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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A Budget of Book Reviews: Terror Edition

Two book reviews this time: one old short story collection, one new.

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Dedication inside my copy of The Mammoth Book of Horror:
“Here’s something to keep you occupied on those cold and foggy S.F. nights when the wind(?) is howling through the cracks in the floorboards, and there’s no one to keep you company save the menacing strangers looming in the corners of your eyes.”
Names redacted for privacy.

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Folklore Dictionaries, Handbooks and Overviews: A Very Incomplete Review

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I got inspired to do this post while browsing through the interesting list of recommended books on the #FolkloreThursday blog. As wonderful as the list is, I couldn’t help noticing that it feels a bit skewed towards Europe and the UK. Since the booklist is compiled from Twitter recommendations with the #FolkloreThursday hashtag, this skewness is a bit on folks like me, who have interests outside of Europe and the UK, for not tweeting the texts that we use and love. Hence, this blog post.

Obviously, my list is also skewed towards my own interests, and the limits of my time and resources. I compiled it from the reference sections of several of my blog posts, and by scouring my bookshelves and hard drive. Just for the sake of some structure, I limited and organized the list into dictionary-style references, handbooks, and mythic overviews: the kind of resources one might want when beginning to learn about the stories of a particular culture. Since these are all books I’ve used or at least looked through, I added some comments about them, as well. I alphabetized each sublist by title.

One thing I did notice is that I don’t have any good Filipino folk dictionaries or bestiaries. I’ve tried to remedy that, and I’ll add those books to the list when I get them.

John Bruno Hare, the founder of the Internet Sacred Text Archive, wrote that one focus of his archive was “remedying the underrepresentation of traditional cultures on the Internet.” I offer this list in somewhat the same spirit. I hope it’s helpful, and I encourage other people to post their favorite dictionaries, bestiaries, etc., too.

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Reading Honolulu Mysteries

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I discovered Glen Grant’s noirish Honolulu detective Arthur McDougal in Grant’s collection Obake: Ghost Stories in Hawaii. The two McDougal tales in Obake have supernatural villains, so one could say that McDougal in these stories is a (reluctant) occult detective. The other tales in Obake, which mostly focus on aspects of Japanese supernatural folklore that “migrated” to Hawaii, are also delightful.

The short stories in Honolulu Mysteries are different. Although the tales include various aspects of Hawaiian folklore and sometimes even feature a touch of Hawaiian supernatural phenomena, the bad guys are all definitely human — just as they ought to be, in McDougal’s view.

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The Department of Dead Ends

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I adore Columbo; I got addicted to reruns of the original Seventies-era series when I was in graduate school, and it’s still one of my favorite TV shows. Columbo’s sharp eye for apparently trivial incongruities, his deceptively bumbling manner, his mythical wife who’s a fan of everything and everyone, his equally mythical Captain who just hates loose ends — I love it all.

Columbo‘s format is the so-called inverted mystery, where the viewer (or reader) knows whodunit, how, and even why. The real mystery is how the murderer will be caught. You could make an argument that inverted mysteries existed in literature at least as far back as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment ; I read somewhere that the creators of Columbo cite this novel as on influence on the Columbo format. That, and the “cozy English mystery” tradition of elaborately complicated murder amongst the upper classes (investigated by the not so upper class police). But the official original inverted mystery is R. Austin Freeman’s “The Case of Oscar Brodski” (1911).  The story was popular enough that Freeman wrote four more and collected them with “Brodski” into The Singing Bone (1912).

Beyond the twist of presenting the crime before the investigation, Freeman’s stories are classic ratiocination stories. His protagonist, Dr. Thorndyke, is basically Sherlock Holmes, complete with a (portable) laboratory and a Dr. Watson (Dr. Jervis, in this case). Thorndyke notices things the police don’t, and awes them with his deductive prowess. As with most stories in the ratiocination genre, the detective and his extraordinary abilities are the center of the tales.

The stories in Roy Vickers’ The Department of Dead Ends (1949) are inverted mysteries of a different style. The Department of Dead Ends is a group within Scotland Yard whose sole purpose is to take “everything the other departments rejected:” clues that led nowhere, cases that can’t be closed (or that no one is interested in closing), puzzling but seemingly irrelevant information, lost items. The department solves cases (often cold cases) via this massive collection of minutia mostly by serendipity: someone happens to notice that a puzzling fact from one case, when put together with some irrelevant trivia from an apparently unrelated situation, becomes an observation neither puzzling nor irrelevant to either circumstance.

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The Most Famous Book Set in Your State?

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Jim Booth at the blog The New Southern Gentlemen recently took issue with a Business Insider called “The most famous book that takes place in every state”. Mostly, he takes issue with BI‘s nomination for his own state of North Carolina.

I have no opinion one way or the other about Nicholas Sparks, and given that my reading tastes runs to both genre and short stories, I’m probably not the most qualified person to weigh in on which full-length book should represent which state. But of course I couldn’t resist checking what they picked for California. I don’t know what I was expecting to see — but it wasn’t what they chose:

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.

Hmmmmmmm…….

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Christmas Eve

This winter tale offering isn’t a traditional Christmas ghost story — there isn’t a ghost to be found. But it’s just the kind of story I like.

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“Christmas Eve” is from Nikolai Gogol’s two volume collection of short stories, known in English as Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, the collection that helped make his reputation. Gogol was born in the Ukraine, and all the Dikanka stories brim with bits of Ukrainian folklore and details about Ukrainian village life. This particular story is full of supernatural hijinks, witches and the devil. However, this devil is more comical than frightening, and the whole story feels a bit like a Chaucerian farce. “Christmas Eve” also has a rather cinematic feel, in the way it cuts back and forth between multiple simultaneous situations. No wonder Wikipedia lists four film adaptations, as well as three or four (depending on how you count) operatic versions. It’s a bit longer than the pieces I usually share, but if you haven’t read it before, it’s well worth it. Continue reading