“Behind every exquisite thing that existed, there was something tragic. Worlds had to be in travail, that the meanest flower might blow.”

‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, by Oscar Wilde is a gothic philosophical novel which tells the cautionary tale of the young, rich and beautiful Dorian Gray, who after artist Basil paints, becomes induced with the fear of aging from Lord Henry, who, by explaining that he will eventually grow old and withered, negatively influences Dorian. This causes Dorian to make the selfish decision to pledge his soul and everything he has, to have the painting age instead of him, thus messing with the nature of humanity and sparking a chain of horrible events such as betrayal, corruption and obstruction of the lives of others. In this report, I will be explaining how Dorian displays an illusion to put others in a trance and become oblivious to his true vile personality and also how foreshadowing, one of the elements of a gothic novel, is used to warn the reader of the eventual impending doom of the novel’s characters.

Dorian Gray expresses two distinct contrasting personas, one he flaunts for the world to see and the other the heinous shadow. Dorian is portrayed as a dislikable and ill-fated character by Wilde but at the same time is a captivating and charismatic character who is liked by his many associates. An illusion is displayed by Dorian in that he casts a spell over others by presenting shimmering charisma and beauty, this shielding others from seeing the dark side of the moon. Dorian is very beautiful and many look up to him, especially Basil who develops an obsession with this powerful and ideal representation of a man. Though he is portrayed by others as being the perfect human being, in reality, he is revealed to be very foolish and immoral with his decisions. Throughout the novel, Dorian displays the illusion of being beautiful and superior, this persuading others to adore him and hide his truly ugly, selfish and insecure nature which lies beneath his flawless exterior. Basil’s admiration for Dorian is made clear as he projects his devotion to him, uttering “Dorian, from the moment I met you, your personality had the most extraordinary influence over me. I was dominated, soul, brain, and power, by you… I worshipped you. ” Basil believes Dorian has dominance and a powerful positive influence over others, conveying great intellect and beauty which Basil worships with pleasure. However, this persona merely acts as a mask to hide his less attractive traits which he is quickly revealed to hold (through the painting’s projection of his soul and through his selfish acts), unbeknownst to others who are only conscious of how he presents his beautiful exterior and personality. This ugliness is shown from the beginning when he enchants the curse which brings destruction to his lives of others and himself, “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June… If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young and the picture to always grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”. This utterance of such selfish words shows the true self-centred and insecure nature of Dorian in that he would rather sacrifice the lives of all who reside close to him, as well as his soul, in order to obtain eternal youth. The heinous and horrific projection of his soul through the slow rotting of his self-portrait reveals to the reader his true nature and breaks the illusion that Dorian desperately tries to maintain. Wilde cleverly chooses to have certain characters such as Henry, Basil and Sybil Vane hyperbolic descriptions of Dorian to really emphasize that others see him as this powerfully beautiful figure. Wilde allows the reader to develop a disliking of Dorian through his ignorant decisions and carelessness of his obstruction of other’s lives but at the same time become interested and invested in the protagonist’s inner conflict. This is shown after Dorian murders Basil when he instructs to Alan “What you have got to do is to destroy the thing that is upstairs—to destroy it so that not a vestige of it will be left…You, Alan, you must change him, and everything that belongs to him, into a handful of ashes that I may scatter in the air.” Dorian has now lost all poise and order of his life, now cracking under pressure over the strain of maintaining his secret and becomes careless for all but himself. He calls his once dear friend who cared and admired him immensely a ‘thing’ and speaks of him as a mere nuisance which must be rid of, not showing any remorse for his decision and blames Basil for painting his cursed portrait. This decision to murder Basil made me very angry yet curious as to why Dorian has become so despicable and this invested me into the story and made me more interested in the character. This action now clarifies his true vile nature, this point in the novel, in particular, making me develop an immense hatred for Dorian, I personally being furious with Dorian’s selfishness. I became so angered by Dorian that I felt excited and eager to reach the end when his foreshadowed death would occur and for Dorian to get his just desserts.

The literary device of foreshadowing is heavily used throughout the novel to foretell that something bad will occur later on in the story. There are many instances which foreshadow that Dorian will experience negative repercussions for his selfish wish, these instances are typically used to foretell a future death. One instance is whilst Sybil Vane is performing as her many Shakespearean characters on stage most of which end up dying before the curtains close, these include such heroines as Desdemona (in Othello she is murdered by her husband) and Cordelia (in King Lear she is hung and separated from her lover). However, the character which she plays when Dorian first sees her is Juliet from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. Wilde effectively alludes to the well-known play in order to foreshadow that Dorian and Sybil’s relationship will be short lived and that it would end in tragedy just like the relationship between Romeo and Juliet. Ultimately the foretelling passage “One evening she is Rosalind, and the next evening she is Imogen. I have seen her die in the gloom of an Italian tomb, sucking the poison from her lover’s lips…She has been innocent, and the black hands of jealousy have crushed her reedlike throat” becomes true, Sybil committing suicide after losing Dorian just like the many heroines of Shakespeare’s tragedies she played having died after losing the love of a man. I think that the death of Sybil is directly compared to the numerous deaths of Shakespeare’s heroines, one particularly similar character portrayed by Sybil being Ophelia, as in Hamlet she kills herself due to Hamlet’s impelling demands, which is parallels to the Dorian demanding a great performance and after not receiving this, despises and leaves her which causes her to kill herself. Another instance of foreshadowing occurs as the picture has been causing conflict between Henry and Dorian, Basil was about to tear the painting when “…with a stifled sob the lad leapt from the couch, and, rushing over to Hallward, tore the knife out of his hand, and flung it to the end of the studio. “Don’t, Basil, don’t!” he cried. “It would be murder!” This foreshadows how Basil was murdered due to the painting’s evil influence over Dorian and how Dorian dies by stabbing the painting. Dorian also begins to sense an omen and believes that he can feel death’s presence which foreshadows that he will eventually die before the novel ends. Wilde develops a tense and unnerving tone due to the foreshadowing of Dorian’s death towards the end of the novel and as a result, I personally was on the edge of my seat, in anticipation of the foreshadowed outcome. I believe this effect was intentional by Wilde in order to keep me fearful and unsuspecting of how the novel will end and who will die, this captivating me and persuading me to carry on reading until I reach the final page.

I admire that Oscar Wilde effectively develops the illusion of Dorian Gray and applies the gothic protagonist element of foreshadowing, as well as effectively use other gothic fiction elements such as tone, mood and the possible supernatural presence of this ‘aging portrait’ to give the reader an intense discomfort. I believe that by having Dorian being both beautiful and ugly and by being surrounded by negative foreshadowing devices, the character is effectively portrayed as being dis-likable, interesting and ill-fated.

Join the conversation! 1 Comment

  1. Lucas,

    I want to see you move away from language like “descriptor” when describing the traits of a gothic protagonist. Our class has a set of descriptors that we look for but they are not the be all and end all of a gothic protagonist.

    There are common traits that you look for when identifying the gothic protagonist. In class, we have identified six of these traits. They are not requirements or definitions of the gothic protagonist.

    The first trait you are outlining is not accurate. The trait applies to a characters personality, not to the image they present to the world vs. their actual persona.

    You are going off track with your second paragraph and exploring the foreshadowing that surrounds Sybil rather than Dorian.

    Mrs. P


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"Writing gives you freedom to create your own world, your rules, your characters and your imagination"