Next up on the list of Gothic novels is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. I think it only fitting that it should follow The Strange Case of Jekyll and Hyde, as the two share a notable theme – mankind’s dual nature and the torment of a soul divided.
As I previously discussed, the pieces of a man’s soul in Stevenson’s masterpiece are quite literally split into two different personas – Jekyll and Hyde. In Wilde’s novel on the other hand, we see the soul divided between a man, Dorian Gray, and his portrait. Upon seeing the youth and beauty eternally captured within the painting, Dorian longs for it, rather than his own features, to alter with time, offering up his own soul as payment. Unfortunately, he gets his wish. With his conscience stripped away, Dorian is able to indulge in pleasure and debauchery without suffering the consequences of his actions, for it is his portrait rather than his physical form that bears the manifestations of his sins. However, he cannot escape his guilt entirely. The fissures in his psyche become more and more pronounced with each visit to the painting. As he obsessively watches the “most magical of mirrors” to his soul become increasingly grotesque, it becomes clear that he remains tethered to his guilt by the portrait’s constant presence.
Apart from its Gothic tone, I think the most interesting thing about Dorian Gray is the question of reality within the text – namely, the reality of the altered portrait. Does the painting really change, or is it a figment of Dorian’s imagination? Apart from Dorian himself, no one ever sees the alleged changes; his account of the portrait’s increasingly mutilated features is never corroborated. It’s not until his death that anyone other than Dorian lays eyes on the painting, only to find it in the exact same condition as the day it was completed. Which begs the question, did it ever really change at all? Is it possible the Dorian maintained a façade of purity and youth in public, thus giving the appearance that he’d frozen in time, only to drop it in the presence of the painting? Like the mysterious “damned spot” on Lady Macbeth’s hands, perhaps the changes he sees in the painting are simply projections of the guilt he’s buried within.
Whether you believe in Dorian’s eternal youth or think him mad, the fact remains that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a Gothic classic. Its delightful darkness and wicked repercussions warns us that a man’s soul is a precious thing so easily forfeit. And it reminds us of the age-old adage, be careful what you wish for . . .