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Nineteenth century concepts of androgyny with particular reference to Oscar Wilde

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posted on 2023-06-08, 16:36 authored by Dietmar Geyer
Androgyny evokes nowadays a plethora of images and associations. In order to discover the meaning of ‘androgyny’ conveyed to authors of the so-called Decadent literature movement I found it necessary to give a brief history of the term. However, two androgynous images – ‘hermaphrodite’ and ‘asexual’ androgyny – have always co-existed and were especially in vogue in the literature of the Fin-de-Siècle period to denote an emerging homosexual identity and especially so in the works of Oscar Wilde. In order to illustrate this I take a psychological approach in an analysis of androgynous literary figures based on R.D. Laing’s theories. Particularly in The Divided Self, Laing shows what kind of behaviour patterns stigmatised individuals display, prone as they were to suffering from a heightened consciousness of the ‘self’. In particular, characters not necessarily conforming to one or the other gender are determined by certain stages of ontological insecurity which can be traced in androgynous characters in Decadent literature. In this context ‘Camp’ plays an important role, androgyny being one of its central images. Because signs of effeminacy in men were the first visible signs of homosexuality, I examine how ‘camping it up’ was a method of dealing with their stigma. The first and most well-known male image associated with what we would now term ‘Camp’ is that of the dandy. There are several types of the dandy and each of them undergoes an analysis as to whether they contain psychological signs of stigmatisation. The same procedure is applied to works of authors from the period of French Decadence of the nineteenth century and other literary works which influenced Oscar Wilde. It was there where an increasing psychologisation of protagonists, and especially also stigmatised characters first began to be recognised. I will demonstrate how much Oscar Wilde was greatly influenced by the literary French Decadent tradition of shifting the outer plot to an inner plot. In particular in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but also in his other works, this becomes clear by referring to R. D. Laing’s categories of psychological character studies which display, as in Wilde’s works, the effects of stigma caused by a gender nonconforming identity.


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