Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 9

Restyling the Secret of the Opium Den

"There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new" (196). Or so, at any rate, asserts the histrionic narrator of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). The opium den episode in Wilde's novel is in many ways typical of a genre that flourished in late Victorian novels, tales, and periodicals--a genre that provides a glimpse, if not of the dens themselves, of the strategies used to represent the opium den.

Wilde, like other writers, describes how a gentleman finds thrilling adventure within the familiar city by travelling in disguise through dark and gloomy streets to a secluded lair. The den in Wilde's novel is, like those depicted in other texts, a doubly exotic site where the gentleman mingles with social and racial others, pursuing illicit satisfaction among vicious criminals and grotesque "Orientals." Wilde furnishes all the traditional lurid details for the reader who craves to know what goes on within the "dens of horror."

However, the opium den episode in The Picture of Dorian Gray provides for a more complex reading than most narratives, because Wilde subjects the enabling illusion of opium den stories to close scrutiny. Most opium den narratives promise to expose the secrets of the occult den and, crucially, promise that the secrets it reveals are objective truths. Carefully designed to thrill the reader, they achieve their frisson by presenting themselves as straightforward and unadorned accounts of reality. Yet Wilde, who proclaims in the proem to the novel that "it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors," would naturally distrust the narrator who claims to have captured "life" or "reality" untainted by the imagination. As one might expect, Wilde's description of Dorian's adventure conveys "life" through the eyes of a spectator who transforms it metaphorically.

In Wilde's narrative, the secret reality of the opium den can never be exposed, only made variously obscure by the imaginations that refashion it in narrative.

--Timothy L. Carens

Sir Walter Besant, (1836-1901)
East London. London: Chatto and Windus,1901.

In East London (1901) William Besant follows a strategy used by other writers as well, justifying his own account of the opium den by disparaging the accuracy of previous descriptions. "We have read accounts of the dreadful place, have we not? Greatly to my disappointment, because when one goes to an opium den for the first time one expects a creeping of the flesh at least, the place was neither dreadful nor horrible."

Arthur Conan Doyle, (1859-1930)
"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Adventure VI. The Man with the Twisted Lip," In The Strand, Volume 2, 1891.

Many of those who undertake expeditions to the opium den use disguise to gain admittance to the secluded lair. In "The Man with the Twisted Lip" (1891), Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery by disguising himself as a listless smoker so as to gather intelligence on "the vilest murder trap on the whole river-side." British gentlemen, these stories suggest, play a dangerous game of charades in their bid to explore and expose the mysteries of the opium den.

"A Night in an Opium Den" in The Strand, Volume 1, 1891.

Both London, a Pilgrimage and "A Night in an Opium Den" (1891) feature illustrations of Asians smoking in the den to complement descriptions of the degenerate "Orientals" who have established colonies in the back alleys of the city. It seems obvious, from our perspective, that these illustrations degrade and stereotype. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, they served as crucial evidence of the secret reality glimpsed by unbiased spectators. Ironically, Doré's illustration is labeled "Opium Smoking - The Lascar's Room in 'Edwin Drood'." Does the artist intend his illustration to copy art or life?




Rudyard Kipling, (1865-1936)
The City of Dreadful Night. Allahabad, India: A. H. Wheeler & Co. Indian Railway Library, 1891.

In The City of Dreadful Night (1891), Kipling provides the Anglo-Indian version of the opium den narrative. Although he describes a Calcutta den, he does so with a narrative style exported from London. Like Jerrold, Kipling is accompanied by trustworthy police who light the way through the "great human jungle of the native city" with bull's eye lanterns "in regular 'rounds of London' fashion." Viewing Calcutta with eyes trained by London writers, he describes the opium den neighborhood as "a great wilderness of packed houses...just such mysterious, conspiring tenements as Dickens would have loved."

Artists and writers display the most intimate of the den's spaces, the communal beds on which the proprieties of cleanliness and privacy are most shockingly abandoned, to illustrate what they represent as the sordid facts of animalistic life in the "den." In the opening scene, Jasper lies upon an "unseemly bed" in alarming contiguity with "a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman." In this illustration of a later episode, only the "haggard woman" shares his bed.

Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold. London: a Pilgrimage. London: Grant and Co., 1872.

In London, a Pilgrimage Gustave Doré and Blanchard Jerrold accentuate the thrill of their narrative by figuring the East End where opium is smoked as the geographic region where it is grown. They describe their adventure as an imperial foray into "savage London," explaining how their police guide stations guards "at strategic points or openings, that cover our advance, and keep the country open behind us." The full-page illustration of the Asian smoker provides crucial evidence of their journey to the section of London they refer to as "the East."

Charles Dickens, (1812-1870) The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London: Chapman and Hall, 1870.

John Jasper, the villain of the novel, leads a double life, flitting back and forth between sober, provincial Cloisterham, where he masquerades as a respectable choir master, and a London opium den, in which he indulges his appetite for the drug and dreams of murdering his nephew. The cover of the monthly numbers features a caricature of a Chinese smoker to advertise the exoticism of the plot. The novel begins within the den itself, as Dickens gives the reader access to the bizarre visions of Jasper's opium dream.



Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, (1864-1901)
Oscar Wilde


The Photographs

Wilde initially encountered the U.S. press on the still-quarantined ocean liner Arizona on January 2, 1882, appearing wearing the elaborate fur coat, knickers, and jacket in which he lectured. Apparently orchestrated by D'Oyley Carte's aide, Colonel Morse, this encounter presented a Wilde well suited to promote his tour, and the remarks on Wilde's costume in the press complemented Wilde's visit to Sarony's photography studio soon after he attended the performance of Patience. Morse had arranged this session because he was planning to market the photographs as memorabilia of Wilde's tour. The most exemplary of the photographs from this session pictures Wilde relaxed on a divan, resting his head on his right hand while his left gently holds a text. As they all are, this photograph is a terrifically overdetermined artifact. Wilde's pose is highly visually allusive, and it is nearly indecipherable as a result. Images as disparate as Wallis's "Death of Chatterton" and Delacroix's "Odalisque" are inscribed into Wilde's pose, and the interpretive confusion such an image engenders results from its play with received codes of representation. Wilde's subtle expression, his unfathomable smile, suggests his amusement at his overdetermination of his own image, and the presence of the text implies an ironic awareness of the allusive aporia created by the image.

Photographs of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas from the Fales Collection.


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