ESSAY 5: To what extent should we consider The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a Gothic novel?
Oscar Wilde’s first, and only, novel published in 1890 in Lipincott’s Magazine. Despite the censorship that the editor made unbeknownst to Wilde, his text still largely offended its bourgeoisie audience due to its critique on moral sensibility and public morality in the upper-class society. Wilde, irrefutably, includes many stereotypical conventions and clichés of the gothic genre, for example the curse of the painting, and the derelict room that it sits in in his house, however to simply brand the text a gothic novel or even a gothic horror novel would insult its complexity. Wilde manages to comment and carefully critique the idleness of the British aristocracy through the intricacy of his narrative and characters, which he uses to represent the different aspects of British hierarchy and therefore almost give a Marxist type view on art, culture and society.
Although Wilde begins his novel far from any clichés of the gothic genre it is undeniable that the story echoes countless conventions of the genre. Beginning set in the studio “Selby Manor”, a large manor house with an idyllic garden, the novel commences with the scene of Dorian’s portrait- arguably the primary factor in categorising Wilde’s only novel as gothic. This categorisation can be made due to the fact that through Wilde’s attempt at exhibiting Dorian Gray’s immorality, he displays one of the most stereotypical and recognisable gothic tropes; a changing expression of a lifeless object- in this case Dorian’s portrait- which he discovers upon his return from causing he fiancé to commit suicide after severely berating her for her terrible stage performance. Dorian's moral transformation begins to exhibit itself in the portrait for the first time here. It acts as his conscience, and he realises that he has terribly wronged Sibyl. Wilde describes the painting as “being a little changed” referring to “a touch of cruelty in the mouth”, the reference to the mouth being an obvious indication that the altering appearance resulted directly from the ruthless words which he spat at Sybil Vane. This stereotype of the act of animating a lifeless object can be widely seen throughout the genre and has often been shared with other genres to produce the harrowing effects; the most renowned example being Frankenstein (created from the lifeless parts of dead bodies), however this idea is timeless- proved through modern examples such as Stephen King’s Rose Madder (where Rose’s painting both alters it’s appearance and acts as a portal), or ancient examples such as Prometheus. However ultimately, they all share the similarity of feeding into humans’ psychoanalytic fear of death or absence of life, fuelled over human existence by the belief in the sublime and the instilment of religion in culture. Therefore, through all of these examples, focusing primarily on The Picture of Dorian Gray, the use of the abolishment of dichotomy between life and lifelessness through a supernatural fashion inspires a sense of fear in the reader that could be associated to have similar effects to religion. This aids in classifying The Picture of Dorian Gray as a gothic novel as it ties to the idea of Gothicism’s affiliation to religion and alludes to texts such as The Monk.
“the fear of God to us all. There were opiates for remorse, drugs that could lull the moral sense to sleep. But here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls.” -IN A WAY MORE FEARFUL AS IT IS VISIBLE PROOF.
Furthermore, and continuing on the topic of the portrait, Wilde use yet another extremely stereotypical trope of gothic horror through his inference of the painting being cursed when Dorian states he would give his soul in order for him “to be always young, and the picture to grow old”- a possible hint at an interpretation of Dorian Gray as a Faustian figure?- which triggers an occurrence that seems to bind Dorian and his portrait as one being, sharing emotional and physical pain. Once again, this stereotype is shared by many other popular texts, i.e: Harry Potter (The Horcruxes), The Lord of the Rings (The ‘precious’ Ring), The Exorcist (The Amulet), The Greek myth of Harmonia (her Necklace) etc. affirming the novel as containing elements of conventional gothic literature. The use of this typecast acts almost in exactly the same way as the technique of birthing lifeless items in the sense that they both methods nourish the unconscious, instilled fear of the paranormal and the unknown. However, beneath this seemingly straightforward Faustian bargain laid down by Dorian Grey is a sub-textual theme centring around society’s intolerance to homosexuality. The character in question here is of course Basil Hallward, the artist, who affirms both his artistic and (inferred) romantic love for Dorian Gray, declaring Dorian as “absolutely necessary” to him and admitting that the reason he is unwilling to display his masterpiece is that he has shown it “the secret of [his] soul”- an almost definite nod to both Basil’s and indeed Oscar Wilde’s sexuality. It could be understood through this interpretation that Basil displays his affection for Dorian through his portrait, tragically revealing his sexual orientation in a masked way. This justifies Lord Henry’s statement that “Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic”, also foreshadowing Dorian's future and how his beautiful portrait is used to conceal his evil and atrocious actions. Through this interpretation it could be viewed that the supernatural forces at play in the novel punish Dorian for his immorality and Basil for his sexuality, therefore it could be heavily argued that the significance of the curse of the picture is that it carries the social views of the time and bears its sublime rulings based upon them to then deliver appropriate actions. However, an alternative interpretation, in accordance with conventions of the gothic genre, is that the picture is a medium through which both men’s ‘secret self’ become known and they become distinct figures in a normal society, the most famous example of this being Jekyll and Hyde. However, totally juxtaposing this idea is the fact that Wilde also builds Dorian Gray as the antagonist (or possible anti-hero) in the narrative therefore contradicting typecast gothic conventions.
Moving away from classifying Wilde’s novel as gothic, the text could also be branded a philosophical novel concerning morality and ethics. Within this broad topic, Wilde seems to favour the use of the criticism of the function and role that society plays in establishing and reinforcing superficial codes of conduct. The Victorian age was the time when the British Empire was at its greatest. Britons felt superior to foreigners, especially those that they ruled over. The nature and culture of England had begun to change, the agricultural industry began to wane, and England started to become an industrial nation- leading to an increase in the standard of city life. It was a time of great contrast especially where the rich were extremely rich, and the poor were extremely poor. Status was everything and everyone aspired to be a part of the bourgeoisie aristocracy. Furthermore, the believed purpose of life- according to the bourgeoisie- was aesthetic. Through Wilde’s criticism on the purpose of Victorian society we are able to establish the extreme shallowness of integrity and obsession with visual beauty and nothing else. No one personifies this belief more than Lord Henry Wotton, who wholly believes in the simplicity of following a self-indulgent life inspired by a seemingly shallow love of beauty and despise of intellect. Lord Henry symbolises Victorian society in a sense, his belief in the ugliness of intellect and the beauty of aesthetic mirrors that of the social values of the time, the prime exhibition of this theory is his evaluation of beauty; stating “real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins”- seemingly branding intelligence as obnoxious. He continues in saying that the “intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid”, blatantly cataloguing intellects as dreadful yet himself displaying a sense of intellect through his theory which contradicts his entire philosophy. Through this we are able to envision the impossible standards set by the British aristocracy that were viewed as the par for the rest of society E to follow. Through Lord Henry’s confusing concept of hedonism being the social standard, Wilde seems to allude Matthew Arnold’s theory of experiencing the best that is known. This becomes most noticeable through Basil Hallward’s portrait if Dorian being the best piece of art that the three men had ever laid eyes on, yet it is meaningless; justifying Basil’s belief that "An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them”. It becomes increasingly noticeable on the effect that both Basil and Lord Henry have on Dorian, with Basil’s rational thought eventually being overpowered by the hedonism that “poisons” the youthful Dorian into taking the path that leads to his tragic demise. It is the importance of the yellow book that is gifted to Dorian by Lord Wotton in which his debauchery ensues. That yellow book is believed to be J.K. Huysmans' À Rebours ("Against Nature"), a novel of the decadent period inspiring the drive to experience aesthetic feelings at the cost of morality. The yellow book represents the "poisonous" influence Lord Henry has on Dorian and in turn the effect that Dorian’s actions have on his portrait, which represents the social standards of British aristocratic culture. Its pleasure-seeking, decadent message makes it a of pioneering book for Dorian’s new life, in pursuit of its ideals.
It was such love as Michelangelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself. Yes, Basil could have saved him.
“You were the most unspoiled creature in the whole world. Now, I don't know what has come over you. You talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you. It is all Harry's influence. I see that."
“When is she Sybil Vane”
"I congratulate you. “
Finally, yet not entirely distancing itself from the notion of social morality, is the theme of the British class system that seems to resurface throughout the entirety of the novel, taking many different forms in the process. This theme allows Wilde’s novel to be viewed through a Marxist lens. The first evident and significant appearance of the concept of hierarchy is exhibited through Wilde’s depiction of the powerful contrasted with the powerless characters in the novel. It is plainly evident from the outset that those who are not a member of the bourgeoisie aristocratic elite have no great role in the narrative and soon become meaningless. Take Sybil Vane as the chief exemplar, described as “absolutely and entirely divine” by Dorian, our protagonist, who finds who he believes to be the woman of his dreams from an inferior social background. He falls in love with because he deems her to be the best actress he has ever known- this appears to be set up to tell the tale of a stereotypical romance over the class divide where the love interest and her family automatically scale the social ladder by mere association to a member of the bourgeoisie elite. However, once the morals of aristocratic society enter the situation and Dorian judges her to be just an average art form, she loses all of her class privileges and therefore becomes irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, even her death does not mar Dorian’s emotional state for too long. However, her death is the catalyst in the “poisoning” of Dorian, a representation of aristocracy, therefore the impression that her death leaves on Dorian’s portrait could echo the idea of a communist revolution. This idea arises due to the symbolism that Wilde weaves into the narrative; Sybil, an obvious representation of the proletariat is exploited and oppressed by Dorian and his aristocratic friends. She then almost becomes a martyr in the sense that her death ignites Dorian’s adventure into debauchery but also inspires her brother to attempt to take Dorian’s life, two revolts that could be comprehended as a revolution.
It is apparent from the offset that Dorian Gray’s nourished position comes due to his wealth and beauty- the prior opposing to the foundations of Marx’s ideology- linking again to the ethics of Victorian society. Wilde infers that Dorian’s status is directly correlated to his splendour and it is through this high-ranking social status, and his “poisoning” at the fault of Lord Henry, that Dorian is able to overpower those of an inferior position such as the Vane’s. However, except from his death, he is never punished for his corruption due to the fact that the painting bears the pain for the repercussions of his sins. This could be interpreted as Wilde’s technique of unveiling the barriers of the class system that prevent the elite from experiencing chastisement. An example of this being Lord Henry’s refusal to believe that Dorian could commit a murder due to the fact that his “finely shaped fingers could never have clutched a knife for sin, nor those smiling lips have cried out on God and goodness”, this implies of an archetypal standard that immorality is reserved exclusively for the poor, a perception that coincides with the theory that morality is based on class and beauty rather than ethics making Wilde’s novel a criticism commentating on the social injustices of the Victorian class pyramid.
· Lord Henry’s cane.
· Basil’s artwork.
· Sybil’s lodgings and place of work.
“I don’t suppose 10% of the proletariat live correctly”
"I quite sympathize with the rage of the English democracy against what they call the vices of the upper orders. The masses feel that drunkenness, stupidity, and immorality should be their own special property
“Yes, we are overcharged for everything nowadays. I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich."
To conclude, I firmly believe that despite Wilde’s inclusion of many stereotypical tropes of a gothic novel, such as; the setting of the scene of the crime and the animation of lifeless entities etc, The Picture of Dorian Gray cannot solely be assigned to the gothic genre. Wilde’s commentary on the social philosophies and morality of classes, alongside his inclusion on the effect of art and aesthetic on human nature, elevates the text from simply being banded a gothic, philosophical or even a tragic novel to being hailed a psychoanalytical Marxist critique on Victorian civilisation. Furthermore, his inclusion of Arnold’s concept of experiencing ‘the best that is known’ contrasted with the tragic demise of Dorian Gray producing the effect of an extreme feeling of injustice, both towards the protagonist and the inferior classes aforementioned. This creates an emotion that prohibits the reader from experiencing a freedom from the text once finished, and therefore brands the novel great not only as a form of entertainment, but intellectually- therefore completely contradicting the repeated beliefs of the aristocracy in the text.
“We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty."
“that is one of the great secrets of life—to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.”
“Pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about,"
"My dear boy," said Lord Henry, smiling, "anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there. That is the reason why people who live out of town are so absolutely uncivilized. Civilization is not by any means an easy thing to attain to. There are only two ways by which man can reach it. One is by being cultured, the other by being corrupt. Country people have no opportunity of being either, so they stagnate."
“Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you -- well, of course you have an intellectual expression and all that. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are!”
"I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world."
"An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty."
“Was there some subtle affinity between the chemical atoms that shaped themselves into form and colour on the canvas and the soul that was within him?”
“And beauty is a form of genius, is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation.”
It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.
People say sometimes that beauty is only superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is. To me, beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible