Oscar Wilde’s classic novel is most importantly – although perhaps not most obviously – a study of the dichotomy of the “double life” led by many homosexuals before the period of gay and lesbian liberation movements. The character of Dorian Gray, and also the dual object of his portrait, illustrate the division between the queer and the straight aspects of one’s identity. This dualism can also be expressed as that of the private and the public, respectively.
It is very easy to avoid reading the queer subtext of the novel, opting instead for what Eve Sedgwick calls an “empty modernist reading,” focusing on the title character’s ongoing struggle with morality and the nature of good and evil. A key point to remember, however, is that Dorian Gray’s moral corruption does not begin until his identity is forcibly split. Wilde takes great care to illustrate the distinctive split between these two halves: “I shall stay with the real Dorian,” says Basil (emphasis added), referring to the painting rather than the flesh-and-blood Dorian who stands before him. One can relate this back to Butler’s notion of performativity, in which the replicated self, “the copy for which there is no original,” is the root of all sexuality.
If the portrait, which Dorian hides away in a discreet corner of his manor, is the “real” or “true” Dorian, then one must begin to read the actions of the corporeal Dorian quite differently. Although the portrait may seem distorted and perverted, it is the public, physical Dorian – the “fake” Dorian – that actually commits the immoral acts. The corruption of the outer and public self begins to spill onto the inner psyche – the portrait – until it has been rendered nearly unrecognizable.
When Dorian has realized the corruption that has befallen his dual selves, he commits a surreal act of suicide. By finally destroying his corrupted inner self, his outer self can no longer bear life. The fact that he is found with a knife in his heart, of all places, is no accident. The heart, the seed of passion and rapture, is what Dorian finally destroys in destroying himself. In ending his life, the Dorian of the portrait is restored magically to “the wonder of his exquisite youth,” while the real Dorian is left “withered” and “loathsome.”
This “wonder of [...] exquisite youth” that is restored seems almost a direct reference – a foreshadowing, perhaps – of his later defense of “the Love that dare not speak its name” given under oath:
It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life before him.
This “wonder of youth” reflects an idealized homosexual spirit, before such a spirit would have been labelled homosexual.
Once Dorian’s inner self is revealed in its glory and beauty, the public lie, in the form of Dorian’s hideous withered corpse, is shown for what it truly is. The private, and thusly homosexual, Dorian is allowed to be beautiful once more.
Wilde himself wrote in a letter that the character of Dorian is what he would “like to be.” Of course, we cannot always trust Wilde and take his statements at face value. I certainly do not believe Wilde would wish to be like Dorian’s public self, but rather like the Dorian of the portrait at the book’s conclusion. The final scene of the novel perhaps represents what Wilde wishes he could accomplish in his own life – the abolition of the need to “cover” one’s true self and the abolition of his public, heterosexual li(f)e.
By the conclusion, the public heterosexual self has been destroyed and unveiled as an atrophied vessel, while the true beauty – the homosexual self, Dorian’s soul – is allowed to flourish once more, free of the constraints of social obligations and questionable moralities. Dorian’s true sin – the sin of shutting away his true self – has been erased. The hidden Dorian is no longer a shameful sight and can be viewed with the beauty that its creator intended. Sadly, however, this potential beauty was never realized by Dorian. The painting itself, while beautiful and perhaps an accurate depiction of Dorian’s true inner self at some point, is not a reflection of truth. Social constraints prevented this inner beauty from being actualized. In Wilde’s text, it is this crime that is perhaps the most immoral crime of all.
The book’s metaphor of the double life is strikingly powerful during these final scenes. The “mask of goodness,” the “denial of self” was the true sin that Dorian felt the urge, the desire, to “cleanse.” In telling his own sin – the sin of illusion – the real, and homosexual, Dorian is shown to be beautiful and true, while the public lie is left a bitter, withered husk.