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

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

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Sibyl Vane, Basil and Dorian

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The Picture of Dorian Gray presents three intriguing characters, all of whom represent in different ways the relationship between art and life, contemplation and action, beauty and ethics. But neither Lord Henry Wotton nor Basil Hallward nor Dorian Gray embodies the ideal to which each aspires, and they all fail catastrophically in one way or another. The Picture of Dorian Gray is not a novel for the optimist.

Lord Henry is often pilloried by critics as a cynic who manipulates Dorian into doing the things that he advocates but is too withdrawn and too frightened to do himself. In this view, Henry is a tired man who wants to live vicariously through a younger, more beautiful specimen who has the ability (or so Lord Henry supposes) to experience life as Lord Henry believes it ought to be experienced.

No doubt all this is true. But Lord Henry certainly has his appeal, since he is the chief vehicle in the novel for Wilde’s dazzling epigrammatic wit, and his aesthetic ideal needs to be taken seriously. What, then, does Lord Henry stand for? A clue to his governing aesthetic can be found in the opening scene of the novel, which takes place in Basil’s studio. The door of the studio is open, and the rich sights, sounds, and smells of the adjoining garden, as the light summer wind blows, are vividly described. Henry is characteristically taking it easy by lying on the divan, but he is aware of all the sensory life going on around him—the heavy scent of the lilac, the almost unbearable beauty of the laburnum blossoms, the “sullen murmur” of the bees. Just as importantly, he is aware of the shadows cast on the curtains by the flight of birds, which reminds him of Japanese artists, who “through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion.”

This passage suggests Lord Henry’s ideal, which is to cultivate an intensity of experience whilst paradoxically remaining undisturbed and untroubled by it. This ideal is fully realized through the contemplation of art, which permits the observer the privilege of being at once involved and uninvolved in the experience. It is in this sense that art is superior to life, as Wilde so often claimed, and this is what Henry is driving at when he instructs the malleable mind of Dorian on how to react to the suicide of Sibyl. He must view it, says Lord Henry, from the perspective of art, as a scene from some Jacobean tragedy. What he means is that tragic drama has the power to evoke in the spectator a full and sympathetic response but one that does not engulf him or her in actual grief. Lord Henry is here a spokesman for the position Wilde staked out in his essay, “The Critic as Artist”:

Art does not hurt us. The tears that we shed at a play are a type of the exquisite sterile emotions that it is the function of Art to awaken. We weep, but we are not wounded. We grieve, but our grief is not bitter.

In this view, art shields people from the harshness of actual existence. It is to be preferred to life because, as Wilde writes earlier in the same essay, life, unlike art, lacks form:

Its catastrophes happen in the wrong way and to the wrong people. There is a grotesque horror about its comedies, and its tragedies seem to culminate in farce. One is always wounded when one approaches it.

Dorian is convinced by Henry’s argument. Changing his way of...

(This entire section contains 1942 words.)

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responding to Sibyl’s death, he recovers his equanimity (or so he thinks). Of course, Dorian’s fatal mistake, according to Lord Henry’s philosophy, is to get his emotions tied up with Sibyl in the first place, because that has inflicted a wound on the invisible level of life (the level of soul, or conscience, as reflected in the changing picture) that extracts a bitter price further down the road.

It is to avoid wounds such as these that Wilde argues, in “The Critic as Artist,” for the superiority of contemplation over action, being (or more precisely, becoming) over doing. And this is why art, he says, can have nothing to do with ethics, since ethics applies only to the sphere of action. This is why Lord Henry appears to withdraw from life and seek perfection only in art.

And yet there is another side to Lord Henry’s philosophy. In contrast to the inward impulse is the push outward, the desire for the sensory world. He advocates a life of passionate personal experience, to be enjoyed most fully in youth, while the senses are at their sharpest. He will have nothing of self-denial. As he tells Dorian, “Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us.” Henry’s “new Hedonism,” in which novel sensations are sought in order to keep the flame of life from going out in the dullness of habit and routine, demands the courage to yield to temptation (another Wildean paradox). “Resist it,” he explains to Dorian, “and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”

To remain a spectator of life and at the same time to fulfill every desire of one’s sensual nature is a paradox; it suggests the co-existence of opposite values. It is the art of feeling life without feeling it, the art of touching whilst remaining untouched. Paradoxes such as these lead often to the sphere of mysticism. Indeed, the book that Lord Henry gives Dorian, and which fascinates and influences him so deeply, sometimes seems to him like a work of mystical philosophy. But neither Wilde nor any of his characters were mystics. It is the concrete material form, shaped into beauty, which holds their attention. As Wilde put it, attributing the thought to Walter Pater, in “The Critic as Artist”: “Who . . . would exchange the curve of a single rose-leaf for that formless intangible Being which Plato raises so high?”

If in his personal life, as opposed to what he advises Dorian, Henry embraces the first rather than the second part of the paradox—detachment rather than involvement—his protégé Dorian leans to the other side. Totally under Lord Henry’s spell, this refined young man with high ideals adopts his mentor’s words to the best of his ability. He tells Basil that he understands what Henry says about art and the “artistic temperament,” and he quotes Henry approvingly that “To become the spectator of one’s own life . . . is to escape the suffering of life.” And even though Dorian has few original thoughts in his head, he still manages to think in lofty terms about the new Hedonism leading to the birth of a new spirituality, dominated by an instinct for beauty.

But Dorian does not succeed in living the paradox. More involved in the world than Lord Henry and giving full rein to his love of beauty and his quest for novel sensations, he allows himself to become a poisonous influence on those around him. He becomes indifferent to the effects of his actions, which not only destroy others (in ways never specified) but also leave him fatally marred, despite the illusion—for that, ultimately is what it is—generated by his unchanging youthful, beautiful appearance. Detached contemplation becomes callous disregard. In his attempt, following Lord Henry’s dictum, “to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul,” Dorian succeeds only in satiating the one and corrupting the other. In terms of the Art/Life dichotomy, he deserts the calm serenity of art in favor of the sordidness of life. This becomes crystal clear as Dorian takes the hansom cab to the opium den the day after he murders Basil:

Ugliness that had once been hateful to him because it made things real, became dear to him now for that very reason. Ugliness was the one reality. The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of Art, the dreamy shadows of Song.

The third main character in the novel, Basil Hallward, can also be analyzed in terms of this dichotomy between art and life, detachment and involvement. He confesses to Dorian in chapter 9 that when he first began to paint portraits of him, he managed to retain the proper artistic distance from his subject: “it had all been what art should be, unconscious, ideal, and remote.” But then when he painted Dorian not in classical costume but as himself, his personal feelings entered into the painting; he revealed too much of himself in it. This is why he initially decides he cannot exhibit the painting.

When Basil allows himself to become infatuated with Dorian, he commits the same error (from Lord Henry’s perspective, that is) that Dorian does with Sibyl Vane. He allows himself to be drawn out of the sphere of Art into that of Life, and no good results from it. As Dorian later reproaches him, “You met me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks.” Basil, then, must bear his share of responsibility for encouraging Dorian on the path that proves so destructive for him as well as others. However, Basil, unlike Lord Henry and Dorian, does not divorce his principles as an artist from his moral and ethical awareness. This is what makes him the most sensible, and perhaps also the least interesting, of the three main characters. His is the voice of conscience that speaks to Dorian when the younger man is intent on ignoring his own conscience. Basil is shocked by Dorian’s callous demeanor after Sibyl Vane’s death, and his moral concern about Dorian’s dissolute life is what precipitates Basil’s murder, since Dorian cannot bear to listen to Basil’s insistence that Dorian should pray for repentance.

It is in this moment, through the agency of Basil, that a thematic framework quite different from the concerns of art and life, contemplation and action, beauty and ethics, enters the novel. This is the Christian scheme of sin, followed by repentance and the possibility of redemption. When Dorian finally does feel remorse and desires to change his life, he moves into a different sphere than Lord Henry, who refuses to take seriously anything Dorian says on that subject. Lord Henry, apparently ignorant of the course that Dorian’s life has taken, believes him still to be as perfect as his handsome appearance suggests. This failure of Lord Henry to respond to the events of the real world is presented in extreme form when Dorian all but confesses to the murder of Basil; Lord Henry’s response is prompted by his aesthetics, rather than any moral or practical concern. He says that Dorian does not have the vulgarity to commit a murder. This last glance at Lord Henry may be Wilde’s way of demonstrating that Lord Henry’s detachment involves him in illusions no less damaging than those which Dorian has for long entertained about his own life. The worship of art and beauty may have its place, but it proves to be an inadequate guide through the troubled maze of real human experience.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on The Picture of Dorian Gray, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Oscar Wilde

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. . . In the following two years he produced several reviews, essays, and lectures, and he and his wife produced two children, Cyril on 5 June 1885 and Vyvyan on 3 November 1886. In 1886 Wilde met a young Canadian, Robert Ross, and according to fairly well-accepted opinion began his involvement in the disordered, destructive homosexual life-style so luridly suggested in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and catalogued in his sensational trials. In April 1887 Wilde became the editor of The Lady’s World magazine. He stated that his aim was to provide “for the expression of women’s opinions on all subjects of literature, art, and modern life” and changed the name to The Woman’s World.

In 1887 some of his best short stories appeared, notably “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” in the 11, 18, and 25 May issues of Court and Society Review. In this story the moral complications resulting from efforts to conform to the demands of a stagnant and corrupt society are grimly and satirically understated, with the spooky, suprarational involvement of a “Professional Cheiromantist.” The Picture of Dorian Gray would develop a similar suprarational situation with far deeper and more complex personal and social effects. In 1888 his fairy tales The Happy Prince and Other Tales and “The Young King,” revealing another approach to moral situations and human relationships, interested and delighted adults as well as children—and puzzled some, as they still do.

In 1889 the first of his critical essays, so deeply influential for some great artists of the twentieth century, appeared. All his most important critical essays were published on 2 May 1891 under the title Intentions. This collection forms one of the profoundest, healthiest, and most graceful nineteenth-century investigations into the nature of literary art. Victorian criticism subjected literature to the demands of morality and utility; Matthew Arnold was the best, and thus the worst, of such critics. Wilde strove to dislodge that burden.

Wilde was dismissed as editor of The Woman’s World in July 1889; the same month saw the appearance of “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” a brilliant commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets. In this story Wilde created a character so vivid and alive that Shakespeare scholars, a solemn crew, still feel obliged to devote a footnote or two to killing him off—Willie Hughes. Wilde perceptively satirizes Matthew Arnold’s “touchstone” approach to literature in developing from sonnet twenty a theory about Hughes. Cyril Graham, the central character in Wilde’s story, which skillfully affects a documentary realism, intuits “on a kind of spiritual and artistic sense” that Willie was the sonnets’ “Onlie Begetter,” the “Mr. W. H.” of the title page of Shakespeare’s work. Many kinds of artistic trickery in poetry and in painting complicate the plot. There is no more detailed, more illuminating, and perhaps more eerily degenerate analysis of those glorious sonnets in all of the vast critical writing dealing with them.

The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” usually classified with Wilde’s critical essays, could equally well be approached as a story or novella. Its structure, involving a beautiful youth (Willie Hughes), two older men (Shakespeare and the Rival Poet), and a homosexual ambience (slightly disturbed by an interfering Dark Lady) foreshadows Wilde’s only novel. The revised “Mr. W. H.” of 1893 in turn shows a considerable influence of The Picture of Dorian Gray in its stressing of an intellectual nobility in the love of man for boy, in adverting to the influence of the unconscious, and in the development of a Platonic idealism in the fruitful “marriage of true minds.”

The first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in July 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. In his essays, Wilde had preached Pater’s doctrine with glib grace and triumphant success. In his novel, that eloquent doctrine, mixing with human realities, ran into considerable trouble.

Wilde posited quite a simple plot. A remarkably attractive twenty-year-old, upper-class Englishman faces his future, and after the passage of time—twelve years in the short Lippincott version, eighteen years in the longer version published in book form the following year—concludes his development in abrupt and destructive fashion.

The Lippincott version has only three main characters; three others appear briefly. The novel begins with the artist Basil Hallward painting a portrait of Dorian; Lord Henry Wotton, an elegant manabout- town, a “Prince of Paradox,” comes in to meet the subject of the picture. Basil fears that he is putting too much of his intense love for the young man into the painting; Lord Henry sees in the youth an opportunity to observe the higher life, the welcoming of every sensation, the fullest development of soul and sense in a beautiful human being.

The homosexual undertones of Wilde’s development of his plot roused a critical eruption, mostly of indignation and vilification. The plot was reputedly (but probably not actually) based on an experience Wilde had had in the studio of Basil Ward, an artist friend, where Wilde expressed regret that a beautiful young man in one of Ward’s paintings should ever grow old. (Another version places the incident in the studio of a woman painter who painted Wilde’s portrait.) In the Gothic tone of his mother’s granduncle, Charles Maturin—author of the model of all Gothic novels, Melmoth the Wanderer— Wilde introduces a painting which, after the subject of the painting offers his soul for the miracle, takes on the signs of age and moral decay while its lovely, criminal original remains unchanged.

The main characters, according to Wilde’s later account, are three aspects of Wilde himself. Hallward is the suffering and sacrificed artist; Dorian is the youthful aesthete-about-town; Lord Henry is the mature philosopher and wit. Their tortuous and fascinating wanderings in obscure psychological depths have kept readers, viewers of movies, psychiatrists, and critics mildly agog for a hundred years—and will no doubt continue to do so, in the company of Hamlet, Balzac’s Peau de Chagrin, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Edgar Allan Poe’s Usher family, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus.

Turning the Lippincott version of the novel into a book required more bulk, better balance, and tighter unity. Wilde added six chapters and other characters, increased the scope and depth of the second half (Dorian’s mature experience, James Vane’s return), and toned down the homosexual implications of the first version. He also added a preface, to meet some of the charges made against the first version and to set forth some of the Paterian bases for the doctrine involved.

The preface upholds Pater’s view of art as a reflecting function independent of the strictures of conventional morality. The surface of art, that smooth and lovely skin that all can see, conceals human experience; the symbol, the hidden meaning, of art expresses what the partaker of art finds beneath the surface if he dares to penetrate it—his own face confronting him. Those who rage and howl, like the critics of Wilde’s novel, suffer from seeing their own savage faces reflected in the artist’s creation. For the artist morality is of interest only as subject matter; ethics should not constrict his scope, nor does he concern himself with encouraging or discouraging moral behavior. The work of art is totally useless; it finds its goal within itself, a beautiful creation reflecting all things human. It should be contemplated for itself, and aims at no other use. Thus the critics who condemn it as having evil effects should look inside themselves for the causes of those effects, not in the work.

In his arrangement of the twenty chapters of his book, Wilde devotes ten chapters to the twenty-yearold Dorian, one remarkable bridge chapter to the eighteen following years, and nine chapters to Dorian at the age of thirty-eight. The ten chapters of the first section are divided into three groups. Chapters 1 through 3 establish the relationships among the three central characters. Chapters 4 through 7 set forth the effect of Sibyl Vane on the three men. Chapters 8 through 10 deal with the portrait—the change in it, the painter’s attitude, the hiding of the picture.

Chapter 11 carries the reader by a most effective narrative device over eighteen years of Dorian’s sybaritic life. Chapters 12 through 14 deal with Basil’s murder, chapters 15 through 18 with James Vane’s return. Chapter 19 echoes, in the talk of Henry and Dorian, the Paterian idealism of the early chapters, now with a sinister tonality. In the final chapter, Dorian kills his conscience.

Each chapter has a calculated task in the carefully planned whole. Chapter 1 sets forth, in the conversation of Basil Hallward and Lord Henry, their views on the aim of the artist, on the effect on the artist of his work of art, and on the danger for a young man of Henry’s teaching of the value of the fullest possible self-development. Henry preaches “a new Hedonism” in which the doctrine of Pater is central. In his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Pater urged response to all sensations, intense concern for keeping always burning the “hard gemlike flame” of self-fulfillment. Lord Henry’s advice to Dorian in chapter 2 echoes Pater: “‘Yes,’ continued Lord Henry, ‘that is one of the great secrets of life—to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.’” The mature Dorian of chapter 16 finds those words ringing in his ears, continuously repeats them with savage intensity as if they were a talismanic formula, and desperately wonders whether or not his senses could, after a life of total self-indulgence, cure his sick soul.

In chapter 2 the twenty-year-old Dorian finds Henry’s words a clarion call to a brave new world. An apprehensive Basil moves to destroy the picture, but Dorian stops him. At the end of the chapter, Dorian leaves Basil to join Lord Henry.

Chapter 3, the first of the new chapters added to the Lippincott version, develops Henry’s growing control of both Dorian and Basil. He preaches Plato’s reality, the intellectually perfect form which gives reality to shadows. Thus style, the surface, is of prime importance to every artist—to Michaelangelo in stone, to Shakespeare in sonnets. So Henry, as an artist, in living aims to dominate and fashion Dorian. Echoing the attacks on the first version of the novel, Wilde introduces the proper Sir Thomas, who condemns with “tight lips” Henry’s Paterian advocacy of freedom from conventional moral restraints. Henry defends his idea, and the narrator describes Henry’s method (which is also Wilde’s) of using fancy and language in his campaign to repel mere facts: “He played with the idea, and grew willful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy, and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and Philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of Pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts fled before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge press at which wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over the vat’s black, dripping, sloping sides.” Again, and more definitely, Dorian deserts Basil to follow Henry.

In chapter 4, Dorian has acquired “a passion for sensations.” He has “collected” Sibyl Vane, who resembles Wilde’s wife Constance (as Wilde described his fiancée in a letter to Lillie Langtry in December 1883). Sibyl, Dorian thinks, escapes time; she is full of mystery, sacred. She is all great heroines, never an individual. Dorian seems to have persuaded himself that by joining her he, too, will exist in the world of art, the world created by Shakespeare. She seems divine to him, since she will lift him out of the crass world where imagination must be subject to animal necessities. Henry attempts to discourage Dorian: “Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are.” Henry decides, however, to watch the situation as an experiment, to achieve “scientific analysis of the passions.”

Chapter 5 is the second added chapter, and its mean style fits the situation—Sibyl’s poverty-ridden and melodramatically sterile home life. The reader is told about her romantic dream, her mother’s overacted apprehensions, her brother James’s sincere concern and his violent threats to anyone who should harm her. In soap-opera terms, the reader learns, as James now finally does, that Sibyl and James are bastards, since the “highly connected” gentleman their mother had loved could not marry her. Mother and brother have listened to Sibyl declare her passion for a Prince Charming whose real name she does not know.

In chapter 6, Lord Henry and Basil discuss Dorian’s determination to marry, and after his arrival, Dorian describes his infatuation. Henry doubts the quality of Dorian’s “selfless” love, and asserts the superiority of selfish pleasure: “I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial.” They drive off to the theater, Basil gloomy and apprehensive.

Chapter 7 reveals that Sibyl’s power of acting has deserted her. Dorian’s love evanesces, his friends leave, he berates Sibyl as she sobs. She flings herself at his feet (people fling themselves throughout the novel). He coldly leaves her and wanders through the night. At dawn, returning home, he notes a new expression of hard cruelty on the face in the portrait. But maybe it is not so; maybe he can yet love Sibyl.

In the third subsection of the first half of the novel, chapter 8 sees Dorian, with Lord Henry’s tutelage, transforming Sibyl’s suicide into a triumph of art, a further help to his own self-development: “It has been a marvelous experience. That is all.” The picture still mirrors his cruelty, bears “the burden of his shame: that was all.” In chapter 9 Basil arrives at Dorian’s house; they exchange views; Basil confesses the intense love he had expressed in the picture, the motive for his effort to destroy it. Dorian resolves to hide it away safely. He takes the painting in chapter 10 to the unused old schoolroom at the top of the house, where he had spent much of his childhood. Then he turns to the book Henry had sent to him, a volume resembling J. K. Huysmans’s A Rebours (1884), a book written in “that curious jeweled style” which Wilde himself had admired. Here the voice of the narrator strongly suggests that he is Wilde himself; it is almost, but not quite, identical with the voice of Lord Henry: “There were in it [the book Lord Henry had sent to Dorian] metaphors as monstrous as orchids, and as subtle in color. The life of the senses was described in terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some medieval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book.” This view of the operation of a work of art does not at all seem in accord with Wilde’s preface.

For his bridge chapter, chapter 11, Wilde hit upon the effective device of merging Dorian’s experience for the next eighteen years with the vast historical background, mostly deviously evil, of the beautiful objects he collects—manuscripts depicting sensual adventures and mystical theologies; perfumes; music of savage as well as of civilized traditions; exquisite jewels; embroideries, tapestries, and vestments; paintings; literature; poisons. Thus Wilde gives the effect of many passing years, bringing Dorian to the point at which he can look “on evil as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful.” The chapter brilliantly deals with time on two levels: general human historical experience with beautiful and poisonous things, and Dorian’s shifting interest in those same things.

The last half of the novel begins in chapter 12, on the eve of Dorian’s thirty-eighth birthday. On his way home through the fog from a party at Lord Henry’s, Dorian passes the hurrying figure of Basil Hallward, and attempts to avoid speaking to him. But Basil turns and requests an interview. He confronts Dorian with the stories of his moral corruption and urges him to reveal the truth. Dorian furiously agrees and invites Basil upstairs.

In chapter 13, Basil, horrified, sees the picture. He urges repentance. Dorian stabs him to death, then goes outside and rings the bell to establish an alibi (his valet had previously sent Basil on his way, and was unaware of his return with Dorian). Dorian looks into the Blue Book, a listing of notable persons, to find the address of Alan Campbell, a scientist.

In chapter 14 Dorian blackmails Campbell into destroying Basil’s body, apparently by reducing it to its elements. The florid style of these chapters continues the atmosphere of the elegantly evil bridge chapter, chapter 11.

In the four following chapters, added to the Lippincott version, Wilde fleshes out the lean earlier ending, particularly by bringing back Sibyl’s brother James to attempt to carry out his threat of vengeance. Wilde achieves far greater unity, as well, by reviving Dorian’s first vicious cruelty and depicting the cowardice and fear of Sibyl’s Prince Charming in his maturity.

In chapter 15 Dorian, fresh from his gruesome crime (or “tragedy,” as the narrator puts it) goes to a party at Lady Narborough’s. The narrator’s voice here is closer than ever to Lord Henry’s, and the narrator literally quotes Henry’s statements. Lord Henry arrives late, notes something changed in Dorian, and amuses the company with a series of paradoxes: “She is very clever, too clever for a woman. She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness. It is the feet of clay that makes the gold of the image precious. Her feet are very pretty, but they are not feet of clay. White porcelain feet, if you like. They have been through the fire, and what fire does not destroy, it hardens. She has had experiences.” The image has its application to Dorian, as does much of Henry’s persiflage. (Wilde refers to this image in De Profundis, his long letter from prison to Alfred Douglas: “When I wrote, among my aphorisms, that it was simply the feet of clay that made the gold of the image precious, it was of you that I was thinking.”)

After the party, Dorian returns home, disquieted and craving forgetfulness. He collects some drugs and takes a hansom for the opium dens of Chinatown. When, in chapter 16, Dorian enters the squalid den, he sees a sailor “sprawled over a table.” An old crone, a woman Dorian had corrupted many years ago, calls after him, “Prince Charming.” The sailor, who by strange coincidence turns out to be James Vane, hears the name his sister had called the man she loved. He follows Dorian, threatens him, and Dorian steps into light to reveal the face of “a lad of twenty summers.” Vane subsides in confusion, and Dorian departs. The crone, creeping up, informs Vane that that “lad” had ruined her “nigh on eighteen years since. . . .” Vane stares at empty streets.

In chapter 17, a week later, at a hunting party in the country, Lord Henry is entertaining the guests, earning the title of “Prince Paradox” from Dorian. There are hints of the future Importance of Being Earnest: “That is the reason I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who would call a spade a spade should be compelled to use it. It is the only thing he is fit for.” Then Dorian, having seen through a window the white, staring face of James Vane, faints. In chapter 18, Dorian, though ill, goes out on the hunt. Over Dorian’s protest, since he was charmed by the hare’s grace of movement, Sir Geoffrey shoots into the bush—and kills the hiding James Vane. Dorian weeps with relief that he is now safe.

Chapter 19 returns to the material of the Lippincott version. Henry and Dorian return to the Paterian atmosphere of the first chapters, now without Basil. Dorian’s determination to reform and be good, evidenced by his refraining from corrupting altogether a village maid who reminded him of Sibyl, meets with tolerant incredulity from Lord Henry: “Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. . . . I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.” They discuss Basil’s disappearance, his possible murder, Dorian’s life, the loss of the soul. For Dorian, Henry tells him, “Life has been your art.” As he leaves, Dorian hesitates, as if he had left something important unsaid. “Then he sighed and went out.”

In the final chapter, Dorian for the last time “throws himself” down on the sofa and thinks. The past overwhelms him. He determines to be good. Having accomplished one minor triumph by resisting a sexual urge, he goes to see if the picture looks better. It is more disgusting. He stabs it with the knife that had killed Basil. When the servants break in, they find a picture of an exquisite youth and an old, withered, loathsome corpse with a knife in its heart.

This second version of The Picture of Dorian Gray is a well-balanced and unified novel, expressed in a musical, clear, and flowing style, if flowery and overstuffed like stylish Victorian furniture. The imagery well serves the central insight, which contemplates the goal of existence in human beings involved with art. Wilde formally disavows a moral aim, but his book frustrates that disavowal. The human who serves only self, as a perfect work of art may do, may end murdered in horror like Basil, suicidal like Dorian stabbing his conscience, or vapidly mouthing entertaining aphorisms like the seemingly self-sufficient Lord Henry.

Wilde’s reputation as a novelist has to rest on this one work, but that is not a trivial base. The novel’s solid structure and other virtues have kept it alive for a century, tempting filmmakers and playwrights, as well as a steady stream of interested critics and readers.

James Joyce understood why Wilde failed to achieve the highest literary merit and fell short of revealing the ultimate human secret in his novel. In a letter to his brother in 1906 after reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joyce laid his critical finger on Wilde’s literary fatal flaw: “Wilde seems to have some good intentions in writing it—some wish to put himself before the world—but the book is rather crowded with lies and epigrams. If he had had the courage to develop the allusions in the book it might have been better.” Wilde, in what he and Joyce both recognized as the goal of the literary artist—to express human experience in all its psychic complexity—lacked courage. In the young Joyce’s view, Wilde feared self-revelation.

An illustration of the difference as well as the likeness between the flawed artist and the toweringly successful one might be discerned in a comparison of artistic achievement in the creation of the somewhat similar characters of Dorian Gray and Stephen Dedalus. For example, in chapter 11 the young Dorian contemplates the sinister transformation of his portrait: “He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age.” In chapter 3 of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Joyce says of Stephen Dedalus: “He stooped to the evil of hypocrisy with others, sceptical of their innocence which he could cajole so easily. . . . If ever his soul, re-entering her dwelling shyly after the frenzy of his body’s lust had spent itself, was turned towards her whose emblem is the morning star, ‘bright and musical, telling of heaven and infusing peace,’ it was when her names were murmured softly by lips whereon there still lingered foul and shameful words, the savour itself of a lewd kiss.” Joyce could powerfully and unashamedly depict hypocrisy; Wilde, according to Joyce, crippled his art by a concern for concealing his own hypocrisy....

Source: Robert Boyle, “Oscar Wilde,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 34, British Novelists, 1890–1929: Traditionalists, edited by Thomas F. Staley, Gale Research, 1984, pp. 315–31.

The Crucible

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The structure of The Picture of Dorian Gray is unambiguously, rigorously moral. Through the portrait, Wilde monitors Dorian’s steady, irreversible progress toward damnation. The murder of Basil Hallward constitutes the crisis of the novel and divides it into two fairly symmetrical halves, the second of which also ends on the climactic note of murder—though this time it is self-murder— committed with the same weapon. Wilde builds upon this foundation a system of analogous and contrasting characters and character relationships that he apportions between the halves of the plot so as to augment and clarify its moral symmetry. And he further enhances the balance between halves by carefully choreographing the entrances, exits, and reappearances of key characters.

At the outset, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton, essentially positive and negative moral influences, compete for Dorian’s allegiance. Wotton wins easily and, as the plot approaches the murder, his growing ascendancy is balanced by Hallward’s increasing estrangement. These shifting relationships provide an appropriate backdrop for the murder, which sets in motion the novel’s central irony. Prior to this crime, Dorian views his evil behavior as a positive means of self-realization. Using the portrait as a repository for his deeds, he thinks that he can act with impunity. He kills Basil in order to free himself from conscience, but his sense of guilt and spiritual anxiety increases instead. Too late he recognizes the validity of Basil’s moral position, as the relative influences of Basil and Henry begin to reverse themselves. Behavior that before stemmed from a positive, if perverse, philosophy now has for its sole purpose the escape from guilt. Each venture toward oblivion yields instead a confrontation with past sins. And, as he sinks deeper in corruption, Dorian takes Basil’s place in the moral debate with Harry. Just before the novel’s central crisis, in which Basil loses his life, he returns after a long absence to confront Dorian with the rumors about his wickedness. Dorian confesses to Basil, who attains to full awareness of both his and Dorian’s sins. When Henry returns prior to the novel’s final crisis, Dorian tentatively confesses to him also. But Henry refuses to believe him and, blind to Dorian’s spiritual anxiety, ironically expresses envy of the life Dorian has come to loathe.

Wilde carefully constructs the murder scene as the novel’s moral fulcrum. Basil’s confrontation with the altered portrait, which implicates him as well as Dorian, moves him to repent and seek mercy:

“Good God, Dorian, what a lesson! what an awful lesson!” There was no answer, but he could hear the young man sobbing at the window. “Pray, Dorian, pray,” he murmured. “What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.”

Moments after the unveiling, Basil and Dorian exchange the following remarks:

“Christ! what a thing I must have worshipped! It has the eyes of a devil.”

“Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him, Basil,” cried Dorian, with a wild gesture of despair.

Heaven and hell, pride and repentance, Christ and the devil—Wilde situates Dorian between these moral extremes and calls upon him to decide his fate. He must either turn from false worship—a theme that incorporates both his initial Faustian pact and Basil’s strange idolatry—to true, or be damned. Wilde stresses the possibility for salvation rather than the necessity for punishment. Basil calls upon Dorian to join him in the appeal for New Testament mercy. The artist represents and acts upon the positive force of conscience, which can bring about an inward change and lead to regeneration. But, at the crisis in his life, Dorian chooses rebellion rather than repentance, the hell rather than the heaven within. He blames Basil for the course his life has taken; and Wilde frames the accusation so that it extends implicitly to God:

“I wonder do I know you? Before I could answer that, I should have to see your soul. . . . But only God can do that.”

A bitter laugh of mockery broke from the lips of the younger man. “You shall see it yourself, to-night!” he cried, seizing a lamp from the table. “Come: it is your own handiwork.”

Dorian forces upon Basil the role of God, who alone can see the soul He has created. And he blames the divine surrogate for his evil nature rather than accepting responsibility for it himself. After he murders Basil, conscience, with its potential for salvation through repentance, becomes overpowering guilt that blocks out deliverance.

Dorian’s symbolic rejection of the Christian dispensation appeared in the Lippincott’s text. When Wilde added six chapters to form the book version, he contributed to the moral symmetry of the structure by developing that opposition between Old and New Testament codes which permeates his writings. By rejecting Basil, the spokesman for New Testament mercy, Dorian forces the confrontation with an angry God who judges and punishes. Since contrition can no longer be generated from within, vengeance must be imposed from above. In the added chapters Wilde therefore introduces James Vane, an agent of the Old Testament code who replaces Basil to become the living moral force in the novel’s second half. Whereas Basil, Dorian’s good angel, sought to lead him toward grace, Vane, the angel of wrath, increases the guilty man’s terror as he attempts to avenge an infuriated deity. After the murder, anxiety, supported by the relationship between hunter and hunted, sets the tone of Dorian Gray. The protagonist acknowledges the justice of Vane’s moral code shortly before his own death:

Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that. Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure, swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment. Not “Forgive us our sins,” but “Smite us for our inequities,” should be the prayer of man to a most just God.

He explicitly recalls Basil’s appeal and brings the New and Old Testament perspectives on sin into sharp contrast. Having denied the former, he unwittingly replaces James Vane as agent of the latter when he stabs the portrait.

Though Vane and Hallward function as contrasting manifestations of moral order, Dorian uses similar, and only temporarily successful, tactics to evade them. When Basil requests permission to exhibit the portrait, Dorian protects his own secret by shifting the burden of guilt; he forces the painter to make a confession. More blunt in manner than Basil, the sailor points a cocked pistol at Dorian’s head and demands: “You had better confess your sin, for as sure as I am James Vane, you are going to die.” But again Dorian turns the tables, this time by displaying his youthful countenance beneath a street lamp. Now he becomes the accuser and Vane the guilty party:

He loosened his hold and reeled back. “My God! my God!” he cried, “and I would have murdered you!”

Dorian Gray drew a long breath. “You have been on the brink of committing a terrible crime, my man,” he said, looking at him sternly. “Let this be a warning to you not to take vengeance into your own hands.”

“Forgive me, sir,” muttered James Vane.

Dorian knows well what a “terrible crime” murder is, but he, who has committed it, never seeks forgiveness. And guilt can no more be transferred indefinitely to these two representatives of right than can the deeds that prompt it be forever imposed upon the portrait. The deceptive sense of release experienced by Dorian after the deaths of Basil and Vane soon gives way to renewed anxiety. He has denied the angel of mercy and tricked the angel of wrath. But he has wasted these efforts because he cannot, finally, escape himself. Dorian ironically punishes himself by an act characteristic of the very immorality through which he has tried to escape judgment.

Source: Philip K. Cohen, “The Crucible,” in The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978, pp. 123–27.


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