Character and Consequence: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde writes, “Each of us has Heaven and Hell in him” (164). Writers showcase the darker aspects of humanity because it is both thrilling and educational. The dimensions of a character’s soul are terrifyingly beautiful. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde explores the juxtaposition of desire and morality through the harsh realities of life. Dorian Gray, an egocentric aristocrat, sits for a portrait and finds the artist has captured him so well that his soul exists within the painting. Nothing Gray does has any consequence for him except for in the portrait. Wilde’s expert use of character development in a three stage attack against Dorian Grey warrants examination from writers because only an expert can create such depth of emotion for a cold-hearted killer.
Wilde introduces the first attack on Dorian Gray’s life with love, having him fall for an actress named Sibyl Vane (48). Sibyl is so in love, she calls Gray “Prince Charming” (70), but the love for each other supplants her love for the theatre, the performance he once exalted falls flat (85-87). After Gray cuts off their engagement, the portrait changes: “before him, with the touch of cruelty in the mouth” (94). The first change in the portrait is an opportunity for change, but Oscar does not allow his character to take advantage of it. After Gray finds out Sibyl is dead (101), Gray says: “So I have murdered Sibyl Vane…murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife” (102). The character realizes he should feel something for the loss, but he doesn’t wallow in it, instead he goes with his friend to the opera (102). This trail of action-consequence-deliberation carries over to the next scene where Basil Hallward, the artist, confronts him (112). Wilde gives the character a moment of grace by having him admit: “Basil could have saved him. But it was too late now” (124). And with each step down the path, Gray sees the mirror of his actions in the portrait: “His own soul was looking out at him from the canvas and calling him to judgement” (124). Throughout the novel Wilde shows the push and pull of the character, and it is in the self-reproaching tone the readers come to know the character deeper and sympathize with him.
Hallward takes a step further and talks to Gray about how others see him. “You have a wonderful influence. Let it be for good, not evil” (158). Throughout the story Wilde creates moments of opportunity for Gray to change his mind even as he ramps up tension, but the character continues his self-destructive path. Gray shows Hallward the portrait and what Hallward calls “the face of satyr,” Gray calls “the face of my soul” (164). Hallward wonders how it changes, and offers Gray another moment of opportunity by asking Gray to pray with him (164), but Gray responds: “those words mean nothing to me now” (165). In a fit of hatred, Gray stabs Hallward, killing him (165). Wilde could have glossed over the actual moment of death, but instead he slows down and shows the action until all Gray hears is “nothing but the drip, drip on the threadbare carpet” (165). Again, after an action, there is thought and consequence: Gray has to hide the bag and coat (167) and he thinks his action through: “Every year—every month, almost—men were strangled in England for what he had done” (167). Wilde creates a beautiful, lovely line in the next chapter: “Gradually the events of the preceding night crept with silent blood-stained feet into his brain, and reconstructed themselves there with terrible directness” (169-170). Wilde helps the character out by bringing him even further into moral conflict, having to call in an old friend who wants nothing to do with him and blackmailing him to help (174-179). But the portrait has changed again:
What was that loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands, as though the canvas had sweated blood? How horrible it was!—more horrible, it seemed to him for the moment, than the silent thing that he knew was stretched across the table, the thing whose grotesque misshapen shadow on the spotted carpet showed him that it had not stirred, but was still there, as he had left it. (181)
The act of murder is horrible, but in each character’s mind they are the hero of their own story. Wilde used this idea to explore the mind of a killer. Gray doesn’t see the body as a person any longer—he sees it as an “it” or an object that must be destroyed. He doesn’t see how the act would destroy the other friend’s life, but rather focuses only on how it will affect his—he doesn’t want to go to jail and will go to any length to stop that from happening, even resorting to blackmail.
With each step in the novel, Wilde shows the downward spiral his character is caught in. Wilde gives opportunity after opportunity for redemption, but the character won’t bite. Sibyl’s brother seeks revenge, but is shot by accident in the process, Gray doesn’t feel for the person—he only has eyes “full of tears, for he knew he was safe” (212-218). Gray revisits the portrait which has changed again: “There was blood on the painted feet, as though the thing had dripped—blood even on the hand that had not held the knife” (232). Rather than confess, Gray stabs the portrait, releasing his soul, and killing himself (232-234). Wilde didn’t want to linger on that—instead he presents the facts as he knew them and allows the reader to take or leave moral thoughts. Throughout the novel, Wilde alternates between action, consequence, and reaction; by allowing the three-stages to unfold naturally through the events of the story, he shows how to write a developed character.
This book earned 3 stars.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Tor, 1996. Print.