2021 Winner of the David Kirp 1965 Stonewall Prize

Luke Williamson '21

Luke Williamson '21

“Good Morality is Good Medicine”: Queer Negativity, Ecstasy, and Shame in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Department of English Honors Thesis

Abstract: Does Dorian Gray, of Wilde’s famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, have AIDS? What are readers to make of Dorian’s love for Catholicism? And does the novel depict the metaphor of the closet? These are all questions that my thesis, one profoundly indebted to the work of numerous queer theorists, considers and weaves together. Eschewing a teleological argument, this project instead develops a critical vocabulary (“AIDS,” “ecstasy,” “shame”) for understanding the novel in a more temporally and affectively diverse way. The first chapter underlines connections between representations of syphilis at the close of the 19th century and of AIDS at the close of the 20th century. It also draws upon queer negativity (as in the work of Lee Edelman or Leo Bersani) to dramatize the novel’s counterhegemonic political orientation. The second chapter contextualizes both Dorian Gray and Oscar Wilde’s investments in Christian imagery, probing the significance of their affinity for Roman Catholicism rather than Protestantism. It argues that, through the novel’s serious yet non-normative engagement with religion and its trappings, The Picture of Dorian Gray champions heterogeneous, even queer, readings of Christian imagery. The third and final chapter explores the novel’s representation of the closet and finishes by reading this otherwise violent and even homophobic representation “reparatively.” Bookended with evocations of the 1989 Stop the Church protest, this project wrestles with the nature of Wilde’s enduring significance for not just homosexual or gay people, but queers, too.