Joyce Carol Oates, whom I always knew primarily as a novelist, wrote a very interesting essay on The Portrait of Dorian Gray: 1980’s Wilde’s Parable of the Fall. In this essay, Oates zeroes in on something that I myself was struck by and upon which I would like to expand further. Before I had even read Oates’s essay, I was fascinated by the last chapter of Dorian Gray for some reason that I couldn’t quite pin down, and read it over and over again.
“Beyond the defiance of the young iconoclast-Wilde himself, of course-and the rather perfunctory curve of Dorian Gray to that gothic final sight (beautiful Dorian dead with a knife in his heart, “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage”), there is another, possibly less strident, but more central theme,” Oates claims (420), going on: ”The preoccupation with the questionable morality of the artist’s interference with life-Basil’s appropriation of Dorian’s image, for instance, for his uncanny portrait-is never satisfactorily resolved, and even the final appearance of the aging and somewhat attenuated Henry hints at another level of human concern which Wilde has no space to investigate. What the strangely moved reader is likely to carry away from Dorian Gray is precisely this sense of something riddling and incomplete.” (421)
Oates’s words made me reexamine the final chapter of the novel and gain greater insight into what I was picking up on. Dorian himself has become nothing more than a work of art, and this is what he tragically fails to realize, his final sin. This transformation in Dorian is very briefly shown to the reader in a key point which is easily overshadowed by the dramatic finale: the moment when Dorian realizes that his “good deed” was as much a façade as the rest of him. “Had it been merely vanity that had made him do his one good deed? Or the desire for a new sensation, as Lord Henry had hinted, with his mocking laugh? Or that passion to act a part that sometimes makes us do things finer than we are ourselves? Or, perhaps, all these?” he asks as he is dismayed to find the portrait unchanged. “In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness,” he decides eventually. In a previous class on French theatre of the 17th century, we studied the widespread paranoia that actors were dangerous because both they and their spectators could lose themselves in the roles they played and thereby lose any real sense of morality. Dorian has lost himself in a similar manner. Prompted by Basil’s love for an idealized image of him, and by his obsession with the painting of himself, he has devoted himself so completely to playing a role that he no longer has the ability to think as a human, in human moral terms.
What Dorian tragically never understands is that the reason the painting so uncannily resembled him is that he has become such a work of art himself: unchanging and impossibly perfect. The true supernatural twist occurs in Dorian’s character, not in the red herring of the painting. “Was it really true that one could never change?” Dorian asks himself as he reminisces. By “one” here he implies humanity, but the truth is that he can never change, because by allowing himself to “keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth”, he has effectively petrified himself, turning himself into a sort of living statue. “Basil had painted the portrait that had marred his life”, he acknowledges. But why exactly did the portrait mar his life? Because it gave him a ‘scapegoat’ on which to foist the evidence of his sins, allowing him for a long time to ignore the consequences of his actions, yes; because keeping the portrait a secret caused him to commit several sins, yes; but primarily because of the other side of the bargain: because Dorian allowed himself to abandon his humanity and become a static, unchanging work of art.
This conclusion–that Dorian himself has become a living work of art, is foreshadowed, both throughout the novel and in the final chapter. Dorian remembers the “idolatrous words” once written to him by an admirer: “The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold”. These words seem certainly more than a poetic metaphor about Dorian’s beauty; they suggest the transformation of him from a man into a luxury object, a gilded statue.
What kills Dorian, in the end, is this tragic inability to recognize what he has become. In the last chapter he frantically attempts to return to a human morality; he first believes that he can do so by ‘cleaning’ up the painting via good deeds. Once he realizes that this is impossible, as he can no longer act morally, he becomes convinced that by destroying the painting–the obvious piece of art–he will be freed: “As it [the knife] had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that it meant.” What Dorian does not understand is that there is no way to kill the “painter’s work” without killing himself as well, a piece of the art, which is exactly what happens as he stabs the painting.
Oates does not quite come to this same conclusion, though at times she approximates it. She considers Basil’s perspective, referring to the idea that art reveals the artist as much as it does the subject, as Basil himself says: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion.” Oates goes on to claim “Basil is not in love with Dorian but with his own image of Dorian, which is to say, his own “motive” in art.” (423) This is both undeniably true and points at the deeper issue that I believe is at play in the novel. Oates writes: “Basil is fated to single out Dorian for his art and by means of his art to force Dorian into a tragic self- consciousness: by appropriating the boy’s image in answer to an artistic motive he begins the boy’s destruction.” (422) The only manner in which I would differ from Oates is where the emphasis lies: the fact that Basil is in love with his image of Dorian, combined with Dorian’s vanity, leads to Dorian’s transformation into a living work of art.
Oates, Joyce Carol. “”The Picture of Dorian Gray”: Wilde’s Parable of the Fall.” Critical Inquiry 7.2 (1980): 419.