On May 25th, 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted in England of sodomy and taken to jail to begin his two year sentence of hard labor. Five years later, completely destitute, he would die in Paris at the age of 46 of meningitis. Undoubtedly, the harsh physical and mental agonies of prison contributed to his untimely death. A man used to splendor and beauty would die in a room of a third-rate hotel. His final words were "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do."
When The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in 1890, it caused an uproar as much of its content, especially the subtle homo-erotic passages, was considered scandalous for the time. One reviewer called the book "poisonous." A year later Wilde published a second version of his novel where he took out or re-wrote many of the objectionable passages. For example, in one scene where Basil Hallward describes his feelings for Dorian, he says:
"It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman."
The censored version reads: "From the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me."
It was a crime to be a homosexual in Victorian, England. Wilde publicly repressed his sexuality, but privately, he would have affairs with many men. Like many celebrities, what he presented to the public was a doppelganger of his true self.
The motif of a doppelganger is a common element in Gothic literature. One of the most famous examples from the genre is Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In both Stevenson's story and Wilde's story, the creation of a doppelganger allows Dorian and Jekyll to indulge their sensuous desire—wherever it may lead. However, this division of self is not sustainable and invariably leads to each man's destruction. Jekyll is unable to turn back into himself but permanently becomes Hyde. Hyde commits suicide to escape being arrested and executed. Dorian, who only feels remorse for his deeds when he sees the ever corrupting portrait, inadvertently stabs and kills himself when he tries to destroy the portrait—his doppelganger.
Despite Wilde's admonition that those who go "beneath the surface" of a work of art do so at their "own peril," you and your students will take the plunge. We will focus primarily on three themes. The first theme focuses on the idea that hedonism is not an ethical way to live life. Living a life that only seeks pleasure—whose primary aim is the indulgence of the senses—is not sustainable. The second theme focuses on the idea that to live an authentic, healthy life one must reveal all, not just parts, of one's True Self. Finally, the third theme considers the idea that some people struggle with the loss of their youth/beauty and take steps—if only temporarily-- to prevent it from happening. For each theme the role of the doppelganger motif will be further explored.
Finally, the following topics can be taught as the students read the novel or after they have read the novel. How you organize the unit is better left up to you and your own schedule.
Table of Contents
To the Virgins to Make Much of Time by Robert Herrick
Sonnet 19 by William Shakespeare
The Faustian Bargain
The "soul"--a working definition.
Dorian's break up with Sibyl Vane—an analysis of a scene
The opium den—an analysis of a scene
The Faces of Corruption Activity