Jan 7, 2011

Notes on The Picture of Dorian Gray


The reader's kind patience and forgiveness for these incomplete and often incoherent notes are respectfully begged for, as this page is a work in progress. Perhaps among the litter will be found some items of use.
text: first appeared in Lippincott's Magazine, June 1890. Revised and extended in book form, published by Ward, Lock and Company, April 1891.
sources and influences: The Greek ideal of beauty, particularly male beauty, seen in the myth of Narcissus (Ovid) [synopsis: Echo pursues Narcissus without success, Narcissus falls in love with his reflected image in the waters, dies] - Narcissus in Art [includes psychological analysis of narcissistic personality disorder] - Also the myth of Adonis (cf. Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis - Faust legends[BBC radio 4 programme In Our Time episode on Faust] - Faust by Goethe (1790) [man makes pact with the devil, selling his soul in exchange for earthly pleasures] - The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole (1764) - "Family Portraits" by Jean Baptiste Benoit Eyries (1812) - "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats ("beauty is truth, truth beauty", the credo of aestheticism) - Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin (Wilde's mother's uncle) (1820) [synopsis: includes the painting of an ancestor who made a deal with the devil, lives 150 years without aging, then suddenly ages and dies] - Le Peau de Chagrin by Honore de Balzac (1831) [html @ thr] [synopsis: Raphael receives talisman (ass's skin) that grants all his wishes, self indulgence ensues and the skin shrinks gradually] - "The Oval Portrait" (1845) and "William Wilson" by Edgar Allan Poe - The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry by Walter Pater (1878) [text @ thr] [bio @ wikipedia] - Gautier and the French symbolists - A Rebours by Huysmans (1884) [World weary protagonist Des Esseintes retreats from the philistine real world, creates a world of artifice and decadent self-indulgence in his house ] - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1887) [classic double-sided personality story] -
themes: corrupting influence (the word recurs 30 times in the text); decadence; dandies; new hedonism, carpe diem, epicureanism; relationship of art and morality/ethics; narcissism; vanity; aestheticism (art for art's sake); the doppelganger or double, the secret double life, the gothic imagination, poisonous books; Victorian gothic obsession with evil, guilt, repression, conscience; beauty and truth; scientific materialism and determinism (world of sensation); realism vs. romanticism; physiognomy (the belief that appearance reveals character).
summary: Painter Basil Hallward and college friend dandy Lord Henry Wotton befriend Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man. Basil finds inspiration in painting Dorian. Lord Henry seeks to influence him with his philosophy of New Hedonism. Dorian, spellbound by Basil's portrait and Lord Henry's wit and wisdom, expresses the desire to be forever young, and a willingness to give his soul for it. Dorian meets an actress Sibyl Vane, is smitten with her performances of Shakespearean heroines and her beauty; they fall in love and plan to marry. Once their love becomes real, however, Sibyl loses her acting ability, and Dorian spurns her cruelly. She commits suicide, and Dorian detects a change in his portrait: a touch of cruelty in the expression. Lord Henry persuades him that her death can be interpreted and appreciated as an aesthetic experience. Dorian lives a life of decadence, indulging sensual pleasures, good and bad. The portrait records his transgressions and aging, while his own appearance remains young and beautiful. Dorian is mightily influenced by a book given him by Lord Henry; it describes a character who indulges his whims and fancies to excessive degree. Basil visits Dorian on a mission to reform him; Dorian exposes the portrait's secret and murders Basil. To cover up the murder, Dorian blackmails chemistry student Alan Campbell (fellow decadent), who disposes of the body. Later, Dorian, who has resisted the urge to seduce another woman, informs Lord Henry he has decided to reform his life. That night, he sees in the portrait a look of cynicism and moral hypocrisy. He attempts to slash the painting, killing himself. The painting has returned to its pristine youthful appearance; Dorian is old, wrinkled, unrecognizable.

Interpretative leads:


Early in the novel, Dorian is linked to the pastoral Greek ideal of beauty (a Edenic innocence), and his moral corruption increases throughout the novel, belying his appearance. The narrative questions the authenticity of surface appearances. Dorian's "true" character is not (cannot?) be inscribed on his body, only the painting. Even Lord Henry, the smartest man in the book, is blinded by Dorian's beauty (see their final scene together) to the extent that he dismisses naively the suggestion that a man like Dorian could commit murder. He doesnt' look the part.
Art and truth, appearance vs. reality, public vs. private. These are persistent themes in modern literature. (cf. Prufrock: "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet" and Ibsen's Torvald Helmer, who favors honor, duty, respectability and reputation over marital love and intimacy). In Dorian Gray, we visualize the split between appearance and the reality objectified in the painting. The painting reveals or externalizes what Dorian conceals: his conscience, his aging, his moral corruption and psychological decadence. His body maintains its apparent innocence and purity: certainly the novel revels in the notion that looks can be deceiving. All is not as it seems on the surface; can a person's essence be captured on the surface? Does essence (whatever that means) really matter? Do you need it? Wilde dallies with this theme of superficiality, entertains it, lauds it, at times even endorses it (through Lord Henry's philosophical banter). In our culture, the modern obsession with fashion, beauty, weight watching, and posture can be seen as an extension of this sensibility, i.e. it is better to look good than be good, that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. A culture of celebrities and American idols, poseurs, image makeovers, and Warhol's 15 minutes of fame, insists on the perpetual maintenance of self image, faovred over substance/essence, and for which a warehouse full of products will gladly aid and comfort the effort. Wilde's novel challenges the theory that a person's character can be determined by what's on the outside, while dallying with the desirability of the idea. The bad boy Lord Henry, trumpeter of this credo, who prides himself on a debonair, cool iconoclastic wit, is blind to the truth of Dorian's character (or refuses to admit it). He cannot see how a man of Dorian's good looks could be capable of an ugly sin like murder.
This obsession with the beautiful (particularly surface beauty) and pleasure is at odds with a stubborn moral puritanism prevalent in the Victorian age, which insists that the moral fibre is what really makes the man. One's sins are inscribed on the canvas of conscience. The novel cleverly objectifies that attitude and turns it into art, which can be perceived, made apparent. One's hidden shame is exposed, writ large for prying eyes to see. Moreover, Wilde plays upon the controversy swirling around art's proper function. Basil has put too much of himself into the painting. He has committed an artistic sin, encoding his own secret idolatry of Dorian into the portrait. It reveals too much of the artist's intentions. In that sense, is his painting too romantic? If by Romanticism we mean the expression of the artist's inner life, then yes, the painting expresses too much idolatry, self-indulgence; Basil, who is committed to his art, recognizes he has crossed a boundary. He hasn't kept proper aesthetic distance from his subject matter. The painting is too honest. It not only reveals Basil's inner obsessions, it reveals Dorian's inner transgressions. In this sense, the painting is psychologically realistic, to a fault. It "outs" the artist's personal obsessions and shames the subject through a relentless moral realism. One thinks of Young Goodman Brown in this regard, the pious Puritan who can't resist the temptation of peering into the souls of those around him, ferreting out their moral failings, and who damns himself to a withering life of guilt and bitterness. Clearly Wilde does not think this is the proper role of art. Art should be nothing but beautiful. Realistic art can be too honest, too ugly, too real.
We're in the heart of a paradox here. The painting externalizes the interior, which is an aesthetic violation. The man tries to make himself into art by divorcing himself from his ethical conscience, which leads to destruction (of others and ultimately himself). Though Wilde was a dandy who touted the "turning one's life into art" ethic, he certainly questions that very philosophy in the novel. And in De Profundis, he will regret it in his own life. Dorian "makes over" his life as an artistic plethora of pleasurable indulgent sensations, heedless of normative ethics, but at a terrible cost: people die, lives are ruined, and a man's personality cleaves in two. Is Wilde suggesting that decadence is also an artistic violation? Is it impossible to turn life into art? Is the price too great? Would it be better to keep the paintings beautiful and the lives moral? None of these questions are definitely answered. Wilde prefers to leave the paradox unresolved.
For Epifanio San Juan, Jr., the painting is the true hero of the novel. In an analysis of the novel's plot, he sees a three phase structre: exposition (chapters 1 - 3), the Sibyl - Dorian relationship (4 - 10), and Dorian's murderous character degeneration (11 - 20); and at a higher level a two part structure can be seen: chapters 1 - 10 shows the innocent Dorian, and 11 - 20 the experienced and corrupted Dorian. The painting finshes off the novel as the victorious hero of the drama, restored to its rightful pristine beauty, and moral order is restored, where people can't evade their moral destiny, and art preserves the aesthetic ideal.
Stylistically, the novel is obsessed with surfaces, sensations, and impressions, accounting for the jeweled, encrusted patterns of description, and the breezy, epigrammatic conversations. At times, the style is cluttered, like a room filled with antique bric-a-brac, but we move through the room quickly before the impressions get tedious. In this sense, the book is a product of materialistic times, of commodified culture. His decadent pursuits are realized in decorative fashion. He and Lord Henry and Basil inhabit a world of artifice, acting, and posturing.
The question of influence runs throughout the novel. The word appears 30 times in the book, mostly in the sense of corrupting influence. Initially, Dorian's youthful beauty and personality unwittingly influences and inspires Basil: "his personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, a new style." The passion of romanticism and Hellenic perfection, "the harmony of soul and body." The novel will show how Dorian fails to live up to this promise in his life. He fails to integrate the body and soul. Either half is not enough. In Chapter 1, Basil telegraphs the dilemma Dorian will live out: "We in our madness have separated the two [the harmony of soul and body], and have invented a realism that is vulgar, a ideality that is void." If the painting becomes a representative of moral realism, it is offensive and vulgar to behold. And if Dorian's appearance is a representative of ideality, it is void of emotional truth and character. Dorian never becomes integrated, he never becomes his own man. He is too susceptible to influence.
After Dorian influences Basil, Basil's portrait of Dorian reflects back upon the subject, influencing Dorian the sitter. Dorian begins to see himself as the idol; it sets him on a narcissistic course. He seems himself through someone else's eyes. Lord Henry then influences the impressionable Dorian with the philosophy of New Hedonism, melodious voice and rapier wit, steering him away from moral purpose (remember Dorian has been playing music for the moral improvement of the unwashed) and into an urgent pursuit of life's pleasures. Dorian has none of Harry's debonair reserve; he sinks his teeth into life with no caution.
Rushing headlong into a love affair with Sibyl Vane, Dorian is influenced by her acting; and his romantic attachment and idolization influences her in ways Dorian never anticipated. In fact, she decides to sacrifice her art for the reality of his love, which is anethema to him. Dorian's cruelty causes Sibyl's suicide. And the painting, influenced by Dorian's conduct, records the cruelty.
Dorian, who asks Lord Henry for reading material, is profoundly influenced by the poisonous yellow book, a pastiche of Huysman's A Rebours. Dorian hurls into a life of decadence; his lifestyle has a corrupting influence on others around him.
Dorian's personality promises to harmonize soul and body, yet never lives up to that promise. Instead, Dorian severs soul from body, or tries, in order to preserve his external youth and beauty. Basil's comments about the vulgar and ideal apply to Dorian: the conduct of his secret life is vulgar, and his ideal appearanced is void, empty, vapid, hollowed out. The painting, restored to its original state at novel's end, represents the integration Dorian failed to live up to. Part common criminal, part dandiacal aesthete, Dorian comprises what Robert Mighall calls in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, "an extreme combbination of cultivation and corruption," which epitomizes the Decadent age, the very type of "supreme hypocrite" Henry supposed the age was looking for and afraid it found.
Can a person live a conscience free life? Dorian attempts to turn his life into art, to experience life as aesthetic experience. In this, he is adopting a Paterian ethic: "to burn always with this hard gemlike flame." Yet moral consequence keeps hounding at the margins of his experience. Dorian's self is not intergrated. He tries to exile his guilt, conceal it, hidden in reserve on the painted surface, but he can't quite free his mind of conscience. He has failed to synthesize his thirst for pleasure and sensation with the ethical good life of classical philosophy, which by the way is not unaccounted for in epicurean philosophy. Walter Pater's aestheticism was widely misunderstood; Dorian is one of the offenders. His reckless pursuit of sensory experience is in contrast to Lord Henry's more refined taste. It seems as if Lord Henry recognizes that aesthetic appreciation requires a certain detachment from life to really savor the beauty of the moment, which is a paradox Wilde would have relished. Dorian, however, fails to determine his own identity; he is constantly ceding self-definition to other influences: Basil, the painting, Lord Henry, Sibyl Vane, the yellow book. As a result, he fails to form an integrated, mature identity.

Are the changes in the portrait occurring on the painted surface or in Dorian's mind? Is he suffering from autoscopia (a clinical condition wherein the subject sees a mirror image of himself)? Could it be Dorian's perception of the painting changing instead of the painting itself. Remember Wilde's preface: "It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." (cf. Tyson, "Caliban in a Glass").
How important is Impressionism to an understanding of Dorian Gray? "...the novel's pervasive impressionism asserts the superiority of subjective perception and emphasizes the overwhelming importance of perspective in coloring experience." (Tyson, 103).
The triangulation of characters here: Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian -- is suggestive of three sides of one self. Wilde himself suggested this. This may rise above biographical interpretation, however, to the level of archetype. The artist, the critic, the subject. Can they be integrated? Note that the novel kills off both artist and subject; only the critic survives.
The doppelganger theme invites us to interpret the story psychologically. Dorian may be suffering from autoscopia and divided or multiple personality disorder. The prototype for this is Narcissus, and arguably Dorian is a narcissist of the first order. He wants to preserve his youth at all costs. He loves the image of himself as a youth and can't love anyone else. This may be why his quest for experience is doomed to be unsatisfying. The selfish man is incapable of real empathy, of real identification.

bibliography


citations refer to source listings in the Oscar Wilde notebook.

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