Almost all novels rely upon the development of tension, both within characters and among them, in order to develop a plot that will engage the reader. When such tension is developed effectively, the reader is invited to make an emotional investment in the characters and to be concerned about what happens to them as a result of their adventures and misfortunes. Tension, of course, can be developed in many ways, using a variety of subjects or themes. In the novels The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde, and The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, the authors create tension and engage the reader by developing characters who are straining against the gender roles that society has prescribed for them. In Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray there are various facets of masculinity are explored, and it seems that no choice is a viable option for the three main male characters, all but one of whom meets bitter ends. In Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth, Lily is the main character who is straining to become society’s feminine ideal, but it is a struggle she is fated to lose. By creating characters who strive to become something other than they are, Wilde and Wharton question the social constructs of gender, asking, among other questions, whether prescribed gender roles offer any real opportunities at all.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an interesting study in three of the various masculine roles and examining these gender roles would make for a host of interesting thesis statements for The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. That men can take on and fulfill, and while it is important to acknowledge the historical andliterary context of Victorian society, Wilde’s meditation on masculinity might be considered as relevant today as it was when it was published. Three male characters are of particular importance: the artist, Basil Hallward, the aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton, and the young, handsome hedonist, Dorian Gray. Before launching into a more specific discussion of these three representations of Victorian masculine characters, it should be noted that these three roles; an artist, aristocrat, and hedonist are three quintessentially masculine categories men would find themselves in. As a result, in The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde is exploring the ways in which men who pursue traditionally masculine lifestyles all encounter similar pitfalls and difficulties, despite the differences in their lifestyles. In short, masculinity is full of traps.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, The reader meets Lord Henry first, and the initial description of his surroundings and the content of his thoughts—musings about flowers and birds and Japanese art forms—conveys the fact that Lord Henry is a man of leisure, who has little pressing business to conduct in life. Throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray, his role is to offer counsel, usually unsolicited, on subjects as varied as art, the meaning of life, and the pursuit of pleasure, although it is unclear just what makes him qualified to render advice on any of these subjects. Although he is married, his wife seems to lack importance to him, and it is clear that he at least imagines homosexual dalliances. The next character in The Picture of Dorian Gray is Basil Hallward, an artist who is obviously gifted yet who also demonstrates some insecurities. In The Picture of Dorian Gray Basil is preoccupied by the intensity of his feelings for the subject of his portrait, Dorian Gray, who for his part is a charmingly dashing young man who devotes his life to no work in particular, or at all.
Each of these three characters represents a very different kind of masculinity, but it is clear that none of them is quite content with the role that he has chosen or which he feels forced to play. Lord Henry clearly states that his life as a married man is a fulfillment of obligation, not of desire when he tells Basil in one of the important quotes from The Picture of Dorian Graythat … “the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing. When we meet — we do meet occasionally, when we dine out together, or go down to the Duke’s — we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces" (6). In this Victorian world of often overemphasized masculine and feminine roles, it appears that both parties feel as though there is something missing or not fulfilling about the narrow gender roles they have been assigned by their societies. When the institution of marriage and romantic are questioned because of the strained nature of gender roles, it becomes immediately clear that there are serious flaws in both the characters themselves as well as the society at large.
Basil criticizes Lord Henry’s callousness in this and a great many other matters, but Lord Henry does not feel chastised in the least. In fact, it seems that he enjoys being contrary and flaunting what is expected of him as a married, wealthy man. Basil, for his part, appears to have a more finely attuned moral compass than Lord Henry, and for this reason, he struggles with his homoerotic feelings towards Dorian. Despite feeling a premonition that he “was on the verge of a terrible crisis", (9), Basil feels drawn towards Dorian, so much so that he says, “I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him every day. He is absolutely necessary to me" (14). Basil is able to temper his feelings somewhat, but his concern for Dorian eventually results in his death by Dorian’s own hand.