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Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra Faculty of Education Department of Language Pedagogy and Intercultural Studies

Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray


(literary analysis)

xaj9m 2012/2013

Gabriela Januov

Both Oscar Wilde and The picture of Dorian Gray cast long shadows. A great deal of readers approach this book having some knowledge of the authors witty pen but they are also intriguing about the impact of his scandalous life on his work. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Wilde was a representative of a movement named aestheticism, which is the view that a work of art is the supreme value among human products precisely because it is self-sufficient and has no use or moral aim outside its own being. The end of a work of art is simply to exist in its formal perfection; that is, to be beautiful and to be contemplated as an end in itself. (Abrams, 1999, p. 3). Following this doctrine Wilde sought new experiences to satisfy all his desires and to indulge in all what is pleasant, whether it was moral or immoral, acceptable or not. The concept of the novel - a beautiful young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth is an idea old in the history of literature. It bears a close resemblance to Marlowes Doctor Faustus, in which a man sells his soul to the devil for power and knowledge. The theme is also similar to Stevensons Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which deals with the good and evil in human nature. Nevertheless, Wilde gives the novel a completely new form. He focuses more on the consequences of his protagonists wish rather than on the wish itself and the means by which it is granted. We learn very little about the mechanism of the magic, so to speak whether it is the scientific matter or Dorians soul that changes the portrait. When Basil Hallward sees what has become of his portrait, he simply cries out: Christ! What a thing I must have worshiped! It has the eyes of a devil. (p.125). But what causes Dorians soul to decay and can this process be diverted or even stopped? Does the portrait truly depict the state of his soul or is he a mere pawn too easily persuaded by other people? Wildes narrative refuses to clarify more so the readers may choose to imagine Dorian as the object of a metamorphosis or the victim of a vicious god. Thus the readers may perceive the relationship between art and life as well as between art, life and suffering. As for the genre, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel that combines elements of a gothic horror, satire and also a tragedy. Although it is not truly a gothic novel, it definitely contains some aspects of many such literary works, e.g. the presence of supernatural powers, darkness, murder, suicide, characters with mysterious past, a secret room, blackmailing, disposal of a body etc. On the other hand, the sharp tongue of Lord Henry and his epigrams lighten the foreboding tone of the novel, ridiculing different aspects of the society dealing with marriage, faithfulness, humanity, weather, America and many others, e.g. Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the worlds original sin. If the caveman had known how to laugh History would have been different (p.35). This novel can also be regarded as a tragedy since the protagonist, Dorian Gray, dies because of the flaw in his character, pride and obsession with his physical appearance. To conclude, the book is also a powerful philosophical story looking into the dreadful influence of sins on the main character. The major conflict of the book is expressed by the character of Dorian and his relationship with the portrait, which grows older and uglier whereas he stays young and beautiful. A great deal of the book is composed of discussions between different characters with their own views about how to best live their lives. The principal characters are Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray.

Basil Hallward, the painter of the picture, is the most conventional of the three. His admiration for Dorian, which can almost be perceived as love, inspires him to produce a masterpiece but his fear to show his picture to the world, thus risking the revealing of his emotions towards Dorian, shows his limitations. He dies by the hand of Dorian after seeing the portrait and trying to make him repent his sins. Lord Henry Wotton is a nobleman always armed with epigrams, shooting arrows at morals and hypocrisy of Victorian society. Although he is full of hedonistic philosophies, having the delight and pleasures the only aims of life, he does not practice what he preaches. His views on life are often immoral but his life remains boringly sedate. He has an immense influence on Dorian but it is the influence from which Grays sins are borrowed and it is the acceptance of this influence which leads the protagonist to his downfall. Although Lord Henry is well aware of Dorians passions, he is ignorant of his crimes as if he could not believe the confessions of his sins, thinking that such a beautiful creature would not be able evil actions. Dorian Gray is an incredibly handsome young man, the archetype of a male beauty. He is first presented as simple and elegant. But after having been poisoned by Lord Henry, he becomes obsessed with the idea of remaining forever young: How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful.If it were I who was to be young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that for that I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that! (p.24). His wish becomes true and the portrait grows old instead of him and bears every sign of his life full of sins and shallowness. Dorian takes advantage of this and seeks above all to learn how to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul (p.20) and he becomes more complex and debased. By the end of the book he loses his gracefulness and a peace of mind. This happens due to the fact that he cannot bear the burden of his secret anymore and the catastrophe becomes inevitable. The action of the book takes place in London in the nineteenth century in various houses, including Dorians house, and many other different places such as dirty and dangerous London streets and a shabby theatre where Dorian meets Sybil Vane, a poor and beautiful young actress responsible for the first change in the portrait after committing a suicide. As for the point of view of time, the novel is divided into three parts, the first part when Dorian is still young, followed by a rather lengthy Chapter 11, where the narrator describes the profound influence the yellow book has on Dorian and which totally changes his life and the last part, after a period of eighteen years, when we meet a changed protagonist. Wilde tells the story mostly in 3rd person omniscient point of view which enables him to reveal the thoughts of his characters. The author states the major theme of the book in its preface: All art is quite useless (p.4), because by staying young and beautiful forever, Dorian destroys the most important part of him his soul. This suggests that one day the good will be rewarded, but all sins, although hidden, will be punished. The inevitable conclusion is that beauty and vice are so strongly opposed to each other that it is not possible for them to reach an agreement. There are also other themes in the novel e.g. vanity as original sin Dorians beauty is his biggest attribute but his vanity is his most crippling vice. All his actions, from his wish for eternal youth to his

desperate attempt to destroy his portrait are motivated by vanity. Wilde invites the readers to think carefully about of inescapability of vanity in our lives in his preface: It is the spectator, not life that art really mirrors (p.3). The art of living or living through art is another theme expressed mainly in the character of Lord Henry and the ideas of hedonism he presents. He approaches life as a form of art, trying to sculpt Dorians personality and acting dramatically. The author also explores this theme by trying to wipe the line between life and art. Among characters in the book is an actress who lives her life as if constantly on stage, a painter who values friendship above all because it improves his ability to paint and Dorian himself when he lives his life based on works of art. Apart from several themes expressed in the novel, it is full of structures and ideas which help develop the novels major themes. A significant motif in the novel is homosexuality. There are strong homosexual undertones in the relationships between the three main characters Dorian, Lord Henry and Basil, as well as other young men whose lives are said to have been ruined by Dorian. Perhaps Wilde used this motif to justify his own lifestyle as sodomy and homosexuality were severely punishable offences in Victorian England. The novel is filled with symbolic objects, characters and figures that represent the authors ideas. One of them is the opium dens, located in a remote part of London. The dark part of the city that Dorian often visits to comfort his mind represents the dirty state of his own mind. Although he has a supply of opium in his home, the fact that he travels to the dens shows the degradation of his soul. The symbol of corruption and temptation is represented by the yellow book. At first Dorian is fascinated by it and starts living according to it but later he begs Lord Henry not to show it to anyone: Yet you poisoned me with a book once. I should not forgive that. Harry, promise me that you will never lend that book to anyone. It does harm. (p.172). Although the content of the book is never revealed to the reader, it represents the influence art can have over an individual. Of course, the strongest symbol in the novel is the portrait itself. It is another symbol that pictures the soul of its owner and the level to which it can be destroyed by a life full of sins and corruption. In The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde illustrates the dangers of influence through the main character. Although the author states in his preface that: Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital (p.3), when we judge Dorian against any moral code, he is a villain, not a pitiful victim. Henry Wotton only plants the poisonous seed but it is Gray himself who chooses to nourish it and this finally leads him to life full of fear and self-loathing. His egocentric philosophy comes at the expenses of his morality and eventually at the loss of his life.

Resources: WILDE, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ware, Herefordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1992. ISBN 978-1-85326-015-5 ABRAMS, Meyer Howard. A glossary of literary terms. Seventh edition. Boston, Massachusetts: Heinle & Heinle, Thomson Learning , 1999. ISBN: 0-15-505452-X