Ever since its explosive publication in 1890, Oscar Wilde's Gothic treatise on decadence, sin, and corruption has been subject to scandal and intrigue. Revised and censored multiple times during Wilde's tragically short life, it is presented here in its original, un-muted form, complete with redacted phrases and sentences that would later be used against Wilde at his trials for homosexuality. Beyond its salacious subtext, however, is a rich and philosophical parable on morality -- one as powerful as a sermon but as sensually entrancing as an opium cigarette -- which slyly undermines its presumed thesis of hedonism with a heartbreaking appeal to human decency. Dorian Gray's transformation from innocent object of a shy painter's platonic lust to heartless, corrupting lady-killer with dozens of ruined lives, murders, and suicides on his conscience is etched into his soul without leaving a blemish on his lovely face. But as Wilde reveals throughout his hypnotic, Faustian novel, vanity, arrogance, and a lack of compassion may make for an indulgent life without regrets, but the devil will have his due.
Today Oscar Wilde is most remembered for his wit, flamboyance, and the tragic persecution of his homosexuality. Dorian Gray adds another fascinating and often underappreciated layer to his often cartoonish, caricature-like persona: a deeply vulnerable, astonishingly insecure idealist. This is best illustrated by a comment Wilde made following the book’s publication: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” Many casual fans of Wilde’s are surprised that he sees himself in the shy, retiring, idealistic, conventionally moral, tragically flawed Basil – a man who dies bent over in desperate prayer – but a cursory understanding of the Decadence Movement and of Wilde’s life before and after his trials, will help to bring this into perspective.
THE DECADENT MOVEMENT
In some ways the Decadents were to the 1880s and 1890s what the Goths were to the 1980s and 1990s – though with significant more joie de vivre. Like the Goth subculture, Decadents reveled in the macabre, the morose, the gaudy, and the garish: they celebrated entropy and decay, but did so with gusto and indulgence rather than melancholy. Tracing their roots to Poe-inspired French naturalists and symbolists like Baudelaire, Huysmans, Redon, Rimbaud, and Moreau, British Decadents reveled in their French counterparts’ elaborate materialism and powerful mysticism. The ethos of their philosophy sounds like something out of Ecclesiastes: eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die; there is nothing new under the sun; life can only be fully experienced at a mad-dash pace – which is destined to break the rider’s neck. In Dorian Gray, the Decadents are represented by the insidious yellow book that Lord Henry leaves out where Dorian can find it. Just as the Goths of the 20th century came to be known by their telltale black, the Decadents were identified by a sulfurous, mustard yellow that epitomized indulgence in the black-and-white world of conservative Victoriana.
Colors were tremendously important symbols to the aesthetically-obsessed Decadents, and yellow was their personal badge: it stood for everything debauched and forbidden about life – everything that they wanted to sample and gorge. Deeply associated with the Decadence movement, the color yellow was first connected to themes of corruption and impropriety several decades earlier when the fops of Jane Austen’s Regency period wore the garish color to suggest their appetites for the indulgent, grotesque, and shocking. Later in the century, French books banned in England for their lewd content were at first discreetly packaged in yellow jackets, but when the code was figured out, booksellers even went so far as to wrap relatively tame publications in the lurid amber color because it would increase sales amongst eager buyers. Yellow became a symbol for all that was diseased in the soul, all that was unconventional, contrarian, rebellious, and decadent. If something was “Yellow,” it was gaudy, luscious, vulgar, decayed, infamous, scandalous, poisonous, sensual, leprous, golden, lurid, bawdy, ghastly, seductive, corruptive, grotesque, fantastic, alien, fabulous, alluring, shocking, fascinating, ribald, repulsive, and repellent.ing the late 19th century, scandalous French novels were traditionally jacketed in yellow paperbacks.
The novel Dorian reads is not given a name in many of the story’s editions, but in its earliest forms it was called “The Secret of Raoul” and was written by the fictional aesthete Catulle Sarrazin. This fictional French decadent author’s name is a portmanteau of two real-life ones: Catulle Mendes and Gabriel Sarrazin. The name Raoul – which was edited out of the various later editions (likely to avoid putting a name to a character who is so ignominious, and to avoid public concern that a “cult of Raoul” might spring up amongst rebellious young men) is a reference to a character in another decadent, French novel, “Monsieur Venus.” This scandalous erotica by the mononymous female writer Rachilde follows a female crossdresser named Raoule, who enters into a sexual relationship with a girlish young man who becomes her “mistress.” Another oft-cited modelled – alluded to by Wilde at his trial and found on his person during his arrest – is the yellow-jacketed “Against Nature,” a decadent novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, which tells of a bored, bourgeois youth who rebels against the dullness of the 19th century by acquiring a house in the country and filling it with lavish collections (compare to all of Chapter IX) of art, antiques, literature, perfumes, poisonous flowers, gems, and exotic animals.
While the Decadents were obsessed with hedonism and material indulgence, the very core of their philosophy was a distrusting of any fleshly appetite to satisfy the searcher of truth: as human beings we were required to sample as much of the world as possible, but as human beings we are hopeless to ever find satiation. Because of this, the Decadents had a surprisingly conservative foundation to their beliefs, and it was tremendously common for members of their community to turn to Catholicism later in life (Wilde, Rimbaud, Huysmans, Baudelaire, Moreau, and Redon would all tend this way, and John Gray – the widely-accepted model of Dorian – would even become a priest). When Huysmans had one of his friends read “Against Nature,” they opined that anyone who wrote such a book would ultimately have to choose between the “muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.” Indeed, religiosity was very attractive to the Decadents – especially upon entering middle age – due to its mysticism, rejection of materialism, comfort with death, and psychological masochism.
LITERARY THEMES AND CHARACTER ANALYSES
In Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward dies while in the throes of a desperate prayer, Dorian mystically dies in a vain attempt to slay his conscience, and Lord Henry finds himself abandoned by his wife and terrified of death. For all of its controversy, the story is really quite a conservative one, and the message urges its readers to live an authentic life motivated by love (rather than the posed life motivated by attention that Lord Henry models). This wouldn’t prevent the novel from being a centerpiece of Wilde’s trials after suing the Marquess of Queensbury for libel after he publically accused him of being a “sodomite.” Basil’s devotion to Dorian, his embarrassment at a secret which Henry knows and which Dorian guesses, Dorian’s role in the downfall of many young men, his sexually aggressive behavior, and his feminization as a scarlet-lipped, golden-haired Adonis lead to several passages being read verbatim in court. All three main characters appear to have homosexual leanings, and even Dorian’s name – used like “Doric” to describe Greek culture – was a euphemism for gayness (“Greek love” and “Dorian love” were used to allude to Athens’ tradition of pederasty). As a result of this evidence, Wilde was convicted of sodomy and sentenced to hard labor. His spirit broken and his body ruined by the harsh conditions, he left England for France and prepared himself for death, which came shortly after. Although many readers struggle to believe that the witty Oscar Wilde could have much in common with the retiring, soul-crushed Basil Hallward, he spent his final months poured out in prayerful defeat.
Basil’s character is the most likeable of the novel and second only to Sibyl in his tragedy. Like Wagner’s Tannhauser – an opera which Dorian adores – Basil is torn between his worship of a vain idol and confronting his own moral complexity. We begin the novel almost immediately with the information that Basil had once disappeared inexplicably, leading to wild rumors. The implication is that he was jilted or otherwise embarrassed in a failed romance and that his flight from society was interpreted as a possible suicide before he returned in one piece. Basil’s great habit is to empty his soul into his art, and his greatest muses are – like Dorian – people who represent some eternal ideal to him. In Dorian he finds innocence, beauty, and spiritual purity, but just as Dorian himself projects his spiritual emptiness onto Sibyl, who turns out to be another human with needs and problems, Dorian is a flawed idol who fails to live up to Basil’s expectations. Basil isn’t capable of admitting that Dorian is a selfish person until he sees the transformation of his portrait and is forced to see how the ideal in its ideal form has decayed. When Dorian easily moves past Sibyl’s suicide, when rumors come to Basil of his corrupting influence, and when society turns its back on him in revulsion, Basil still holds out hope that these are somehow mistakes or misunderstandings. Only when faced with the tangible reflection of Dorian’s leprous conscience can he fully understand the demon which he has erected as the god of his life. Like Wilde, Basil is at his heart driven to experience beauty for its own sake, and although Wilde was often mischaracterized as a hedonistic Lord Henry, at his core he shared Basil’s vulnerability and insecurity, and Basil’s miserable end uncannily predicted Wilde’s own future desperation.
One of the greatest influences on the novel was Goethe’s Faust and the Faust legend throughout its various adaptations (in many ways, Dorian Gray most resembles the wicked Faust of Marlowe more than the redeemed Faust of Goethe). This tells the story of the medieval alchemist who makes a pact with the demon Mephistopheles to sell his soul in exchange for knowledge – though he later asks for women, wealth, and many other less noble pursuits. Throughout the play Mephistopheles is an electric character: charmingly wicked, greasily persuasive, and unrelentingly corruptive. In his black and scarlet clothes, pointed beard, and curling moustache, he is always the most interesting character when he is on stage. The Mephistopheles of Dorian Gray is undoubtedly the urbane cynic Lord Henry, whom Wilde considered a representation of what the world thought of him. Lord Henry is nosy (potentially a blackmailer), sardonic, and cruel: he regularly laughs at Basil’s homosexuality (more because he is in love with Dorian than because he is gay), encourages Dorian to become a self-involved ego-maniac, and greatly enjoys watching people fail. While Basil is painting Dorian, he essentially – though inadvertently – pimps Dorian out to Lord Henry (he is so distracted in his own worship of Dorian’s physical idealism that he doesn’t notice Lord Henry corrupting his soul), which causes a rift between the two friends (to Henry’s delight). But even this Mephistophelean trickster has a vulnerable underbelly: by the end of the novel his wife (modelled closely after Wilde’s own socially awkward spouse) has abandoned him for a pianist and despite his brave show, it is obvious that he is lonely and afraid. Basil foreshadows this from time to time when he chides Henry’s devil-may-care pessimism – especially when concerning marriage and love – as a sham designed to attract others’ shocked attention.
The only character to earn his respect – and the foil to his cynicism – is Sibyl Vane, who gleefully loses her ability to act after falling in love with Dorian and commits suicide when he rejects her. Henry is staggered in his response to the news – awed that someone could love so genuinely. To Henry, almost all human acts are forgeries designed to elicit a reaction, especially love, which he distrusts most of all. Sibyl (whose names – “Sibyl” being a Greek oracle and “Vane” being a weather instrument used to indicate the change in wind – suggest that Dorian’s treatment of her will forecast the rest of his future development) stood in direct opposition to Lord Henry. Dorian himself comments on this, wondering aloud whom he will listen to: Henry’s bitter philosophies of hedonism and stoicism or Sibyl’s simple love and happiness. Deeply embarrassed by her failure to act in front of his friends (a change which symbolizes her rejection of “acting” – professionally or socially – in favor of authentic love), Dorian spurns her offer of quiet contentment for Lord Henry’s ribald sensuality, and Sibyl commits suicide by swallowing chemicals found in paint (creating a physical link between the painting – viz. Dorian’s conscience – and her death).
Dorian himself represents what Wilde “would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.” His character has shades of Faust blended with elements from various Decadent novels (especially the world-weary protagonist of “Against Nature”), and his fate is at least partially inspired by two of the greatest Doppelganger stories in English literature: Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.” Both stories involve a man who is hounded by an almost supernatural double who represents their guilty conscience, both attempt to evade the Doppelganger – of course in vain – and both are ultimately driven to suicide. Like Dorian, William Wilson’s suicide, however, is accidental. Followed by a man who looks exactly like him and shares his name, Wilson always seems to encounter his “good twin” when he is in the middle of some scheme, fraud, or sin. By the end of the novel, he is about to have an affair with a married woman when he sees his twin at a masked ball. He lures the man into an empty hall where he runs him through with a rapier. At first smug at having slain his conscience, he is then shocked when the image points back to him and begs him to see how, by killing his conscience, he “utterly hast murdered” himself. To his horror, he realizes that he is standing before a full length mirror and bleeding from a self-inflicted wound.
Likewise, Dorian – who buys in on Lord Henry’s philosophy of utter materialism and self-indulgence – hates his corrupting picture because it reminds him that as fair as he may look on the surface, he is diseased and dying within. In a moment of rage, he rushes to slit the painting from top to bottom, but in killing his conscience – by symbolically confronting his own sins – he metaphysically transposes the sin to his physical body, and then suffers the physical toll of his crimes: death. As previously mentioned, the novel has a surprisingly conservative message, and serves as a complex and powerful moral allegory for corruption. The true threat to Dorian’s peace of mind isn’t the portrait itself, but the soul that it corresponds to, and Dorian’s attempt to divorce mind from matter and spirit from flesh results in a philosophical treatise on the indivisibility of soul and body. Jekyll also tried to peel good and evil apart in supposed bid to isolate his evil self, but only managed to make his ego enslaved to his id. Likewise, William Wilson’s id tried to slay his super-ego, but only succeeded in “utterly … murder[ing]” his ego. Dorian’s bid at gutting his own super-ego, as embodied in Basil’s corrupted painting, similarly results in the literal gutting of his ego – in physical form. By trying to pry conscience away from the flesh, he only manages to free the spirit from the body (and – especially considering the many, many allusions to sulfur and hellfire throughout the novel – strait off to hell). Dorian, Wilson, and Jekyll each attempt to avoid consequences, and each are driven to symbolic and literal suicide in the attempt to bifurcate the spiritual effects of their earthly behaviors.
HAUNTED PORTRAITS IN LITERATURE
The portrait is a convenient metaphor for the ego, and has been throughout modern literature as a motif of the self. Haunted portraits are a time-honored Gothic trope used for a variety of reasons: sometimes they suggest the continued existence of the sins of past generations; sometimes they symbolize the way that we cling to the deep-seated patterns and refuse to change; on other occasions, the portrait with moving eyes – or shifting positions, or changing expressions – is simply a very chilling thing to imagine. Washington Irving (The Haunted Portrait, The Young Italian, My Aunt’s Adventure), Bram Stoker (The Judge’s House), J. S. Le Fanu (Schalken the Painter, Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street), H. P. Lovecraft (Pickman’s Model, The Picture in the House, Charles Dexter Ward), Edith Nesbit (The Ebony Frame), Edgar Allan Poe (The Oval Portrait), and many others have used the motif of a haunted or haunting portrait which is often tied to the history of the house it is hanged in, and sometimes reveals an uncanny similarity with a living relative of the centuries-dead sitter. Dorian Gray was written during a hey-day of portrait painters, with John Singer Sargent, J. A. M. Whistler, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec leading the wave of new, stylish portraitists who invested their art with energy and interest. Wilde himself had a full-length portrait done by one of Whistler’s students, and counted it among his most prized possessions. For Dorian, the painting is a manifestation of Basil’s worship and a reflection of how he is perceived and regarded by others. Following Henry’s stoic philosophy, he doesn’t mind if the painting turns diseased and leering so long as it doesn’t conflict with his free will. Ultimately, it is his horror at his inability to change course when desired that drives him to destroy the work, and – as we’ve already discussed – this ultimately leads to his ego-suicide.
Since it was released to the public, the story of Dorian Gray – the narcissist who didn’t age but was haunted by his portrait which did – has captivated the public imagination as only brilliant moral philosophy can. Like “Jekyll and Hyde” or “William Wilson” or “Faust,” it comments on the human condition with metaphysical vigor and physical violence, leaving its readers to marvel at the protagonist’s pathetic demise. Filmed nearly a dozen times – most notably in the brilliantly-shot, expressionistic 1944 masterpiece starring Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reid, and Angela Lansbury – and grafted into several miniseries, television shows, and Victorian pastiches, it remains a shocking monument to the power of vanity and corruption, the hope of love, and the relentless decay of the human soul.