The Flowers of Dorian Gray, Part Three

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Last of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.


So far, we’ve looked at flower symbology in Dorian Gray generally (Part One), and with respect to specific flowers (Part Two). It’s true that some of what I’ve pointed out could be happenstance: Wilde clearly liked flower imagery, and he might have been using it merely decoratively, as random details to fill rooms, like the divans that characters constantly fling themselves into (no one ever just sits down in this novel). But here, in Part Three, we’ll look at some interesting parallel structures that Wilde built into the novel, using flower-related imagery. I think it’s a good bet that these parallel constructions are conscious and deliberate.

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The Flowers of Dorian Gray, Part Two

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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.

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The Flowers of Dorian Gray, Part One

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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.

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The Gift of Prophesy

“People say that when you die and come back, you receive a gift. Either you can heal people by laying hands on them, or you get the gift of prophesy. My father got prophesy.”

We were still sitting around the Christmas dinner table, with our after-dinner coffee. I’d coaxed some ghost stories and family legends from Mom and Dad, mostly ones I’d heard before, but a new one, too. Dad had just repeated the story of his father’s near-death experience. I’d always heard that Lolo was supposed to be psychic. Apparently, I was about to learn why.

“He could look at a person and tell them things about their past, and their future,” Dad said.

“At first, he told me, the visions were chaotic, and hard to make sense of. But then he started doing prayers and meditations to help him control the visions, to control when and how he got them, and to understand what he saw.”

As I write this now, I wonder where my grandfather learned these “prayers and meditations.” After all, he was a priest (with the Philippine Independent Church), and I doubt they teach this kind of thing in Seminary. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to ask at the time. I poured Dad another cup of coffee as he went on.

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Another Family Ghost Story

“Did your Daddy tell you about what happened to him in Vintar?” my mom asked me.

I’d been gently pumping my parents over Christmas dinner, hoping for more family ghost stories and such, of the kind that they told me (and which I posted) several years ago. Under my prodding, they pulled stories from their memories, most of which I’d heard before. That’s okay; the stories are always worth re-listening to, and it’s fun to note how the details change just a little every time I hear one. With my mom’s help, I got a couple more anecdotes out of my dad that were new to me. Here’s one. I think my dad must have been about eight years old, or so.

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The Maid of the Mill

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As we count down the days to Christmas, here’s another winter tale: a haunted house story by Josephine Dodge Daskam Bacon. I found it in Tim Prasil’s interesting Chronology of early Ghost Hunter fiction. The story opens with a critique of the genre:

The only objection I have to ghost stories,” said young Sanford, “is from a literary point of view. They’re so badly done, you know.”

Specifically, young Sanford asks, how do all these people in haunted rooms get scared to death? Why doesn’t anybody ever rescue them? Why don’t they scream?

This sarcastic complaint is a bit too much for a stranger in the room.

“Do you suppose they don’t try to scream? Do you suppose they don’t think they’re screaming?”

And so the company learns the tale of a haunted mill, where manifestations occurred every Christmas Eve for nineteen years, and three separate ghost hunter parties were driven to madness while investigating. But, of course, there had to be a fourth attempt. It went about as well as you would expect. Continue reading

My Wife’s Promise

Today I feature my second winter tale from Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 – 1915), a best-selling “sensation novelist” of the Victorian era, most famous today for the novel Lady Audley’s Secret. Braddon also founded Belgravia magazine in 1866, and edited it until 1876, when the magazine was sold.

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“My Wife’s Promise” first appeared in Belgravia Annual, 1868, and again in Braddon’s 1886 collection Under the Red Flag and Other Tales. A former Arctic explorer tries again and again to swear off his Arctic expeditions out of family duty and love for his wife, but the call of the North is strong.

I, Richard Dunrayne, was the elder son of a wealthy house, my father, a man of some influence in the political world, and there were few positions which need have been impossible for me had I aspired to the ordinary career affected by British youth. I had been indulged in my early passion for the sea, in my later rage for Arctic exploration; and it was hoped that, having satisfied these boyish fancies, I should now settle down to a pursuit more consonant with the views and wishes of my people. My mother wept over her restored treasure, and confessed how terrible had been her fears during my absence; my father congratulated me upon having ridden my hobby, and alighted therefrom without a broken neck; and my family anxiously awaited my choice of a profession.

Such a choice I found impossible. …

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Dark Christmas

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This next winter tale is a good old-fashioned, creepy haunted house story — but a modern one, by Jeanette Winterson, author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and The Passion.

I found it as one of five Christmas ghost stories (all excellent) published by the Guardian Weekend magazine in 2013. Each of the stories has its own strengths; I liked them all. I chose Ms. Winterson’s story because of the five, it feels the most traditional to me.

We had borrowed the house from a friend none of us seemed to know.

A lone narrator in a mysterious, isolated house; footsteps in empty rooms; bats; flakey electricity, and of course (that modern touch) a phone that gets no signal. Oh, and an incomplete Nativity scene. What more could you want for a Christmas ghost story?

Reading this called up a lot of my favorite ghost stories, like Edith Wharton’s “Afterward” and M.R. James’ “Lost Hearts” — not that this story resembles either of those. There are just passing moments in “Dark Christmas” that brought those other stories to my mind. A good thing, in my opinion.

You can read “Dark Christmas” at Jeanette Winterson’s website.

Enjoy!


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Five modern Christmas ghost stories (including this one) from The Guardian.

The Trial for Murder

With A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens practically invented the modern notion of the Christmas season for Britain and much of the English-speaking world (along with Queen Victoria’s consort Albert, who brought German Christmas traditions like the Christmas tree to the UK). I shared Dickens’ “A Christmas Tree” for one of my early series of winter tales, but mostly I try to avoid the more obvious Christmas classics in favor of tales that you might not have read before.

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That said, Dickens wrote some fun ghost stories, and ’tis the season…. So today I’ll share a lesser-known Dickens Christmas tale, “The Trial for Murder,” originally titled “To be Taken with a Grain of Salt.” This story first appeared in the 1865 Extra Christmas number of All the Year Round. This issue is collectively known as Dr. Marigold’s Prescriptions — hence, each of the stories had a title with some variation of “To be taken with…”.

Though “The Trial for Murder” is generally credited to Dickens alone, Philip Allingham at The Victorian Web says the story is likely a collaboration with Charles Allston Collins, Dickens’ son-in-law and Wilkie Collins’ brother.

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Winter Tales Season: The Doll’s Ghost

Every year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I like to share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around. This year I’ll open with a lesser-known story from F. Marion Crawford.

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“The Doll’s Ghost” first appeared in the 1896 Christmas supplement of the Illustrated London News1, and again in Crawford’s posthumous 1911 collection Wandering Ghosts (Uncanny Tales in the UK). In his lifetime, Crawford was well known and well regarded for his historical novels and romances; today, he is mostly known for his supernatural tales, especially “The Upper Berth,” which M.R. James called a “horrid story” — in the positive sense of “full of horror” — in “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories.”

I picked “The Doll’s Ghost” to open up this year’s series because I like it, of course; also because the doll of the title shares my name, and Mr. Crawford and I share a birthday. It’s a “benign ghost” story, the kind M.R. James disapproved of, but it does have its creepy moments. For parents, it has genuinely scary moments. I think it’s good for the season. Continue reading