Horror Fiction 102: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Foreword

In Horror Fiction 101, Gothic literature was the main focus; haunted castles, far-away lands, powerful landscapes, and heroines running from evil villains. The Castle of Otranto started the genre and Ann Radcliffe created a whole legacy. However, time passed and literature changed. The haunted house remains with some alterations and additions, and the hunter’s domain to pursue its victim grows as it is no longer confined to the four walls of a house. The boundaries between the rational and the supernatural are blurred, evil becomes attractive and impossible to escape, and the hunter and the haunted seek each other. Victorian horror has arrived.


Horror Fiction 102 will deal with Victorian horror and it will be divided into six different chapters:


The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s only novel first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and as soon as it was published, it caused an outrage in Victorian England. The Picture of Dorian Gray was considered by many a perversion and a disturbing story; so harsh were the critics that when it was to be published as a single volume book, Wilde was advised by the editor to tone it down. Wilde then added six chapters and extended detail, but the tone of the book remained the same. Despite this, The Picture of Dorian Gray has become one of the most relevant stories in English literature, and a perfect example of Victorian Horror Fiction.

The 1925 edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray with illustrations by Henry Keen.

As explained in the previous instalment of this series, Victorian horror is obsessed with duality and exploring the darkest corners of society. Victorians put a lot of pressure on separating the public sphere from the private one. Therefore, every behaviour that did not fit into what society defined as accepted had to be reserved for the private sphere, never to be talked about in public society. In The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the idea of living a double life is taken to the extreme with Dr Jekyll physically becoming a different person in order to indulge his deepest desires without society ever knowing. Dorian Gray follows a similar path.


As Narcissus before him, Dorian Gray fell in love with his own beauty and youth and almost accidentally, traded his soul for them: every mark of evil or decay skipped his body and was reflected onto his portrait. Paintings often act as sinister elements in horror fiction, and in many Gothic stories there are instances of portraits in haunted houses that seem almost too real. In The Castle of Otranto, for example, the previous owner of the house comes out of his portrait to haunt the evil usurper of the mansion. Wilde uses the supernatural in Dorian’s painting as a physical representation of Victorian double standards. From then on, Dorian could take part in questionable activities in his search for pleasure and feel safe knowing that he was never going to be found. He became obsessed, as did Dr Jekyll, with living a double life, as the contrast between the awful portrait and his untainted appearance gave him a thrill of pleasure: “He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul” (Wilde, 1890, p. 109).

Ben Barnes as Dorian Gray in the 2009 movie adaptation.

Corruption of the soul, trading it for eternal beauty and youth, the influence of Faust’s story in Wilde’s novel is undeniable. When the reader first meets Dorian it is at Basil Hallward’s house, an innocent and pure boy that is only dimly aware of the awe he inspires in others. However, as soon as he meets Lord Henry, he is changed forever: “The few words that Basil’s friend had said to him […] had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing in curious places” (Wilde, 1890, p. 19). It is Lord Henry who makes Dorian realize his own beauty and youth. And it only takes a few words for Dorian Gray to believe that without them, he would be nothing. Despite Basil’s warnings, Lord Henry begins manipulating Dorian as soon as they meet, planting the first seed of corruption in Dorian’s soul.


Who is Lord Henry then? Is he the Faustinian Devil in Dorian’s story? He is not so much the Devil as the Devil’s advocate. As Basil himself said, “[he] never said a moral thing, and [he] never did a wrong thing” (Wilde, 1890, p. 8). Lord Henry seems to be the type of character that enjoys influencing and manipulating others, but keeps himself in the margins of respectability. Nevertheless, after their meeting, Dorian follows Lord Henry everywhere and took every word that fell out of his mouth very seriously. What seemed to finally corrupt Dorian’s soul was a yellow book that Lord Henry left him. As Roger Luckhurst explains, this unnamed book could be the novel Against Nature by the French author Joris-Karl Huysmans, that dealt with a “degenerate aristocratic house pleasuring himself and defying boredom with a series of increasingly perverse investigations” (2014). Upon reading that book, Dorian Gray was lost once and for all; He reaches his thirties still looking like a nineteen year old boy and is surrounded by the most perverted rumours.


However, and despite the rumours, Dorian Gray was welcomed and respected in society. No one believed the stories. How could someone who looked so pure do such things? But Basil was worried, he had heard the rumours about Dorian ruining young men’s reputations and even though he did not believe them, he wanted to hear Dorian denying them. What Basil encountered was something very different to what he was expecting. Instead of the pure and innocent boy he used to admire, he found a man that would lose himself to pleasure not only for the enjoyment, but also for the satisfaction of knowing that he could see the corruption eroding his soul. Dorian invited Basil to his attic: “I shall show you my soul. You shall see the thing that you fancy only God can see” (Wilde, 1890, p. 129). The mere sight of Dorian’s portrait, representing then the most hideous of monsters, was enough for Basil to almost go insane. Suddenly Dorian did not enjoy being face to face with consequences of his actions and killed Basil in cold blood.

The murder of Basil, as illustrated by Majeska in the 1930 edition.

Following the line in Victorian horror fiction, the other and the self are no longer two completely separate entities. What haunts Dorian is not the spirit of a deceased person waiting to be liberated, or a house rejecting an usurper, it is his own conscience that grows more and more corrupted as the story progresses. Evil in Victorian horror is attractive and irresistible; Dr Jekyll becomes addicted to transforming into Mr Hyde to a point where he lost all control; In a similar way, Dorian became addicted to living a double life and seeing how corrupted and hideous his soul was in comparison to his beautiful appearance. After murdering Basil, Dorian noticed that the painting had a “loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands, as though the canvas had sweated blood” (Wilde, 1890, p. 146). Instead of feeling remorseful or disgusted by his own portrait, Dorian felt “strangely calm” (Wilde, 1890, p. 134) and blamed Basil for his own death.


The other had buried its claws so deep into Dorian’s soul that he was unrecognizable. After every evil deed he had committed, Dorian would look into his portrait to see the effect it had on his soul, rejoicing in its ugliness. Dorian seemed to have reached the point of no return, as Faust he fully believes that it is too late for him to repent, he is convinced that his soul is damned forever. He grew frustrated and irritable and one night when he could not take it anymore, destroyed the portrait with the same knife he used to kill Basil. As happened with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the destruction of the portrait meant the destruction of Dorian. His portrait was found just as beautiful as the day Basil finished painting it, but at its feet “lying on the floor was a dead man […] He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was” (Wilde, 1890, p. 188).

Caricature of Oscar Wilde as Narcissus, by Thomas Nast.

It is not hard to understand why many Victorians despised The Picture of Dorian Gray. Unsurprisingly, they did not enjoy seeing the flaws of their own society depicted in such a manner. Many believed that literature and art played an important role in society, they were seen as models of correct behaviour (Burdett, 2014). However, many artists, Oscar Wilde included, followed a different line of thought: Aestheticism. They believed in “art for art’s sake” (Burdett, 2014), meaning that art was meaningless and it was there to be enjoyed and elevated and nothing more. Those who followed aestheticism claimed that it could be dangerous to use art and literature as guiding principles, and that was Wilde’s defence for his novel. In the preface he wrote: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” (Wilde, 1890, p. 4). In fact, similar to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, he never gave any details regarding Dorian’s activities apart from the scene in the opium den where the reader knows nothing of what Dorian’s vices really are. Wilde left it to the readers to imagine the nature of those activities. Therefore, regarding all those critics that called his novel perverted and disturbing, what was really going through their imagination if the author had never commented on Dorian’s hidden pleasures in the first place?


But Aestheticism soon became entangled with Decadence which was, as defined by the artists, “the literature of a modern society grown over-luxurious and sophisticated” (Burdett, 2014). And Wilde was the personification of it all; He dressed flamboyantly and lived his life as a work of art, becoming envied and imitated by many in Victorian London. However, towards the end of the 19th century, decadence and aestheticism were connected to degeneration and sexual desires that escaped the norm. At the prime of his career, just when he became the most famous playwriter in England, Oscar Wilde was put on trial under charges of gross indecency due to homosexuality. The Picture of Dorian Gray was used against him, as proof of his immorality and homosexual tendencies (Basil’s infatuation with Dorian has a very clear queer undertone). He was sentenced to two years of hard labour.

Illustration from the 1925 edition, the image shows the rings on the dead and aged Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray beautifully represents Victorian horror fiction. Dark desires and forbidden pleasures are at the centre of the novel, with the protagonist selling his soul for eternal beauty and youth. The damned portrait reflected Dorian’s deepest desires and is not hidden away in his attic. As in many other Victorian horror stories, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the supernatural is used to represent the split people were forced to make between the public and the private sphere, as well as Victorian double standards and its fetishization of respectability. Oscar Wilde’s only novel, although first received as an scandal, has now become a key work to understanding Victorian horror and queer literature.


Bibliographical References

Burdett, C. (2014). Aestheticism and Decadence. British Library. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/aestheticism-and-decadence

Buzwell, G. (2014). The Picture of Dorian Gray: Art, Ethics and the Artist. British Library. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-picture-of-dorian-gray-art-ethics-and-the-artist

Luckhurst, R. (2014). Perversion and Degeneracy in The Picture of Dorian Gray. British Library. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/perversion-and-degeneracy-in-the-picture-of-dorian-gray

Wilde, O. (1890). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford University Press. New York


Image References

Keen, H. [Illustrator] (1925). The Picture of Dorian Gray. The British Library. Book Illustration. Retrieved from: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/perversion-and-degeneracy-in-the-picture-of-dorian-gray

Barnes, B. [Actor] (2009). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Alliance Films. Shot from film. Retrieved from: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1235124/mediaviewer/rm278215680?ref_=ttmi_mi_all_sf_132

Majeska. (1930). The Picture of Dorian Gray. Coloured book illustration. Retrieved from: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-picture-of-dorian-gray-art-ethics-and-the-artist

Nast, T. (1890s). Mr O'Wilde. Cartoon print. Retrieved from: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/caricature-of-oscar-wilde-as-narcissus


Author Photo

Isabel Panadero

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