“The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, appeared for the first time as a novella in “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine” in 1890. At the moment when the novel was first published, the response was nothing but negative. Many newspapers and literary magazines criticised the novel calling it immoral. The St. James Gazette referred to it as the “garbage of the French Decadence” while the Daily Chronicle called it a “poisonous book”.
The book tells the story of Dorian Gray, a young man who decides to make a Faustian bargain in order to gain and preserve eternal beauty. The book exposes many major themes and symbols. As a result, The Picture of Dorian Gray can be interpreted as classic gothic horror fiction in which the reader can easily spot the Narcissus myth and aesthetic theme of duplicity, a major theme in gothic novels, known as the Doppelgänger theme.
Dorian Gray, the protagonist of the book is presented in the first chapter as “a young man of extraordinary personal beauty”. The picture as it is presented in the first chapter reveals Dorian’s first and true image: he is young, handsome, and innocent, without stain. But Dorian Gray will not remain this way throughout the novel. He will change and not in a positive way. This is where the author brings to light the duplicity theme.
Dorian from the end of this chapter is no longer Dorian from the beginning. The reader faces in just a few pages Dorian’s transition. His naivety and his purity disappear when he realises the importance of his beauty and the fact that he will lose it someday. Henry Wotton manipulates his mind and turns him into a person ready to sell his soul in order to preserve his beauty. Not only does he forget about his friend, Basil, but he changes his nature. In the moment when he sees the portrait, he is as fascinated by himself as Basil is and acts as if this is the first time when he sees himself.
While a beautiful forever-young man in his public life, Dorian is presented as a debauched, violent, murderous person who lives guided by a book given by his friend Henry Wotton and approaches life in the most hedonistic way possible.
From the moment when he sees the portrait, he begins to change. He follows Henry’s ideas of the new hedonism, of the aesthetic movement and starts living his life accordingly, while Henry says that Dorian is for him, an experiment on which he applies his theories. Art is presented in contrast with life. Lord Henry advises Dorian to live his life as if it were a form of art. He tells him to look at Sybil’s death as if he were a member of the audience of a play, detached, without carrying. He even falls in love with Sybil’s characters, with her interpretation, not with her.
Dorian loses his innocence but, despite the fact that his souls are unceasingly deepening into the negative way of living, he is admired for his beauty and intelligence, for his talents and plays with people’s mind making them believe that his appearances are similar to his inner self.
In order to construct the other self, Oscar Wilde refers to gothic imagery. He creates the key element, the picture and develops its image as one of the different characters of the book. The first gothic element of the book is the Faustian Theme. Dorian unconsciously sells his soul to the devil in order to obtain eternal youth and beauty. Henry Wotton plays the part of devil’s advocate, devil’s representative without even knowing in. He inspires Dorian to make the fatal wish: the paint should age instead of him. The fact that the portrait ages in Dorian’s stead cannot be logically explained, thus it is the supernatural element which leads to the development of the plot. From the very beginning presented as a fantastic element, the picture represents the embodiment of Dorian’s other self. His sins, his mistakes, and his true nature are revealed on the canvas. Knowing that Dorian wants to protect his true image, wants to hide it.
The moments when Dorian is possessed by his other self, abound with gothic elements. The scene of the murder is presented in a dark atmosphere with the lap casting shadows on the wall and the blowing wind. Dorian kills Basil only after he looks at the portrait and seems to be captivated by something hiding beneath the canvas. Violence breaks through and he stabs the painter without any sense of remorse. The way in which he decides to make the body disappear is a result of his mad ego that seems to have no feelings and to be totally detached from the realist life. Science is here presented it its negative part. With science, Dorian finalises the murder, making the evidence disappear forever.
The atmosphere in the next chapter is completely different from the one in the previous. The life at the countryside seems idyllic but Dorian is uncomfortable here because he feels he is stalked by James Vane and he soon finds out that he was indeed following him because James’s corpse was found lying in a bush. James’ presence is like a ghost haunting Dorian throughout the novel, he is the embodiment of Dorian’s conscience which is unable to kill him because is not as powerful as he is.
At the end of the novel, Dorian is still incapable of looking for absolution. He is still proud and has not changed at all. He learns that Alan Campbell has committed suicide and for a moment blames himself for this. Feeling remorse for the death of his soul, Dorian goes into the attic to look at the portrait. He dismisses his crimes saying that the death of Basil was inevitable and Alan’s was his own will, he cannot be blamed for it. He is unable to redeem his soul because he is incapable of admitting his sins. Worrying that his crimes might be discovered, he decides to destroy it. He stabs the picture with the same knife he killed Basil but, instead of the portrait, he is the one who dies.
Oscar Wilde reveals in this novel the fact that behind beauty can be something evil, and that people should not let themselves guided by the appearances, so as Dorian Gray says “each of us has Heaven and Hell in him”.