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Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the story of corruption and how it can easily spread. It focuses strongly on art and decadence and it definitely alludes to degeneration and decay throughout. Characters, especially Dorian Gray, often focus on beauty as the leading quality in the world. He also forms a double life, much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in the sense that has a more civilized public life with a malicious, corrupt secret life full of sin. One of the major gothic topics displayed in this text portrays civilization’s lapse into corruption and barbarism while seeming still civilized on the surface.
The story begins with Basil Hallward, a somewhat successful artist, painting a portrait of Dorian Gray. Basil completely worships the beautiful, pure, young Dorian Gray, and in fact even admits it to his close friend, Lord Henry. Basil paints such a vivid picture of Dorian that he convinces himself that he has put some of his own soul into the piece. This alludes to the somewhat supernatural qualities of the painting. Basil explicitly explains that he doesn’t want Henry spoiling Dorian Gray, but nonetheless fails to prevent the two from meeting. Lord Henry immediately starts exerting his infectious influence on Dorian Gray.
Dorian is astonished at how beautiful he looks in the portrait, but instantly starts to panic with his newfound Lord Henry outlook: “‘Lord Henry Wotton is perfectly right. Youth is the only thing worth having. When I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself’” (26). After meeting Henry, Dorian sees the portrait as a mockery and immediately wishes for it to age and decay in his stead. This incident marks the beginning of Dorian Gray’s downward spiral into corruption and malice. Another intriguing detail to note about this quote relates to its foreshadowing content.
Dorian mentions killing himself, which he ultimately does at the conclusion of the plot. He attains everlasting youth and beauty and still ends up slaying himself, only to return to a decayed hideous form. Dorian Gray’s first major act of tyranny pertains to his first love, Sibyl Vane. Sibyl Vane dazzles her audience and captivates Dorian Gray with her marvelously whimsical performances on the stage. Dorian becomes infatuated with her acting as an art, rather than her as an actual person. Sibyl, much like Dorian prior to corruption, is innocent and naive towards real life and real emotions.
She lives her life through the stage and feels more alive as her characters than she does in the real world. “‘Dorian, Dorian,’ she cried, ‘before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. ‘” (74). After coming into contact with Dorian, she realizes true love and begins to see her “true” world on the theatre as nothing more than a farce. Her realization of authentic emotions corrupts her art and she no longer possesses her “beautiful” eminence. The corrupting taint that eventually encompasses the life of Dorian Gray begins to manifest itself with the ruining of Sibyl Vane.
Sibyl’s inability to continue her marvelous performances on stage infuriates Dorian Gray and he breaks her heart by basically calling her worthless. He leaves the girl with nothing but his harsh words. This devastating incident causes Sibyl Vane to commit suicide, and the first stain of degeneration that should have marked Dorian Gray, shows up on his portrait instead. The Picture of Dorian Gray contains several interesting incidents of foreshadowing. Basil remarks to Lord Henry quite early on in the story that Dorian’s good looks will most likely cause severe tragedy in the future. “Indeed, I should be sorry to look like him.
You shrug your shoulders? I am telling you the truth. There is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings” (7). Obviously this premonition by Basil comes true as Dorian’s looks eventually become the sole driving motivation for his vindictive actions, and eventually drive him to self-destruction. The other intriguing note is that Basil claims to have put himself in the portrait of Dorian Gray. Thus one could derive that this indicates a similarity to Dorian and could explain his demise as well.
Another part of the novel that seemed so dreadfully obvious that I almost pinpointed its exact occurrence, pertains to Basil’s untimely murder by Dorian Gray. The story reveals on page one that Basil would most likely be murdered, and since Dorian Gray is the protagonist, I assumed that he would be the executioner. “… Basil Hallward, whose sudden disappearance some years ago, caused at the time, such public excitement, and gave rise to so many strange conjectures” (1). Oscar Wilde would not have put this line into the text if we were meant to presume that Basil would eventually pass away peacefully due to old age.
A sudden disappearance in a gothic story typically alludes to a murder or death. As for the actual assassination scene in the novel, Wilde spent time describing the particular night just prior to the incident, as a cold, foggy night and mentions that Dorian tries to avoid interacting with Basil in several ways. This attempt at avoidance already brings about a sense of tension. Once inside the mansion Basil repeatedly irritates Dorian with preaching which helps to increase the anxiety. Basil reveals that he was meant to catch a train to Paris later that night and points out that he has missed it.
This provides Dorian Gray with an alibi as well as a period of time before Basil’s disappearance will be noticed. Dorian becomes increasingly agitated until he eventually sets the series of events into motion with a crazed sensation: “A bitter laugh of mockery broke from the lips of the younger man. ‘You shall see it yourself, to-night! ‘ he cried, seizing a lamp from the table. ‘Come: it is your handiwork. Why shouldn’t you look at it? ” (129). This quote shows that Dorian blames Basil for the corruption as well as Dorian’s malicious determination to suddenly show it to him.
Dorian had always been dreadfully frightened at the notion of someone seeing the corruption of his dual life, and yet with the increased confrontation almost instantaneously determines to show Basil. Once Basil naively agrees to follow Dorian, I knew that he would soon meet his demise. No living soul has ever seen the corrupted version of Dorian’s portrait aside from Dorian, and it seemed highly likely that it was going to remain that way. Dorian Gray continually attempts to maintain a civilized front in his public life despite his increasingly tarnished dual life of sin.
The magical properties of the portrait allowed his true self to be hidden on the canvas while he paraded around in a beautiful serene guise known to the public. He continually endeavors to maintain his fraudulent civilized appearance by dressing luxuriously as an aristocrat and attending fancy dinner parties with other civilized people. And yet his true contaminated self persistently acted out in barbarous ways. He murders Basil Hawthorne in a barbaric rampage, and then attempts to cover up the entire incident by blackmailing a former colleague, Alan Campbell, whose life has been ruined by Dorian’s corrupting influence.
This wicked deed for self preservation forced upon Alan eventually places so much pressure on Alan that he eventually commits suicide, thus bringing the known Gray murder rate to a total of three. Dorian enjoys the malevolent sensation in private and feels the pleasure of his barbaric double life. Eventually Dorian Gray requires frequent trips to the opium dens of London to erase the barbaric incidents from the mind of his untainted body.
Although the corrupted incidents remain as physical memoirs on the portrait that reflects Dorian’s secret barbaric dual life, the opium attempts to wipe clean the mind of the pure, civilized life represented by the physical body that he shows to the public. When Dorian finally confronts his savage life and attempts to dispose of the portrait by barbaric means, the two lives merge and Dorian ends up killing himself via the same means as he murdered Basil. The civilized life is ended while attempting to end the barbarous life, showing which one truly prevailed.