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  • Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray - critical review

I watched a series of lectures about the Supernatural and the evolution of the supernatural, and one key aspect of the course was the 'uncanny' and how it is explored. The idea of the Uncanny was developed by Sigmund Freud in his short essay in 1919. One example that he used in literature that would produce the 'uncanny' feeling was the use of 'the double.' After being really interested in the 'double' in Jane Eyre through the character of Bertha and Jane, I wanted to explore this further. Since particular reference was made to Oscar Wilde's only novel, 'the Picture of Dorian Gray', I thought I would start by reading this. After reading the novel, I watched a series of lectures on the novel and read an article about the characters in the book. The philosophical novel touches on themes of identity, art and its influence, morality and ethics, nature, religion and beauty.

Something I found interesting in the novel was the portrayal of the importance of art, and incorporating aestheticism and the ideas of the Decedent movement. Aestheticism was the rejection of Anglicanism and its moral purpose of art. Instead, it was fascinated by the imagination, individual and personality. It was enveloped by a group of writers, artist and critics and was later called the decedent movement (about 1860-1890s.) It was a series of rebellions against conventional art and the attitudes to it, believing that art shouldn't be a tool for social education or influence morality, but instead have no responsibilities apart from its purpose of being beautiful. 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', then, is ultimately a production of Aestheticism through its focus on both the painting and the mysterious 'yellow book.' It also references theatre, through the character of Sybil Vane, and throughout the entire novel is centred around arts and the beauty of it. Wilde was known as "the high priest of the decedents", and therefore agreed with the movement profoundly, and what struck me in the novel was this movement was carried throughout the book as a warning of the result of art being a gateway to influence and education, the opposite of what the decedent movement was preaching. Dorian's life, ultimately, gets destroyed by different forms of Art. Sybil Vane, who is a character made of up of a collection of Shakespearean characters, is a motif for the theatre and performance. It is portrayed that she is "never" Sybil Vane, and Dorian can't describe her character, only that of the different parts she performs in theatre. When Sybil falls in love with Dorian, she can't act her true love on stage, and this ruins Dorian's affection for her, and leads to their destruction of their relationship and ultimately, Sybil's death. When Sybil dies, he fictionalises it: "if I read all this in a book, Harry, I think I would have wept over it", which further creates her to be a character rather than an individual in reality. Therefore, the love that Dorian has for Sybil is destroyed due to the influence of art, since when it is taken away and the reality of Sybil is revealed, Dorian turns against it. Wilde portrays that if this aspect of art influences an individual too much, it ruins the vision of reality. Dorian falls in love with the characters that Sybil plays, instead of Sybil herself. Furthermore, Dorian Gray is also corrupted by the piece of literature he is given by Lord Henry: the mysterious 'yellow book': 'A rebours', or 'Against Nature' by Joris-Karl Huysman, an important piece of fiction of the Decadent movement in France, published in 1884, which portrayed the superiority of human creativity over logic and the natural world. This book is portrayed to 'poison' Dorian Gray. Furthermore, the painting itself, the most dominate source of art in the book, has corrupting influence over Dorian, and in the end, destroys him. Therefore, the novel seems a cautionary tale in light of the view that art should have a moral responsibility, which the decedent movement were trying to crush. Wilde in his preface of the book said that that the only purpose of art is to have no purpose, except for being beautiful and to entertain our 'intense admiration' and he presents this idea through Lord Henry's statement that "art has no influence upon action". Therefore, the fact the novel shows the opposite of this, in which art has influence over every action, and this leads to destruction, means it becomes a cautionary tale for this idea and the danger of corruption through the influence of art.

Another criticism of society which Wilde included in the novel was the superficial view of beauty. The whole novel is centred around the fact that Dorian would do anything for beauty, including selling his soul for it. This vanity carries on throughout the novel, in which he is transfixed by the painting, even when it is ugly and sinful. His obsession with his appearance links to Ovid's metamorphosis, in which Narcissus falls in love with his reflection, and this leads to his death. This myth is echoed in 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', through Dorian becoming so encapsulated by his image that it leads to him destroying it. The dark vanity that is portrayed in Dorian is shown when the narrator tells us "he himself would stand, with a mirror, in front of the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him ... He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his soul." Therefore, Wilde takes Narcissus' sense of vanity even further, through Dorian not only being obsessed with the beauty of his appearance, but also the image of his soul and its corruption. This self-obsession is so strong that he cannot prevent it, however hard he tries. The physical placing of the painting in the attic, covered with a blanket, portrays his conscious motive of trying to hide and forget the image, however, the fact he often goes up and looks at it shows his unbreakable obsession with himself, which only increases as his sin becomes more corrupted and his beauty remains immutable. This superficial nature of humanity is also portrayed through other characters, in which assumptions are made about Dorian in which the reader knows are not correct. The irony in the title portrays the difference in interpretations in his character: since the 'picture' that the characters see of his face lead them to misleading conclusions, and the 'picture' that we see through the narrative voice and painting show his true identity. Lady Narborough notes that there is little distinction between appearance and ethics, staying that "you are made to be good - you look so good." Furthermore, Henry is certain on his assumptions of Dorian as he notes that Dorian is a "perfect type", who the world "has always worshipped", confirming "people like you don't commit crimes." Therefore, the fact that peoples assumptions about Dorian are so incorrect conveys the reliance they have on appearance, portraying a superficial world. The only other character that is aware of Dorian's true nature is the reader, through the omniscient narrator's portrayal of Dorian and his true conscience. Therefore, this portrays a disconnection that beauty creates between people: in which appearances create relationships that are completely false and grounded on incorrect hypotheses, and the only person that truly knows Dorian, since we are the only ones to get past the appearance of him, is the reader.

Furthermore, the fact that Dorian contains such juxtaposing natures: his material appearance and his soul displayed on the painting, creates the question of who is more of a person. This conveyed the ideal of dualism, in which the soul and the material body are two natures that make up the whole of a person: therefore each state of Dorian's being: his beautiful appearance and his corrupted soul are only half of his identity. Not only does his attraction to the painting, despite various conscious efforts to hide it from itself, show his vanity and hedonism, but it also portrays that he can't be separated from his soul despite the vision of its corruption and ugliness. This idea uses the Victorian fascination of doubles and the idea of being a stranger to oneself, but Wilde takes it further in that Dorian finds the 'other' side of his nature fascinating and enthralling. The painting is both a double of Dorian and also a double of Basel's original painting. The painting is a visual mirror of the other half of Dorian, in which he can't destroy or escape. The fact, in the end, he does try to destroy it, and ends up destroying himself, portrays that the soul is inescapable from the material body. The fact the painting returns to the beautiful state that Dorian had encapsulated, and the description of Dorian's physicality incorporating the vulgarity of the painting, shows that the soul can live without the body, but the body can't live without the soul. Therefore, the fact the Wilde Gothicises the painting, in which it becomes a character in the novel itself, is a motif for the immortal soul that is inescapable from the body.

Moreover, the use the 'double' is further incorporated in the novel through the two characters of Henry and Basel showing two mutually exclusive attitudes to life, in which Dorian struggles over becoming. Henry is a nihilist and has a pessimistic view on human nature and nature itself. He argues that we have little control over higher forces, in which "good resolutions are useless attempts to interfere with scientific laws. Their result is absolutely nil." He detaches himself from life, incorporating Walter Paitors study of arguing that to become a spectator of one's own life is to escape the suffering of one's life. He believes that intellectual curiosity is the only thing that that is neither futile or destructive and is superior to all else (he "would sacrifice anybody for the sake of an epigram".) In this view of an amoral universe, he incorporates an ethical egoism and uses the ethical system of utilitarianism: in which he pursues pleasure and avoids pain. He bases this on the assumption that the quest for pleasure is natural, also incorporating Bentham's utilitarian view that "nature is governed by two sovereign masters: pain and pleasure." He takes this further in creating sufferings of life into pleasures, creating the idea that reality can not be changed but can be improved in one's head, arguing that "names are everything." Therefore, Henry's cynicism enables him to become a spectator to life, in which he does not get involved with suffering and makes all decisions on the motive of personal pleasure. Some people have argued that Henry sounds like a spokesman for Wilde, however the fact his influence on Dorian is disastrous and his ignorance on Dorian's true nature shows a disconnection with personalism and a criticism on his hedonism. Basel displays the opposite of Henry in his attitude to life and identity. He believes in moral order and justice, and therefore one should live for sympathy. He believes that sin "cannot be concealed" and that God is the only being that can see the soul. He directly criticises the philosophy of Henry when he argues "if one lives for one's self", "one pays a terrible price for doing so." He wants to create art that portrays the union of feeling and form and wants Dorian to use his "wonderful influence ... For good, not for evil." Therefore, Basel portrays a foil to the hedonistic Henry.

Dorian, then, becomes the 'middle man', in which he is fought over by the two ideals. Both characters try to force their philosophy on him and in the end, Dorian's failure is his inability to reconcile the two. In many ways, he tries to use Henry's philosophy and attitude towards life. He decides there is no justice "in the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded" and wants to pursue control over his emotions: "I don't want to be at the mercy of my emotions .. I want to dominate them." This control over his reaction to events is also shown when he urges to Basel "if one doesn't talk about a thing, it never happened" and that "the secret of the whole thing is not to realize the situation." He wants, and does at times achieve, the idea of becoming a spectator to one's life: in which he feels Basel's death is compared to the "terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded." Often, the character of Dorian seems to dominate his emotions and detach himself from suffering. However, it is revealed that he cannot fully incorporate this lifestyle and destroy the nature of his conscience through his inability to suppress Basel's attitudes. He conveys that cannot live his life just pursuing pleasures, as "each of us has heaven and hell in him", therefore can't repress the natural form of his being. After rejecting any emotion, remorse or sadness towards the death of Sybil, he later reveals his regret and guilt and feels it is his "duty" to go back to her and "do what is right." Particularly, the word "duty" portrays he does have a sense of belief in eternal justice. The suppression of what Basel represents is further confirmed through the murder of Basel and the destruction of the portrait itself which symbolises the "hell" side of him in his nature. Overall, he can not deny the demands of his superego as well as being unable to repress his passions. He can't combine the two natures of the 19th-century morality in terms of hedonism and stoicism, instinct and consciousness. He is unable to combine the two parts of him to become fully human and confront both his body and soul. Houston A Baker confronted this in "the critic as Artist" through observing that Dorian did not fail through not choosing between the two ideals: conscious and instinct, but he fails to merge them: he cannot combine them and live successfully. He ultimately fails to incorporate his two opposing potential selves that Basel and Henry incorporate.

Something that is difficult to understand in the novel is the moral meaning behind it. There is a lack of justice in the novel, through all characters losing their lives apart from the hedonistic, individualistic and unsympathetic Henry. The moral order that Basel and Sybil preach does not seem to exist in the world of this novel: good and evil actions make no difference to a higher sense of reward and punishment. The narrator has no opinion on the matter, but rather is an omniscient observer of all the characters and their emotions and situations. The fact that the novel is far from the real world, shown from the beginning through all the flowers of different seasons blooming at the same time, portrays that it is a unique portrayal of reality, and so Henry survival in this novel may not be a representation of his survival (symbolising his achievement) in the real world. However, it does have a pessimistic overall tone that justice is not achieved. Overall, however, this may be a moral warning of influence, including the messages of aestheticism. All characters, apart from Henry, are influenced by another thing or being: Sybil by Dorian, Basel by his own painting and Dorian and Dorian by Henry, Basel and art. Henry's survival confirms Henry's view of influence being destructive: "all influence is immoral" since it is to "give him one's own soul", which he goes on to argue the result on the one who was influenced: "his virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part that has not written for him." Therefore, the fact that Dorian has been influenced by both Basel and Henry, as well as art, leads him to become a faulty version of the combination of all the different ideals he becomes exposed to, which cannot be actualised in life and therefore leads to his downfall.

Overall, the novel takes on ideas of aestheticism and the Decedent movement which Wilde wanted to portray. The result of influence as destructive is a prominent message of the novel, and overall creates the novel to have such a tragic ending. The juxtaposition of Henry and Basel create a 'double', which Dorian struggles over: and ultimately fails to combine the two opposite philosophies that the two characters convey. Wilde stated that "it (the book) contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages, perhaps", so in a sense, not only do Basel and Henry create the character of Dorian, but the three main Protagonists are also parts of Wilde himself, each conveying different moral messages which he wants to portray.

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