I have recently been afforded the opportunity to read up on some of the literature that I will be tackling come autumn when I return to school. These past few months I have undertaken to read various novels which would be considered “Victorian Fantasy.” Fantasy in the Victorian time period, I am finding, was somewhat different than what we consider fantastical today. Instead of creating new worlds, the Victorians brought the fantastic to our world: Dracula from Transylvania invades Britain; Frankenstein’s Monster is created in Ingolstadt and frolics around Europe; Dr. Hyde roams the streets of London. In the same way, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is nearly 95% realism with a tinge of fantastic thrown in. It is in this realm of realism that Wilde, much like Robert Louis Stevenson, brings to light the apparent “duality of man.”
I mention Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde specifically because, as I read Wilde’s novel, I felt it was very similar in both the plot and the morality. But before I dive too far into the novel, I want to first address an issue I had with the novel itself. Wilde was primarily a playwright and essayist. In fact, The Picture of Dorian Gray, if I am correct, was his only published novel, and I felt it would have been a much better play. The transitions are lacking and could have been simple stage directions, and while Wilde was a good writer and certainly very skilled in his prose, the book appeared to be half a play and half an essay. He is either becoming too preachy (like an essay) or creating scenes that may as well be on stage.
But, yet, he chose to put this as a novel, which prompted me to question why he chose this format as I give him the benefit of the doubt. As a literary choice, it seems faulty, but from the standpoint of an argument, it is brilliant. This is because novels are far more intimate than plays, and often times a novel gets a point across better than any essay. To show what you are preaching is sometimes better than to preach it. Dorian Gray as a play (and I believe it has been turned into a play) is just another act we go to see. But the novel requires we internally digest what is being said. Novels require we, for a time, accept all the premises before leaving it off to decide whether the argument is worthwhile or not. If it was only a play, we could read the script at a greater distance. This is why I feel we often give Shakespeare a “pass” on his morality, and we almost laugh at some of the very dark ideas he poses in his plays while his poetry is far less accepted in the moral sense. Now, with this initial business out of the way, I will proceed with the novel itself.
As I said, the novel was very similar to Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. You can read my take on that here. Both of these stories put on display the “rigid” Victorian morality. The idea that attempting to “overcome” our sin is essentially the denial of our true self. Wilde’s character Lord Henry says it best.
The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.
In a sense: We have monstrously made certain sins unlawful, and attempting to repress these man-made sins only makes us restless. When Jekyll tries to defeat Hyde he is acting in his Victorian morality by trying to suppress his evil side, and the same thing occurs at the tale end of Dorian Gray when Dorian decides once and for all to be rid of his evil side presented in the painting. The narrative leading up to this fateful act displays Dorian acting “correctly.” He has unveiled his evil side in the picture, and this allows him to live freely as he was created: he can be commit both virtue and vice unwittingly. That the picture takes the brunt of these sins while he remains unchanged and youthful is symbolic of his two natures. His youthful, perfected (at least on the outside) self symbolizes how we become and feel if we “just yield” to temptations. Men grow weary and old because their conscious eats away at them. This conscience of Dorian’s becomes his downfall.
I can certainly see how some may interpret this story a bit differently, oppositely in fact. It is pretty easy to read this story as another Victorian morality novel. Dorian’s fall is due to his unleashing of his sins. He goes through life not caring for anyone but himself, creating all sorts of havoc on others, and this eventually catches up to him. But I read this story as an ironic Victorian tragedy. It was almost as if Dorian did not sin enough. I reach this conclusion for a couple of reasons. First, having read a little on Wilde himself, I feel it unlikely he would write a story decrying the sins of the Victorian period. Instead, he would write a story decrying the morality of the Victorian period. Thus, it is only when Dorian begins to act more like a moral Victorian that his fall begins. This even makes more sense concerning the genre of tragedy. Dorian had it all, but his tragic flaw, his conscience, eventually corrupted him.
The second reason I reach this conclusion is because Dorian finally begins believing things that sound somewhat rational in my mind.
There are moments, psychologists tell us, when the passion for sin, or for what the world calls sin, so dominates a nature that every fiber of the body, as every cell of the brain, seems to be instinct with fearful impulses. Men and women at such impulses lose the freedom of their will. They move to their terrible and autonomous move. Choice is taken from them, and conscience is either killed, or, if it lives, at all, lives but to give rebellion its fascination and disobedience its charm. For all sins… are sins of disobedience. When that high spirit, that morning star of evil, fell from heaven, it was as a rebel that fell.
This concept that “ugliness was the one reality” coincides with the concept of the depravity of man. The Dorian pre-conscience was a Dorian who saw his nature as both good and evil, but later he begins to believe that the picture which represents his soul depicts a wholly depraved individual who has no choice in the matter. He decides, however, that despite this truth, “he would no longer tempt innocence. He would be good.” He chooses to strive for holiness: “Perhaps if his life became pure he would be able to expel every sign of evil passion from his face.”
His conscience eats away at him, and when he tries to destroy it through ridding himself of depravity, he destroys himself.
Was he always to be burdened by the past? Was he really to confess? Never. There was only one bit of evidence against him. The picture itself — that was evidence. He would destroy it. Why had he kept it so long? Once it had given him pleasure to watch it changing and growing old. Of late he had felt no such pleasure. It had kept him awake at night. When he had been away he had been filled with terror lest other eyes should look upon it. It had brought melancholy across his passions. Its mere memory had marred many moments of joy. It had been like a conscience to him. Yes, it had been conscience. He would destroy it.
The stories of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are psychological stories that can be interpreted in a number of ways. My interpretation, specifically of Dorian Gray is one in which Dorian actually arrives closer and closer to the true knowledge of his nature only to fall by that knowledge. Wilde depicts belief in our depravity and the strict measure of sin as a bad thing, something that causes unnecessary guilt, and we can only be released from this conscience by giving into sin, not killing it. As much as I disagree with Wilde and Stevenson, I do agree with the idea that their is nothing we can do on our own to defeat our sin. Without Christ, we are Dr. Hyde and Dorian’s portrait. We are ugly and unable to do good until we lay our weapons down and accept that truth. We have one nature: we are slaves to sin, and until we accept our inability at freedom apart from Christ we will never become slaves of righteousness.