Academic journal article British and American Studies

Acting out Gender: Performativity and Becoming Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde's the Picture of Dorian Gray

Academic journal article British and American Studies

Acting out Gender: Performativity and Becoming Lord Henry Wotton in Oscar Wilde's the Picture of Dorian Gray

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

The topics of sexuality and gender in The Picture of Dorian Gray have been discussed for decades. However, little has been said on issues like what happens when gender norms are opposed by the characters in the novel and how the consequences of those actions were shaped by Oscar Wilde. When it comes to Queer Theory, most academics preferred dealing with sexuality in Dorian Gray rather than performativity and the Heterosexual Matrix of Victorian high society. Performativity is a term best explained by Judith Butler (1993, 2004) in her books on queer theory. According to her, gender and sexuality are an ongoing mode of becoming. The world is like a stage and we are the actors on this stage, where we perform our duties and roles. We are teachers, students, engineers, men, women, bisexuals, heterosexuals, gays, lesbians and so on. We play our roles as expected from us by society, and we usually perform unconsciously. Any problem in this world can be viewed within this theory of performativity; therefore, it is important to discuss Wilde's novel from this point of view. The paper will examine performativity in the Nineteenth Century Victorian Novel, especially the resistance to dictated male performativity and its results as reflected in Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; special attention will be paid to the character named Lord Henry Wotton, who arguably shows characteristics of Wilde himself.

In The History of Sexuality, Foucault (1978:3) explains how gender was perceived in the 19'" century: "A single locus of sexuality was acknowledged in social space as well as at the heart of every household, but it was a utilitarian and fertile one: the parents' bedroom". This means that any other form of sexuality was considered illegitimate. For people with illegitimate sexualities, Victorian Society created punishments and ways of othering them. Again Foucault says:

The brothel and the mental hospital would be those places of tolerance: the prostitute, the client, and the pimp, together with the psychiatrist and his hysteric - those 'Other Victorians', as Steven Marcus would say - seem to have surreptitiously transferred the pleasures that are unspoken into the order of things that are counted. (Foucault 1978:4)

There were other ways of punishing those who deviated from normative sexuality. The Criminal Law Amendment Act, for instance, punished a person who committed a buggery act to penal servitude for life and for a term not less than ten years. Oscar Wilde, who suffered because of the Amendment Act, writes: "I must say to myself that I ruined myself' (Wilde 1997:1071), which makes it clear that he felt guilty for his sexual experiences. In addition, he states that: "I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace." (Wilde 1997:1071). His moral dilemma could be seen in his works and this peaked when he was put into prison.

Some writers, such as Jeff Nunokawa, defend the point of view which states that Oscar Wilde is similar to Lord Henry Wotton for their defiance of "the Love that dare not speak its name" (1997:157) and for "praising specific ones" (1997:158). According to him, while Oscar Wilde praises specific feelings and thoughts, Lord Henry "endorses every feeling, thought, dream, and impulse, rather than any particular" (Nunokawa 1997:158). However, what they had in common was their talking about desire, which should have been avoided in the Victorian Period. Nunokawa defines Lord Henry as an advocate for "sexual passion" (Nunokawa 1997:160). Another similarity between the author and his character is, as Duggan (63) puts it, that "Dorian lives according to what Lord Henry professes", which is very much like a pederastian view of Wilde: "the older man teaching the young boy the ways of life and warfare, how to become a man" and "...sex was a big part of this interaction between men and boys" (Duggan 64). But reading such relation was opposed by Sinfield when he said uThe Picture of Dorian Gray invokes the queer image, to some readers at least, despite at no point representing it" (qtd. …

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