Second of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In Part One, we looked generally at the use of flowers in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this post, we’ll look at the repeated use of a few specific flowers, and try to connect them to flower symbology, both Victorian floriography and the meanings that Wilde himself invests into the flowers. Roses we covered a bit in Part One, but there’s more.
Violets are easy; in the novel, they explicitly symbolize dead love.
Lord Henry once says: “I once wore nothing but violets all through one season, as a form of artistic mourning for a romance that would not die.” And when Dorian becomes obsessed for a while with perfumes, he wonders “what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one’s passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances…”
So it’s worth noticing that at Dorian’s first public appearance after he murders Basil Hallward he wears a button-hole of Parma violets.
Opium comes from poppies, and poppies can symbolize forgetfulness and consolation.
“I must sow poppies in my garden,” Dorian says, as he grapples with the knowledge that his cruelty to Sibyl Vane caused her suicide.
No need, Henry says. “Life has always poppies in her hands.”
A brief digression here: there are two versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. There is the thirteen chapter version based on the story’s original 1890 publication in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, and a later twenty chapter “toned down” revision, published in 1891. I read the more common twenty chapter version.
In both versions, after the poppies exchange above, Henry goes on to talk about an old love affair. In the version I read, Henry says “I had buried my romance in a bed of asphodel.” In Greek legend, asphodel is associated with the dead and the underworld, and the Greeks planted it on graves. In the earlier version of the novel, Henry says he buried his romance in “a bed of poppies,” which also makes sense: an affair that he’d prefer to just forget.
Dorian later thinks to himself of Basil’s murder as “a thing to be driven out of the mind, to be drugged with poppies…”
Orchids can symbolize luxury, as well as beauty and refinement. When Lord Henry’s wife meets Dorian, she tells him, “I can’t afford orchids, but I spare no expense in foreigners. They make one’s rooms look so picturesque.”
Wilde also uses orchids to denote decadence. One of the ways that Henry corrupts Dorian is by lending him a certain book, full of hedonistic and sensuous things. Wilde describes the book as having in it “metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour.” And later, Henry describes a particular orchid as a “marvelous spotted thing, as effective as the seven deadly sins.”
White orchids, on the other hand, can symbolize reverence and humility, innocence and purity, as well as elegance and beauty. After Dorian murders Basil and has to dispose of the body, he sends his servant away, ostensibly to arrange the delivery of the evening’s flowers.
You must go down to Richmond at once, see Harden personally, and tell him to send twice as many orchids as I ordered, and to have as few white ones as possible. In fact, I don’t want any white ones.
Twice as much decadence, but no innocence or humility. Yup, that sounds about right.
Lilacs can symbolize innocence, and also first love. There are lots of lilacs (and roses) in Basil’s garden when Lord Henry meets and “seduces” Dorian. Henry’s provocative conversation gets Dorian overheated and confused.
Lord Henry went out to the garden and found Dorian Gray burying his face in the great cool lilac-blossoms, feverishly drinking in their perfume as if it had been wine. He came close to him and put his hand upon his shoulder. “You are quite right to do that,” he murmured. “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”
Dorian tries to recover his innocence in the lilacs, but it’s too late. Henry keeps talking.
Dorian Gray listened, open-eyed and wondering. The spray of lilac fell from his hand upon the gravel….
And so much for Dorian’s innocence.
Back to roses
We saw in Part One how roses symbolize Dorian’s youth and beauty and beloved status; Sibyl’s, too. Basil’s garden at the novel’s opening is redolent with roses. At the end of the conversation in the lilacs section, above, Wilde writes that “The heavy scent of the roses seemed to brood over everything.”
In addition to love and passion, roses can symbolize sensuality, and intrigue. The phrase “sub rosa,” to describe a secret act or communication, literally means “under the rose”. In the tarot, roses can mean promise or new beginnings. Before meeting Lord Henry, Dorian was innocent and unspoiled; after Lord Henry, he becomes something else altogether – definitely more hedonistic and sensual, and secretive, too.
A few other flower passages to finish this section: here Sibyl and her brother Jim sit in the park, before Jim’s ship sails. Sibyl is telling Jim about her Prince Charming (Dorian).
They took their seats amidst a crowd of watchers. The tulip-beds across the road flamed like throbbing rings of fire. A white dust—tremulous cloud of orris-root it seemed–hung in the panting air. The brightly coloured parasols danced and dipped like monstrous butterflies.
Orris root is the root of Iris germanica or Iris pallida, and it was often used to make perfume, with a fragrance supposedly reminiscent of violets. For the Victorians, irises could symbolize admiration — Sibyl certainly admires Dorian, and at this point he still admires her. We also know that for Wilde the scent of violets brings back the memory of dead love. Uh-oh. Foreshadowing?
Tulips symbolized charity for Victorians, which doesn’t fit; but we can infer from the description that the tulips in question were probably red, orange, or yellow. Red tulips can symbolize passion and perfect love; yellow, on the other hand, means unrequited love. Oh, and the tulips flame and throb, too. Poor Sibyl.
Carnations get a mention, when Dorian contemplates a portrait of his mother, Lady Margaret Devereux.
There were vine leaves in her hair. The purple spilled from the cup she was holding. The carnations of the painting had withered, but the eyes were still wonderful in their depth and brilliancy of colour. They seemed to follow him wherever he went.
Carnations can signify love, fascination, distinction. Lady Margaret was incredibly beautiful — Dorian takes after her. She ran away to merry a penniless soldier, Dorian’s father, who died soon after in a duel that rumor says Margaret’s father engineered. Margaret died not long after her husband, so you could say she died of love. The withered flowers in the painting seem like a classic use of floriography (though I would assume the painting was done before Lady Margaret eloped). I like how her eyes in the painting haven’t faded — unlike the image of Dorian in his painting.
That was fun! I hope you’re enjoying the game so far. In Part Three, we’ll look at how Wilde uses flower related imagery to create interesting parallel structures in the novel’s plot.
Teleflora’s flowers and their meaning page.
The Flower Meaning blog
The Irises page at Botanical.com: A Modern Herbal.
Orris root page at Wikipedia.
Plant symbolism page at Wikipedia.
The Secret Victorian Language of Flowers from hyperallergenic.com, an art and culture blog.
Flower Garden, Gustav Klimt (1905-1907). Source: Wikiart.
Viola odorata from Wayside and woodland blossoms; a pocket guide to British wild flowers for the country rambler, 1895. Source: Wikimedia.
Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen in naturgetreuen Abbildungen mit kurz erläuterndem Texte, 1887. Source: Wikimedia.
Odontoglossum crispum from Reichenbachia, Frederick Sander (between 1888-1894). Source: Wikimedia.
Tak met paarse seringen (Branch with purple lilacs), Maria Geertruida Snabilie (circa 1800). Source: Wikimedia.
Rosa gallica pontiana, Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1824). Source: Wikimedia.
Tulips from Floral Belles from the Green-House and Garden, Clarissa Munger Badger (1867). Source: Wikimedia.