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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At Chrighton Abbey

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Today’s winter tale is a moody, slightly longer piece by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1835 – 1915), a Victorian gothic writer most famous for the sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret.

In “At Chrighton Abbey,” Sarah Chrighton, a governess and poor relation of the distinguished Chrighton family, comes home for the Christmas holiday after several years of living abroad. She has a happy reunion with Squire Chrighton and his family, and meets the fiancé of her younger cousin Edward (the heir apparent). Edward’s mother is not overly fond of her future daughter-in-law, but is relieved that her son is marrying soon. For tragic endings stalk the sons of the Chrighton family, especially the unmarried ones.

The story revolves around Edward’s relationship with his fiancé Julia Tremaine. She’s a striking (and rich) woman, but not well liked by the rest of the Chrighton family, including Sarah.

She was tall and slim, and carried her head and neck with a stately air, which struck me more than anything in that first glance. Yes, she was handsome, undeniably handsome; and my cousin had been right when she said I could not fail to admire her; but to me the dazzlingly fair face with its perfect features, the marked aquiline nose, the short upper lip expressive of unmitigated pride, the full cold blue eyes, pencilled brows, and aureole of pale golden hair, were the very reverse of sympathetic. That Miss Tremaine must needs be universally admired, it was impossible to doubt; but I could not understand how any man could fall in love with such a woman.

Julia’s behavior doesn’t endear her to Sarah, either. She seems stuck-up, and more, as when she declines to accompany Edward and other members of the family on their gift-giving visits to the tenants of the estate.

‘I don’t like poor people,’ she said. ‘I daresay it sounds very dreadful, but it’s just as well to confess my iniquity at once. I never can get on with them, or they with me. I am not simpatica, I suppose…. It is better that I should not affect any feminine virtues which I do not possess.’

Not a politically correct thing to say.

Reading the story, though, I couldn’t help feel an empathy, even a sympathy for Julia Tremaine — and I suspect that this was Ms. Braddon’s intent. Because while Julia is stubborn, and way too proud, on closer examination she doesn’t seem arrogant or self-absorbed; she seems introverted and shy. There’s a large house party going on at Chrighton Abbey; Julia refuses to sing or play the piano for the company, though she’s clearly extremely talented in both directions (and will sing and play for just the family). She doesn’t sled, or skate, or play billiards, but prefers to sit in a corner of the drawing room doing stitching and beadwork. Even her dislike for the company of poor people comes partly from her general discomfort around strangers, and partly from a discomfort with what she sees as “cringing” — that is, having to pretend more gratitude than they really feel — when the tenants receive charity from the estate owners. And I can see her point.

And, unlike the usual haughty beauty in stories like this one, she genuinely loves Edward, though one suspects the marriage will be rocky.

Will love be enough?

As ghost stories go, this one is a fairly mild one, but I like it because Braddon subverts the stereotypical characters of an English gothic. Julia is one example; in addition there is Squire Chrighton, who hates fox-hunting and would rather hide in his library reading Greek than cavort with his guests. And even though Sarah is a poor relation, she is treated with respect and genuine affection by the richer members of her family and their household. Braddon writes with ironic bemusement about upper-class Victorian society; yet all the while she manages to maintain an anxious mood in the story, a feeling of impending doom.

You can read “At Chrighton Abbey” here. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.