Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was written during the years that Wilde was writing fairy tales and short stories such as “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (1887), which the novel resembles in milieu. Aside from the fairy tales and “The Canterbury Ghost” (1887), the novel is his only prose fantasy. His dramas appeared from 1892 onward, and The Picture of Dorian Gray prefigures them in its witty dialogue and portrait of London social life.
The first critical question raised about The Picture of Dorian Gray concerned its morality, although, except for the murder of Basil, no immoral acts are described. Wilde stated that the story’s moral was that all excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment. The nature of Dorian’s sins is never clear, though a few hints were added after newspaper reviews attacked the original version. In the context of the book, Dorian’s chief sin seems to be a desire for experience and knowledge of all kinds.
What connection exists between Dorian’s crimes and his interest in art? Adjectives such as “monstrous,” “terrible,” “maddening,” and “corrupt” are applied with little apparent regard to their subject in the descriptions of the “poisonous book” and of Dorian’s interests and activities. Scholars have speculated that Wilde’s own underground homosexual life was hinted at by Lord Henry’s cynical statements and the vagueness of Dorian’s sins. This may have been what made newspaper critics uncomfortable. For Wilde, sin and art seem one in life and in literature; the Platonic ideal of beauty can be worshiped as easily in a young man as in a beautiful object.
Other criticism has focused on influences, especially the identity of the poisonous book. Wilde himself said his novel bore a resemblance to A rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans, but that resemblance cannot be pushed too far. Other strong influences are Vivian Grey (1826-1827) by British novelist and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Wilde’s great-uncle, Charles R. Maturin. Finally, Studies in the History of the Renaissance by Walter Pater, with its philosophy of living life to the fullest, was a prime source of the decadent philosophy, which Wilde exemplifies so thoroughly in Dorian himself.
In Oscar Wilde’s classic novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, imagery affects the story as a whole. One image that can be traced throughout the entire novel, is the actual portrait of Dorian Gray. This portrait in itself can be divided into three separate stages, depending on the severity of Dorian’s cruelty. As the novel progresses, these images transform from one stage to another. This successful usage of imagery makes this novel truly terrifying, but at the same time, quite enjoyable.
The first significant stage of Dorian’s portrait might be called the beautiful stage. Basil Hallward paints Dorian’s portrait in the beginning pf the novel, and, it is said to be his best work yet. The picture not only illustrates Dorian’s true outer beauty, but it also accentuates on his stunning youthful image. The portrait is given to Dorian to keep for himself to remember how lovely he looked in his youthful days. Basil and Dorian alike adore the portrait, however they have no idea of what is in store them in the future.
The next stage of Dorian’s ever changing portrait is slightly changed from the fine-looking image of the novel’s beginning. Dorian falls in love with Sibyl Vane, a beautiful and extremely talented young actress, and goes to see her perform almost every night. He becomes engaged to her and, rightly so, decides to bring his friends along with him to show off his future bride at one of her performances. Sibyl, however, realizes that she is in love, and decides that she need not act to her full potential. In fact, she performs horribly and disgusts Dorian and his friends alike. After the show, Dorian becomes furious with Sibyl and declares his love for her null and void. Soon thereafter she commits suicide and Dorian’s picture suddenly changes. Almost everything is still intact except for his smile. It has changed from the once beautiful smile, to a cruel and evil looking grin. From here on, the portrait changes from day to day in an increasingly malicious way.
The third and final stage of the portrait represents Dorian in a full fledged evil form. While the picture has been changing all throughout the novel, it takes a dramatic change when he single-handedly kills one of his best friends. Basil follows Dorian into his house and wants to see his, as he remembered, beloved picture of Dorian. While looking at the portrait in amazement and confusion, Dorian lashes out upon him in a mad rage. He stabs Basil again and again in the head for reasons no one will ever know. After this incident, Dorian’s portrait changes even more. He realizes that there is a look of cunning in his eye, along with scarlet blood stains on his hands. In closing, Dorian’ picture reaches an all time level of wickedness, and, because of this, he attempts to destroy it for good, but ends up killing himself in return.
Finally, the imagery that Oscar Wilde uses so well in Dorian Gray affects the novel greatly in whole. As the portrait changes, so does the mood and the actions of the characters. At first, when the portrait is beautiful, everyone is happy, and it seems as though nothing could ever go wrong. As Dorian’s life of crime gradually begins to accelerate, however, things begin to change. The mood tends to shift from a joyful tone, to more of a ghastly and horrifying one. This is not fully shown until the novel shifts eighteen years into the future. Rumours are constantly being spread about Dorian and his disgraceful habits while weather is constantly dark and gloomy. Another peculiar fact is that not one person dies in the novel until Dorian’s behavior begins to change. When the portrait is in its opening stages, only Sibyl Vane dies. When the portrait is in its closing stages, however, Basil, James Vane, and Dorian himself all meet death themselves. In conclusion, Dorian’s portrait changes the whole mood of the novel, and has some effect on everyone in the novel, whether it be directly or indirectly.
In conclusion, imagery plays a significant role in Dorian Gray. The one significant image, the portrait, is seen constantly throughout the novel. As the image changes, so does everything else in the story. The picture not only affects the way the characters act, but it also affects the mood in return. In closing, Dorian Gray’s portrait coincides perfectly with the mood and actions of the characters, which range from perfection and harmony to evil and cruelty.
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