Dandyism In The Picture Of Dorian Gray

4021 words - 17 pages

When Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890 it was on the receiving end of some very hostile reviews (Mighall ix). It was so ill-received not because it was poorly written, but rather because of the ideas it presented, ideas which were seen as dangerous and polluting. The reason was that it called into question the bourgeois constructions of masculinity which were considered the norm in nineteenth century England. In previous centuries, the country had been under the control of the landed aristocracy, however, over the course of the nineteenth century, changing political and economic conditions provided opportunities for the rise of the middle class in English ...view middle of the document...

Dorian Gray is the hedonist, a synthesis of the artist and the dandy, whose purpose is to disrupt the middle class ethos as it is embodied in bourgeois constructions of masculinity.
Before we can consider the critical nature of Dorian Gray in detail, we must understand the context of the period. The middle class in England had been increasing in numbers and power since the previous century. The changing economy during the eighteenth century had led to the emergence of an urban middle class of merchants and business owners, and from this, a distinctly bourgeois identity began to develop. The middle class eventually grew to have tremendous influence in society and its values and culture became more prominent, bringing about reform in English society, which had been founded in a model ruled by the aristocracy in previous centuries (Shepherd 284). The middle class continued to grow over the following decades. The industrial revolution provided opportunities for social advancement as men could increase their means through hard work. Along with social advancement, middle class men were given a say in the political system when the 1834 Reform Act granted them the right to vote. The Corn Laws – which had protected the interests of landowners by imposing tariffs on imported grains and cereals – were repealed in 1834, leading to the development of free trade and the end of economic dominance among the landed aristocracy. These factors combined to create a quickly rising middle class which had gained dominance in British society towards the end of the nineteenth century. These changes ushered in a new age of bourgeois ideology which prompted some to declare the bourgeoisie to be the new aristocracy (Weiner 71).
Accompanying the ascension of the bourgeois to the dominant social class were their values, which eventually became societal norms. The middle class value system could be considered in two categories. There were the private values, based on respectability and good character, such as religious piety, temperance, thrift and familial devotion and there were also the more public virtues based in economics: hard work, progress and capitalism (Danahay 7). Middle class conceptions of masculinity were born out of these values. Victorian masculinity was intrinsically bound to the concept of family devotion through the Protestant Work Ethic. This was a philosophy grounded in the belief that all men are compelled to work because it is the will of God. It also subscribed to the idea that salvation can only occur if one abstains from excess and indulgence, sins which detracted from wholesomeness and contributed to indolence, distracting men from their God-given compulsion to work. The ideal man of the Victorian period was a married man who further demonstrated his masculinity by supporting his family through the adoption of the Protestant Work Ethic (Danahay 7). The idea of the man as the family wage earner was extremely important in a society responsible...

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