Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Dorian Gray Goes Slumming (a close reading)

"The Hooligans," by Leonard Raven-Hill (1899)
In Chapter 16 of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Dorian Gray goes slumming. The upper classes began visiting the slums for recreational, or charitable, purposes in the 1880s. In Wilde's novel, Dorian travels there for pleasure and has acquired a drug addiction. Wilde's portrayal of London's East End explores the nature of class divisions in the 1890s. Although it's only a few lines long, the first paragraph sets the scene and it's a horrible one, in which light makes the dark more frightening.
A cold rain began to fall, and the blurred street-lamps looked ghastly in the dripping mist. The public-houses were just closing, and dim men and women were clustering in broken groups round their doors. From some of the bars came the sound of horrible laughter. In others, drunkards brawled and screamed.
The first five words tell us this isn't going to be a pleasant night. The rain is cold and it is just beginning. This rain isn't cleansing, but a "dripping mist," like the fog of London -- only wetter.

We know it is dark because the street lamps are on, but rather than lighting the way the street lamps are "blurred" and "ghastly." Ghastly things cause terror. How can a street lamp be ghastly? A ghastly street lamp causes terror by exposing it. Light makes the dark more frightening by providing glimpses of what is hiding in the dark.

By continuing a close reading of this chapter, we will find several references to Jack the Ripper. When Wilde was writing this, interest in Jack the Ripper was high, creating a morbid recreational fascination with the East End among Dorian's peers, who connected the area to the Ripper's brutal crimes.

The public houses, referred to in the second sentence, were East End pubs and taverns. It's closing time. The drinks of last call are done. The "dim men and women" are drunk. Of all the Victorian words for drunkenness, Wilde chose "dim" for the continued allusion to light. The men and women are dim in the ghastly light of the street lamps.

We may also assume that these were ghastly men and women. Respectable Victorian women didn't drink in public houses, or in public at all. The fact that they do here is part of the depravity Wilde wants to portray. Drunken women mingling, or "clustering in broken groups," with drunken men implies loose morals and possible prostitution. Poverty and drunkenness were Victorian character flaws caused by loose morals. Women could not easily be forgiven for ever having demonstrated such character flaws; Lady Meux was shunned by respectable society her entire life because she once worked in a public house.

"From some of the bars came the sound of horrible laughter." The perceived depravity of the poor and drinking classes makes their laughter horrible. In the public houses where they aren't laughing, they are brawling and screaming. Before Dorian even steps out of his carriage, this is the scene that readers see him in.

This paragraph prepares the reader for a chapter that follows Dorian into the slums, where he will find characters from his deplorable past. This paragraph also serves as a window that provides the reader with a view of London's East End from a very specific angle. From this angle, residents of the East End are morally depraved, ghastly individuals, who participate in creating the dangerous situations we find them in.

I will read the next paragraph in my next blog post. In the mean time, you can read The Picture of Dorian Gray at Project Gutenberg. For more information on 1890s slums and slumming visit the Victorian Web.

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