Perverse, immoral, effeminate, leprous and full of esoteric prurience – that was how reviewers of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray expressed their disgust for the work in the late 19th century. A novel that painted Victorian England in the garb of degeneracy, Dorian Gray was uniquely crafted to present a multitude of ideas. The gothic tropes and Faustian influences enabled a setting that allowed many otherwise unspoken things to be said. Unfortunately, due to the prejudices and moral policing of the age, a huge chunk of it was swept under the rug and the novel was referred to as a gay text, an aesthetic model and a general source of indecency. Not surprisingly, the book was even used as evidence against Wilde much later, which contributed to his imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895.
The story of Dorian Gray is fantastic and alluring, yet scandalous and immoral for those vested in traditional morality. The story is of a beautiful young man, supernaturally gifted with youth, who sets out to explore every possible desire and vice in order to slake his thirst for pleasurable experiences, as his portrait ages and bears the weight of his ethical transgressions. Traditionally the novel was understood and analysed based on its theme of doubles, the Faustian exchange, the relationship between life and death, the literary and historical significance of the notions of decadence and dandyism, conformity of the narrative to Victorian and Gothic conventions and the obvious connection with aestheticism. However, many angles were grossly misunderstood by Wilde’s contemporaries while other angles remained hidden until the later part of the 20th century. This article, a part of the Book of the Week series, is not a summary of the novel. It seeks to explore some of the important angles of the novel which are often misunderstood or ignored.
One such misunderstood angle is the apparent promotion of aesthetics instead of ethics. Wilde mentions at the end of his Preface to Dorian Gray that “All art is quite useless”. This was the belief of Victorian Aestheticism, that real art takes no part in moulding the social or moral identities of society and nor should it- that the purpose of art was solely to be beautiful and to give pleasure to its observer. Following the hedonistic tradition, aestheticism advocated any behaviour that was likely to maximise the beauty and happiness in one’s life. To an aesthete, ideal life mimicked art and was quite useless beyond its beauty, concerned only with the individual living it. There is significant aggrandisement of the aesthetic philosophy in the novel, primarily by Lord Henry Wotton, whose graceful and fluidic delivery captivates Dorian Gray along with the reader. This has led many to think of the novel as a sponsor of the aesthetic lifestyle. However, instead of endorsing that doctrine, The Picture of Dorian Gray is actually an allegory meant to critique the impulsive nature and the moral decadence of aestheticism.
An aesthete doesn’t believe in the distinction between moral and immoral acts, the only thing that matters is the derivation of pleasure. Dorian Gray takes this to new heights with his lifestyle while presenting a strong case for the inherent immorality of aesthetic lives. Yet, as the days progress, he becomes more fearful and unhappy, and his behaviour ultimately kills him along with a few others. The character of Lord Henry Wotton, based on a mix of Pater and Wilde himself, and a primary influence for Dorian Gray in the realm of aestheticism, notably doesn’t practise everything he preaches. In his praise of aestheticism, Wotton hints at balance in a way reminiscent of Pater, “I believe that if one man were to live life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream – I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal – to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal, it may be”. Older and more mature than Gray, he was well aware of the need for prudence while practicing his doctrine. The novel is actually a cautionary tale of the dangers of aestheticism, something that Wilde himself admits, in a letter to the St. James Gazette that Dorian Gray “is a story with a moral. And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment”.
The exploits of Dorian Gray provide a case study that can be examined to check the viability of purely aesthetic lifestyles. With the idea to never “accept any theory or system that would involve the sacrifice of any mode of passionate experience”, the desired end was experience itself and not the fruits of experience. An apt example would be Dorian’s relationship with Sibyl Vane. He was only interested at her talent and mesmerising performances and not attracted to her character or personality. He pledges his love and admiration to her but the moment she stepped off the stage, Dorian abandons her cruelly and leaves her broken hearted. Later when he comes to know of her suicide, he initially laments but that changes soon, “It seems to me to be simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play. It has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded.” This emergence of narcissism is directly related to an over indulgence in an aesthetic life. There is a parallel with the myth of Narcissus too. Dorian falls in love with his own beauty, which served as the stepping stone for his gradual but consistent moral depravity. When he could not bear to witness the decrepit image of his once beautiful portrait, Dorian stabs the portrait in a fit of anger and he himself is destroyed. Wilde makes an argument for a new kind of aestheticism, one that is approached with more constraint than Dorian employs. This is not just based on the moral obligation of the individual, but also on the idea of the betterment of the entire society. This idea is similar to the one propounded by Matthew Arnold in his essay “Culture and Anarchy”, where he focusses on its detrimental effects on society, but hints at the possibility for social improvement when aesthetic tendencies are properly controlled. The last stages of Dorian’s life demonstrates a desire to control such hedonistic tendencies but his realization of the consequence of unbridled aestheticism comes too late and he is destroyed. Wilde, therefore, makes it clear that only through a restrained philosophy can aestheticism and morality align.
But a primary question remains. Why did Dorian Gray turn out the way he did? There have been many interpretations but none would be accurate enough without taking into consideration the psychological state of our young protagonist. And rightly so, for the theme of psychological control is pivotal to the plot of the novel. While talking about its nature with Dorian, Lord Henry explains that “all influence is immoral” since it involves the imposition of an identity or image on someone which is not their own. Lord Henry ruminates on the thrill of exercising influence and decides to “dominate” Dorian in order to “make that wonderful spirit his own”. This has led many to consider Lord Henry Wotton’s influence as the reason of Dorian Gray’s decline and depravity. Even while evaluating the Faustian pact that Dorian accidently makes while looking at his portrait, Lord Henry is considered to be the Mephistophelean influence that pushed Dorian into the pact.
“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will always remain young… If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always 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!”
Although Lord Henry did exert considerable influence on Dorian, he primarily awakened influences already present within Dorian. When Lord Henry urged Dorian to yield to inner desires and spoke about his childhood, “You, Mr. Gray, you yourself, with your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood, you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame–”, Dorian is left bewildered and speechless. “He was dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seem to him to have come really from himself.” Lord Henry’s words touched some “secret chord” within Dorian, something that had never been touched before. He realises that “there had been many things in his boyhood that he had not understood. He understood them now”.
What are these “things” from his boyhood that Dorian suddenly understand and how relevant is this to understand his character? What secrets did he have that inspire “terror” and “shame”? There are very few details about Dorian’s past life but from what one can piece together, he had a difficult childhood. The account provided by Lord Fermor, Henry’s uncle, presented Dorian’s grandfather Lord Kelso in a very bad light. Lord Kelso apparently had his subaltern son-in-law killed and then brought his daughter back home, who died soon after Dorian was born. The implication that Dorian was unloved and perhaps even abused by his grandfather in his childhood was reinforced when Dorian “winced” in response at the mention of Lord Kelso by his housekeeper. Dorian adds that “he had hateful memories of him”. Dorian later talks about his grandfather when he sought to hide his altered portrait in the old schoolroom, a room built by the older man “for the use of the little grandson whom, for his strange likeness to his mother, and also for other reasons, he had always hated and desired to keep at a distance.”
When Lord Henry talked about the “monstrous, unlawful, shameful” desires of Dorian’s soul and terror-filled thoughts of the past, it is highly probable that Dorian linked it to the crimes of his grandfather and the latter’s cruelty to him. It’s no wonder that he thought of hiding away the portrait in the same schoolroom that Lord Kelso used to keep him “at a distance”, almost as a prisoner. Dorian further wraps the portrait in a purple satin coverlet which belonged to his grandfather, and imagines the picture’s decay in terms of his grandfather’s ageing: “Beneath its purple pall, the face painted on the canvas could grow bestial, sodden and unclean… The cheeks would become hollow or flaccid…yellow crow’s feet would creep around the fading eyes… the mouth would gape or droop…as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat, the cold, blue-veined hands, the twisted body, that he remembered in the grandfather who had been so stern to him in his boyhood”.
The juxtaposition of the corruption of Dorian’s soul with his grandfather’s hideous nature implies a deep connection that had remained hidden until Lord Henry awakened it. The monstrous and cruel desires of Dorian Gray did not originate from Henry, it was inherited from his hateful and tyrannical grandfather. This idea can be better understood by going through Sandor Ferenczi’s theory of the psychological effects of child abuse. According to him, when children are subjected to violence, and their personalities are either not sufficiently consolidated to protest or are overpowered by the aggressor, the children automatically subordinate themselves to the will of the aggressor and completely oblivious of their own selves, they identify themselves with the aggressor. In this scenario, the child assumes an identity constructed by the adult for the child. While Ferenzci’s theory mostly focus on sexual abuse and is not directly applicable in the current context, it provides remarkable insight to the psyche of Dorian Gray, who would also have been emotionally dependent on his grandfather, a person who viewed Dorian as a degraded product of his defiled daughter and treated him most cruelly. This harsh treatment bore deep psychological scars that showed up much later in his life, the nature of the scars making him unable to consciously understand their significance and connection. Lord Kelso, therefore, was the cause of Dorian’s degradation while Lord Henry was merely the catalyst.
This interpretation sheds new light on Dorian’s passion for Sybil Vane, an actress who lived by playing roles and acting out scenarios created by others, just like him. Then again there is the social divide- Dorian being a member of the aristocracy while Sybil belonged to the poor working classes, a divide that represented his mother’s passion for his subaltern father. When his idealised fantasy embraced reality, Dorian immediately reverts back to the identity carved by his grandfather and cruelly breaks up with Sybil, acknowledging her as “shallow and unworthy”.
The cruelty of the imago constructed by Dorian’s grandfather occasionally emerged even prior to his meeting Lord Henry. Basil Hallward, while talking about Dorian to Lord Henry mentions that, “As a rule, he is charming to me… Now and then, however, he is horribly thoughtless, and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain.” Strangely, there is ample scope within the text to justify a parallel between Lord Kelso and Basil Hallward. Basil once explained to Lord Henry that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter”. Just as Lord Kelso created a persona, a psychological picture for Dorian, so did Basil, whose portrait came to represent the depravity of Dorian’s soul. Basil even tells Dorian that “There is too much of myself” in the portrait. This parallel is further reinforced by Basil’s desire to control Dorian from the very start. Basil initially tried to keep Dorian away from Lord Henry and later actually demands that he stop leading others “down into the depths” and work to redeem himself so that people would stop talking about Dorian as someone “vile and degraded”. This, while coming mostly from a desire to help Dorian, has the opposite effect due to resemblances with his grandfather’s actions and Dorian remorselessly kills Basil.
The psychological angle provides a unique depth to the understanding of Dorian’s actions. The aesthetic ideals of Lord Henry appealed more to him due to his repressed childhood in the absence of love. The chance to live a life of pleasures without any associated morality gave him a new lease of life, which ironically mirrored the imago he wanted to evade. He had never received any love from his grandfather, the admiration that he received later was due to his beauty. In hindsight, his terror at the realisation that one day he would lose that beauty, makes perfect sense. He thought that Basil only liked him for his beauty and youth and feared that he will be discarded when he grows old. “How long will you like me? Till I have my first wrinkle, I suppose.” It is ironic yet not very surprising, that the Victorians termed the novel homoerotic based on a few lines which are not even distinctly gay, while they missed out several angles of distinct psychological trauma.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is, at its core, a thought-provoking story of spiritual metamorphosis, influenced by both art and life. At the same time, it is a commentary on the Victorian Age and its social circles. The work is exquisite in terms of its language and presentation and contains a multitude of ideas, and it would be a terrible injustice to the work and its author to judge it based on only a few parameters.