Dandies and their misogynistic attitudes in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Victorian Age – the novel in its historical context
The Victorian Age – an era with many different faces
Morality, sexuality and gender roles in Victorian society
New phenomena: Dandy and New Woman

3. Dandies and their misogynistic attitudes in The Picture of Dorian Gray
3.1. The dandies in the novel: Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray
The ‘cult of the self’
Restraint and pretence
Provocation and criticism
New Hedonism
3.2. Misogynistic attitudes towards women in the novel
The dandies and the ladies with parrot noses
Sibyl Vane: Woman with a voice
The dandies’ attitude to love and marriage
3.3. Examining reasons for the dandies’ misogynistic attitudes in the novel

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel of the Victorian ‘fin de siécle’. Its protagonists are dandies, who follow the principle of a so-called New Hedonism. Under the influence of the elder Lord Henry, Dorian Gray assumes his way of life, thinking and even his attitude to women. It is this negative attitude to women that leads to the novel’s first tragic episode: Sibyl Vane, Dorian’s first love and victim, fails to appeal to his aesthetic ideal of a woman and, abandoned by him, kills herself. Actually the entire novel is shaped by a certain misogynistic culture that reveals itself in different forms. In this paper I am going to illustrate how the male characters, mainly the dandies Lord Henry and Dorian, use their voice to speak up against women, whereas the female ones remain voiceless most of the time.

Apart from its fictional content, the novel is full with concepts that shaped Victorian society. To get a full understanding, I am therefore going to illustrate the novel’s historical context and some of the phenomena of the Victorian ‘90s, for example, New Hedonism, Dandyism etc. I am then going to give a description of the dandies in the novel, Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray, before illustrating their misogynistic attitudes. I will be looking for reasons as well as describing the different types of women that are in the novel, focusing on Sibyl, the most important female character in the novel.

Oscar Wilde’s text used for this paper is the Bantam Classic Edition edited by Richard Ellmann, 1982. All references to The Picture of Dorian Gray will be made to this edition.

2. The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Victorian Age – the novel in its historical context

The Victorian Age – an era with many different faces

Queen Victoria’s ascent to the English throne in 1837 and her death in 1901 mark beginning and end of the Victorian Age. This era is characterised by enormous economic, social and ideological changes and by no means can be expressed sufficiently by only one single term. A rather positive attribute is that of the ‘Golden Age’, referring to the England of the 1850s and 60s. The industrial revolution, starting off already in the late 18th century, was the motor of England’s rapid economic development and its rise to world power. Steam power was invented and machines that could be driven with it. Railways were built and steamboats, thus encouraging worldwide trade. There was also a progress in the natural sciences, e.g. Charles Darwin’s theory On the Origin of Species, leading to the questioning of old religious beliefs. In 1851, the Great Exhibition took place in the Crystal Palace (a modern glass and steel construction) in London, an event that illustrated the atmosphere of that time.

But the term ‘Victorian Golden Age’ does not refer to an era that was homogenous in its political and social conditions. The so-called ‘Hungry Seventies’ replaced a rather glorious period. Due to improved living conditions there had been an immense increase in the population – from ten to 33 million people (Pfister/Schulte-Middelich, 1983: 9pp) – many of whom were moving from rural areas to the industrial towns in search of jobs. People who used to lead a life based on the ownership of land now depended on a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing. The working conditions were very bad and often whole families had to toil for fourteen hours or more a day in order to make a meagre living. But since machines were doing more and more of the work in the factories, there were not enough jobs for everybody. The difficult economic situation intensified when other countries caught up industrially and competed with England on the world market. The so-called ‘Great Depression’ belongs to the Victorian Age as well, including tensions between the classes and social unrest.

Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published in 1891, is a novel of the Victorian Age, but it is even more a story of the ‘fin de siécle’, the turn of the century, with its own special tone. With economic and social insecurity and the approach of a new century that promised to be a continuation of the journey into the unknown, the general atmosphere of that time was characterised by a certain apocalyptic spirit. In The Picture of Dorian Gray Lady Narborough turns the ‘fin de siécle’ into a ‘fin de globe’ and Dorian Gray responds: ”’I wish it was fin de globe […]. Life is a great disappointment’” (155).

This decade is also often called the ‘Romantic’, ‘Yellow’ or ‘Naughty Nineties’, referring to new tendencies in art and lifestyle such as aestheticism, symbolism and decadence. During the 1890s, England experienced a revival of the Romantic Period in the early 19th century, especially in respect to a lifestyle called dandyism (more about the concepts of aestheticism and dandyism, see below) and literature, with its characteristic elements: “[Die] Betonung selbstzweckhafter Schönheit, transzendentaler Offenbarung und individueller Subjektivität” (Pfister/Schulte-Middelich, 1983: 17).

Yellow was the colour of the ‘fin de siécle’, and a synonym for the bizarre, artificial and modern (Boltz 1983: 377). The “yellow book” (109), which poisons Dorian Gray, is only one of many books with a yellow cover that belong to the French school of symbolists. And last but not least The Yellow Book was also the title of the most famous magazine for art and literature of that time.

Decadent naughtiness was the extreme counter-reaction to the repressive morality of Victorianism. The decadents were always looking for new exciting sensations, experiences of the extremes and exploring the social periphery. Therefore, decadence is also synonymous with moral deterioration and decline.

Morality, sexuality and gender roles in Victorian society

The brief outline above has illustrated that the spirit of the Victorian Age is very complex. It also includes many contradictory movements regarding morality, sexuality, and the roles of men and women in society. Generally, Victorianism is connected with a strict sense of morality, repression of sexuality and a very rigid gender division (Schulte-Middelich 1983: 115pp). According to medical theories on sexuality of that time, e.g. Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs by William Acton, published in 1857, sexual impulses existed only for natural reproductive reasons and any kind of excess could lead to physical or mental illness. These theories represented a very one-sided, masculine concept of sexuality: A woman’s pregnancy was a natural antidote against any kind of excess, and sexual impression of children could have terrible consequences. Everything associated with sex or the body was a taboo, and even piano legs were wrapped up so they would not offend anybody.

This prudishness was also consolidated by legislation. Queen Victoria introduced a strict censorship to prevent people from reading immoral and ‘subversive’ literature and new acts were passed, such as the Obscene Publication Act in 1857 that now empowered not only the Grand Jury but even small magistrates and police officers to decide arbitrarily over and confiscate obscene material (Schulte-Middelich 1983: 121p). Oscar Wilde, too, had to defend The Picture of Dorian Gray against the moralists and wrote in the preface to his novel: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” (3). Despite the widely preached morality, manners and pretence were often more important, leading to a “native land of hypocrisy” (131) as Dorian Gray calls it, with “people who pose as being moral” (131).

But there existed also what some literary scholars, e.g. Schulte-Middelich, call an ‘Other Victorianism’ (1983: 115). As the educational system improved, more people gained access to circulating libraries and reading cycles. Through newspapers and periodicals, new ideas and theories were spread quickly and the debate about social and political issues was an important part in the cultural life of the reading public. Progressive theorists and writers protested against certain literary conventions, like the neglect or circumlocution of anything bodily or sexual and demanded a more realistic representation of the conditions (Schulte-Middelich 1983: 137p).

Conditions in respect of living had in fact changed very much, not so much for the upper class but for the new working class. Industrialisation was also the reason for the disruption of traditional gender roles. Whereas traditionally women stayed within the domestic space and men went out to earn a living for the family, in times of increasing productivity and economic hardship women were now needed in the factories as cheap labourers. Women began to demand expanded liberties for themselves, e.g. the rights of voting, property and access to higher education. This was also the beginning of the women’s sexual emancipation, as they were fighting for the right to use contraception. On a more intellectual basis John Stuart Mill defended the case of the women in his work The Subjection of Women in 1869. Mill emphasised the women as independent, self-reliable beings and demanded a partnership based on the principle of perfect equality, unlike many unbalanced, constructed concepts based on religious beliefs or alleged laws of nature (Schulte-Middelich 1983: 131p).

New phenomena: Dandy and New Woman

By the late 19th century this development had given way to a new, modern type of woman, the so-called New Woman. Together with her male counterpart, the Dandy, they seemed to dissolve the boundaries of traditional gender roles, although representing completely opposite concepts. The New Woman was self-confident and enlightened, and was violating Victorian conventions of femininity, including lifestyle and cultural attributes. These women were wearing men’s clothes, smoking cigarettes, riding bicycles and were interested in natural sciences. As a male female, the New Woman embodied a horror image of men and was fought against or ridiculed by conservative Victorians (Höfele 1983: 154pp). Mrs Lynn Linton’s essay against the ‘Wild Woman’ reads as following:

She repudiates the doctrine of individual conformity for the sake of general good; holding the self-restraint involved as an act of slavishness of which no woman worth her salt would be guilty. She makes between the sexes no distinctions, moral or aesthetic, nor even personal; but holds that what is lawful to the one is permissible to the other. (1891: 596)


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Dandies and their misogynistic attitudes in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray
University of Bayreuth  (Lehrstuhl für Englische Literaturwissenschaft)
19th Century British Novels
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Dandies, Oscar, Wilde, Picture, Dorian, Gray, Century, British, Novels, Literature
Quote paper
Jessica Menz (Author), 2004, Dandies and their misogynistic attitudes in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/120387


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