamation; which at the time this was written would have been presented as very unmentionable due to the heavy influence of the church; this elevation is then thwarted “then she flung herself on her knees and kissed my hands” the use of proxemics reinforces the idea that men are higher than women.
The theatricality of Sibyl Vane’s characteristics straightens the theme of duality in the novel and the consequences which are attached to this, as Sibyl tries to alleviate her facade, Dorian realises he loved the character she played rather than her, “you are shallow and stupid… without your art you are nothing” leading her to follow the tragic heroines she played, and commit suicide, Wilde reveals his own view of women and the facades they obtain “A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction. (Oscar Wilde) leading to their eventual downfall. However, Wilde also uses the character of Sibyl vane as Dorian Gray’s chance of redemption “your voice [Lord Henry] and the voice of Sibyl Vane are two things that I shall never forget… each of them says something different. I don’t know which to follow” Wilde uses the characters of Lord Henry and Sibyl Vane as the personification of the battle inside Dorian’s Conscience; using Sibyl as the antithesis of Lord Henry creates a positive presentation of women as she is Dorian’s chance of escape.
In conclusion, Wilde uses various techniques to portray women and the idea of marriage, many of which aim to present a negative image, mocking and degrading the female characters. Oscar Wilde presents a harsh image of marriage especially in The Picture of Dorian Gray, as the only stable couple iis one which relies on separation and public facades to survive, whilst he kills off Dorian’s only chance of happiness quickly; leading to the assumption that the overall presentation Wilde is portraying is one of negativity.