illustration of the upper-right corner of Dorian Gray's picture

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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Discuss examples of duality in the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, including quotes and explanation.

In the novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Oscar Wilde creates an interesting duality between the portrait and the man. There is not simply a duality between the portrait and the man; in each one there is an internal duality because each has a real and unreal aspect to it. At one point Lord Henry expresses his view that it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances alone. This is in keeping with Wilde’s saying in the preface that they are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

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Before Oscar Wilde even begins his narrative, he gives us a preface consisting of a series of aphorisms that express contradictions or paradoxes about art:

The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.

All art is at once surface and symbol.

The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

Wilde's purpose is to set up dichotomies, or dualities, that purportedly express or support the themes of the story to come.

Much of the preface sounds like the typically iconoclastic and mischievous wit Wilde was known for throughout his career, and only some of these aphorisms can be seen to relate to Dorian Gray's story. The principal duality in the narrative itself is the well-worn theme of illusion vs. reality, and the difference, if any, between them. On a more obvious level Wilde focuses on "beauty" and "ugliness," "youth" and "age." "How sad it is!" says Dorian. "I shall grow old and horrible and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young." This statement consummates the opposition at the heart of the story, which drives the whole plot. The portrait grows older, uglier, and more corrupt, while the real Dorian remains youthful and beautiful. They are opposites. But is the man, and not the picture, the "real" Dorian?

In some sense the answer is no. The man's appearance does not change, but we are told that his behavior has become increasingly corrupt. So the question becomes: is the picture "real" because it shows his actual age and the state of his "soul," or is the physical man "real" in spite of the fact of his age and corruption being concealed by his outward appearance? There is not simply a duality between the portrait and the man; in each one there, is an internal duality because each has a "real" and "unreal" aspect to it. At one point, Wilde has Lord Henry express the view that it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances alone. This is in keeping with Wilde's saying in the preface that "They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty."

By implication, Wilde is making a larger statement about Dorian's activities as the portrait "ages" and he seemingly does not. Though the details of Dorian's "corrupt" behavior are never revealed to us, it's more than likely that—given Wilde's own biography—Dorian has adopted a gay lifestyle. "Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?" Basil Hallward asks him. Though outwardly Wilde accepts the norms of his time in regarding gay relationships as immoral, his suggestion, though veiled, is that Dorian is simply fulfilling his destiny. It is at least partly society's hypocritical judgment of him that leads him to the actual crime of murder, which in turn destroys Dorian himself in the end.

The final scene is a riddle in which the meaning of the basic duality between picture and man is reversed: Dorian stabs the portrait, but the servants find a withered old man's body with a knife in his chest, while the picture appears in its original form as a magnificent portrait of a young man in evening clothes. Which, then, was "real": the picture or the man?

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Duality is a key element in gothic literature, particularly the gothic literature of the fin de siecle gothic revival. We see it particularly in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, both of which reflect anxieties about the dark underworld lurking beneath the seemingly respectable facade of Victorian London—and, correspondingly, the darkness that lurks inside those who inhabited Victorian society. In his preface to the novel, Wilde writes in a careful parallel structure to underline the theme of duality in the story to follow: "Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art . . . All art is at once surface and symbol . . . Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril."

The novel has duality at its very core, in the literal doubling of its protagonist, Dorian, in the painting onto which his sins will later be transposed. Dorian himself has a "simple and beautiful nature" at the beginning of the novel. Meanwhile, the picture will continue to grow uglier and uglier as Dorian's nature is besmirched, while Dorian himself—the "surface"—remains flawless. Dorian's friend, Basil Hallward, the artist, however, is convinced that Dorian must indeed still be a pure soul, believing that sin "writes itself across a man's face. It cannot be concealed." In this story, sin is plainly writ but not on Dorian. He has a gothic double—the painting—to wear his sin for him.

To Dorian, however, the portrait does not represent himself. He doesn't realize that he is looking at a mirror of his own soul—he declares it is "nothing to him." Thus, he allows himself to fall deeper and deeper into sin and lechery, blaming the portrait, not realizing that it is himself that is to blame, as the portrait is only a reflection of his own true nature.

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