First of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
I recently bought Mark Valentine’s anthology, The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray, which is a collection of some of my favorite authors riffing on the themes found in Oscar Wilde’s novel. It had been quite a while since I’d read The Picture of Dorian Gray, so I decided to re-read it before diving into the anthology.
Of course, I noticed (again) all the things in the book that one usually notices: the gay subtext of artist Basil Hallward’s feelings for Dorian, Dorian’s moral decline, the characters’ witty (or precious, depending on your point of view) conversation, Wilde’s little digs at Victorian upper-class society, and what a poser and asshole Lord Henry Wotton is.
About a third of the way in, I ran face-first into this passage. Basil has just learned of Dorian’s engagement to Sibyl Vane, and Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian are having dinner before going to see Sibyl’s performance in Romeo and Juliet. In conversation, Henry says, “When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”
To which Basil responds, what does Henry mean by good?
“Yes,” echoed Dorian, leaning back in his chair and looking at Lord Henry over the heavy clusters of purple-lipped irises that stood in the centre of the table, “what do you mean by good, Harry?”
For some reason, that paragraph stopped me cold. What on earth were those irises doing there? Wilde does spend a lot of time describing settings: the furniture and bric-a-brac in a room, the plants in a garden; but he hadn’t described this particular room at all. Was it important that Dorian had to look over the irises to see Lord Henry?
That sent me back to the beginning of the book, looking for all the flower references. And I realized that there are a LOT of flower references. The Victorians were into floriography, the language of flowers; did Wilde fill the text with symbology that I wasn’t catching?
Probably he did; and probably literary and mythological references that I also missed. But he also built quite a lot of explicit structure into the novel through flowers, as well. I’m sure there’s a dissertation out there somewhere on this, but it was new to me, and so for fun, I thought I’d suss it out, along with some possibly apropos flower symbology.
Warning: plot spoilers abound. I’m assuming that you’ve read Dorian Gray, or at least skimmed the synopsis in Wikipedia.
Ironically, the irises in the scene above were the most obscure flowers in the novel for me, symbolically speaking. Irises represent the link between heaven and earth: the Greek goddess Iris was the personification of the rainbow. To the Victorians, irises could signify admiration, and purple irises specifically meant wisdom and compliments. So maybe the irises represent how much Dorian admires and wants to emulate Lord Henry? Hmmm.
Let’s try looking at another scene.
After Dorian breaks it off with Sibyl Vane, he walks the streets all night, upset. Towards dawn, he finds himself near Covent Garden, as vendors arrive to set up market.
The darkness lifted, and, flushed with faint fires, the sky hollowed itself into a perfect pearl. Huge carts filled with nodding lilies rumbled slowly down the polished empty street. The air was heavy with the perfume of the flowers, and their beauty seemed to bring him an anodyne for his pain. He followed into the market and watched the men unloading their waggons. … A long line of boys carrying crates of striped tulips, and of yellow and red roses, defiled in front of him, threading their way through the huge, jade-green piles of vegetables…
So many flowers! Lilies are funeral flowers — and Sibyl has killed herself, though he doesn’t know it yet. They can also symbolize renewal and rebirth, as Dorian recovers from the pain and suffering he felt the previous evening.
Tulips, depending on the color, can mean undying love, or hopeless, one-sided love. These tulips are striped, though. Striped carnations mean rejection; maybe the symbology transfers. Yellow roses can mean a broken heart, intense emotion, extreme betrayal. I think we can call the way Dorian rejected Sibyl a betrayal, and certainly her heart was broken. Red roses, of course, mean love. Oh, but red and yellow roses together mean joy, happiness and excitement. Irony, perhaps?
Okay, maybe I’m reading too much into the scenes above. But there is much clearer flower symbology galore. Most obviously, flowers denote beauty, and the beloved.
Lord Henry (and Wilde) constantly describe Dorian with rose metaphors (“your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood”, the “red and white roses” of the painting, his rose-red lips). Henry says to the young Dorian, “Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses.” Red roses mean love and beauty, while white ones mean innocence (white lilies can symbolize chastity).
Later, Henry contemplates how Dorian has bloomed:
Lord Henry watched him with a subtle sense of pleasure. How different he was now from the shy frightened boy he had met in Basil Hallward’s studio! His nature had developed like a flower, had borne blossoms of scarlet flame.
For his part, Dorian notices Lord Henry’s “cool, white, flowerlike hands” which have “a curious charm.”
There are a lot of flower descriptions of Sibyl Vane, too. Sibyl’s lips are always flowerlike, she always blushes like a rose. Dorian describes her to Henry as having “a little, flowerlike face,” with “lips that were like the petals of a rose.”
When Dorian kisses her, she trembles “like a white narcissus” — narcissus can symbolize unrequited love. When Dorian rejects her, she flings herself at his feet and “lay there like a trampled flower.”
And then there’s Hetty, with “apple-blossoms… tumbling down on her hair,” whom Dorian decides not to seduce, but instead to leave her “as flowerlike as I had found her.” When Dorian leaves to return to London after this “good deed,” he spots Hetty one last time: “her white face at the window, like a spray of jasmine.”
The one main character who never gets a direct flower description is Basil Hallward. Poor, unappreciated Basil.
Besides beauty, flowers represent transience — and yet they also represent eternality. Flowers fade, and then they die; but come spring they return, year after year. Henry points this out to Dorian at the beginning.
The common hill-flowers wither, but they blossom again. The laburnum will be as yellow next June as it is now. In a month there will be purple stars on the clematis, and year after year the green night of its leaves will hold its purple stars. But we never get back our youth.
Well, of course, Dorian never loses his youth. Later on, he reflects on the ravages of time, and the flower metaphor is back.
He was almost saddened by the reflection of the ruin that time brought on beautiful and wonderful things. He, at any rate, had escaped that. Summer followed summer, and the yellow jonquils bloomed and died many times, and nights of horror repeated the story of their shame, but he was unchanged. No winter marred his face or stained his flowerlike bloom.
Dorian may be flowerlike, but he isn’t natural. Flowers have to die and come back to stay vital, but Dorian doesn’t wither — so perhaps, he can’t stay vital, but stagnates (nights of horror repeating their shame).
Beyond the novel’s generally florid nature, there are several specific flowers that show up again and again, and that seem to have a specific meaning. In this post, we’ve touched on how often rose imagery appears. In the next post, we’ll look at how Wilde uses some other flowers symbolically.
Teleflora’s flowers and their meaning page.
The Flower Meaning blog.
Plant symbolism page at Wikipedia.
Meier, Allison. The Secret Victorian Language of Flowers from hyperallergenic.com, an art and culture blog.
Irises, Vincent van Gogh, 1889. Source: Wikimedia
Flower Market, James McNeill Whistler, 1885. Source: Wikiart