Like the elegant Dorian Gray and his hideous portrait, the city appears to embody a similar dichotomy of beauty and horror. While the West End is stylish and affluent, the East End is filthy and grotesque. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the descriptions of these two divergent parts of London heighten the contrasts between them. The description of Basil’s studio, for example, evokes a rich and colorful atmosphere of beauty:
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn. Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs (43) The language oozes with an aesthetic sensuality, and engages the reader’s senses.
Descriptions of Dorian’s luxurious environment in the West End are saturated with delicate fragrances, floral references, warm colors, and rich textures – a fitting atmosphere for cultivating a multitude of experiences, passions, and sensations in the pursuit of beauty. Dorian and his aristocratic circle live a carefree life in the West End, surrounded by beautiful gardens and lush landscapes. While the comfort and luxury of West End life appears to be completely removed from the squalor of the East End, the two are related through the upper class’ economic exploitation of the poor.
Just as Dorian is able to stay young and beautiful while pursuing a life of hedonism because all of the physical signs of vice and natural aging are transferred to his portrait, the aristocrats sustain their luxurious and materialistic lifestyle amidst an idyllic West End through economic exploitation that contributes and perpetuates to the grim landscapes of inner London and the miserable living conditions of the poor. For example, Lord Femor derives his income from his coal-mining industries in the Midlands, and excuses the “taint of industry” because it enables him to “afford the decency of burning wood on his own hearth. ” (71)
The East End, in contrast, is a grim, Gothic landscape, a “labyrinth of grimy streets and black grassless squares. ” (88) While the weather in the West End is always depicted as sunny and pleasant, the East End is dark, foggy, and rainy. It is terrifying and dangerous, with streets that seem “like the black web of some sprawling spider” (215). The grotesqueness of Dorian’s portrait is matched by a diseased East End populated by “monstrous marionettes”(215), “squat misshapen figure” (216), syphilitic prostitutes, alcoholics, half-castes, and opium addicts with “twisted limbs”, “gaping mouths”, and “staring, lusterless eyes” (217).
Similar to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, sites of poverty and squalor are depicted as sinister and threatening, and are gothicized in The Picture of Dorian Gray: He remembered wandering through dimly-lit streets, past gaunt black-shadowed archways and evil-looking houses. Women with hoarse voices and harsh laughter had called after him. Drunkards had reeled by cursing, and chattering to themselves like monstrous apes. He had seen grotesque children huddled upon doorsteps, and heard shrieks and oaths from gloomy courts. (125)
As Beckson suggests, fin de siecle London was “moving in two simultaneously antithetical directions” (xiv). The city was on the verge of modernity, yet it was ill equipped to contain its expanding population (Wohl 22-26). There were also vast discrepancies between the rich and the poor, which divided the city socially and geographically (Jenks 94). The poor were unable to adequately feed themselves and lived in abject squalor within disease-ridden, overcrowded slums that did not have proper plumbing, sewerage, or street lighting (Wohl 28).
Naturally, such miserable living conditions bred criminal activity amongst the urban poor and led to “a discourse of degenerative urban blight and a set of representations of the poor in which the ‘residuum’ are more feared than pitied” (Luckhurst and Ledger xv). Representations of the living conditions of the poor were conveyed to the public through the accounts of urban explorers who, often with the accompaniment of policemen or detectives, “ inaccessible places where the poor lived” (Jenks 89) and documented their forays into the poorer districts.
While these studies may have originally been undertaken to increase public awareness about poverty, they became increasingly sensational, and served as popular forms of entertainment (Jenks 89-97). Both novels depict London as a pleasant and well-kept city as well as a dismal, gothic landscape. The treatment of the city as a dual entity reinforces the thematic duality of both novels. In The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the city is depicted in a manner that reflects the dual nature of Dr. Jekyll.
Moreover, the use of descriptions that evoke fears about the degenerate poor to emphasize the otherness of the seedy neighborhood of Soho in relation to the respectable middle-class neighborhoods of the principal characters creates suspense, and subsequently horror as the differences are collapsed. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the disturbing disconnect between Dorian’s beautiful external appearance and the hideousness of his soul is matched by the stark contrasts between East and West London. Like Dr.
Jekyll and Dorian Gray, London embodies a dual nature. London is a beacon of civilization, and the dazzling, cosmopolitan heart of the British Empire. Yet, it is also known for its horrible slums, and harbors a dark and sinister underworld.
Works Cited Beckson, Karl. London in the 1890s: A Cultural History. London: W. W. Norton, 1992. Jenks, Chris. Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. London: Taylor & Francis, 2004. Joyce, Simon. Capital Offenses: Geographies of Class and Crime in Victorian London.
Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2003. Ledger, Sally, and Roger Luckhurst. The Fin de Siecle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880-1900. Oxford: OUP, 2000. Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 2nd ed. Ed. Martin A. Danahay. Petersborough: Broadview Press, 2005. Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Norman Page. Petersborough: Broadview Press, 2005. Wohl, Anthony. The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London. Edison: Transaction Books, 2001.