Novel Analysis: The Picture of Dorian Gray
The novel shows us “the terrible pleasure of a double life”. How far is this a fair summary of the novel? As a novel that essentially mirrors its author’s own life of trying to find himself whilst being victim under the hypocrisy of the seemingly pious and morally rectified Victorian society, The Picture of Dorian Gray succeeds in showing us “the terrible pleasure of a double life”. However, disputably such can be a fair summary, as the terrible pleasure of a double life that Dorian leads is a result of the hedonistic but paradoxical influence of Lord Henry’s asyndetic “fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories”, the juxtaposition of Dorian’s nature making him the “son of love and death” and his faustian pact with his portrait. In contrast, whether it can be seen as a terrible double life that Dorian leads can be questioned, due to Dorian’s indulgence in the infamous Yellow Book and Wilde’s own beliefs.
Lord Henry’s paradoxical influence on Dorian in the first chapters of the novel leads to Dorian pursuing a sinful but indulging double life. The use of metaphor and grotesque gothic imagery when Lord Henry declares to Dorian, “we degenerate into hideous puppets” implies the irony of Lord Henry; how he warns Dorian of the horrors of losing ones youth, whereas he, aged, remains an embodiment of the hypocrisy of Victorian society and the facade of moral rectitude, concealing the seedy underbelly of vice, corruption and poverty it truly was, and its condemnation on Wilde at his libel trial in 1895 using the novel as evidence for homosexual behaviour.
Furthermore, Lord Henry’s exclamatory and declarative aphorisms like “Be always searching for new sensations” mirrors Walter Pater’s Renaissance which details “to burn always, with this hard gem-like flame, is success in life”. Pater was a tutor of Wilde’s at Cambridge, clearly suggesting that Pater had a strong influence on Wilde, due to his own characters like Lord Henry sharing similar values. Thus Pater’s influence on Wilde mirrors Lord Henry’s on Dorian, which Wilde displays through the flame image motif of life becoming “fiery-coloured” for Dorian, as, in a faustian pact, he sells his soul to the devil for eternal youth and beauty whilst forming a new life of sin which the portrait will accumulate and thus decay.
It can be argued that Lord Henry, as well as Dorian, encapsulates the terrible pleasure of a double life, because as a philosophical, witty dandy, he is responsible for Dorian’s yielding to his “exquisite temptations”; an allusion to the Our Father which would have frightened the novel’s Victorian audience due to the “terror of God” therefore it can be seen as a summary of the novel’s social context and the influence it had. However, Lord Henry, the cowardly, vicarious flaneur who never acts upon his beliefs, and instead who sculpts Dorian in his “curious crucible of pain and pleasure”, lives no life at all, so it can’t be a fair summary to conclude of the novel.
In forming a Faustian pact by selling his soul to the devil in exchange for eternal youth, Dorian is arguably forming a doopelganger, and thus a double life; one that harbours the sin and corruption and deteriorates throughout the novel. In Chapter Thirteen, Wilde uses personification to convey the “leprosies of sin [that] were slowly eating the thing away” and the gothic imagery is reminiscent of the 19th century gothic idea of ‘the Monster within’, which explores how “hell is decidedly on earth, located within the vaults and chambers of our own minds” (McGrath & Morrow, p.xiv).
Therefore, the painting encapsulates the gothic idea of horror coming from within one’s self, and therefore emphasises the idea of a double life – however whether this can be seen as a terrible pleasure is controversial. Helen Davies argues: “The painting comes to function as a moral barometer of Dorian’s own soul”. Clearly, the painting does seem to accumulate and decay after each sin that Dorian commits, and Dorian is aware of this, seen in the use of free indirect discourse: “would be to him the visible emblem of conscience” but the caveat “would be” suggests that although Dorian is aware of the terrible side of this double life, he never retreats from indulging in its horror; after all, Lord Henry has taught him to see it as a “pleasure”. However, Davies fails to address Wilde’s prefatory epigram: “there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book” therefore although it is clear the double life that Dorian has formed delights him, I cannot agree on it being a ‘terrible’ pleasure, thus it can’t be a fair summary to conclude of the novel.
Moreover, it can be argued that Dorian has lead a double life since the day he was born, and as a result of his inherent nature. In the early chapters of the novel, we learn of his back story; that he was left orphaned after the death of his beautiful aristocratic mother, Lady Margaret Devereux, after the seemingly staged death of his poor “penniless subaltern” father in a duel. Here, Wilde presents us with a dichotomy of setting, like Jekyll and Hyde, which he presents throughout the novel, of social class, which means Dorian can shift between the “sordid shame” of London, which Wilde evokes using sibilance here to accentuate the height of poverty in Victorian society, and the luxurious upper-class settings of “Curzon Street”.
Moreover, the personification later utilised to present the “grey, monstrous London” not only shows the extent to which Wilde is criticising the corruption of London, a place so driven by industrialisation that it cares little for its people, but shows how divided Dorian is as a person. His surname could act as a homophone for the colour “grey” therefore suggesting a double life in itself; ill-defined and morally ambiguous.
In contrast, it can be argued that Dorian does not lead a double life but instead lives many, after being influenced by the Yellow Book, that Lord Henry gives him. In regards to the novel’s structure, it could be that it is split into two parts; chapters 1-10 rooting from the double life formed under Lord Henry’s influence: the first being his unblemished youthful aristocrat, and the second being the false “echo” of Lord Henry that pursues pleasure.
However, the middle is chapter 11, which arguably digresses from the novel, as Dorian’s indulgence in French Decadent literature and fascination with its Parisian hero, causes him to form more double lives: the hero, the opium den visitor and public scandal. Subsequently, this leads to chapters 12-20: the inexorable fate of Dorian, that Wilde explicitly displays in “become a prefiguring type of himself”. Therefore, structurally, although chapters 1-10 elicit the result of a formation of a double life under the influence of Lord Henry, chapter 11 and the last chapters there on cover the duplicity of the lives that Dorian creates, thus the novel showing us the terrible pleasure of a double life, is not a fair summary to make.
Overall, to make the summary that the novel shows us the “terrible pleasure of a double life” would not be fair because, although Dorian forms a double life of poor, rich, heroic and cowardly, paradoxically, he is forming multiplicity of lives that he seeks to carry out. In “Critic as Artist’ (1891), Wilde states “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. As does Dorian Gray: he covers himself of many masks, of many lives and he tells the truth. This truth, being the truth of his portrait, reveals the terrible pleasure of sin and corruption, dooming Dorian Gray.
February 2, 2023
February 2, 2023