By 1891, when he published his Picture of Dorian Gray, >Oscar Wilde could project a world in which integration is impossible and where all of life's paths lead to self-destruction. As in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, hypocritical bourgeois culture is beastly dangerous, but so is every alternative to it. If Stevenson's society exhibits fragmented selves, Wilde's reveals a fractured place where everyone is doomed to untimely death. Appropriately, this world of Dorian Gray is described as monstrous throughout. Cynical and manipulative Lord Henry sees law and the temptations its repressiveness fosters as "monstrous," (Wilde, 26) while Dorian perceives his own delight in the altering portrait of him as "monstrous" (143) and later considers people smitten with "vice and blood and weariness" as "monstrous," too (161). And artist Basil Hallward, painter of the infamous picture of Dorian Gray, feels the secret of his soul lies in that beautiful portrait but sees in the end that it indeed "has the eyes of a devil" (174).
Far from being a refuge from brutal reality, then, the sphere of an in this book is also deadly dangerous. Hallward is cruelly murdered by Dorian after he uncovers the secret of the portrait that Dorian has so carefully hidden away (as Jekyll does Hyde). The living Dorian, still looking so like the beautiful, untainted picture that Hallward loves, [122/123] has gone rotten at the core. In worshipping and depicting Dorian's beauty, Hallward has helped create the monster of his own destruction. He is another suicide, killed by his own misjudgment. And so is actress Sibyl Vane. Living in a theatrical world of make-believe and melodrama, Sibyl cannot accept the reality of Dorian's rejection. When she decides to give up acting for his love, she is shocked at Dorian's callous, "without art you are nothing" (100), followed by his desertion. Steeped in theatrics, Sibyl commits suicide like Ophelia, not like the Juliet she so hoped she might play to Dorian's Romeo. Yet Sibyl is not a heroine of melodrama, for heroines of melodrama triumph in the end. Sibyl, a victim of art, dies from swallowing prussic acid, her only tribute being the brief record of her inquest and verdict of "death by misadventure" (139) which is recorded in St. James's.
Beautiful but deadly Dorian will drive many such admirers to suicide before he destroys his portrait and himself. A young boy of the guards; Adrian Singleton; Allen Campbell — Dorian's victims are many. To all of them Dorian must have seemed something other than what he was. Yet for a long time double life is a "pleasure" to Dorian, who asks, "is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities" (158). Only near his end does he desist from toying with others' lives and then prides himself when he leaves a village girl before destroying her too. Lord Henry teases him with the query, "how do you know that Herty isn't floating at the present moment in some star-lit mill-pond, with lovely waterlilies round her like Ophelia?" (233). Dorian, who at last discovers in himself the vestiges of a conscience, resents having any conscience at all, and so projects that conscience into the picture. When he tears at the painting with the very knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward, he is determined to "kill this monstrous soul-life" (247). Instead he takes on the "withered, wrinkled, and loathsome" (240) visage of the portrait, emblem of his corrupted soul, and himself dies. Dorian is the now hideous portrait; it is his other self.
The ending of this novel was problematical for late Victorian readers. Wilde's odd preface, which reads like an aesthetic's version of Blake's "Proverbs of Hell," warns that "there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book" (5) and that "those who read the symbol do so at their peril" (6). Nevertheless many did read the symbol and wondered whether the book were moral or immoral. Did it say that conscience cannot be denied and that all people who do deny it become self-destroying monsters? And if so, was suicide then justifiable as a kind of self-extermination of evil) Or did it say, as a reviewer for the Daily Chronicle surmised, that sensation is all?
Mr. Wilde says his book has a "moral." The "moral," so far as we can collect it, is that man's chief end is to develop his nature to the fullest by "always searching for new sensations," that when the soul gets sick the way to cure it is to deny the senses nothing, for "nothing," says one of Mr. Wilde's characters, Lord Henry Worron, "can cure the soul but the sense, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul." Man is half angel and half ape, and Mr. Wilde's book has no real use if it be not to inculcate the "moral" that when you feel yourself becoming too angelic you cannot do better than rush out and make a beast of yourself (DC, 7).
A concerned Wilde reacted to this statement in a letter to the Chronicle, published on 2 July. "The real moral of the story," he states, "is that all excess, as well as renunciation, brings its punishment." One of Punch's reviewers, the Baron de Book-Worm, disagreed:
If Oscar intended an allegory, the finish is dreadfully wrong. Does he mean that, by sacrificing his earthly life, Dorian Gray atones for his infernal sins, and so purifies his soul by suicide? "Heavens! I am no preacher," says the Baron, "and perhaps Oscar didn't mean anything at all, except to give us a sensation, to show how like Bulwer Lytton's old-world style he could make his descriptions and his dialogue, and what an easy thing it is to frighten the respectable Mrs. Grundy with a Bogie." .Punch, 25]
All the same, the bogey was there for the frightening. For Dorian was a monster quite opposite to the benign Elephant Man; he was beautiful on the outside but ugly within. And "ugliness," Wilde's narrator tells us, "was the one reality. The coarse brawl, the loathsome den, the crude violence of disordered life, the very vileness of thief and outcast, were more vivid, in their intense actuality of impression, than all the gracious shapes of art, the dreamy shadows of song" (2o6). Like Tennyson's fictional Camelot, Wilde's portrait of fin de siècle England is of a land reeling back to the beasts, but with no hope for a second coming of a King Arthur to save it. The fantasy of Dorian Gray's portrait is not a Faustian story of a hero giving up life for knowledge, but a black fairy tale in which a spoiled boy gets his one wish — endless youthfulness and sensuality — and becomes a suicide because he cannot handle its implications. Wilde may have deserved the harsh criticism of his contemporaries, but like other Victorian creators of fictions and fantasies about monstrous selves who will to die, he discerned something deeply disturbing about his own culture. His Hallward, Dickens's Nell, Le Fanu's Jennings, Stevenson's Dr, Jekyll, and Tennyson's Balan all had "a little shadow that went along with them." That shadow was a dark, distorted other self, "a hideous hunchback," to use Matthew Arnold's paraphrase of Dr. Posey, "seated on [their] shoulders and which was the main business of [their] lives to hate and oppose." (Arnold, 481) Often that subversive hunchback was beckoning them on toward death.
Included on this site 10 April 2001; last modified 7 September 2012