“Harry (Lord Henry Wotton),” said Basil Hallward, looking him straight in the face, “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.” Chapter One, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
As artist Basil Hallward discussed his painting of the young gentleman Dorian Gray, who would be affectionately known as “Prince Charming” for the remainder of his mortal life, the artist’s creative genius was evident in his tone. For him this portrait was his pièce de résistance which could never be accomplished again in his lifetime.
However, for the beautiful and delicate Dorian Gray, it would become his albatross. For what Hallward captured in the portrait was not his own soul but Dorian’s primordial nature which all men and women suppress and attempt to hide from moral, polite society.
For Dorian, his fall from the celestial realm to the opium dens of Victorian society allowed his basic instincts of debauchery to be fully manifest so that those wretched denizens of the night would see the true “Prince Charming”. To Dorian’s friends and associates his descent was displayed only in his portrait which was hidden in an upper locked room, with the only key being his.
Only the portrait aged with his indulgences; he remained the beautiful, delicate young man who sat for Hallward. Of course over time he enticed others into the life of hidden passions and sins which the light of day would have projected for all to see, if the light was permitted to reveal the hideous avenues they traversed in secret.
One has to wonder if love could alter the course of Dorian on his path to self-destruction. He met his Juliet, an actress by the name of Sibyl Vane.
Perhaps Dorian fell in love with the Shakespearean heroines Sibyl portrayed so passionately—Desdemona, Ophelia, Imogen and Juliet. For love must have substance beyond the human act of life.
In her last performance the young woman disappointed and mostly embarrassed Dorian to his friends whom he had implored to come see his beautiful and talented “Juliet”. Before the night was over, his Juliet, rejected by her Romeo, would perform her last dramatic overture by taking her own life—for what is life without true love when one’s lover has banished you from his presence and sealed your fate in the shadows of the night.
Unfortunately, Basil Hallward would become one of Dorian’s victims. Basil was set to depart for France and decided to pay Dorian a visit—which would be fateful for him.
Sibyl had taken her own life because of Dorian’s disgusting, harsh rejection. Basil’s life would be taken by Dorian over what he perceived to be his rite of passage.
Basil’s death would be reflected in his portrait. However, the cold murder of an artist had greater implications than those on canvas, implications which Dorian would face.
For Alan Campbell, Dorian was his serpent in the tree. Using blackmail, Campbell was forced to use his scientific expertise to dispose of Basil’s body.
He did his laborious work well, but the secret of his past and the participation in the cover-up of a murder would be too much for the man of science. So, one lonely night in his laboratory he took his revolver and ended the hold that Dorian Gray held over him and finally released his conscience.
Like any good story there has to be an antagonist. In this case it would be Sibyl’s brother James who had returned from his adventures on the high seas to track down “Prince Charming” and avenge his sister.
Dorian’s life would be plagued by the haunting shadow of James whom he met one night in the opium den. James cornered Dorian in the dark streets, but Dorian used the fact of time to his advantage.
18 years had passed since Sibyl’s tragic death. Dorian implored James to look at his face under the street lamp.
Since only the portrait ages, Dorian was the epitome of youth and vigor. James let him go and returned to the den where a woman who had directed him to Dorian told him that Dorian had made a deal with the devil and never ages. By the time James returned to the streets, Dorian was gone into the shadows, but James decided to abandon his journey to India and search for “Prince Charming”.
The hunted Dorian would see James again through the conservatory window of a friend’s estate. James had found him, but, like many antagonists, he met a tragic end in a hunting accident.
When Dorian was shown the body,
“A cry of joy broke from his lips…He stood there for some minutes looking at the dead body. As he rode home, his eyes were full of tears, for he knew he was safe.” (Chapter 18)
His joy was short lived. For one cannot continue down a path where life is grounded in pleasure and where happiness cannot be found.
Dorian entertained the thought of finding love once again. It was with the girl named Hetty Merton in a village far from his home.
Unfortunately, the years of seeing and ruining lives took hold of him. As he looked upon her simple sweetness and idyllic life, he found that he could not add her to his list of lives soiled by his hedonism.
So to his credit he broke off the relationship with Hetty. He hoped and prayed that Hetty would be “like Perdita, in her garden of mint and marigold” after her tears dried.
As the author reflected
“It was his beauty that had ruined him, his beauty and the youth that he had prayed for. But for those two things, his life might have been free from stain. His beauty had been to him but a mask, his youth but a mockery. What was youth at best? A green, an unripe time, a time of shallow moods, and sickly thoughts. Why had he worn its livery? Youth had spoiled him.” (Chapter 20)
When guilt and shame overwhelms a soul lost in the sable trenches of despair, desperation becomes an avenue of release. In his upper room where he had murdered Basil and the portrait sat covered, after reflecting on the events and lives ruined by him directly or indirectly, Dorian decided to destroy the cursed painting.
There are always consequences to actions. For Dorian the consequence of destruction would be reflected in his own personage.
“When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.” (Chapter 20)
The 1890s novel by Oscar Wilde caused a sensation in Victorian society. The subject matter was not for genteel society and was an affront to morality.
It seems that society prefers its guilty pleasures hidden from public view. Wilde exposed these guilty pleasures and peeled back the onion layers of what transpired in the dark streets after midnight—hedonism.
In ending, perhaps Dorian Gray’s own analysis of what lies in each human heart is the absolute truth of the human condition:
“Each of us has heaven and hell in him, Basil,” cried Dorian with a wild gesture of despair. (Chapter 13)
G. D. Williams © 2018
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde