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Queer Coding in “Collaboration” and The Picture of Dorian Gray

By Emma Weiser

The Victorian fin-de-siècle was ripe with countercultural movements, or problematics. The Aesthetic movement, with its ties to dandyism and New Hedonism, was a source of preoccupation during this period due, in part, to its incompatibility with the materialism of greater British society. In contrast, aesthetes were advised that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” a statement incendiary to the institutional fabric of Victorian England (Pater 289). Yet, the Aesthetic movement was by no means a monolith and featured multiple subdivisions. Oscar Wilde and Henry James make up two sides of this Aesthetic coin, Wilde with his philosopher-dandy and James with his cosmopolitan critic. However, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and “Collaboration” (1892) strike common ground through their respective expressions of queer desire. The coded concepts of influence, collaboration, and Hellenism within the two texts shed light on this socially problematic passion, otherwise presented opaquely.

Before following the thread of queer desire within The Picture of Dorian Gray and “Collaboration,” it is essential to map out how Wilde and James influenced each other during their careers. While the two authors were avid followers of the other’s work, they remained at a critical standoff. In his essay “The Decay of Lying” (1891), Wilde proffers that “Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire” (173). James, on the other hand, privately thought of Wilde as a “fatuous fool, a tenth-rate cad” (Adams 339-40). According to Michèle Mendelssohn, the “most important fact of Wilde and James’s relationship was that they were both aesthetes (“The fate of aestheticism” 137). For Wilde, it was necessary that Aestheticism “liberate art from ethical considerations by embracing ‘art for art’s sake’” (“The fate of aestheticism” 139). As a result, the aesthete figures in The Picture of Dorian Gray readily sacrifice morality for art, adopting a quasi-scientific and detached lens instead. For instance, Wilde describes Lord Henry as investigating human life by “vivisecting himself, as he had ended by vivisecting others” (Wilde 60). This reference to the clinical practice of vivisection puts the Aesthete alongside the medical practitioner in the realm of objectivity. Aesthetic inquiry thus takes on the contentious connotations of vivisection and is set apart from all affairs of morality. 

In contrast, Jamesian Aestheticism could not exist “where art was not intertwined with life” (“The fate of aestheticism” 139). He criticized the overabundant materialism, social climbing, and indolent pretentiousness “that often masqueraded under the title of ‘aesthete’” in British culture (140). For James, true Aestheticism depended on artistic devotion, a willingness to risk it all for art’s sake. The nationally transgressive partnership between the Anglo-German Heidenmauer and the French Vendemer in “Collaboration” directly represents this dedication. In the hopes of disembarking in “the country of art,” the duo transcends national boundaries with little to no regard for the assured consequences of their actions (James 242). Furthermore, James uses the terms “homosexuality, aestheticism, and cosmopolitanism” almost interchangeably in “Collaboration,” concealing one loaded topic with another (Rowe 98). If we then consider Wilde’s Aestheticism to be rooted in detached limit-testing and James’ in a steadfast commitment to art, the tensions between Wilde and James can be imagined “as a microcosm of the creative dynamic that dominated aesthetic culture as a whole” (“The fate of aestheticism” 138). Thus, the dialectical relationship between the pair becomes a collaborative process in and of itself, where the two authors continually affect each other’s work.  

Following this logic, the Aesthete is particularly sensitive to influence, especially regarding artistic sensibility of all shapes and forms. In The Picture of Dorian Gray and “Collaboration,” queer attraction is disclosed through the subtle physiological changes that occur when one is influenced by another. When the painter Basil Hallward first laid eyes on Dorian Gray, he “felt that [he] was growing pale[, as he] did not want any external influence in [his] life [and had] always been [his] own master; had at least been so, till [he] met Dorian Gray” (Wilde 14). Basil is bewitched by the beautiful boy; the mere sight of Dorian causes the blood to rush from his face in curious terror. Similarly, in “Collaboration,” when Heidenmauer first asks Vendemer to write the libretto for his opera there is a palpable tension: “Our German friend laughed out, after this, with clear good nature, and the rich appeal brought Vendemer slowly to his feet again, staring at the musician across the room and turning this time perceptibly pale” (James 247). By standing up, the Frenchman silently agrees to Heidenmauer’s offer. Right before, when Vendemer first enters the room to find the young German greeting him, “he blushed red and, for an instant, as he stood wavering, [the unnamed narrator] thought he was going to retreat” (James 246). While the pairing of blushing and flight seems like an extreme response for the otherwise upfront Vendemer, he is under the influence of Heidenmauer, whose “compositions had already begun to haunt his memory” (James 244). The flush is a physical manifestation of the man’s passion, acting as a physiological response to desire. In both of these instances, the body betrays the mind and reveals the unspoken, making the narrator (and by extension the reader) guilty of voyeurism. 

Wilde is even more explicit in his description of when Dorian, “with parted lips and eyes strangely bright, [becomes] dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences [are] at work within him” (25). Lord Henry’s words “had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses” (Wilde 25). In this passage, the budding of influence is erotic, almost as if depicting one’s first experience of arousal. James is somewhat more subtle in his approach, dealing instead in erotic double meanings. For instance, when Heidenmauer and Vendemer prepare to quit the studio to dine and discuss their upcoming collaboration, the composer reassures the narrator that they will return. However, the Frenchman retorts that “[t]here are some things [the studio] isn’t good for” (James 248). Rowe takes the poet’s comment as a request for a more intimate setting, “as if suggesting to the painter that three is a crowd” (97). Wilde and James are interested in showing, not telling, the effects of influence on its victims, further erring on the side of subtlety.  

Collaboration, as an extension of influence, makes communal passion between individuals manifest. Even before the pair brings up the prospect of partnership, Vendemer admits that the compositions of the young German haunt him. In counterpart, Heidenmauer, after reading the poet’s book, confirms that “it has given [him] wonderful ideas; more ideas than anything has done for a long time” (James 246). In an exalted state, the composer plays a piece he composed in response to Vendemer’s poetry. This composition reveals that Heidenmauer has been thinking about the young Frenchman behind closed doors, unseen by even the narrator. These musings must have happened over such an extended period that they erupted into song. The texts of Vendemer fuel Heidenmauer’s artistic passion, as “he chanted the words of the song as if they were an illuminating flame, an inspiration” (James 246). There is something intimate about this collaboration, akin to conception, as two people exchange a part of themselves.

Similarly, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry describes that “to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul” (Wilde 24). This piece of the soul stays with the other, even when the original owner is nowhere to be seen. Just as Vendemer haunts Heidenmauer’s composition, Basil confesses to Dorian that “[w]hen you were away from me, you were still present in my art” (Wilde 115). Since Basil draws inspiration from Dorian in his absence, the younger man becomes a collaborator, haunting the paintings. Furthermore, Lord Henry’s influence over Dorian makes him a third artist, involved in shaping both the mind and the body of his protegé. When Lord Henry first exposes Dorian to some of the tenets of New Hedonism, he is “amazed at the sudden impression that his words had produced” (Wilde 25). His influence has caused a visible manifestation of Dorian’s struggle to wrap his mind around the new ideas taking root within him. Consequently, Basil captures the perfect effect: “half-parted lips and the bright look in the eyes” (Wilde 26). Lord Henry becomes the third collaborator on the painting of Dorian Gray, alongside Basil and Dorian. He has imbued it, Mendelssohn argues, “with a depth and complexity that far exceed Basil’s” since he has managed to change not only its painted surface but the depths of Dorian’s spirit within (Aesthetic Culture 154). Whether it be the mutual passion shared by Vendemer and Heidenmauer, Basil’s love for Dorian, or Dorian’s susceptibility to Lord Henry, the artistic collaborations with The Picture of Dorian Gray and “Collaboration” are mirrors of the queer desire within the two works.

           Beyond the recourse of influence and collaboration to denote homoeroticism, Wilde and James dabble in Hellenism to further hint at male desire. Artists of the British fin-de-siècle frequently allude to ancient Greek poets or personages as a way of coding queer love. They operate under the assumption that there was a greater appreciation of male homoerotic relationships in ancient Greece, such as those depicted in the myths of Hyacinthus and Apollo or even Zeus and Ganymede. Wilde, a well-known Hellenist, laces The Picture of Dorian Gray with a panoply of allusions to ancient Greece: Dorian is “Paris in dainty armour, and as Adonis with huntsman’s cloak and polished boar-spear[, as Adrian] gazing across the green turbid Nile[, and as Narcissus is]” (Wilde 115). He is also Basil’s muse; the painter promises that just as “the face of Antinous was to late Greek sculpture, and the face of Dorian Gray will some day be to [him]” (Wilde 17). Antinous, the beloved of the Roman emperor Hadrian, was a well-known symbol of homoerotic male attraction. Dorian Gray is an amalgamation of all those ancient Greek heroes desired for their beauty; he is the ultimate beloved (erōmenos). Furthermore, Plato haunts the structure and content of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The constant question and answer within philosophical discussions of beauty and morality are reminiscent of the Platonic dialogue:

“Have you really a very bad influence, Lord Henry? As bad as Basil says?”

“There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.”


(Wilde 24).

Through the themes of beauty and love, Wilde directly engages with Plato, particularly with the Symposium. To Basil, Dorian Gray becomes “the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal” (Wilde 115). As the handsome Dorian can no longer age, he becomes analogous with the “true beauty” (Plato 55) described by Diotima near the end of the dialogue: a beauty not “tainted by human flesh and colouring and all that mortal rubbish,/ but absolute beauty, divine and constant” (Plato 55-6). Wilde uses the Platonic ideal to support his counter-normative experience, elevating it through educated texts. 

Beyond the fact that the studio setting resembles a modern-day symposium, there is also another Platonic echo within “Collaboration.” The lexicon used to describe Heidenmauer and Vendemer’s partnership, whether it be the “monstrous collaboration,” “unnatural alliance,” or “unholy union,” lies in the realm of the grotesque (James 253). The two men seem to merge into this single terrible being, similar to the human ancestor described by Aristophanes in the Symposium, with its “four hands and the same number of legs, and two absolutely identical faces on a cylindrical neck” (Plato 25). The human race was born when Zeus split these beings into two parts, resulting in a male-female, male-male, or female-female pairing, each half forever looking to make up its original whole. However tongue-in-cheek Aristophanes might be, the playwright explains that those descended from the original male-male hybrid lean toward inherent homoeroticism. Nevertheless, he praises those men “because they [are] inherently more manly than other [their actions] prompted not by immorality, but by courage, manliness, and masculinity” (Plato 28). James co-opts this discourse in “Collaboration,” lending it sincere credence. The narrator ultimately admires Heidenmauer and Vendemer’s union, as “it rests [him], it delights [him], there is something in it that makes for civilization” (James 254). His verdict, that “[i]n their way they are working for human happiness,” makes it impossible to deny his favourable judgement, even though it stands at odds with the general societal disgust toward their collaboration. As such, Hellenism allows both Wilde and James to express, and affirm, forms of queer desire in a way that remains veiled. 

In conclusion, although Oscar Wilde and Henry James followed different movements of Aestheticism, the two imbued their respective works with similarly achieved shrouded expressions of queer desire. While these forms of passion were becoming increasingly present in avant-garde circles, homoeroticism was still a highly contentious issue during the fin-de-siècle. The Wilde trials were a stark reminder that queer desire, especially homosexuality, was a sinful contradiction to British society. Hellenism gave artists an outlet through which they could not only communicate their desires with minimal fear of retribution, but, at least in the case of homoeroticism, look upon non-vilified depictions of their affections.

Works Cited

Adams, Marian. The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams, 1865-1883, edited by Ward Thoron, Little, Brown, and Co., 1936.

James, Henry. “Collaboration.” Selections from Completed Stories, 1892-1898. Library of America, 1996, pp. 234-55. 

Mendelssohn, Michèle. Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Aesthetic Culture. Edinburgh UP, 2007. 

—. “Oscar Wilde, Henry James and the fate of aestheticism.” Oscar Wilde in Context, edited by Kerry Powell and Peter Raby, Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 137-149. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Pater, Walter. “Conclusion to Studies in the History of the RenaissanceAesthetes and Decadents of the 1890’s, edited by Karl Beckson, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1981, pp. 287-91. 

Plato. Symposium, edited by Robin Waterfield, Oxford UP, 1998. Oxford Scholarly Editions Online,

Rowe, John C. Our Henry James in Fiction, Film, and Popular Culture. Routledge, 2022. Kortext, 

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890’s, edited by Karl Beckson, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1981, pp. 167-94. 

—. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1890. Arcturus, 2017. 

About the Author: E Weiser is a second-year student pursuing a Joint Honours degree in Classical Studies and English Literature. Their interests include literature of the 1890s, classical reception, and anything Tennyson. They are currently busy wrangling with the ever-twisting receptions of Odysseus/Ulysses.