The Picture of Dorian Gray

Extract of a piece I wrote for Wordsworth Editions just before Christmas on The Picture of Dorian Gray…

…As a narcissist and living work of art, in Nietzschean terms Dorian is an ‘Apollonian’ figure and Hallward also paints him as Adonis, Narcissus, Paris, and Antinous. Against nature, he has the cold edge of the purely aesthetic; he is serene in his indifference: ordered, unemotional and self-contained. But he doesn’t start out like this. Or, at least, he is unaware of his own mystical power. He is first introduced in absentia as Hallward’s muse. In describing their first meeting, the artist tells Lord Henry that:

‘When our eyes met, I felt that I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew that I had come face to face with someone whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself.’

The word Wilde most applies to Dorian is ‘fascinating’. And it is likely that he meant it in its original form. From the Latin fascinum (meaning ‘evil spell’), when ‘fascinate’ was first defined in an English dictionary – Robert Cawdrey’s A Table Alphabeticall (1604) – it meant ‘to bewitch’ or ‘to disfigure by inchantment’ [sic].

Dorian has certainly put a spell on Hallward:

‘He is all my art to me now … in some curious way—I wonder will you understand me?—his personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style. I see things differently, I think of them differently … I see everything in him. He is never more present in my work than when no image of him is there. He is a suggestion, as I have said, of a new manner. I find him in the curves of certain lines, in the loveliness and subtleties of certain colours.’

He concludes emphatically: ‘As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me.’ Aware of the implications of this ‘artistic idolatry’, Hallward refuses to exhibit the painting, because ‘There is too much of myself in the thing, Harry—too much of myself!’ Lord Henry compares this state to a ‘romance’, hinting at sadomasochistic enslavement in the original manuscript, in which Hallward exclaims things like, ‘The world becomes young to me when I hold his hand’, until Wilde substantially rewrote this dialogue for the 1891 edition, making it more about art and less about love.

Like Hallward’s uncanny masterpiece, there’s a lot of the author in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As he wrote to Ralph Payne, a fan of the novel: ‘I am so glad you like that strange coloured book of mine: it contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be — in other ages, perhaps.’ Some are tempted to liken the connection between Hallward and the prelapsarian Dorian to Wilde’s fatal relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, although they did not meet until well into 1891, after the revised novel was published, and did not begin a sexual relationship until 1893. Dorian was created a priori. In that sense, ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am’ suggests Wilde the artist and the aesthete, what Camilla Paglia called ‘an Apollonian conceptualizer’, the old student of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, believing in the autonomy of art and the primacy of beauty. This persona is then crossed with Lord Henry – ‘what the world thinks me’ – which rather speaks for itself. Lord Henry, like Wilde, is a brilliant raconteur. He is witty and affectedly Decadent and immoral; he is also seductive and corrupting:

There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it. To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s temperament into another as though it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume; there was a real joy in that … Yes; he would try to be to Dorian Gray what, without knowing it, the lad was to the painter who had fashioned the wonderful portrait. He would seek to dominate him – had already, indeed, half done so…

Wilde the artist, critic and Society provocateur is thus split between the two characters, although both are more moral than they first appear as, indeed, was Wilde. As Lord Henry is the devil on Dorian’s shoulder, Hallward is the angel. It is the artist who feels empathy for Dorian’s victims, and who urges his friend to repent, quoting Isaiah: ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’ Like his painting, he functions as Dorian’s conscience. But while Lord Henry talks the talk, he doesn’t walk the walk. After joking about infidelity for years, he is genuinely sad when his wife leaves him for another man, while friends frequently remind him that they know he doesn’t believe a word he’s saying during his glittering and sinful monologues. As Hallward tells him: ‘You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.’ Like Wilde, he is a performer, and in the tragedy of Sibyl Vane Wilde shows the difference between the character and the actor, the ideal and the reality, and the dangers of confusing the two. The story’s climax, therefore, is essentially Christian as much as it is a gothic epiphany. Wilde would later decry the ‘terrible moral’ as an ‘artistic error’ and ‘the only error in the book’, but later still, going much deeper in his 1897 prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis (literally ‘From the Depths’), he saw a more human truth: ‘Doom, that like a purple thread runs through the gold cloth of Dorian Gray’…

To read the full essay, please click here

For details of the Wordsworth edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray please click here

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