December 4, 2011
The Petals of Dorian Gray
Other than the fight for liberty, equality, and fraternity, the people of prerevolutionary France planted a seed for a more gentle movement: The language of flowers. A widely popular communication tactic in the Victorian era, the language of flowers applies meanings and emotions to individual flowers that, when combined, produce a hidden message for the intended receiver. A gentleman would fashion a “tussie mussie” or bouquet out of an assortment of flora, combining into an overall message. A bouquet consisting of balm, which represents sympathy, and purple verbena, which represents regret, could be an apology derived from sympathy for hardship and regret for the causing of that hardship. Although Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is said to preach the message “art for art’s sake,” Wilde uses the Victorian language of flowers in his novel. He implements this secretive communication tactic in two ways: to describe characters and set up or hint at future scenes.
When Oscar Wilde uses a specific flower to describe a character, that flower is mentioned in the same or in surrounding sentences as the character being described. For instance, in the first chapter Wilde introduces two of the main characters in his novel: Basil Hallward, a young artist, and Lord Henry Wotton, an influential and devious aristocrat. First, Wilde drapes Hallward’s studio, an extension of the artist himself, in roses. Although it seems as though this is a purely superficial aesthetic aspect, the roses reveal Hallward’s character. Roses, in the Victorian era and even today, represent love. By associating roses with Hallward, Wilde attempts to further disclose Basil’s amorous nature. The presence of roses illustrates Basil’s initial capacity for love. Within the same page, Wilde introduces Lord Henry Wotton, an influential and hypocritical character throughout the novel. Next to Wotton and within the same sentence, Wilde places a yellow laburnum, a poisonous plant synonymous with the word forsaken. Recipients of laburnums should be fearful due to the negative connotation, which suggests that the recipient is or should be abandoned by society. Wilde includes a laburnum in the initial appearance of Wotton to symbolize his poisonous effects and how some higher societal circles, due to his poisonous tongue and ideas, forsake him.
Although the use of the language of flowers is significant, its absence holds meaning as well. Only Dorian Gray and Sybil Vane, shallow and aesthetically pleasing individuals, are described more than once as having “flower-like” traits. Although basil means both love and hate in the language, it symbolizes Gray’s dual views of Hallward and not the artist himself. Once, Lord Henry Wotton is described as having “flower-like hands” (Wilde, 24), however this is because Wotton uses his hands to deceive his listeners. His personality is never directly described as in this way, while the author describes Sybil and Dorian using the phrase, “flower-like,” multiple times. This is because, in the manner of the language of flowers, their beauty deceives and hides their true nature. To Dorian, Sybil is nothing but a flower, and he values her for the fabricated beauty she presents on stage. Gray describes her to Wotton as a “girl, hardly seventeen years of age, with a little, flower-like face” (Wilde, 54). In the first describing sentence wherein she is introduced to the reader, Wilde makes her synonymous with a flower. However, “flower-like” traits are not prescribed to her when she experienced real love and could not act, but are present when she is acting or behaving in a fanciful manner.
Unlike Sybil, when Dorian Gray first makes a physical entrance in the story, he is not described directly as possessing “flower-like” traits. It is only after Wotton’s influence that he becomes flora in the Victorian language of flowers. Before Wotton’s influence, Gray is open and innocent; afterwards his beautiful face diverges from his ugly actions. Coincidently, the more divided Dorian becomes, the more he is compared to flowers or as being “flower-like.” This instance along with Sybil Vane’s show that there is a direct correlation between a character’s superficiality and “flower-like” traits.
Oscar Wilde also uses the language of flowers in order to set a specific scene or foreshadow certain events. In the same scene wherein Basil Hallward is introduced to the reader, the sweet scent of lilac wafts through the studio from the garden, combining its perfume with that of the roses (Wilde, 5). Lilac is associated with the “first emotions of love” (Diffenbaugh). The lilac “coming in from the garden” foreshadows the entrance of Dorian and Basil’s developing, unrequited love for Dorian Gray. After Wotton begins working his poisonous influence on Gray regarding the matters of temptation, Wilde mentions lilacs again. Overwhelmed with the allure of Wotton’s ideology, Gray runs into the garden and buries his face in great, cool lilac blossoms (Wilde, 24). Wotton, following Gray’s footsteps, approves of his action and remarks, “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” (Wilde, 24). This remark further nudges Dorian down the path of temptation. Dorian burying his head in the lilacs shows his acceptance of this philosophy by seeking solace in the lilacs, which are symbolically his “stirrings of love” (Diffenbaugh) for Wotton’s ideas. This scene foreshadows Gray’s eventual love of the “senses” or “temptations.”
Before Dorian Gray makes a physical appearance, Lord Henry Wotton describes him as being made out of “ivory and rose-leaves” and states, “he is a Narcissus” (Wilde 7). Here, Gray is compared to two flowers, the rose and the narcissus. The rose symbolizes love, although in this sentence it implies Gray is more of a body of love because Wotton is describing physical attributes. However, announcing him as a narcissus describes and foreshadows Dorian Gray’s character. Paralleling the Greek myth in which the flower was born, the narcissus symbolizes self-love. Gray eventually sells his soul due to urgings of superficial self-love. Before Gray is physically present and aware of self-love, Wilde hints at his tragic flaw using the narcissus and language of flowers.
Later on in the same chapter, Hallward and Wotton retreat into the garden. Almost immediately, Hallward divulges the origin of his privacy of the portrait of Gray, while Wotton, listening intently, plucks a daisy from the earth (Wilde 9). Here, Hallward subtly hints at a more romantic inclination for Dorian rather than the relationship between painter and subject. Wotton plucks the daisy just before Hallward describes his first sighting of Gray, and shreds it prior to Hallward’s description of physically meeting Gray. Hallward describes his first sighting of Gray in a way that implies a kindling of romantic admiration. He states, “When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale…I knew that I had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that…it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself (Wilde 10). This description is not casual commentary, but a romantic revelation.
Also, before revealing Hallward’s confession, Wilde places the two characters near a lilac-bush. As it sways to and fro, “Lord Henry felt as if he could hear Basil Hallward’s heart beating, and wondered what was coming” (Wilde, 10). Since lilac represents the “stirring of love” (Diffenbaugh), and the lilac bush, along with Hallward’s heart, is stirring, the language of flowers further supports and reveals Hallward’s homosexual inclinations. Wotton plucking a daisy, a symbol for innocence, before Hallward’s unintentional confession and subsequently shredding the daisy indicates the destruction of Hallward’s innocence. Before meeting Gray, Hallward was the perfect Victorian era artistic gentleman, however, his love for Gray shreds his innocence with the shears of homosexuality: A sin in the Victorian era. Thus, Wilde uses the daisy to slyly introduce Basil Hallward’s homosexual nature.
Another situation wherein the language of flowers aids understanding is the events surrounding the death of Basil Hallward. When Hallward finally sees his corrupt creation, Dorian “had taken the flower out of his coat and was smelling it, or pretending to do so” (Wilde, 154). Throughout the novel, Gray is described as having flower-like traits. However, the simultaneous unveiling of his portrait and Gray’s possession of the flower seems to suggest that Gray is a Victorian flower: He has external beauty but a hidden side as well. After Basil’s death, Gray summons a one-time friend to aid in disposal of the body. In order to get his servant out of the way, Gray commands him to “See Harden personally, and tell him to send twice as many orchids as I ordered, and to have as few white ones as possible. In fact, I don’t want any white ones” (Wilde, 170). Here, wild implements the language of flowers to send a final goodbye to Basil and Dorian’s beauty and sophistication. In the Victorian era, white orchids symbolize love, beauty, refinement, and purity (Harten). Gray’s request for anything but white orchids is symbolic of his loss of these four qualities in the climax of the story. With the death of Basil, Gray loses the one true love in his life.
In his act of killing his best friend, the beauty in his portrait is further sullied. He has fallen into the realm of the lower-class criminal with the act of murder, destroying his refinement. Before this act, the reader never travelled with Gray to the East End opium dens, but afterwards the reader accompanies him on the corrupt journeys that were previously only implied. Finally, the blood on his hands has robbed him his purity. Murder was the final act that labels his a resolute criminal instead of simply a wayward gentleman. When Dorian states he does not want white orchids, it shows the depths of his corruption and further explains the significance of Basil’s death through the analysis of the meaning of white orchids.
Throughout these key scenes in the novel, Oscar Wilde employs the language of flowers to insert an additional layer of understanding to characters and scenes. Despite these previously described circumstances, there are many other minor and major moments wherein the language of flowers is exercised. Due to this exorbitant amount of supporting examples, it is easy to conclude that Oscar Wilde purposefully incorporates the Victorian language of flowers into his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, to either further illustrate characters or describe scenes and foreshadow events. In Victorian England, the meanings that comprise the language of flowers, although varied in some cases, were common knowledge in that time period. It is safe to assume that Oscar Wilde was aware of the language as well as its practices because of his status and its popularity. It is this popularity that also leads to the safe assumption that other authors of this time period would have had knowledge of this social practice. Therefore, it is possible that other authors besides Oscar Wilde could have incorporated this symbolism into their novels. Delineating these definitions could lead to further understanding of other Victorian literature, as it aided the reader in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
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