Biblical Allusions in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian

Topics: Books

1. Introduction

“I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there.” – Oscar Wilde

Irish poet and playwright Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Willis Wilde, born in Dublin 1854, author and representative of aestheticism is often misleadingly brought in connection with the above quote. While there is no known source in his works, it is said to be adopted from Machiavelli’s deathbed dream in Etienne Bients’ Du salut d’Origene (1629). Death and decay are a common theme in Wilde’s novels and poems alongside his affiliation and approach to religion.

As son of Catholic influenced Jane Willis and Anglican Sir William Wilde he was baptized Anglican but educated Catholic. This conflict culminates in him ultimately joining and converting to his mother’s church on his deathbed. Alongside this vicissitude, Wilde joined the freemasons at his time in Oxford, traveled to Rome, met pope Pius IX and was imprisoned for sodomy and gross indecency.

His only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray deals with the moral decay of Dorian Gray, a young privileged man who is charmed into a barter for endless beauty and agelessness by transferring his soul into a portrait of him, mirroring his corrupted self as a result of his sins and immorality and ultimately resulting in his death.

This term paper will demonstrate how Wilde is using biblical references to embellish character’s personalities and reinforce the theme of uninevitable penance in juxtaposition to the new hedonism.

2. Concepts of Biblical Allusion

Biblical retelling, whether it is art, film, music or literature has been prevalent in nearly every instance of human existence for over 2 millennia.

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From Johann Sebastian Bach’s oratorios to films like Exodus: Gods and Kings from 2014, directed by Ridley Scott; “sometimes the function of fiction is to take the familiar and make it surprising. At other times stories take the surprising and make it familiar.” (Bukiet 2004) The Bible is certainly a live born to all western world’s culture. No other form of narrative has influenced and inspired more than “the book of books”. Biblical studies have helped to “appreciate the distinctive nature of literary texts and artistic forms, so that they can offer an intelligent evaluation of, say, a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch or Bob Marley’s Exodus.” (Wright. 2003.)

Speaking of allusion, it means “A figure of speech that makes a reference to or a representation of people, places, events, literary works, myths, or works of art, either directly or by implication.” (The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy s.v. “Allusion”) The purpose of allusions is to give the reader a certain depth and tool to understand the writers message, a figure of intellectual writing and creative creation. Biblical allusions often create a community or framework alongside literature, presupposing everybody has read parts of the Bible at one point or another in someone’s life which is certainly the case for western culture: it provides inheritance amongst European and American literature. When analyzing religious figurative, the authors believes certainly play a role, but they are not necessarily expression of whom. All metaphors, motifs and allusions can occur independently from authors perceptions.

As the underlying groundwork for literary studies in intertextuality, G?rard Genette provides extensive research on, formulated by himself, the “architecture of texts.” (Genette 1997) He developed 6 subtypes in textuality and divided them into implicit or explicit; covert or overt; hidden or open. One category that is relevant for studies on allusions is the Metatextuality. “It unites a given text to another, of which it speaks without necessarily citing it, in fact sometimes even without naming it” (ibid.) So when naming The Picture of Dorian Gray and it’s allusions on the Bible, their metatextual relationship defines by Picture of Dorian Gray interpreting, criticizing or explaining the Bible, not the other way around. Therefore, one text always draws textuality from another, most certainly being delimited in time. A special case of metatextuality is metapoetic reference which is

the mixed dynamics between reflection and productivity, which, situated at the limits of criticism and poetry, freely explores a combination of theory and individual aesthetic practice. These metaphoric texts may imply both syntactic experimentation and an inter-semiotic connection of the word to pictorial forms, which means that they become highly involved with aesthetic and ideological processes. (Cornis-Pope 2014:44)

That means that an author uses allusions, allegories or metaphors to intellectual or artistically refine his or her texts to not only layer reference and connection but also develop language and narrative in a creative appealing way. Wild for example certainly embraces this form of aesthetic writing, including references to Shakespeare, Faust or German composer Schumann.

When considering how we interpret the bible in contrast to every other form of literature it becomes obvious that we can not make a statement about the author because the canon of the bible changed dramatically over the years and has mainly developed through oral passing. The Literary/Postmodern View on biblical hermeneutics ignore this fact and focus on the company of reader and texts by analyzing responses from real readers throughout the Christian history. (Porter 2012:48)

Very common biblical allusions can be the character Goliath in the Book of Samuel: “And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.” (1 Samuel. 17:4) In contemporary literature Goliath can entitle a very large person, seemingly undefeatable, arrogant and underestimating his enemies but in the end overcome by a prudent underdog.

Judas, a disciple of Jesus, is another common figure used in literature where it stands for the deceiver that betrays his friends for his own benefit alongside the symbolic kiss that reveals Jesus to the roman soldiers. “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” (Psalm 41:9)

3. The Picture of Dorian Gray in Biblical Context

3.1 Wilde’s Relationship to the Bible

“When I think of all the harm [the Bible] has done, I despair of ever writing anything to equal it.” (Wright 2010) Wilde himself was fascinated by the Bible. It was more of an inspiration for his writing than his religiousness. “How beautifully artistic these stories are!” (ibid.) He wanted to rewrite the Bible in the matter of imagination: complete stories with missing details and incorporate his own aesthetic style. In his own words “Judas betrayed Jesus because each man kills the things he loves.” (ibid.), contributing a homosexual fantasy into the Bible is certainly one of the reasons for Wilde’s reputation. Salom?, his one-act tragedy, caused a massive scandal throughout English theatre scene, partly censored and banned because its dramatizing sexual desires of Salom? and the defacing presentation of biblical themes.

However, Wilde was always considered a devoted Christian. His inner dualism of Anglicanism and Catholicism drew a thread through most of his work. Aesthetic and symbolic, devout and sinful, decadent and anarchistic opposites are omnipresent in his life as well as his literary compositions. “[Christianity allows mankind to] grasp at the skirts of the Infinite. Since Christ the dead world has woke up from sleep. Since him we have lived.” (Quintus 1991) For him, religion is the start to all being.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray the main character even finds himself being drawn towards Catholicism:

It was rumored of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion; and certainly, the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize. (Wilde 1890:96)

Alongside the text Wilde covertly maintains biblical allusions that are to be examined in the following paragraphs.

3.2 Garden of Eden

The first chapter opens with a colorful portrayal of Basil’s studio and the adjacent garden. “The studio was filled with the rich odor of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.” (Wilde 1890:1) It is a prelude to the process of making, as well as it is in the bible: “And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so. (Gen 1:11) The lilac as a symbol of innocence and virginity occurred multiple times in the first chapter “the heavy lilac-blooms” (Wilde 1890: 5) as well as in chapter two “the spray of lilac fell” (ibid. 21). In chapter thirteen, the lilacs appear for the last time:

“My dear boy, you are really beginning to moralize. You will soon be going about warning people against all the sins of which you have grown tired. You are much too delightful to do that. Besides, it is no use. You and I are what we are and will be what we will be. Come around to-morrow. I am going to ride at eleven, and we might go together. The Park is quite lovely now. I don’t think there have been such lilacs since the year I met you.”

The lilacs hereby promote Dorians morality, a sign of unspoilt beauty but then seem to disappear with his downfall. The Song of Solomon also provides symbolism that Wilde has drawn inspiration from:

Lilacs are exuberantly purple and perfumed, and cherry trees fragrant with blossoms. Oh, get up, dear friend, my fair and beautiful lover – come to me! Come, my shy and modest dove – leave your seclusion, come out in the open. Let me see your face, let me hear your voice. For your voice is soothing and your face is ravishing. Then you must protect me from the foxes, foxes on the prowl, Foxes who would like nothing better than to get into our flowering garden. (Song of Solomon 2:13-16)

In Wilde’s play Salom? there is also a line naming lilac “I am amorous of thy body, Iokanaan! Thy body is white like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never mowed.” (Wilde 1893:11)

When Lord Henry saw Dorian for the first time he says: “One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him. He was made to be worshipped. (Wilde 1890:15) This is also an allusion to James 1:27. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27) Beauty and Aesthetics are like a religion to Lord Henry and Basil that is to be worshipped. They are suggesting Dorian as a perfect divine creation. Like Adam, the first man in creation, Gray is given unlimited opportunity in life with his youth and freedom but chooses to disobey and live in sin without guilt or self-denial. The biblical serpent, symbol of devilish desire, is Lord Henry in this case. He puts doubt in Dorians mind, making him face his own dreadful nature in his only few years of youth. Basil represents Dorians good force. He realizes Lord Henry’s bad influence and tries to push him out of the garden. Like Adam, Dorian also receives heavenly messages in the form of Basil by

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Biblical Allusions in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian. (2019, Dec 14). Retrieved from

Biblical Allusions in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian
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