Victorian Ideals:  The Influence of Society’s Ideals on Victorian Relationships

Felicia Appell




During the Victorian era, men and women searched for an ideal relationship based on the expectations of a demanding society. After reading the researched expectations of men and women of the Victorian era and relating them to Wilde’s two works, readers can acknowledge the effect the expectations have on these characters; especially the men. Analyzing the characters in Oscar Wilde’s works show how the expectations of society effects the characters’ behavior and their reaction to society’s ideals.  Oscar Wilde examines the impact of Victorian society’s unrealistic expectations on the individual in The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, showing how rejection, whether from a potential partner or society as a whole, can lead to deceit and engaging in a double life in order to satisfy conventions.



            During the Victorian era, men and women searched for an ideal relationship based on the expectations of a demanding society.  If a man or woman did not posses the qualities desired by the Victorian society, the opposite sex may have dismissed the person as an unsuitable mate. Oscar Wilde examines the impact of Victorian society’s unrealistic expectations on the individual in The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, showing how rejection, whether from a potential partner or society as a whole, can lead to deceit and engaging in a double life in order to satisfy conventions.

            Women in the Victorian society had one main role in life, which was to marry and take part in their husbands’ interests and business. Before marriage, they would learn housewife skills such as weaving, cooking, washing, and cleaning, unless they were of a wealthy family.  If they were wealthy, they did not always learn these tasks because their maids primarily took care of the household chores.  Typically, women were also not allowed to be educated or gain knowledge outside of the home because it was a man’s world.  One critic, Richard D. Altick states, “a woman was inferior to a man in all ways except the unique one that counted most [to a man]:  her femininity.  Her place was in the home, on a veritable pedestal if one could be afforded, and emphatically not in the world of affairs” (Altick 54).  Patriarchal society did not allow women to have the same privileges as men.  Consequently, women were ascribed the more feminine duties of caring for the home and pursuing the outlets of feminine creativity.

Victorian men also expected women to possess feminine qualities as well as innocence; otherwise, they would not be of marriage potential.  In Charles Petrie’s article, “Victorian Women Expected to be Idle and Ignorant,” he explains exactly what the Victorian man was looking for:

Innocence was what he demanded from the girls of his class, and they must not only be innocent but also give the outward impression of being innocent.  White muslin, typical of virginal purity, clothes many a heroine, with delicate shades of blue and pink next in popularity.  The stamp of masculine approval was placed upon ignorance of the world, meekness, lack of opinions, general helplessness and weakness; in short, recognition of female inferiority to the male (Petrie 184).

The expectations men had for women caused women to prepare for marriage and gave women hardly any freedom.  The men’s expectations pressured women to be the ideal Victorian woman society expected them to be.  The women had to prepare themselves for what was to come of their lives and it determined their future. If a woman did not meet the expectations of the Victorian male, she would end up spouseless.  Petrie’s article, “Victorian Women Expected to Be Idle and Ignorant,” states, “From infancy all girls who were born above the level of poverty had the dream of a successful marriage before their eyes, for by that alone was it possible for a woman to rise in the world” (Petrie 180).  Because women were denied the opportunity to work or take part in a man’s world, they spent their formative years in preparation for marriage.  They expected the men to take care of them and provide for them since they were unable to provide for themselves.

Just as men had expectations for the ideal Victorian women, the women and the rest of society had expectations for the ideal Victorian man.  Ingrid Ranum’s article discusses the modern Victorian language and the roles of both women and men.  When discussing men and masculinity, she quotes scholar John Tosh: “‘Becoming a man,’ Tosh claims, ‘involved detaching oneself from the home and its feminine comforts’ and achieving ‘a level of material success in the wider world’ including ‘the recognition of manhood by one’s peers’” (Ranum 242).  In other words, men not only had to gain women’s respect before marriage, but they also had to impress the rest of society and their male gender.  Men became victims of social pressures because their peers scrutinized their success.  Michael Patrick Gillespie, author of “The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘What the World Thinks of Me,’” states, “throughout the nineteenth century certain values—duty, respectability, commercial success, middle-class morality—occupied a central position in the Victorian consciousness” (Gillespie 5).  Victorian men were not only competing for respect within their own sex, but they needed to impress the women too.  If they were not married, it depicted that they were not fully masculine because they did not have a family to support.  Supporting a family was a sign of true success within the male sex; he continues to quote Tosh stating:

At the same time, however, ‘only marriage could yield the full privileges of masculinity.’  According to Tosh, ‘To form a household, to exercise authority over dependents, and to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining and protecting them—these things set the seal on a man’s gender identity’.  Those household responsibilities—protecting, providing—are traditional and reinforce homosocial recognition and economic success. (Ingrid 242-43)

Keeping a woman and family safe in a home and providing comfort showed success for the male sex.  Being able to work through any hardships and succeed financially providing for the family reflected that a man was successful in the workforce as well, which made him respectable by his peers and other men in society.  Providing for a woman and a family were the ideals of the Victorian society, and not only men compared each other to meet these ideals, but women dreamed of marrying these types of men as well. 

Prescribing the notion that women were born to dream of marriage, Cecily and Gwendolyn, from The Importance of Being Earnest, are caught up in the fantasies of the perfect marriage to the perfect earnest husband.  Cecily and Gwendolyn are fixated on the name Earnest, almost as if it were an obsession; it is the ideal name for their future husbands.  They are determined not to marry a man unless he is called Earnest because they believe a man with this name will automatically live up to the name’s expectations of being serious, honorable, and moral.  According to Walter E. Houghton, author of The Victorian Frame of Mind, there are two ways one can be earnest: intellectually and morally.  “To be earnest intellectually is to have or to seek to have genuine beliefs about the most fundamental questions in life” (Houghton 220).  In other words, men in Victorian society needed to understand the conventions of life and not make mistakes people have in the past.  They need knowledge on how to live a successful life.  Houghton states: “To be earnest morally is to recognize that human existence is not a short interval between birth and death…but a spiritual pilgrimage from here to eternity in which he is called upon to struggle with all his power against the forces of evil…” (Houghton 221).  A man should be able to live a moral life and recognize the differences between right and wrong.  He must also live a spiritual life with God and stay true to his beliefs of purity and honesty.    

In Wilde’s play, he comically satirizes the name “Earnest,” through the portrayal of two deceitful men whom the women fantasize as being ideal men worthy of marriage.  These two men claim to live up to the Victorian ideals, but then live another life outside of the community to escape the society’s pressures. Henceforth, in the play, the men fall under the pressure of women and Victorian ideals rather than staying true to their identity and personalities.   

            The pressure from the Victorian society influences the way Cecily and Gwendolyn view men.  They dream of the prefect man to take them as their wife, and they believe it is the only way to satisfy the dream of marriage that Victorian women dream of since infancy, according to Petrie (Petrie 180).  As they dream of the perfect man, Gwendolyn and Cecily have adopted the Victorian concept of the perfect man to shape their expectations of their potential husbands.  Alan Ackerman argues the dangers in ideals, such as the ideal of a name: “‘The false ideal[s] of our time’ are shown to be disastrous in nearly every one of Wilde’s plays.  ‘Ideals are dangerous things,’”(Ackerman 142).  While the ideal of a name may not cause physical danger, it may affect a couple’s relationship emotionally because of the temptations to live up to the expectations of the partner.

Jack reveals a secret of his identity to Algernon in Act I.  He admits he is known by two different names—he is known by Jack in the country and Earnest in town.  He has always told people that he has a troublesome little brother by the name of Earnest; therefore, he uses him as an excuse to go into town whenever he wants to (Importance Location 92). Algernon then reveals to Jack that he has done something similar by creating a man who lives in the country by the name of Bunbury who is in very bad health, and he must take care of him.  This gives him an excuse to go to the country whenever he would like (Importance Location 101).  By creating fictional characters in the country or in town, Jack and Algernon are able to escape the ideal Victorian life and enjoy their time alone without the distractions from society.  They do not have the constant worry of pleasing others.  When they are in their “happy place,” they only worry about pleasing themselves.  When the two men make their confessions, it proves that Jack and Algernon are not earnest because they have not been honest to anyone.  Consequently, the men fail to live up to the women’s ideals because they have been lying to people about where they are going and why they are going to either the town or the country.  An earnest person would not create fictional characters and places just to get away from the people and certain parts of their lives, but the men do because they need an escape from the Victorian society and its ideals that they must live up to.

Jack and Algernon are forced develop a plan because Gwendolyn and Cecily refuse to marry them if they do not meet their expectations.  Gwendolyn tells Jack she would not love him if his name were not Earnest:

“My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Earnest.  There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.  The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Earnest, I knew I was destined to love you.” (Importance Location 166)

Gwendolyn does not care who a man is; as long as his name is Earnest, she will marry him.  It is the ideal she has grown up with, and she will firmly stay true to her expectations of her potential husband.  She implies that she was destined to love Jack solely because his name meets her ideals.  According to critic Russell Jackson’s article, “The Importance of Being Earnest,”  “Gwendolyn announces, and proceeds to enunciate the reduction to absurdity of such notions:  that marriage with a man called Earnest can be a goal in life” (172).  Gwendolyn does not even love Jack for who he is as a person; she loves him simply for his name.  She loves the idea of loving a man accepted by society because his name is Earnest, but not the actual personality Jack holds.  In effort to reveal his true self, Jack tries to hint that his name is not Earnest by asking her what she thinks of the name Jack, but Gwendolyn says,

Jack?...No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed.  It does not thrill.  It produces absolutely no vibrations… I have know several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were plain.  Besides Jack is a notorious domesticity for John!  And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John.  She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment’s solitude.  The only really safe name is Earnest. (Importance Location 175-184)

Even when Jack tries to admit his real name, Gwendolyn becomes lost in her ideals of a fantasized husband named Earnest and discourages Jack from confessing his real name.  She uses the knowledge that she has learned from the Victorian society to judge whether someone by the name of “John” or “Jack” would be a suitable husband for her, and in doing so, she manipulates Jack into hiding his identity out of fear of losing Gwendolyn.  He believes the only way Gwendolyn will accept him is to say his name is Earnest.  Ultimately, Gwendolyn could be the instigator for Jack’s continuing hypocrisy because she forces him to believe that she would never have the slightest interest in him unless he meets her ideals.  

Gwendolyn is not the only one who feels so passionately about the name Earnest; Cecily feels similarly.  When Cecily first sees Algernon, she immediately believes that he is Jack’s brother, Earnest.  Algernon does not tell her his real name; therefore, Algernon and Jack are forced to play their fictional roles because Cecily is already too deep in her fantasies about Earnest.  While Cecily can be categorized as another victim of Victorian society’s ideals, Jack’s dishonesty could be to blame for Cecily’s fantasy.  If he had never made up a fictional brother to see in the country, she would have never fallen in love with him.  On the other hand, the men’s dishonesty could come back to the women’s ideals, which proves that both the men and the women are manipulating each other when searching for a potential marriage partner.

For Cecily, the potential became a reality.  When Algernon proposes to Cecily, she replies, “You silly boy!  Of course.  Why, we have been engaged for the last three months” (Importance Location 504).  She continues to tell him about the fantasy relationship that she has imagined for them during the past months.  Cecily creating a fantasized relationship only proves that society’s ideals and expectations influence the way men and women view their potential mates.  Because Cecily is caught up in the ideals, Algernon continues to play along with it even after knowing how deeply deluded she has become.  Cecily’s delusion is companied by the fact the women have the ideal of the perfect husband with the perfect name.  Jack and Algernon are too scared to confess their true identity fearing rejection from women and society.  Not only would they admit they are liars, but it would mean they do not live up to the name Earnest, and the girls would break off the engagements.  Moreover, through gossip, word will spread that these two men are deceitful, and their chances with their ideal women will be hindered.

Because the Gwendolyn and Cecily do not have knowledge of the men’s deceit, both women are happy that they have found a man whose named Earnest, but “this instance by making idealism consist in wanting to marry a man called Ernest, and self-righteous indignation is briefly mocked when the two girls declare that they have been deceived by Jack and Algernon” (Jackson 166).  Wilde comically mocks the women for only wanting to marry based on the ideal of a man’s name being Earnest.  Throughout the whole play, Gwendolyn and Cecily are completely oblivious that their men are living double lives to escape from their ideal.  They are exposed to the deception their men have been undertaking later in Act Two when they are talking to each other about their men.  Gwendolyn describes Jack with the name Earnest: “Earnest has a strong upright nature.  He is the very soul of truth and honor.  Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception” (Importance Location 572).  Gwendolyn believes if a man has the name Earnest that his personality will live up to what the name means.  The two women fight with each other about who is actually marrying Earnest, and Jack and Algernon enter the scene. 

The men are officially exposed in this scene.  They are confronted about their deceitfulness and prove that they have not lived up to the women’s expectations.  Because the women caught them, Jack and Algernon are forced to be honest and beg for forgiveness. 

Cecily asks Algernon, “Are you called Algernon?” 

He replies, “I cannot deny it.” 

Gwendolyn then asks Jack, “Is your name really John?” 

He replies, “I could deny it if I liked.  I could deny anything if I like.  But my name certainly is John.  It has been for years.”  (Importance Location 627-35).

Here, Jack still holds on to the women’s ideals, and tries to be what the women want instead of his true self.  He wants to fulfill Gwendolyn’s expectations, even if that includes lying about his identity.  Jack’s comment by itself shows that he truly is not earnest.  He admits that he has lied, but underneath the words, it shows that he would be willing again in order to live up to the expectations Victorian society has for men.  Cecily’s comment, however, reveals the true irony of the scene:  “A gross deception has been practiced on both of us” (Importance Location 631).  Taken together, the two passages reflect Jack’s character and signify irony.  Wilde is using satire here because the women have been looking for a man who is both named Earnest and lives up to the name, but neither one of these men do.  Jack tries to make it seem that in order to keep from doing something terribly wrong he had to lie to Gwendolyn, but he is now choosing the honorable way out and confessing his lie.  In doing so, he is practicing the “earnestness” that the women find ideal in a man.

Jack and Algernon knew Cecily and Gwendolyn would not marry them unless their names were Earnest; therefore, they had to pretend they were really called by this name and consequently put their relationships in danger because of dishonesty from the beginning of the relationship.  The men were set up for failure and a deceitful relationship from the very start. Relationships rarely work when the dishonesty card is played, but the men still lied in order to live up to Gwendolyn and Cecily’s ideal men.  These women, who have learned ideals from the Victorian society, successfully influenced Jack and Algernon.  If Cecily and Gwendolyn accept them, it means that Victorian society would be accepting them as well.  As a result, Jack and Algernon were forced into living a double life to satisfy themselves, their women, and Victorian society.

Because Gwendolyn and Cecily caught the men living their double lives, the men are forced to repent and prove to the women that they still meet their Victorian expectations.  Russell Jackson states “confession and absolution are sublimely easy” (168).  The women forgive Jack and Algernon easily because they both come up with the idea of the men being Christened “Earnest;” hence, living up to the ideals of society.  Even though the women find a way to resolve the problem of the men not being named “Earnest,” they still forgive the men without a fight when they should be angry with them for the act of deceiving.  The men were not honest, and were not living up to the meaning of the ideal name; therefore, the women should have made the men prove themselves worthy of marriage instead of forgiving them so easily.  If the men truly met the Victorian expectations, they would be able to convince the women with evidence instead of changing their names through a Christening.  Wilde is satirizing earnestness in this scene because the women do not make the men prove themselves.  Gwendolyn and Cecily still swoon over them and want to get married even though the men are not truthful and moral like an earnest person should be, according to Houghton.  It provides comedy to the audience because it proves that the expectation of a man having a certain name is more important than the man holding the qualities that name means.

Wilde uses satire in the final scene of the play as well.  In an exciting twist, Jack learns he is Algernon’s brother and that his name really is Earnest (Wilde Location 867-84).  Wilde satirizes Jack’s deceitful nature by revealing that his name really is Earnest and that he has been speaking the truth the whole time.  Wilde pokes fun at the characters for living by the expectations of men and women.  Because the characters are concerned about the ideals of society, the men are forced to live double lives to keep their sanity as well as their acceptance in the Victorian society.

Wilde also uses the idea of a double life in a darker setting in the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Dorian Gray is the ideal man in the Victorian society with youthfulness, beauty, and wealth.  “He has a simple and beautiful nature,” (Picture Location 194) according to the painter, Basil, who is inspired by him.  Dorian Gray is accepted by both women and men in society because he was attractive and wealthy, which meant he was a great prospect for women.  Since marriage was a true sign of masculinity (Gillespie 5), men respected him as well because he was living up to the Victorian expectations of men.  One of the men that admires and respects Dorian is Basil, and he describes Dorian:

He was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair.  There was something in his face that made one trust him at once.  All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity.  One felt that had had kept himself unspotted from the world (Picture Location 212).

Men in the novel respect Dorian because women are attracted to him.  Because women are attracted to him, it implies that he will be a prospective partner in marriage.  Once married, he would be able to support a wife and live up to the Victorian expectations of providing for a wife and family, which also gained the respect from men’s fellow peers.  Lord Henry also discusses Dorian’s beauty with Dorian outside in the garden praising his beauty and youth, but also warns him that it does not last forever and Dorian should enjoy it while he has it:  “You will become sallow, and hallow-cheeked, and dulled-eyed.  You will suffer horribly…Ah!  Realize your youth while you have it” (Picture Location 301-11).  Dorian Gray has been blessed with the ideal image of a male in Victorian society.  Lord Henry wants Dorian to embrace his beauty as a gift, which he should use to his advantage.

            Dorian has not considered that one day his gift will no longer embody the Victorian ideal when he becomes old, but after Lord Henry tells him to embrace it, he realizes he will not stay young and beautiful forever:

How sad it is!  I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful.  But this picture will remain always young.  It will never be older than this particular day in June…If it were only the other way!  If it were I who was to always young, and the picture that was to grow old!  For that—for that—I would give everything!  Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!  I would give my soul for that! (Picture Location 356).

Dorian’s wish comes true.  His pretty face stays youthful while his portrait grows wrinkles and grows old; through this twist of fate Dorian is able to have a double life.  His physical life revolves around the vanity of his youth and beauty, and involves living strictly for pleasure.  His portrait, on the other hand, grows older, and Dorian’s is able to see his conscience inside of it, causing him to feel guilty for the sins he has committed.  The portrait ties him between the two lives of youthful beauty and sinful ugliness caused by the practicing of Lord Henry’s theories and philosophies of pleasure. 

            Dorian’s double life is a little different than Jack and Algernon because Dorian is not after a specific partner, but Dorian still is affected by the relationships he has with others, which reflects his view on society as well as how society views him.  He falls for Lord Henry’s philosophy on beauty and seeking out pleasure.  He is first exposed to Lord Henry’s influence while his portrait is being painted.  Lord Henry says, “Nothing can cure the soul but the sense, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul” (Picture Location 282).  In this statement, Lord Henry conveys that the soul and the senses work together to please one another.  He believes in feeding the senses pleasure, and in doing so, the soul will feel pleasure as well.

  While they are at Lady Agatha’s house, Lord Henry speaks of his philosophy, stating that everyone should spend their time appreciating beauty, youthfulness, and acting this way for pleasure:  “To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies” (Picture Location 555).  According to Lord Henry’s philosophy, in order to stay youthful, one must act young, and live life as the youthful would.  As Lord Henry spoke of his philosophies,  “Dorian Gray never took his gaze off him, but sat like one under a spell, smiles chasing each other over his lips and wonder growing grave in his darkening eyes” (Picture Location 572).  Dorian does fall under his spell, and he begins to live a youthful life and admiring his own beauty and trying to avoid becoming old.  By taking advantage of his gifts and living by Lord Henry’s philosophies, he can easily be accepted by the Victorian society.  If he refuses, society would dismiss him, and he would never be considered as a prospect for marriage or never viewed as a respectable man by his male peers because he would not be living by the Victorian expectations.

The Victorian society is influenced by the depiction of an ideal love affair through the productions of Shakespeare, which is where Dorian falls in love with the actress, Sibyl Vane.  Dorian becomes captivated by Sybil, believing that he is in love and that people will know her someday because she is a genius (Picture Location 630).  Lord Henry replies, “My dear boy, no woman is a genius.  Women are a decorative sex.  They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly.  Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals” (Picture Location 630).  Lord Henry imparts to Dorian the Victorian concept that women are inferior to men and have their own purpose in the society.  He continues his analysis of women by stating:

Ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured.  The plain women are very useful.  If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper.  The other women are very charming.  They commit one mistake, however.  They paint in order to look young…  As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. (Picture Location 630)

As Lord Henry describes to Dorian, women must be able to make a man look respectable, and have their place in society.  In addition, women are made to look young and pretty.  Women are not there to work or take place in intellectual conversations; their job is to simply be an accessory for the male and help him gain a reputation.  According to Richard Altick’s book, Victorian People and Ideas, “the female brain was not equal to the demands of commerce or the professions, and women, simply by virtue of their sex, had no business mingling with men…There was something unpleasant, even alarming, about strong-willed women who insisted on using their minds (Altick 54).  A woman obtainable to knowledge was unacceptable, and men dismissed any woman who held any sort of knowledge because it did not meet the Victorian expectations of women.  They were seen as inferior to men, and they were not to hold the same knowledge as them.  Their responsibilities and knowledge were of the home and femininity.  If Sibyl is really a genius, she would not fit the Victorian ideal woman, and she would not be an acceptable partner for a relationship, which would explain why Lord Henry tries to turn Dorian away from her.  She does not represent the typical and ideal woman to pursue; therefore, Dorian must not even show interest in her.

            Although Lord Henry tries convincing Dorian not to pursue a relationship with Sibyl, Dorian disregards his advice and pursues the relationship anyway.  Sibyl then falls under the typical female role in a Victorian relationship, swooning over Dorian and believing in their love and it being all that matters.  Her mother disapproves of the relationship and believes Sibyl needs to focus on more practical matters such as fulfilling her performance contract to pay their debt.  Sibyl, however, stands her ground: “What does money matter?  Love is more than money…Prince Charming rules life for us now” (Picture Location 810-19).  She acts very similarly to Cecily when falling for the ideal Victorian man, but not to such an extreme.  However, she does fall under the romantic love spell and fantasizes about her possible future just as Cecily dreamed of her love:

 The girl laughed again. The joy of a caged bird was in her voice.  Her eyes caught the melody and echoed it in radiance, then closed or a moment, as though to hide their secret.  When they opened, the mist of a dream had passed across them… She was free in her prison of passion.  Her prince, Prince Charming, was with her.  She had called on memory to remake him.  She had sent her soul to search for him, and it had brought him back.  His kiss burned again upon her mouth.  Her eyelids were warm with his breath.” (Picture Location 818-27)

Sibyl falls for the ideal Victorian man and categorizes herself with the ideal Victorian woman by fantasizing and wearing her heart on her sleeve.  She also reflects on the principle that women expect men to take financial responsibility for them.  When she says, “hide their secret” (Picture Location 818), she is referring to the knowledge of Dorian’s wealth and his duty as a man to care for her and her family.  Since she has debt, according to Victorian conventions, Dorian will take care of her financially and provide for her once married.  She knows that she is not wealthy, and secretly, she knows he will provide her a “fairytale” lifestyle compared to what she has now.  Sibyl believes Dorian will live up to these Victorian expectations women have set for men.

            Men had their expectations of women just as women did for men, and at first, Dorian believes that Sibyl possesses the characteristics of the Victorian woman.  Dorian is excited to have his friends meet and see Sibyl perform on stage, but realizes her acting is not as good as usual and becomes heartbroken (Picture Location 1141).  While Dorian believes he was in love, he never did love Sibyl; he only loved the characters she became on stage, which were romantic dreamlike shadows of art.  Dorian fell for the ideal woman instead of the real woman Sibyl was and realizes he only loved her beauty, her talents as an actress, and her emotions she portrays while on stage.  Dorian rejects Sibyl’s affection:

You have thrown it all away… What a fool I have been.  You are nothing to me now.  I will never see you again.  I will never think of you.  I will never mention your name… You have spoiled romance in my life.  How little you can know of love, if you say it mars your art!  Without your art, you are nothing. (Picture Location 1177)

Just as the women in The Importance of Being Earnest, Dorian fell for a Victorian ideal of a gender.  Because Sibyl did not obtain the characteristics he thought she held, he completely dismisses her just as Gwendolyn would have dismissed Jack if his name were not “Earnest.”  His dismissal of Sibyl proves that he was putting her beauty and his pleasure of her acting before the real purpose of falling in love.  To him, it does not matter if it really is love; it is what she portrays and the pleasure she provides for him that matters.  Since she does not meet Dorian or society’s ideals of a woman, she is not a prospect for marriage.  Dorian’s cruel dismissal of his relationship with Sibyl and her death act as a catalyst in his double life.

            Dorian Gray’s double life is lived through his portrait throughout the novel; his sin and pleasures are lived through his every day life, but his sins and guilt live through the painting. When looking at the portrait, Dorian feels guilty about the sinful pleasures he commits based off of society’s influence, just as Jack and Algernon were aware of their double lives in The Importance of Being Earnest.  He sees changes in his painted face—“a touch of cruelty in the mouth” and wrinkles (Picture Location 1222), which represent his guilt for his cruelty toward Sibyl after his outrage at the theatre.  “Pangs of guilt cause Dorian to swing between remorse and exultation throughout most of the novel” (Gillespie 18).  Even though Dorian may feel guilty for his actions, he always seems to disregard his feelings and continues to cover up his feelings of guilt with more feelings of pleasure.

            Dorian swings back and forth throughout the novel because of his desire for youth and pleasure, which is influenced by Lord Henry and the rest of the Victorian society.  He lets pleasures get in the way of morality, resulting in his portrait becoming disfigured by his immorality.  Dorian acknowledges his immorality and accepts the idea of his body staying young while his portrait continues to grow with sin because, “What did it matter what happened to the colored image on the canvas?  He would be safe.  That was everything” (Picture Location 1448).  The portrait aging and growing cruel facial expressions does not matter to Dorian as long as he is accepted by society.  In the Victorian age, men wanted acceptance and respectability; it did not matter how they gained the respect.  The blatant disregard for the means of attaining respect and acceptance led Dorian to practice Lord Henry’s philosophy on staying youthful and pleasuring himself, but his guilt always lingered in the back of his mind when he looked at the portrait.

            Dorian decides to hide his portrait after he realizes it continues to grow more dreadful from sins and guilt every day:

[He wraps it in a] large, purple satin coverlet heavily embroidered with gold, a splendid piece of late seventeenth century… It had perhaps served often as a pall for the dead.  Now it was to hide something that had a corruption of its own, worse than the corruption of death itself—something that would breed horrors and yet would never die.  What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be in the painted image on the canvas.  They would mar its beauty and eat away its grace.” (Picture Location 1607-16)

Even though Dorian is devoted to preserving his youthfulness and beauty, a part of him is ashamed of his sins of vanity.  By hiding the portrait, no one but Dorian will be able to see the sinful life that he is living.  On the other hand, the painting is growing in age and sin as a person would.  Dorian is able to escape his life by allowing the portrait to take on the humanistic characteristics that he should be living.  Because he takes on the portrait life, the portrait experiences his different attitudes his conscious feels.  Gillespie explains this concept in his critical book on Dorian Gray:

The painting brings out the paradoxical attitudes at work in Dorian’s consciousness, for it exerts both a liberating and an inhibiting effect.  On the other hand, the picture gives him the advantage of escaping the horror he would have to face if his body began to show the physical consequences of the growing depravity of his life.  At the same time, the demeanor of the portrait reminds him, with unrelenting insistence, of the inescapable effects of his debauchery (Gillespie 51).

By allowing the portrait to take on this role, Dorian continues to be accepted by society over the years. He is accepted because he is ever youthful, handsome, wealthy, and a respectable male by both men and women in the Victorian society.  He meets the ideal characteristics Victorian women wanted men to be married to; therefore, making him a well suited prospect and a respectable man of Victorian society.

            Even though Dorian is accepted by the Victorian society, his portrait does show that he is guilty of immoral acts.  When Basil views the painting, he cannot believe it is his painting because the man he painted was young and beautiful; this man showed age and ugliness.  Dorian says, “It is the face of my soul” (Picture Location 2137).  Dorian is aware that he living two separate lives and understands that his sinfulness and guilt are living through the painting.  Basil sees the portrait as a lesson to Dorian, and tries to convince him to live an honorable life without the vanity he possesses.  He tells Dorian it is never too late to repent and ask for God’s forgiveness, but Dorian does not want to listen to Basil and face repentance; therefore, “he rushes at him and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table and stabbing again and again” (Picture Location 2155).  In an attempt to conceal his double life, Dorian kills Basil.  He wants everyone in society to accept him for the beautiful, young man that he is physically, not the ugly and sinful man his soul conveys.  After learning of Dorian’s true nature, Basil could not accept Dorian as the ideal Victorian male; with his hypocrisy revealed, Dorian murdered Basil.  If word were to get out about Dorian, other men and women of society would not accept him either.

            Although society accepted Dorian, Basil’s death, along with Sibyl’s suicide and Dorian’s other sinful acts of pleasure throughout the novel haunt him in the final scene:

He looked round and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward.  He had cleaned it many times, till there was no stain left upon it.  It was bright, and glistened.  As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant.  It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace.  He seized the thing, and stabbed the picture with it. (Picture Location 3011).  

The portrait haunts Dorian throughout the novel, and in the end he wants peace within his soul because is tired of living a double life.  If the portrait is destroyed, he believes that he will be free of his guilt and he can continue his pleasurable life while still holding acceptance from society.  By killing Basil, Dorian eliminated one source that threatened to destroy his acceptance.  At the end of the novel, the only source standing in the middle of Dorian and society is the portrait because only the portrait exposes Dorian’s true self and reveals that he is not the ideal man in Victorian society.  If someone were to figure out the real reason of the portrait’s ugliness, Dorian would be isolated from society.

            In the end, the Victorian community learns that Dorian possessed a double life.  When men entered his house,

they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty.  Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart.  He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage.  It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was. (Picture Location 3020).

Dorian believed that destroying the portrait would rid him of his guilt, and he would be able to continue living his accepted life.  What he did not know is that his own physical life would be taken in the end.  Wilde uses the representation of a double life through the portrait to show that men in the Victorian society were influenced by their peers and women they could potentially marry.  As illustrated through Dorian, Victorian men feared not being accepted by society; for if they were not, they would not be considered masculine.  Moreover, their fears caused them to make decisions based on acceptance from society rather than morality.

            Since acceptance was a main concern in the Victorian society, social conventions led men to live double lives in order to live up to the expectations of their peers and of women.  Both men and women searched for an ideal relationship based on the expectations of the demanding society because they feared rejection from potential prospects and their peers.  Oscar Wilde uses these expectations to create relationships reflecting the ideal Victorian relationship in his two works, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

Work Cited

Ackerman, Alan.  “Form and Freedom in The Importance of Being Earnest.  Approaches to Teaching the Works of Oscar Wilde.  Ed.  Philip E. Smith II.  New York:  The Modern Language Association of America, 2008.  142-50.

Altick, Richard D.  “The Weaker Sex.”  Victorian People and Ideas.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973.  50-9.

Gillespie, Michael Patrick.  The Picture of Dorian Gray: “What the World Thinks of Me.”  New York:  Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Green, Harvey.  “A Woman’s Calling.”  The Light of the Home.  New York:  Pantheon Books, 1983.  10-28.

Houghton, Walter E.  “Earnestness.”  The Victorian Frame of Mind.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1957.  218-62.

Jackson, Russell.  “The Importance of Being Earnest.”  The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde.  Ed. Peter Raby.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.  161-77.

Petrie, Charles.  “Victorian Women Expected to Be Idle and Ignorant.”  Victorian England.  Ed.  Clarice Swisher.  San Diego:  Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2000.  178-87.

Ranum, Ingrid. "An Adventure In Modern Marriage: Domestic Development In Tennyson's Geraint And Enid And The Marriage Of Geraint." Victorian Poetry 47.1 (2009): 241-257. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.

Wilde, Oscar.  The Importance of Being Earnest.  Public Domain Books.  Kindle.

Wilde, Oscar.  The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Public Domain Books: 1994.  Kindle