The Picture of Dorian Gray: Essay Q&A
1. What are the mythic elements in the novel?
There are allusions to two myths: first, the story in the book of Genesis about the garden of Eden, the temptation of Eve by the serpent, and the fall of man; and second, to the Faust legend.
The second chapter of the novel strongly suggests a temptation scene. It takes place in a garden. Basil Hallward, the painter, is like God the creator; he has just created the picture of Dorian in all his perfection. The tempter is Lord Henry, who wants to persuade Dorian to ignore all the conventional rules of society, just as the serpent wants Eve to disregard the commandments from God. Dorian is like the first man, Adam, innocent in his perfection, who is being told by the serpent to taste of the forbidden fruit of sensual experience. At various crises in Dorian's life, Henry retains the role of the tempter. He is at Dorian's side encouraging him to adopt an attitude toward life that will cost him dear in the long run. For example, when Dorian and Henry discuss the death of Sibyl, Henry encourages him to view it from a detached point of view, like an episode in a play. This means that Dorian never develops the moral sense necessary to balance his love of sensual experience. He "falls" and his soul is blackened.
In the Faust legend, Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain knowledge and power. Dorian is a Faustian figure because he wants to obtain eternal youth, something that under normal circumstances no human being can obtain. He enters into a Faustian bargain when he prays that he might be able to remain forever young while the process of aging is confined to the picture. When the woman at the opium den says that "Prince Charming" sold himself to the devil for a pretty face, she is unconsciously referring to the Faust myth.
2. Wilde was condemned by his critics for writing an "immoral" book; he claimed it was a very moral work. What justification is there for either view?
On publication, The Picture of Dorian Gray met with a storm of hostile reviews which condemned the book for its alleged immorality. The tone of the reviews was often virulent. The critic for the Daily Chronicle wrote, "It is a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Decadents-a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction." Others suggested that the authorities should consider prosecuting Wilde for the content of the book. Wilde replied, in letters to literary magazines, that the novel had a moral message that "all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment." He points out that Dorian, "having led a life of mere sensation and pleasure, tries to kill conscience, and at that moment kills himself." Wilde also claimed that Basil worshiped physical beauty too much and instilled vanity into Dorian, and that Henry suffered because he sought merely to be a spectator of life.
Wilde is correct in the sense that Dorian does meet a bad end, and one could find passages where he is explicitly condemned, such as when he leaves the opium den, "Callous, concentrated on evil, with stained mind and soul hungry for rebellion." But the novel is far from being a simple moral parable that sin meets with punishment. There is a discrepancy between the moral framework and the overall tone of the novel. Wilde takes such relish in the luxurious sensual descriptions of Dorian's life that it can sound as if he approves of it. His heart is more in the varieties of sensation that he gives to his protagonist than in his moral condemnation of him. There is perhaps a parallel here with Milton's Paradise Lost. Many readers feel that the hero of the epic is not Christ but Satan, because Milton seems to put so much more energy and life into his devil than in his God. The poet William Blake once famously said of Milton that he was "of the devil's party without knowing it." Perhaps it might be said that Wilde was of Dorian's party-and only succeeded in partially disguising the fact.
3. What are Lord Henry's views on women?
Lord Henry's misogyny is a consistent element of his personality from beginning to end of the novel. Although he charms women in conversation at dinner parties, and loves to shock them with his outrageous views, he does not in fact take women seriously or regard them as intellectual equals. Many of his wittiest, and most biting, epigrams are at the expense of women. "Women inspire us with the desire to do masterpieces, and always prevent us from carrying them out" (ch. 6), he tells Dorian, who laps up Henry's view as if they were divine pronouncements. Henry means that women keep making emotional demands on men ("they worship us, and are always bothering us to do something for them," he says elsewhere). Since Henry prefers to retain a detached attitude to life, what he perceives as the emotionality of women is clearly not to his taste. Dorian learns well from his friend, who persuades him to believe that women "lived on their emotions. They only thought of their emotions. When they took lovers, it was merely to have some one with whom they could have scenes" (ch. 7). Henry's views on women sometimes take on what a modern mind might regard as a darker coloring. When Dorian regrets that he was cruel to Sibyl, Henry replies, "I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated" (ch. 8). Not surprisingly, such statements have not endeared Wilde (who speaks through Lord Henry) to later generations of feminist critics. Given Henry's views on women it is no surprise when he casually refers, in conversation with Dorian in chapter 19, that his wife Victoria left him for another man. He is not disturbed by this, however, since "Married life is merely a habit, a bad habit."
Henry's misogyny emphasizes the fact that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel about male friendships. Scholars have also argued that Henry's views on women and marriage were shaped by Wilde's own marriage. After his initial happiness, Wilde felt trapped by his marriage, since what he really wanted to do was pursue male friendships.
4. What are the Gothic elements in the novel?
The Gothic novel was in vogue in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. According to M. H. Abrams, in A Glossary of Literary Terms (4th edition), the Gothic novel "develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom or terror, represents events that are uncanny, or macabre, or melodramatically violent, and often deals with aberrant psychological states" (p. 72). A typical Gothic novel is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Edgar Allan Poe's short stories belong to the same genre, and the term can be more loosely applied to elements in such novels as Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Great Expectations.
Wilde clearly draws on elements of the Gothic novel in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a lurid tale that includes murder, horror and the supernatural. It is the supernatural element that makes the plot work. There can be no rational explanation for how the picture changes to reflect the changing nature of Dorian's character, or his soul. It is mysterious and eerie, as is the fact that although the novel stretches over a period of more than eighteen years, Dorian's appearance alters little during this time. The ending of the novel is also supernatural, since the picture is magically restored and Dorian is suddenly transformed; the corpse looks old, withered, wrinkled and loathsome.
The sudden eruption of violence and horror in the murder of Basil is another Gothic element, as are the continual hints at secret, unspeakable crimes. Wilde thus utilizes some of the elements of a popular literary form to tell his story. In fact, an earlier Gothic novel, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), by Charles Maturin (who was a distant relative of Wilde) features a protagonist who makes a pact with the devil and is allowed to live for 150 years without aging. At the end of the novel he suddenly ages and dies, just as Dorian Gray does.
5. What role does Sibyl Vane play in the novel?
Sibyl is not a character that Wilde spends much time developing. What is important about her is the way in which she embodies art, and the impact this has on Dorian. Sibyl is a young woman who lives in straitened circumstances with her mother and who happens to have a gift as an actress. She acts in a sordid little theater in front of a lower-class audience, who attend the play carrying oranges and ginger beer and eating nuts. Wilde uses these details to contrast how Sibyl is able to rise above her dismal surroundings and soar into the realm of beauty and art. This is why Dorian falls in love with her.
He is not the slightest bit interested in Sibyl as a person. He knows nothing about her personal history, and does not want to know. When he praises her for all the different roles she plays in the theater, Henry asks him "When is she Sibyl Vane?" Dorian replies "Never" (ch. 4). When they first met, Sibyl regarded Dorian "merely as a person in a play. She knows nothing of life," he says. It appears at this point that like Dorian, Sibyl moves only in the world of art. Nothing else has any existence for her. To support this perception, Wilde use similes drawn from beautiful forms in nature to describe her: she "moved like a creature from a finer world. Her body swayed, while she danced, as a plant sways in the water. The curves of her throat were the curves of a white lily. Her hands seemed to be made of cool ivory" (ch. 7). But when Sibyl falls in love with Dorian, she decides that she prefers real life to art, and art ceases to have any meaning for her. Dorian, true to his creed, rejects her. This produces the first flaw in the picture. In dealing with Sibyl so cruelly, and indirectly causing he death, he shows that he has failed to find the right balance between the attraction exerted by art and the demands of ethical behavior.