"The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Dark Orientalism
Orientalism is a colonial/postcolonial theory that intersperses aestheticism and exoticism within its midst. Written in his book of the same name, Edward Said made a case for why colonial Britain and its imperialist culture used exotic items as a fetishisation and flirtation of wealth. In a decadent culture which was admittedly richly disgusting, the pinnacle of wealth is represented by items from India, Persia and other countries of the Eastern World that were under imperialist rule or were thought to have looser morals than the upper class of the British folk. Another more sinister and yet believable idea of Orientalism is that to own parts of cultures that were either under British rule or, by most, were not but should have been because of the ‘loose morals’ argument was an act of ownership which the British upper class of the late Victorian Era often felt entitled to. Since the empire was theirs, so was the authority and therefore, so were the goods - including the famed diamond which is still in England today. Edward Said states a message about the ideas surrounding this kind of authority and what they mean:
“There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.” (Said, 2003).
This kind of authority obviously makes claims that the empire will last a very long time and so, they should definitely indulge as it is their right too take from these other countries. However, at the collapse of the British Empire some years later, there are clearly tensions over the past mistakes of the colonisers. The mistake they make over and over again to this day, therefore, is the mistake of believing they ‘own’ the oriental being:
“Always there lurks the assumption that although the Western consumer belongs to a numerical minority, he is entitled either to own or to expend (or both) the majority of the world resources. Why? Because he, unlike the Oriental, is a true human being.” (Said, 2003).
In Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, we see this enacted repeatedly in order to showcase British civility and decadent wealth at the same time. It is there in order to show the reader that the character is rich, and to show the other characters that this character is cultivated and cultured - someone who is worth becoming friends with.
We need not get even further than a few lines into the first chapter before we as readers, are hit with this theory on Orientalism that Said has stated, is a matter of demonstration of ownership and cultivation. Whilst Lord Henry rests in Basil’s studio, he presents an ownership not just of the Oriental items surrounding him but also seeing as they are Basil’s items, he wants to present his ways of infecting Basil’s own behaviour with a decadence.
“From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum…” (Wilde, 2003)
Here we have these two types of ownership. There is the first kind in which he is on the scene and lying atop Persian saddlebags. This is a brilliant representation of Lord Henry Wotton’s requirement to show the reader he is a wealthy and cultured man of the world. However, the tainting in Basil’s own nature is more represented by the fact that he is smoking near such beautiful flowers. This smoke from a cigarette/cigar throughout the story will be more representative of Henry’s character by the chapter and especially so in his ability to corrupt someone or something, whether it be another character or a conversation.
After Orientalism by Edward Said, I would like to propose another philosophical theorem entitled ‘Dark Orientalism’. This theorem ensures that the oriental item within a text is used for selfish or often self-destructive purposes in the text, whatever the text might be. This is most obviously true for “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as the opium dens which Dorian attends during the nights of the latter chapters are most definitely those encountered as well in other countries during the imperial regime such as: China, Afghanistan and more. This use of Middle Eastern images to present the negative about the native but the ownership via the coloniser is dark to say the least, but then put into the context of the character who is using these oriental items in order to flaunt wealth, self-destruct or harm others in any way, is something that beckons more towards my own theory of Dark Orientalism.
This ownership and self-destruction is seen almost everywhere in Wilde’s novel and can be said to be both a flirtation of wealth and a secretive destruction of the self. In Chapter 16, it is described that Dorian Gray is travelling at night to an opium den where Malaysian men populate the area inside. This is part of the act of self-destruction to the metaphor of the regime since this is not physically owning a part of the oriental, but partaking in it. This would have been seen as sharing a space and therefore, more unacceptable for a man of Dorian Gray’s standing especially:
“The floor was covered with ochre-coloured sawdust, trampled here and there into mud, and stained with dark rings of spilled liquor. Some Malays were crouching by a little charcoal stove, playing with bone counters and showing their white teeth as they chattered. In one corner, with his head buried in his arms, a sailor sprawled over a table, and by the tawdrily painted bar that ran across one complete side stood two haggard women, mocking an old man who was brushing the sleeves of his coat with an expression of disgust. “He thinks he’s got red ants on him,” laughed one of them, as Dorian passed by. The man looked at her in terror and began to whimper…”
The expression of Dorian’s emotions during this chapter are all too resonant of a man who has been bitten by the bug of the orient and can no longer stop. The imperialist regime would have seen this usage as animal in secret as the oriental were not equals to themselves, but as a flirtation of wealth through teas and spices, it would have been accepted as long as there were no ‘others’ - as in physical people - there with them. The problem that Dorian Gray is having is that he is upsetting his imperial background by sharing space and time with the ‘other’ and therefore, degrading himself even further with the use of opium as a symbol of that. Therefore, all the emotions that Dorian now expresses will be sufficient to self-hatred and destructive tendencies:
“Callous, concentrated on evil, with stained mind, and soul hungry for rebellion, Dorian Gray hastened on, quickening his step as he went, but as he darted aside into a dim archway, that had served him often as a short cut to the ill-famed place where he was going, he felt himself suddenly seized from behind, and before he had time to defend himself, he was thrust back against the wall, with a brutal hand round his throat.”
Therefore, if the reader were looking for Dorian Gray’s acts of degeneracy, they increase the more he spends time around items of the orient in order to flaunt his wealth and then, since the attention of others becomes useless as a ‘high’, he seeks out letting the oriental ‘devices’ into his own system - hence the opium. But, when he diverts from the path of the imperial regime gentleman and can no longer be brought back into line, we get a conflict of interest. He loses favour in his own circles and must conceal himself at all costs - hence the opium ‘dens’. These vices are only part and parcel to the bigger regiment of vices held by Dorian Gray as he moves through the novel, as it is said:
“There is actually no explicit statement of what Dorian’s vices really are: it is left to the lurid imagination of the reader to detail them.” (Luckhurst, 2014)
And so Oscar Wilde takes us all the way back to the beginning of the book in which he states that the analysis of a novel can tell you more about the reader than the writer. In this, he seems to be correct. For “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and its aspects of the Dark Orientalist culture developed within, we can honestly say that we cannot be sure that this is intentional. We only see what we want to see.
- Luckhurst, R. (2014). Perversion and Degeneracy in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ UK: The British Library.
- Said, E. 2003. Orientalism. UK: Penguin Modern Classics.
- Wilde, O. 2003. The Picture of Dorian Gray. UK: Penguin Classics.