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The controversy surrounding “The Picture of Dorian Gray” when it was released is something that must be taken in context with regard to the moral climate of the Victorian time period. Critics of the time argued the book would corrupt those who read it based on what popular opinion considered abhorrent behavior at the time. Oscar Wilde on the other hand felt the books overall message was more in tune with popular opinion than his critics, though suggested it wasnt radical enough. The argument hinges on the end of the book and Dorians suicide.
Critics of the novel were afraid that reading the book would tempt young men into experimenting with homosexuality. At the time homosexuality was considered a deviant behavior or a phase, but certainly not a lifestyle. In fact homosexual acts were criminalized. The book does not explicitly depict Dorian as living a homosexual lifestyle, but it is clearly the implication. The underlying thought behind such criticism is that by reading about the behavior, the behavior is encouraged. This logic is flawed. Reading about being a homosexual doesnt make you a homosexual anymore than reading about bass will make you a fish. However the publication of the book and the subsequent controversy did help to bring an end to the taboo of homosexuality as a topic for public discussion. In that sense, the book did change popular opinion which arguably makes the critics correct. However, to call such a change a corruption would be homophobic by todays standards. In addition, just because something wasnt being talked about doesnt mean it wasnt taking place. The critics arguments are much like the debate that America is having now about sex-education and whether teaching children about birth-control encourages promiscuity.
What critics largely ignored, and the reason Wilde thought the book was “too moral”, was that Dorian Gray eventually suffers for his lifestyle. Of course there was good reason for the critics to ignore the ending, since it was obviously not the focus of Wilde’s intent. Throughout the book there were constant references praising Dorian’s lifestyle. For example, when Lord Henry says “I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality” it’s hard to consider that such a statement is one with which the author disagrees. Were it not for Dorians death, then the book would be a diatribe praising youth, hedonism, and permissiveness. However, Dorians frustration and conflict between his inner self and outer beauty are settled when he slashes the painting and dies.
In saying that the book was “too moral” Wilde is referring to this inner conflict because he does not feel society should subject people to such guilt. He does however recognize that this guilt exists, most likely from personal experience. Wilde’s