Duplicity In The Victorian Society In Oscar Wilde’s ‘the Picture Of Dorian Gray’ And Charlotte Perkins Stetson’s ‘the Yellow Wallpaper’

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Duplicity, or the art of deceiving, played a huge role in life during the late Victorian period. This idea is reinforced in literature at the time, especially in the novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde and the short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, but also in other literary works of the same time period such as ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ showing the overarching influence duplicity had on individuals in late Victorian society. This theme is presented differently across different works, with ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ focusing mostly on duplicity between people as presented in interactions between characters in the novel and the deceit of appearance versus reality in regard to the portrait.

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Meanwhile, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ focuses more on the duplicity of inanimate objects and their ability to deceive people through Stetson’s focus on the wallpaper’s symbolism, along with the duplicity of the mind as Stetson presents the gradual decline of the narrator’s sanity. The exploration of these by both authors does however contain some similarities, notably the fact that the presence of duplicity in their work gradually increases as the plots unfold and the situations become more problematic. In this way, the authors present the issue as a downward spiral which is hard (if not impossible) to escape from. Overall, both of these presentations are influenced by contextual factors including Wilde’s ‘double life’ as a homosexual, Stetson’s struggle with mental health and the art movement in society at the time, and this is where we can see the clear evidence that duplicity really was an essential part of life in late Victorian society.

Seeing as both works were published around this time, with ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ published in 1890, two years before ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ was published in 1892, these pieces of literature can both be used to analyse the view that “duplicity was an essential part of existence in late Victorian society”. It is important to note that a quote which greatly resembles this features in the novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ whereby the opinion that “marriage makes a life of deception absolutely necessary” is presented by Lord Henry which features both the idea of deception or duplicity and its necessity or essentiality, and thus the novel is ideal for analysing this idea along with ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ in which Stetson presents similar ideas surrounding deception in the narrator’s relationship with her husband.

In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, the first notable instance of duplicity is in the fact that the narrator strives to deceive those around her in order for them to think of her in the way she wishes for them to perceive her. In the beginning of the short story, in order to appear to be following her husband’s orders she states that she “must put her writing away”, and here it is clear that she is deceiving him by giving him a false illusion of how she spends her free time. She is manipulating his view of her to be something different from the truth and this here is duplicity. Stetson’s choice of the word “must” enforces the necessity of this action of duplicity and thus suggesting that duplicity really was an essential part of late Victorian life, with the narrator’s instance acting as an example of life at this time and how the act of deceit featured in it.

The narrator continues to withhold information, stating that she had “no intention of telling him” the truth about her activities, and thus we can see that her actions are conscious, not accidental, in order to please him. She is actively choosing to hide information from her husband and due to this we can infer that she feels it essential to behave in this deceiving way given the time period in which the story is set in order to achieve her goal. Overall, this instance of duplicity in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ does suggest that during the late Victorian era, duplicity really was “an essential part of existence” due to the way that the narrator deceives and dupes those around her and Stetson’s presentation of this duplicity, using words like “must” to suggest this essentiality.

In a similar way, the characters often deceive each other in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. In fact, in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ this mode of deception is more prevalent than in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, contrasting the two texts. One instance of this is when Dorian conjures up a lie as to why he covered the portrait up, saying that the “light was too strong” to hide the real reason as to why he covered it. Here, Dorian is attempting to hide the truth in order to maintain his reputation and it is possible it is essential to maintain it in this way in order to keep himself respectable in society. Without this conservation of respectability, Dorian could lose everything, and thus in this way the duplicity he carries out is “essential” in a manner of speaking. The difference of duplicity here compared to in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is firstly the fact that characters appear to be aware that others may be lying to them, with Henry saying to Basil in chapter one of the novel “I want the real reason” when he senses that Basil is lying to him about the reasoning behind not displaying Dorian’s portrait. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, however, the narrator’s husband does not show any hints of knowing that the narrator is lying to him.

Another difference present between the two novels is that Stetson presents duplicity as the mere hiding of information from others, whilst Wilde presents duplicity through the characters telling each other outright lies to avoid sharing the truth. Thus, in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ the duplicity is more actively carried out, whilst in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ it is more passive.

Overall though, through the deceitfulness of one character to another, Wilde presents the idea that duplicity really was an essential part of the late Victorian lifestyle especially when it came to socialisation and the preservation of one’s reputation to remain respectable in society. In both of the texts, duplicity between characters is used as an essential means to change the way the duping person is perceived by others in order to make them appear in (what they think) is a better light. In ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, there is duplicity present in the narrator’s appearance in contrast with the reality of her situation. There is a clear separation between her true mental state and what can be seen by others on the outside, with her at one point claiming that she is “better in body, perhaps” suggesting her mind is not better. In reference to her husband who believes she is better through his judgement of her appearance, she uses the phrase “whether he can see it or not”, once again presenting the duplicity of her mental state versus her physical state and suggesting that her husband cannot see her true illness as it is mental.

These implicit references of a difference between her physical appearance and her mental reality are a subtle presentation of duplicity by Stetson. It could be argued that this bores some resemblance to ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley whereby the appearance of the creature at the beginning of the novel greatly misaligns with his morality, thus this is another reference to the issue of appearance versus reality being explored in literature at the time. Upon this discussion regarding her mental health, the narrator states “As if I couldn’t see through him!”. Here the usage of the colloquial phrase “see through” reinforces this idea of appearance and “seeing” which is another subtle way Stetson presents the idea of duplicity through the duplicity of appearance versus reality. The need for her husband to lie to her regarding her mental health in contrast with her appearance shows the essential part duplicity played in late Victorian society and how necessary it truly was in the Victorian way of life. Mental healthcare was not as advanced as it is today, so her husband (a doctor) is attempting to (perhaps unintentionally) fool her about her feeling better in order to attempt to make this a reality.

The Victorian Era in England is infamous for its brutality in treating mental patients with its asylums and it is possible that the duplicity regarding the narrator looking better in appearance is the only thing keeping her husband from resorting to placing her in an asylum, thus the necessity of this duplicity remaining intact is apparent. The aspect of appearance in reference to duplicity is also present in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. When Dorian is introduced in Chapter 2, he is described as having “something in his face that made one trust him at once”. Here the narrator is immediately making a judgement on Dorian and his personality based purely on his appearance, and as the novel goes on and Dorian proves to be a somewhat untrustworthy character capable of horrific deeds, there is duplicity apparent here.

The choice of “at once” by Wilde suggests the immediacy of the narrator’s decision to trust Dorian and therefore enforces the stark contrast of what he immediately concludes about him compared with the reality of who he is. This theme of judging by appearances is mentioned more times throughout the novel, with Lord Henry stating early on that he “chooses his friends for their good looks” which can be considered a very judgemental and problematic outlook on relationships due to the duplicity of appearance versus personality and later Basil stating his opinion that with the correct clothing “anybody … can gain a reputation for being civilised”. Not only do these instances further exemplify the theme of duplicity present in the novel but they also stress the importance and necessity of it in Victorian society.

In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ Wilde makes it apparent that appearance plays a huge role in status and respectability in such a society due to the judgemental nature he presents through characters of the upper class such as Lord Henry, and thus it appears that it truly was a necessary part of Victorian society. The idea of the necessity of duplicity during the Victorian era in regards to the appearance of people themselves is more prominent in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ than ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, however, it is apparent that it appears in both works of literature. Inanimate objects also play a huge deceptive role in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, adding another layer of duplicity to the short story. The wallpaper itself deceives the narrator’s senses in increasing amounts as the story progresses, with the narrator being so fooled that she begins to say that she “never saw so much expression in an inanimate thing before”. This could be seen as a contradictive sentence as it could be argued that an “inanimate” object cannot portray “expression”, thus Stetson presents the narrator as being so deceived by the wallpaper that she in fact speaks in sentences which contain duplicity within them as well. This clever paradoxical aspect of her writing effectively conveys additional duplicity to show its prominence at the time to the reader in a subtle way. Inevitably, the narrator’s senses become muddled with this confusion and Stetson effectively presents this with the phrase “a yellow smell” which is something completely impossible to exist due to the contradiction of a colour which you see and a smell which is detected by your nose.

Whilst this duplicity exists, it is difficult to pin-point a necessary cause or explanation for it, and thus it could be argued that whilst duplicity did exist in Victorian society, it was not an essential part of it. It may be argued that it is an unexplained occurrence like many things in life which was simply a common aspect of life seen in many different forms. For this reason, in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ Stetson suggests that gilduplicity was not an essential part of existence in late Victorian society.

Leading on from the duplicity of the wallpaper as an inanimate object in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, this idea is continued in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ with the portrait itself. This is the final apparent mention of duplicity by Wilde in the novel and perhaps the most obvious as the alive Dorian Gray and the portrait of Dorian are both doppelgangers, fitting with the theme of duplicity. This idea of doppelgangers is not unheard of in literature during the Victorian period, with it featuring in other texts written at the time. It is present explicitly in ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ by Robert Louis Stevenson with both titular characters being, in fact, two different personas of the same person, but the idea is also influential in ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley whereby Victor and the creature can both be perceived as reflections of each other. In contrast to these, however, in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ Wilde explicitly symbolises the separation of appearance and reality through the use of the portrait as an inanimate object whereas Stevenson and Shelley’s usages of doppelgangers in their work are such that they are both living beings. Dorian commits horrific acts whilst keeping his external appearance of a “trustworthy” face (as he is first described as having when he is introduced in the novel) whilst the portrait itself visually represents these horrors as it morphs into a “hideous”, “monstrous” image. When the portrait is first painted, Wilde explicitly chooses for it to be mentioned that Dorian is “at least … like it in appearance”, showing both the fact that Dorian and the portrait are obvious doppelgangers, but also allowing the potential for aspects of them to be different and expressing an element of separation between appearance and reality.

The idea of the similarity of appearance is dwelled upon and emphasised by the sarcasm used by characters when they ask questions such as “Which Dorian?” and reply with phrases such as “the real Dorian” or “the one in the picture”. In this, the element of confusion brought by the duplicity of appearance versus reality is introduced in an apparently light-hearted, humorous way whilst this will actually become crucial later, unbeknownst to the reader as Dorian’s appearance greatly misleads others in relation to his true nature. The sarcasm they use in their questioning could be perceived as foreboding of these future events in which the truth about who Dorian is becomes difficult to assess. By Wilde describing the living Dorian as the “real” Dorian, the idea of a fake Dorian is brought into play, but as the two are doppelgangers and what the characters think to be true of their friend is debunked later the reader may question the truth behind which Dorian is real: the one who looks innocent or the one who bears the physical scars of his living counter-part’s crimes.

In terms of the description of the living Dorian in contrast with his portrait after his many horrific deeds, the adjectives Wilde opts to use are vastly different. The beautiful, living Dorian is described with adjectives full of positivity, remaining “wonderfully handsome” with “youth’s passionate purity”. “Wonderfully” expresses the great extent to which his “handsomeness” stretches whilst “youth” has positive connotations to health and energy. “Passionate” suggests his excitable, emotional side which was greatly common in men of the Victorian period and “purity” contains a great ironic contrast to the truth of his character once he has committed his dreadful acts. All of these have been carefully selected by Wilde to be incorporated into his craft to portray the image of the Dorian society sees and when opposed with the truth of his “hideous”, “monstrous” portrait with the inherently negative images these bring and the mocking connotations of the description “a foul parody”, the element of duplicity is effectively conveyed in a dramatic way to the reader. Here, duplicity is definitely presented as an essential part of society due to the ability of appearance to cover up the truth about Dorian and allow him to maintain his respectability in society for a long time, which we know was very important to upper-class men in the Victorian era.

Without this presence of duplicity, Dorian would have physically conveyed his character and would have been unable to fool those around him and have the relationships with others that he does. Once again, in this way Wilde presents the necessity of duplicity in the late Victorian era in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, this time making usage of the portrait as an inanimate object to act as a doppelganger for Dorian, emphasising the idea of appearance versus reality using the portrait as a symbol to contrast with Dorian himself.

Both ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ have a strong theme of duplicity which increases as the plots progress. This duplicity is presented in many ways including inter-character relationships, inanimate objects and the nature of appearance in contrast with the reality of situations. In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Wilde’s presentation of duplicity is focused more on the relationships between people with the way characters constantly deceive one another along with the contrasting nature of appearance versus reality leading to physical destruction, whilst in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Stetson focused her presentation of the theme more on the duplicity of inanimate objects due to their ability to deceive people and the effect of deceiving the mind leading to mental destruction. The different focal points of this presentation of duplicity by both authors and the different consequences of this duplicity which they explore shows a stark difference in how duplicity may have existed in society, but one thing is for certain: the conclusion that can be reached is that duplicity really was an essential part of late Victorian society in one way or another, whether to ensure the safety of loved ones and protect them from the brutality of mental asylums, or to protect one’s public image and remain a respectable gentleman in a highly judgemental society.

14 May 2021

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