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Queerness in The Monk and The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Looking up the word ‘queer’ in the English dictionary one will find multiple definitions and meanings for the word. The most common one is probably ‘queer(adjective) for something odd, strange, unusable or even slightly ill’. However, words and their meanings change over time and in the late nineteenth century ‘queer’ got a new definition. It was used as an epithet or slur for homosexual people (especially gay men). In the late 1980s the negative connotation shifted to a more euphemistic after people started to deliberately use the word as a replacement for ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’. ‘Queer’ already made an evolution from ‘odd’ to ‘homosexual’ and from a definisme to an eufemisme, the only step left to arrive at the current definition is to broaden it. Nowadays, the term is not only linked to homosexuality but to any sexual orientation or gender identity not equivalent to heterosexual and cisgender norms. This broader connotation is now well adopted and globally used, as an affirmative term that symbolizes pride, confidence and self-acceptance. (Bennet and Royle, 2004, 187-188)

Literature has as per usual a significant influence in the exposure of words and their message. Although, the explicit use of the word ‘queer’ was almost non-existent in (pre-)nineteenth century writing, implicit traces of queerness can be found hidden between the lines. In English literature one encounters a great deal of well- and unknown, more or less openly or explicit queer writers and writings. When looking for the right signes, queerness can be found even in familiar, seemingly clear heterosexual stories such as The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis or The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by its less heterosexual writer Oscar Wilde. By analyzing the gothic novels these novels, this paper traces elements of queerness embedded in both stories by focusing on underlying homoerotic codes and ambiguous gender usage, and the ways in which they shape and affect the narrative.

Matthew Gregory Lewis was a British author who lived mainly in the late 18th century. After graduating from the Christ Church, Oxford, he wrote his famous masterpiece The Monk when he was merely 21 years old. Very interesting was Lewis relationship with a boy called William Kelly, he was the son of Isabelle Kelly, an author with whom he corresponded. According to many the two man had a intimate bond, not only that but Lewis also took on the tutelage of Kelly and paid for his education and offered other financial aid. The younger man was even included in Lewis’ will. There can be read: “the legacy to William Martin Kelly, I bequeath him 104l. yearly…that sum being paid him by weekly instalments of two pounds each” (Colburn, 1839, 387). Although they were involved for 15 years, there was never proof of a romantic relationship or sexual involvement. Nevertheless, there multiple rumors about their true relation and sexuality. If Lewis was indeed queer will stay unknown but it was unquestionable that William Kelly had casted some spell over him.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish author, poet and playwright who lived in the second part of the nineteenth century. Oscar Wilde was what one would describe as a dandy, even flamboyant. While he was well-known for this writings (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest and “De Profundis”), he was also for scandals around his sexuality and the following trials for gross indecency. Mid-1891 Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas, also known as “Bosie”, a 21-year-old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet. Although Wilde was married, the friendship between the two man quickly let to an intimate but forbidden affair. The author and his lover have written a significant amount of romantic love letters, those were later on used against Oscar in his trials.

In both stories the reader encounters interesting main characters. What especially attracts the attention is the ambiguousness of the main characters gender identity as well as their sexuality. Aside from the facts that both characters are presumed male, the both are put in a very ‘feminine’ position. In addition, their sexulity may be not as clear and straight as one would assume. Traces of queerness can be found in supernatural situations and complicated but intimate relationships between characters.

Taking a closer look at the main character of Lewis’ story, a 30 year old monk named Ambrosio, questions around his gender arise immediately. This partly through the ‘feminine’ position that Ambrosio is put into from the very beginning. He is portrayed as the typical gothic young virgin who is sheltered and protected from the outside world in order to maintain his/her virtue and innocence. Ambrosio is not familiar with the world and its temptations. It is this innocents and naïveté that results in his doom later on. In nineteenth century novels the catholic monastic male chastity is normally a condemned issue. The Monk, however, made an emphasis on this matter and has its base in female virtue and virginity. Ambrosio can also be compared to another character in the text; Antonia, his younger sister. She is a 15 year old timid and innocent girl, she grew up in an old castle in Murcia with only her mother and is therefore very sheltered. The girl can be seen as the prototypical image of virtue. Antonia and Ambrosio were both cut off the world, hence their shared ignorance and innocence. Consequently, this seclusion resulted in total unfamiliarity with sex and temptations;

“He is reported to be so strict an observer of chastity, that he knows not in what consists the difference of man and woman.” (The Monk, p.11)

Ambrosio is very ignorant that he can even tell the difference between a man and a woman. This part particular enlightens interest for the coming events in the story, when he meets Rosario, a young boy that turn out to be a lady. The camouflaged woman is also the one who lures him into a sexual relationship and thereby breaks his sexual ignorance. This encounter will be discussed later on regarding Ambrosio his sexuality and its ambiguity.

Other evidence of his femininity can be found in Lewis’ usage of ‘feminised’ language when describing Ambrosio. This is completed by means of metaphors and vocabulary that is specifically feminine directed due to contextually differentiation. When Ambrosio is about to enter Antonia’s bedchamber;

“He was employed appalled his heart, and rendered it more timid than a Woman’s.” (The Monk, p.299)

At multiple points in the novel Ambrosio is portrayed as tremblingly weak and fearful. For example in the following passage, after Matilda and Ambrosio consumed their relationship for the first time:

“Ambrosio’s lust was satisfied; Pleasure fled, and Shame usurped her seat in his bosom. Confused and terrified at his weakness, He drew himself from Matilda’s arms.” (The Monk, p.223)

Matilda’s seduction is a success, but Ambrosio reacts different than what is expected of a male figure. He feels shame and remorse, even violated at the hands of a woman. The irony can easily be detected in the passage together with the colored terminology: reference to “shame”, “his bosom”, “terrified”, “his weakness”, etcetera. Equally remarkable is how it is suggested that Matilda is holding Ambrosio in her arms and not the other way around. Placing her in the typical dominating, masculine position.

The relationship in The Monk that draws the most attention is by far that of Ambrosio and Matilda. It starts with Matilda’s disguise as Rosario a young male novice. Ambrosio falls in love with this mysterious novice, the desire is not answered until after the disclosure, however, a homoerotic ambience has been established.

“Will it not be easy for me to forget her sex, and still consider her as my Friend and my disciple? […] She has done quite the contrary: She strove to keep me in ignorance of her sex;[…]She has made no attempts to rouze my slumbering passions, nor has She ever conversed with me till this night on the subject of Love.” (The Monk, p. 66-67)

“His head was continually muffled up in his Cowl; Yet such of his features as accident discovered, appeared the most beautiful and noble. […] Ambrosio on his side did not feel less attracted towards the Youth; With him alone did He lay aside his habitual severity. When He spoke to him, He insensibly assumed a tone milder than was usual to him; and no voice sounded so sweet to him as did Rosario’s.[…] Ambrosio was every day more charmed with the vivacity of his Genius, the simplicity of his manners, and the rectitude of his heart: […] He could not help sometimes indulging a desire secretly to see the face of his Pupil”(The Monk, p. 29)

From the passage above, it can be said that there is an implied homoerotic relationship established between Ambrosio and Rosario, especially the way that the former admires the latters, in terms of both beauty and intellect. Both consume their love after the revelation of Rosario’s true gender, although his/her real identity seems to be even more complicated when one discovers that he/she in facts is an evil spirit (demon). Nevertheless, Matilda pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman, exploits the sexual controversy as well brings confusion of the gender roles. Jerrold Hogle comments in his article “The Ghost of the Counterfeit—and the Closet—in The Monk” on Rosario/Matilda as an example of counterfeiting that closes down the homoerotic overtones of desire: “As Walpole does in thus tracing and erasing his own sexual preference from his book, Lewis both acts out and conceals that kind of desire, flirting with but finally resisting any “coming out” in The Monk’s pursuit of counterfeits that definitely turn out to be leads worth of social and superhuman punishment”. (Hogle, 1997, [n.pag])

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When analysing Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray it is good to know that there is an uncensored copy of the novel. In 1889 Wilde completed the story and submitted it to “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine”. The magazine’s editor, J. M. Stoddart, however, already censored some part of the story before it was official published. Nevertheless, after the publication Wilde still got much critic for it supposed homosexual references. There was much controversy that the issue of the magazine had to be withdrawn.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” wrote Oscar Wilde in the preface to the 1891 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

Of course critics did not agree with his statement and the novel was re-edited for a second time before the expanded version was published by Ward, Lock and Company in 1891.

Some of the most fascinating (censored) scenes are these between Dorian and Basil, the artist of Dorian his painting. Since the beginning it becomes clear from that Basil has a very passionate admiration of Dorian and his outstanding beauty. There is an obvious physical attraction, that strong that Basil almost encounters paralysis, that confirms the first indications of homosexualtity. One can argue that this is just a form of aestheticism instead of sexual attraction. However, further in the text more homoerotic codes and themes emerge:

“Suddenly I found myself face to face with the young man whose personality had so strangely stirred me. We were quite close, almost touching. Our eyes met again.”

The relation between Basil and Dorian seem to go further than just that of a painter and his muse, on multiple occasions traces of flirting can be discovered. For example when talking to Lord Henry, Basil confesses:

“I know he likes me. Of course I flatter him dreadfully. I find a strange pleasure in saying things to him I know I shall be sorry for having said. I give myself away. As a rule, he is charming to me, and we walk home together from the club arm in arm, or sit in the studio and talk of a thousand things.” (The Picture of Dorian Gray, [n.pag])

Basil acknowledges how weak he is whenever Dorian is involved, his gives himself away and cannot control what he says. “Walking arm in arm” is again an indication of their physical attraction. Basil has very strong feelings for Dorian, a passion that almost turns into a obsession, he worships him.

Lord Henry: “But you don’t really worship him?”

Basil: “I do.”

Lord Henry: “How extraordinary! I thought you would never care for anything but your painting,—your art, I should say. Art sounds better, doesn’t it?”

Basil: “He is all my art to me. . . “ (The Picture of Dorian Gray, [n.pag])

In a conversation between Basil and Dorian, the former confesses to have more feelings of the latter then is normal between friends. He is totally enchanted by Dorian and even adores the man:

“It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend. Somehow I have never loved a woman.[…] Well, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I quite admit that I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly. I was jealous of everyone to whom you spoke. I wanted to have you all to myself. I was only happy when I was with you. ”(The Picture of Dorian Gray, [n.pag])

Another intriguing remark is the possiviness that Basil has towards Dorian. The man is his art, muse, friend, lover, and Basil does not want to share him or the painting with anyone else. He is consumed by Dorian and cannot stand the thought of losing him. The conversation follows:

“You would not have understood it; I did not understand it myself. One day I determined to paint a wonderful portrait of you. It was to have been my masterpiece. It is my masterpiece. […] I felt, Dorian, that I had told too much. Then it was that I resolved never to allow the picture to be exhibited. You were a little annoyed; but then you did not realize all that it meant to me.”(The Picture of Dorian Gray, [n.pag])

The second part of Basil’s confession only further emphasises his helplessness. He is unable to understand his very passionate and personal feelings. Whatever drives him more insane is the thought that Dorian never will be able to understand him and his feelings, questioning if Dorian can ever return the love.

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Queerness in The Monk and The Picture of Dorian Gray. (2022, November 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from
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