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The Picture of Dorian Gray – A Gothic Masterpiece

Updated on March 6, 2015

Gothic literature was revived in the 1880s through the works of Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, Arthur M. and Bram Stoker.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde first appeared as a serial story in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. It was made into a novel and published one year later. The book still preserves the dainty scent of Romanticism, yet it takes a bold step into the gloomy realms of the Gothic literature. Murder, irrational feelings and emotional states, supernatural events, psychological torments, and a strange, bleak, atmosphere – these are all elements of the Gothic fiction.

The novel tells the story of Dorian Gray, a handsome and pure-hearted young man who becomes the model of a painter, Basil Hallward. Tempted by the devilish Lord Henry, he changes his ways. His moral metamorphosis is interestingly reflected in his portrait, which starts showing the scars of his sins. In the end, the initially-candid face takes on a hideous expression. Years pass, but Dorian maintains his youthful appearance, while indulging in epicurean delights and all sorts of sins. Paradoxically, the secret of his remaining a young man is deeply connected with his soul’s degradation.

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The Atmosphere

The atmosphere of the novel is one of terror, fear, uncertainty and an alluring sense of mystery. The room where the painting is hidden is flooded with suspense each time Dorian decides to glance at his portrait in order to check for any changes that might have spoiled it. The coverlet draped over it thickens the mystery even more.

The Murders

The murder of Sybil Vane marks the beginning of Dorian’s mischievous wanderings, on his way to desperation, loneliness and madness. It also suggests his acceptance of evil as an inseparable part of his being. Sybil is a beautiful, talented girl; she mirrors the pure, untainted part of his being. Dorian relates to beauty and art in a snobbish way, mistaking love for talent and shallow beauty. The destruction of his innocence is followed by a series of other disrespectable deeds, culminating with the murder of Basil – the climax of Dorian’s moral degradation

Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Grey
Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Grey

Abnormal Psychological States

Dorian Gray’s mind is poisoned by the yellow book Lord Henry gives him. His “mentor” makes sure that Dorian meets the “true lust for life”, by constantly misguiding his steps. Dorian soon engages in theft, murder, drugs and debauchery. Towards the end, he roams the streets of London like a lunatic, drenching his sorrow in liquor, opium and women, tormented by guilt and fear. With opium and darkness blurring his judgment, Dorian closes the door in the face of sanity and seals it.

A powerful conflict lies at the basis of the protagonist’s mental decay. Dorian Gray is torn between beauty and ugliness, pleasure resulting from art, and art resulting from distorted passions, between spirit and matter. At the upper-class gatherings, Dorian is charming, cool and even sarcastic. However, this is merely a mask which hides a deep anxiety. Even if he appears to have sold his soul to the devil, he is not entirely separated from his primordial good nature.

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The Relationship between Art and Morality

Oscar Wilde was inspired by a new aesthetic movement in art, called “art for art’s sake”. He believed that art should be lived and undressed from morality or any didactic function. Lord Henry often speaks about the “inefficiency” of morality. His life experience has proved him that art and life can only be enjoyed if they are sprinkled with a few evil spices. Paradoxically, happiness (illusionary as it may be) and self-fulfillment are achieved through wrong-doing. Inflicting pain and disappointing others is morally wrong, but it is considered the only means to attain genuine satisfaction. Ironically, the novel is precisely a moral one: the protagonist eventually pays for what he has done. Lord Henry’s philosophy is not so rewarding after all.

Who do you think is to blame for Dorian Gray's moral decline?

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Themes

The supremacy of youth and beauty is a theme illustrated by the main character’s eternal youth over the years and is linked to Wilde’s philosophy: art serves no other purpose than to offer beauty. By being young and beautiful, Dorian can enjoy all the forbidden pleasures of life.

The purpose of art. The Victorians believed that art could serve as a means of education, but aestheticism attributed other purposes to it: art can also be meant to shock, and even ugly things can appear as beautiful. Dorian’s destiny is influenced by two works of art: Basil’s painting and Lord Henry’s yellow book.

The superficiality of society. The values of the Victorian society are satirized in Wilde’s novel. Lady Narborough is a representative of the Victorian elite. Her observation at one point in the novel suggests the fact that Dorian lives in a society that prizes beauty above morality: “You are made to be good. You look so good.”

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Symbolism

The coverlet hiding the painting represents Dorian’s refusal to admit his guilt. Interestingly, it is purple – a color that unites blue (sadness, despair) and red (passion, life).

The Yellow Book symbolizes the maleficent influence that art can have over an individual. The young man faces Lord Henry’s mysterious, yellow book and discovers the forbidden pleasures among its pages. Slowly but surely, new perspectives on life emerge in the naïve boy’s mind. After being shocked and puzzled by the content of the book, Dorian starts to wonder more and more about the possibility of accomplishing the ill deeds himself.

The laburnum (a small tree with yellow flowers) hints at Dorian’s sins, since all parts of the plant are poisonous.

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    • Teodora Gheorghe profile imageAUTHOR

      Teodora Gheorghe 

      3 years ago

      Thank you, Mel! It's never too late. :) Oscar Wilde is a great writer, I'm sure you'd love his work.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      3 years ago from San Diego California

      This is definitely on my "must read" list. I am ashamed to say I haven't sampled any Oscar Wilde yet, and I intend to rectify this. Great hub!

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