‘For years, Dorian could not free himself’: themes within The Picture of Dorian Gray

[This is a summarized version of a short paper I wrote during my first Undergraduate year at the University of Chichester in Winter, 2011. I found this interesting to look over in terms of thinking about how my writing has developed, and also, coincidentally enough, I taught The Picture of Dorian Gray to undergraduates at the University of Sussex last week. Hope you find it interesting!]

It has been argued that late Victorian society generally regarded Aestheticism and Decadent ideology’s apparent promotion of homosexuality and the emancipated New Woman as illicit and immoral.

To a nineteenth century society in which productivity, functionality and utilitarian attitudes were regarded as social virtues, the Aesthetic endorsement of supposedly narcissistic, futile and self-indulgent behaviour – especially at the expense of society’s moral welfare – was considered insidious.

This tension is explored by Oscar Wilde in his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which can be examined in conjunction with the wider context of these key concerns present within late Victorian society.

To this end, it could be argued that Wilde’s text explores the relationship between the conventions established within nineteenth century civil society and the philosophies of the Decadent movement of the fin de siècle.

This is exemplified in several ways. Staging a story within a story, The Picture of Dorian Gray references a book, from which, it is said, Dorian cannot ‘free himself from the influence’. This is an intertextual reference to Joris-Karl Huysman’s Aesthetic text A Rebours, a work which later informed the infamous Yellow Book, a periodical associated with Decadence, its yellow cover visually associating the work inside with illicit French fiction of the period printed in a similar manner.

This corruptive book therefore operates as a literary device associating the protagonist with the existence of the Decadent movement. Its Aesthetic message also causes friction between Dorian as a fictional “reader” and the society mirroring Wilde’s Victorian “reality” within the text.

However, the reference to this meta-text also highlights the corruptive book’s position as a narrative within the narrative, and thus operates as an internalised reflection of the position of Wilde’s Decadent novel within wider contemporary society.

Therefore, in using the literary device of the corruptive book, Wilde is able to mirror the conflicting interaction that The Picture of Dorian Gray (and by extension, related Aesthetic texts and ideologies) has with the external reality of the Victorian reading public.

On both a textual and a metatextual level, The Picture of Dorian Gray encapsulates the tension that emerges following the introduction of a new movement within an established ideological framework – in this case, the introduction of Decadence into a Victorian society.

The tension between the burgeoning Decadent movement and the conventional morality of Victorian society is also made apparent within The Picture of Dorian Gray through Wilde’s situating of his characters on the periphery of contemporary society.

Exemplifying this is the novel’s commentary on the widespread belief in the the imperative nature of purpose, a metanarrative which had begun to erode in late Victorian society. This critical deconstruction was consequently reflected in the literature produced during this era. Decentralisation of humanity’s existence as key component in a divinely ordained system had been challenged by cultural upheavals during the nineteenth century, and this fracturing of belief was further challenged by the laizzez-faire philosophy of the Decadents.

Wilde is able to explore the Aesthetic rejection of Victorian values by placing his protagonists outside these social conventions – Dorian ‘escapes’ society and embarks upon ‘mysterious and prolonged absences’, the author literally displacing the central character outside respectable society.

This theme of geographical location mirroring the moral standard of an individual is explored by writer Linda Dryden, who suggests that ‘relocating the scene of horror to the metropolitan streets, the modern Gothic articulates a fear that civilisation may not be an evolved form of being’ 1.

To this end, the ‘dissolution [of the character of Dorian] is tied to the social and geographical divisions of the metropolis’2. Exemplifying this, Dorian’s double life is played out, as Wilde describes, ‘in the sordid room of the little ill-famed tavern near the Docks, which, under an assumed name, and in disguise, as was his habit to frequent’. There is a heavy implication of opium usage and indulgence with sex workers, which indicates that the Docks are not only the literal location of Dorian’s “sin”, but also a symbolic one, the locale serving as metaphysical representation of vice.

Comparisons are drawn between the cities of Paris and London in this novel. Paris is described as ‘wonderful’, inhabited by the ‘young Parisian’, the ‘hero’ of the novel, in whom the ‘romantic and scientific temperaments were so strangely blended’. London, in contrast, is preceded by negative adjectives such as ‘evil’ and ‘strange’, and rumours have ‘crept’ around the city. The text may be implying that London is the darker dual self of Paris, a metaphor for Dorian and his portrait. If Dorian is represented by Paris, the centre and the embodiment of Decadence, then London signifies the portrait, and therefore may be interpreted as the insidious evil which poisons the protagonist. As Dryden argues, ‘it is sometimes the city itself that creates its Gothic monsters out of the very conditions of modern metropolitan life’3.

Tensions between ‘correct’ nineteenth century behaviour and Decadent ideology can be further elucidated by examining the formal structure of the The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s novel, as a recognisably nineteenth century text, can be said to be exemplary of Decadent writing in form, in addition to featuring many linguistic devices idiosyncratic to the genre of the Gothic novel. Exemplifying this is the classical linear plotline juxtaposed against playful linguistic features such as the various uses of repetition used in this extract – ‘He never knew – never, indeed’, ‘It was with an almost cruel joy – and perhaps in nearly every joy’, ‘from time to time’, and ‘more and more’. Another feature of the stereotypical Gothic novel is the experimental use of description contrasted with structured narrative. An example of this is Wilde’s lack of alliteration – ‘the grotesque dread of mirrors’, ‘romantic and scientific temperaments’, ‘quicken his sense of pleasure.’ The varied and exotic use of conflicting consonant sounds enhances the reader’s experience of the language, creating an involvement with the text as striking as Dorian’s indulgences.

The alluring artifice of Wilde’s language is apparent even in a description of something detestable – ‘He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth’. By juxtaposing the adjectives ‘crawling’ and ‘sensual’, Wilde creates a conflicting ambience of macabre but captivating curiosity. Wilde’s use of sibilance – ‘sordid and sensual’ – is alluring, perhaps appealing to a stifled Victorian audience, as it does to audiences today. However, some critics disagree with this theory – Jerusha McCormack’s book on Wilde states that while ‘almost everyone knows the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray, very few have read it. The talk flourishes as modern myth while the book itself lies rotting in the attic’. Despite this contestantation, the book remains immensely accessible, even to a contemporary audience, due in part, perhaps, to Wilde’s stimulating language.

A nineteenth century text with a distinctly aesthetic form; The Picture of Dorian Gray encapsulates the tension between the era’s conventions and avant garde movements.

The Aesthetic indulgence in the indecent relates to the movement’s fascination with the concept of the ‘fin de siècle’. The themes of ennui, the Fall of Man, and the inevitability of the abyss were frequently explored in Aesthetic writing. This is embodied in this extract from the novel: ‘they wondered how one so charming and graceful as he was could have escaped the stain of an age that was at once sordid and sensual.’ The fin de siècle phenomenon gave way to theories about the ‘degeneration’ of the species, the pessimistic Darwinian concept of the devolution of the species. The Victorians, living in an age of industrialisation, exploration, and invention, felt that the human developmental zenith had been attained, and that digression was inevitable. This was also heavily influenced by Freud’s pioneering influence on the field of psychology, which impacted upon the Victorian metanarrative of national unity, resulting in a preoccupation with the concept of the ‘divided self’.

The anxiety of degeneration was mirrored in the fragmentation of British literature. Dryden states ‘with Dorian Gray [Wilde] touched a very raw nerve in the Victorian moral consciousness and found that literary prurience was not easily tolerated’4. Dorian’s dark alter ego alludes to this corroded Victorian metanarrative and the subsequent feeling of fragmentation.

The text further employs the use of representational literary devices to create a typical Gothic ambience – this is exemplified through use of symbolism in the form of the paradox of a mirror or portrait, which represents the conflict of self. For example, the Parisian gentleman in Dorian’s book suffers from a ‘grotesque dread of mirrors’, denoting the irrationality of the character’s revulsion, reflecting the absurdity of Dorian’s narcissism. This is also represented by Dorian’s tendency to ‘stand, with a mirror, in front of the portrait that Basil Hallwood had painted of him, looking now at the evil and aging face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass’. Craft explains this paradox thus: ‘only with two reflections can Dorian’s enjoyment counterpoise images of his enduring beauty against those of his emerging ugliness.’ Craft’s explanation sufficiently explains Dorian’s motivation for this exercise, but does not go as far as to explore the sadomasochism of his condition. The twisted pleasure he receives from viewing his own soul rot suggests a potentially sadistic nature, which in its essence reflects the Aesthetic delight in the abyss.

Similarly, the text contains symbolism in the form of the ‘lock and key’ metaphor, the figurative implications of which are complex. To turn the key one way, we entrap. To turn the other, we release. It is stated that ‘he would creep upstairs to the locked room, open the door with the key that never left him.’ This indicates the paradoxical conflict between the two opposing binary powers of the ‘lock and key’, reflecting Dorian’s need to conceal his painting, but even more revealingly, through his inability to disassociate himself with it. Roman mythology used key iconography to symbolise the two -faced God Janus – a metaphor for Dorian’s alter ego. As Dryden states, ‘the secret locked in a forgotten room or attic is a Gothic convention that Wilde now uses to expose the pain of growing up, of aging and of self-recognition.’

This concept of concealment is apparent in earlier texts of the Victorian period. The theme of secrecy and obscuring reality echoes the character of Bertha Mason, the mad wife locked in the attic in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Dryden states that ‘the hidden secret at the top of his house, the disfigured portrait, is a Gothic convention’ – both Bertha and Dorian’s portrait serve as devices, representing the ‘evil other’ of the protagonist of the novel. As the artistic practise of Realism no longer effectively represented the fragmenting British sense of ‘self’, Dorian’s dark double reflected the tension created by the concept of the divided personality. Society’s apprehension with its own fractured, rapidly altering state of being is explored in other examples of Gothic literature of the time. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for example, embodies this concern, and also employs the metaphor of the lock and key – as Dryden suggests, ‘locking the door and pocketing the key, Dorian follows in the footsteps of his literary predecessor Jekyll by hiding his guilty secret…the double life of the aristocrat is fictionally figured in the secret behind the closed door’ . The key is also representational of initiation, particularly into wisdom. In Wilde’s novel, it is stated that ‘the more [Dorian] knew, the more he desired to know. He had mad hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them.’ Dryden states that ‘Wilde employed the conventions of the Gothic, but for a serious purpose: to explore the limits of morality in the contemporary world, and to expose the dangers of ‘unnatural’ desire.’2  As an archaic symbol for knowledge, the secret that is locked away provides the perfect metaphor for Dorian’s unquenchable thirst for unknown.

The novel provides the reader with insight into both viewpoints of the Decadence issue – the supposedly questionable ethical connotations of the Cult of Beauty, juxtaposed with the concerns of the late Victorian society. Ultimately, the questions raised by the text do not deviate far from concerns of modern life, and this enables the reader to question and comprehend the novel’s definitive message and the mirror it holds up to contemporary British society.


1.Linda Dryden, Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles: Stevenson, Wilde and Wells, (Gordonsville, VA, USA: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 32.
2. Ibid, 73.
3. Ibid, 32.
4. Ibid, 4.

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