The Picture of Dorian Gray and How It Relates to Faust
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel written by Oscar Wilde and published in 1890. The novel attracted much criticism from the public because of the various themes that Wilde explored. As response to the criticisms, Wilde wrote a preface to the novel that sought to exonerate his work from accusations that it depicted immorality and indecency. Despite the preface and the revision of the novel in the following year, Wilde was prosecuted in court in 1895 and charged with gross indecency due to the novel’s reference to homosexuality. However, the major themes that are explored in the novel and which Wilde himself defended in the preface indicate that The Picture of Dorian Gray has more connection with Faustian themes than the immorality that the critics of the novel discussed. Subsequent study of the novel continues to reveal its link with the ancient Faustian legends that explained how human beings established connections with the devil and committed sins for which they refused to be remorseful. In his preface to the novel, Oscar Wilde comments that The Picture of Dorian Gray was based on the Faustian themes that were well known among the educated class of his generation. As such, there is a clear relationship between Faustian legends and the novel. This paper explores the themes of The Picture of Dorian Gray as depicted by Oscar Wilde and how these themes are related with Faust. Also, the paper analyses how the novel underpins the influence that Faustian legends had on the human society and literary works that followed the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The Relationship between The Picture Of Dorian Gray and Faust
According to Kabbani (10), The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the classical contemporary stories that espouse a strong relationship with the ancient Faustian stories. The publication of the novel attracted criticism from the publishers and was the subject of numerous reviews on the moral grounds. The critics argued that the novel was a gross expression of indecency. This was despite the fact that the original manuscript was highly censored by the publisher who though that Oscar Wilde’s work was likely to influence the social morals during that time.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890. It has several themes which illustrate different forms of relationships among people. The story is about a young man named Dorian Gray who is the subject of the picture which is being painted by an artist named Basil Hallward. Because of his beauty, Dorian Gray captures the imagination of the artist who thinks that Dorian Gray’s picture can bring a new dimension to art. The painted picture forms the background of the struggle between Dorian Gray and the themes exposed in the novel.
Dorian Gray becomes obsessed with the painting and it is through the picture that he fails to see his mistakes. The meeting of the young man with Lord Henry Wotton also drives Dorian Gray’s obsession with beauty and fulfillment in his thinking. Through the picture, he gains an illusion that nothing actually matters in life apart from beauty and fulfillment. What does not occur to him is that actually it is he that is aging while the painting remains as it was painted over the years. Interestingly, even the people around him tend to think that the beauty and enchantment of Dorian Gray has not deteriorated for the last 18 years and that he is even more beautiful than he was. The reality is that Dorian Gray has undergone deterioration in his beauty since the time the painting was completed.This is revealed at the end of the novel when Dorian Gray is found besides the painting looking haggard and weary(Langbein 11).
In several ways Oscar Wilde attempts to retell the story of Faust in The Picture of Dorian Gray. For instance, temptations are placed before Dorian by Lord Henry just like in Faust upon which Dorian falls by offering up his beauty to be used a blindfold for his nefarious actions. One of the wishes that Dorian Gray expresses is to remain young, just like Faust. The act of seduction of beautiful women is done by both villains and the women in both cases tragically end their lives (Wilde 7). Both Dorian Gray and Faust are unremorseful for the death of their women. It is coincidental that the brothers of the dead women attempt to revenge the death of their sisters by trying to attack the people who are responsible. In trying to retell the story of Faust in a different context, Oscar Wilde lays side by side the events that trigger the conflict in both stories. Evidently, throughout the novel, Wilde tries to bring out several themes that are prominent in the Faust story and dramatizes the tragic events that lead to the demise of both villains. For instance, Dorian Gray tries to attack the portrait of himself that has been used as a reflection of his wholesomeness while he is gradually wasting away. Interestingly, the portrait turns back into its original form while Dorian stabs himself to death. The story ends with Dorian found dead with a rugged face - just like he has seen himself on the portrait.
Many scholars who have studied The Picture of Dorian Gray have identified a relationship between the novel and the legendary character called Faust in Christopher Marlowe’s 16th century play titled Doctor Faustus or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem entitled Faust. Ultimately, there is an element in the novel that borrows heavily from the two works. In the legend, a highly educated doctor gives away his soul to the devil with the promise that he is going to become more knowledgeable and possess magical abilities. Even though in Dorian Gray’s novel, there is no contact with the devil himself, the expression of activities like wild thinking and endless journeys that Dorian Gray makes are sufficient enough to indicate that there is an element of magical powers and pride that underpins Dorian Gray’s action. Through the people that surround him, he gets to be influenced in negative manners and seeks to undermine everyone that comes along his way. These circumstances are similar to those found in the two works about Faust. Whereas Dorian Gray does not sell his soul directly to Lord Henry as Faust does with his, he trades his soul for the purposes of having eternal youthfulness (Langbein 11).
The exposition of some of the themes such as homoerotic relationship between Dorian Gray and Lord Henry underlies the attempt of the evil forces to spoil good people and destroy their lives. Through the friendship that key characters have with each other, the fall of man is brought to light through destruction of people who are otherwise considered innocent and who otherwise are ruined by the protagonists that they meet in their lives. The two stories also explore a phobia about good or bad things. In both stories, Dorian and Faust have a kind of fear of the old age, and this fear is promoted by their advisers, who tell them that by leaving their own lives to the fullest, they will not become old but instead remain young throughout their lives (Wilde 22).
Oscar Wilde wittingly lays side by side the character of Lord Henry and that of Mephistopheles in Faust. It is through the words of Lord Henry that Dorian Gray finds himself immersed in the web of relationships and actions that ruin his life. For instance, Mephistopheles encourages Faust to pursue the desires of his heart and live his life to the fullest. It is also Lord Henry that poisons the mind of Dorian Gray into believing in his beauty and fails to recognize the debauchery he causes to others. Lord Henry is the main advisor who influences Dorian Gray to pursue an impossible mission of remaining young through actions. This later ruins him. Dorian Gray becomes full of himself and disregards other people he meets along the way. In fact, Lord Henry absurdly advises Dorian that the only way to live one’s life free of temptation is by yielding to every temptation as it comes. This is, however, a lie. The lie is told by Lord Henry to Dorian because his ultimate mission of befriending Dorian is to get the soul of the latter in the end. This is revealed in his speech when he tells the audience that he will seek to dominate Dorian and admits that he has done half of his work, whose aim is to get the soul of Dorian Gray. He confesses that he would make Dorian’s wonderful soul his own by destroying him and his beauty. The turn of events comes out ugly when Dorian kills Basil who actually wishes him a better life and leaves Lord Henry who is out to have his soul (Paulson & Eisenman 12).
The novel is built around the picture painted by the artist named Basil. After realizing that he might age and become ugly, Dorian Gray decides to sell his soul to the devil just like in the Faustian legend. Dorian wants to preserve his beauty and enchantment and allows the painting to age instead. For a long time, this illusionary mission takes place in the mind of the young man and when the artist tells him that actually he is the one aging but not the painting, he feels insulted and kills the artist. This seems to be the payment that he is making to the devil for having sold his soul to him. Dorian Gray’s wish of remaining youthful is granted albeit in his mind when he starts engaging in debauchery and sinfulness. He only sees the disfigurement on the painting and is too blind to see the fact that actually it is he that is wasting away through his evil actions. He uses the painting as a constant reminder that he has won against the forces of the evil. Yet, the painting reflects his inner wasting rather than the outer deterioration which nobody notices (Paulson & Eisenman 12).
The plot in the Oscar Wilde’s novel follows the plot of the Faustian legend. A young handsome man Dorian Gray falls in love with an actress named Sibyl, in some dingy not-so-good theatre. The woman is beautiful and enchanting and gives her whole love to the young man to the point of losing her ability to act. This is when due to the turn of events it occurs to her that Dorian Gray has never been in love for the love’s sake but because of her acting. When she loses the ability to act, Dorian Gray turns against her and refuses to relate with her again. This makes the woman commit suicide. This point exposes a direct relationship between The Picture of Dorian Gray and Faust legend. It is through love that the women in both stories commit suicide, after their supposed lovers turn against them. Just like in the Faustian legend, Dorian Gray does not feel remorseful for the death of Sibyl but continues to accumulate his sins instead as depicted in the deterioration of the picture. Even more, despite the continued gathering of the sins and other crimes like murder, Dorian Gray does not recognize his sinfulness by examining his own personality. He is only capable to see it through the picture that was painted by Basil (Wilde 92).
Dorian’s evil adventure is reflected in the way he interacts with the people he meets in his life. His obsession for beauty lays the background for his continued pursuit of debauchery and evil. For instance, when he meets the beautiful woman in the theatre, he falls in love with her not for her physical beauty, but for her ability to perform well on stage. Through his obsession with beauty, he has acquired a new meaning of what beauty is and when the girl can no longer sing, he decides to abandon her. The girl later commits suicide through swallowing prussic acid. Interestingly, Sibyl Vane also has a construed version of love because she only knows love in relation to theatre. When she finally finds true love in Dorian Gray, her stage performance fades. During the performance of Romeo and Juliet, Dorian Gray together with his friend, Lord Henry, who has introduced Dorian to hedonistic lifestyle, discovers that Sibyl Vane cannot perform better again and decides to reject her as a wife. He confesses that her beauty was in her acting. It is after rejecting Sibyl Vane and causing her to commit suicide that Dorian Gray notices that his portrait at home has changed. This leads him to believe that his wish of a youthful life has been granted and now he will have a chance to live a beautiful life while aging will only take place in the painting (Wilde 92).
The death of Sibyl Vane also brings a new dimension to the life of Dorian Gray. In the Faustian legends, the man is transformed through the love of the woman whom he later leads to death. It is this kind of obsession with a woman’s love that changes Dorian’s perspective of the whole idea of life. Like the Faustian man, he realizes that he does not need to be remorseful or apologize for any mistake he makes because he does not care. Dorian thus discovers that all that he wants in life is the lifestyle that embraces beautiful and lovely things. He makes up his mind to pursue beauty at all costs. At some point he uses his presupposed beauty when he deceives James, the brother to Sibyl Vane. He convinces James that he is not the one responsible for the death of his sister. Actually James believes him because he looks beautiful and young and does not reflect a small sign of a person who was responsible for the death of Sibyl Vane 18 years ago. This reflects the relationship that The Picture of Dorian Gray has with the Faustian legend: the villain uses deception to escape from the hand of justice. In this case, Dorian Gray manages to deceive James Vane and escapes from facing justice (Kohl 13)
Another relationship between Oscar’s novel and Faustian stories is the use of unnamed French novel that Dorian Gray reads occasionally and which is responsible for his continued evil acts. Faust also uses some influential things to poison the minds of the villain in the legend. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian’s mind is poisoned further by reading a French decadence novel that he receives from his friend Lord Henry. Ultimately, Lord Henry is also acting as an agent of the evil voice that directs Dorian’s behavior and his interaction with other people. It is he that introduces Dorian to the hedonistic lifestyle that worships beauty. And again Lord Henry gives Dorian a decadent novel that further corrupts his mind and his way of thinking (Kohl 13). From the beginning, it is Lord Henry that poisons Dorian Gray’s mind with the claim that the youthful man is beautiful so should live his life to the fullest because that beauty will soon fade away. He actually encourages the young man to live to the fullest and spend his time, “always searching for new sensations” instead of concentrating on “common” or “vulgar” activities (Langbein 3).
The Faustian legends are antique stories about people who sell their human dignity to the evil in exchange of something. One major legend involves a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange of a woman’s beauty. The ensuing events indicate that the man ruins the life of the woman completely and in the end causes her to commit suicide. One outstanding thing in this legend is the belief that the sins committed against the woman are so great that they cannot be forgiven and thus the man makes no effort to seek forgiveness. He does not feel any remorsefulness about his causing death to the woman he considered beautiful. The pride that follows as result of the man’s association with the devil blocks his perception of reality, and thus he does not dare to confess his mistakes which led to death of the woman. This is the way to prevent himself from facing the consequences of his actions. The end of this Faustian legend is that the man completely refuses to own up to the mistakes that cause the death of the woman he so much loved (Perelberg 4)
Obviously, several themes explored in the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray connect with the themes that are found in Faustian stories. Materialism and idolatry are some of the themes. For instance, when Basil Hallward sees Dorian Gray for the first time, he becomes infatuated with his good looks and goes ahead to discuss the portrait of Dorian with the amoral person named Lord Henry Wotton (Kabbani 10). It is Henry Wotton that tries to convince him to display the painting of Dorian to the public having admired the painting himself. Basil refuses to heed to Lord Henry’s demand to display the painting to the public because he has simply put in a lot of effort to come up with such a painting. Basil’s obsession with the portrait of Dorian Gray makes him to admit to Lord Henry that Dorian’s life is “on the verge of a terrible crisis” despite his becoming an epitome of fascination and wonder on the part of Basil. In fact, the fascination of Basil is so great that he declares Dorian his only source of inspiration (Kohl 9)
The theme of fascination was heavily explored in Faustian legends where people who did not care became too much attached to the material things and gave total disregard to other human beings. It is this fascination that leads some men to fall in love with beautiful women only to abandon them when they think that they no longer need them. The same fascination makes Dorian fall in love with a woman in the theatre and urges him to marry her. And it is this fascination that makes Dorian later rejects the woman after realizing that she can no longer perform as the way she used to before she fell in love . In essence, Basil is expressing curious artistic idolatry with the painting of Dorian Gray that makes him to worship Dorian secretly. Eventually, when Dorian realizes that Basil no longer holds him with high regard as he used to do, he kills him as a revenge for not worshiping him again. The killing of Basil expresses the revenge missions that are common in Faustian legends. Most men who participate in the Faustian legends later met their demise through revenge mission after they failed to honor what they had promised to do (Kohl 13).
With regard to the Faustian legends, Dorian Gray is a representation of Faust. Just like Faust who gives up his soul so that he can have eternal beauty, Dorian becomes fascinated with his portrait to the extent of committing murder to the very painter of the portrait. This way he wants to remain assured that the portrait is not aging. In the words of Faust who believes that there is nothing in the whole world that he cannot give even his soul for the purpose of achieving beauty, Dorian commits himself to admonishing anyone who seems to stand in his way of self assurance that he is the most beautiful and revered person in the society. This is the reason he takes up a woman only to reject her at his own will. Yet, the character of Faust is different from that of Dorian in the sense that it is inherent while Dorian’s is an artificial artistic character created through his beauty which the author describes as pure with a religious connotation (Perelberg 4).
Most activities that Dorian Gray performs and engages in are a reflection of Faust. For example, Dorian travels across the world through non-physical forms, illusionary elements. His journey is divided into parts so as to allow him to experience the journeys in a better way. As noted by Wilde, Dorian Gray turns out to be an adventurer in the sense that, “he would now study perfumes.... he took up the study of jewels... he devoted himself entirely to music…he turned his attention to embroideries... he had a special passion for ecclesiastical vestments… also.” Dorian Gray’s worldly desires are ignited by the poisonous pieces of advice that he gets from the amoral Lord Henry. The latter confronts Dorian and tells him that he has filled him with a wild desire to want to know everything in life. This declaration sets Lord Henry as the protagonist of evil schemes that Dorian finds himself entrapped in. It is not as though Dorian himself would have wanted to engage in evil actions were it not for the prompt of Lord Henry who introduces him to the evil schemes and wild desires that lead Dorian to committing lots of sins (Paulson & Eisenman 4).
Through influence and deceit, Lord Henry manages to gain complete control over Dorian’s feeling, his character, and behavior. This brings out a relationship with Faust whose feelings and behaviors are taken into control by Mephistopheles who becomes the chief advisor to Faust despite the fact that it is through his advice that Faust becomes indignant to the feelings of other people. The premise of influence is thus explored in both Faust and Dorian’s cases, and the propagators of the evil are those that are considered close friends to Dorian and Faust. In illustrating the similarity between Lord Henry and Mephistopheles, Oscar uses the Biblical verse which states, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and lose…”. Yet, Lord Henry does not finish the quotation so that Dorian can finish it for himself (Paulson & Eisenman 4). This exposes the fact that Lord Henry is a man who aims to intentionally destroy the life of Dorian even though he is pretending to be a friend to Dorian. The Faust’s story is also full of deceit as the main protagonist uses it to deceive Faust into becoming a hardcore player while making mistakes and failing to apologize to other people whom he hurts along the way.
In both stories, contrast is brought out between the opposing forces that seek to influence Dorian and Faust alike. In the novel, Basil as the painter of the portrait is the complete opposite of the Lord Henry. In Faust, Mephistopheles is the opposite of good through which Faust is not allowed to interact with claim that he could not find personal satisfaction in such company. Even though there is no exact figure of Basil in the Faust story, it seems to represent the existence of good by encompassing the society in which Faust is living and showing Mephistopheles as the opposing force. The good in the story of Faust is depicted through his friends who try to advise and encourage him to seek for repentance of his sins. Just like in the novel, the friends do not succeed in convincing Faust to go for repentance (Langbein 7).
Evidently, the good forces in both works of literature are defeated by the evil forces as it can be revealed in the stories. In many occasions, similar and related incidences occur in The Picture of Dorian Gray, just like in the Faustian legend. This coincidence indicates that the novel is built alongside the themes that are found in the Faustian story. Instead, Dorian is strongly influenced by the speech of Lord Henry on the benefits of leading a hedonistic lifestyle. Basil as the representation of the good voice in Dorian’s life expresses reservations to the assertions that are made by Lord Henry concerning the kind of lifestyle that Dorian Gray is supposed to lead. He in fact asks, 'But, surely, if one lives merely for one's self, Harry, one pays a terrible price for doing so?”. Still, his concerns are weighed down by the indoctrination that Lord Henry has brought to the mind of Dorian Gray. He therefore does not see the importance of seeking for repentance, like in Faust, despite Basil’s continued call that, “it is never too late to kneel down and try to remember a prayer”. In the end, when Dorian realizes the truth which Basil was telling him, Basil is already dead. Therefore, Dorian can no longer go to him and do what Basil wanted him to do in the first place (Langbein 5)
Another relationship between the two stories is the level of education that the protagonists of the stories attained. Whereas Dorian Gray loves reading books and in fact is influenced to a certain level by by some French novel, the doctor in the Faustian legend has immense knowledge in a number of areas. For instance, he seems to know everything about materialism in the world, and he is not satisfied with anything. He is thus led to the spiritual world. This is the reason why he offers to sell his soul to the devil so that he can be taken into the spiritual world where he hopes to get satisfaction (Kohl 17).
On the other hand, Dorian Gray has also acquired several knowledge skills which make him stand out of the crowd not only physically but also intellectually even though his intellectual awakening through the reading of the novel seems only to make things worse for him. He reads widely in the area of art, in which he is interested. This is because it makes him drift even further from what Basil sees as good for him. Even though the two characters are brought down through many other factors, it is arguable that books and other documents play a crucial role in bringing the two to their demise. Faust uses a book on magic that is responsible for his turning to black magic and bringing him into direct association with the devil. It is important to note that the meeting between Faust and the devil was facilitated through the book of magic that he owned. Notably, the devil finds a way of coming to Faust through the use of the book. Similarly, Dorian also owns a small book that he received from Lord Henry, and whose content he is amazed with. It is this same book that influences the way he looks at life and ignites his desire to remain youthful in his approach to life challenges (Langbein 5).
The two protagonists in the stories deal with the devil at different levels. Even though Faust is aware that he deals with the devil, he seeks his help. Dorian, on the other hand, has no idea that Lord Henry himself is the agent of the devil, who wants to take his soul away. Through the analysis of the actions that Lord Henry engages in, it is evident that he does not want to reveal his actual mission with the life of Dorian. However, the analysis of what he says about Dorian in his absence indicates that Lord Henry is the agent of the devil that has come to bring the downfall of the beautiful young man. In fact, this level of deception goes to the extent of causing Dorian to have a relationship with Lord Henry even though he is not a strict homosexual. This is self evident because initially Dorian Gray is in love with Sibyl, who he rejected following the advice by Lord Henry (Wilde 152).
Generally, Oscar Wilde uses parallelism in his writing of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is evident since most ideas and characters that he uses in his novel can be identified with those found in Faust. For instance, the belief that it is only Dorian’s heart that can be easily tainted is also found in the Faust’s story. In the novel, Oscar Wilde writes that Dorian is an embodiment of the ever present sign of the ruin that is brought upon men by themselves. Same is found in the Faust’s story where the doctor believes that whatever is going to befall him is a result of his own action and therefore he must get prepared to face the consequences of his actions. As such, it is important for the protagonists in both stories to prepare for the ultimate fate that is awaiting them contrary to their own wishes. Dorian wanted to remain young and beautiful, while Faust wanted knowledge and experience. However, these wishes cannot save them from the ultimate fate that is awaiting them and they will have to face the consequences of their actions (Kabbani 10). The fact that the protagonists have to face the consequences of their actions becomes clear when, because of his illusions, Dorian Gray kills himself while trying to attack the portrait with a knife. The portrait comes back to its original format and Dorian is found to have not only stabbed himself but grown very old and wasted. Through this kind of the ending, the victims of their selfish and personal actions are subject to justice although at a delayed time.
From the above analysis, it is evident that The Picture of Dorian Gray has a number of themes that are related with those found in the Faust’s story. The linkages between the two stories can be identified both in the behaviors of the main characters and the themes that are explored. The characteristics and behaviors of the protagonists and antagonists in the two stories can complement each other when compared. The themes relates with each other, too. The only difference is the context in which the two stories are told: one is that of a contemporary society that views such themes like homosexuality and homoerotic relationships as subversive and indecent to the society; while the other is received with nostalgia and awe. In particular, The Picture of Dorian Gray raised concerns from a number of critics who argued that the novel was an epitome of artistic immorality, and this made the author land in court and led to the charges of gross indecency. The novel was seen as subversive in the exposition of some of the themes that were not under public discussion. The narration and styles that Oscar Wilde uses are clearly linked to the 16th century stories of Faust.
The implied homosexual relationship that Lord Henry has with Dorian Gray can be interpreted as the epitome of evil in the society which the two characters live in. Interestingly, the author of the novel was in actual sense prosecuted and sentenced for homosexuality. Yet when he came out of the prison, he wrote about the life of two homosexual men whose life ends tragically. It is as though despite the status of Oscar Wilde as a homosexual man, he still considered the act of indecency worth of being punished. This is among the reasons that bring Dorian Gray upon his own demise. It is that price that he has to pay for leaving an illusionary life which does not reflect the reality of life as it is supposed to be.
The analysis of the novel has brought out some of the pertinent issues that make the story to be related with the 16th century Faustian legendary story. It has revealed that in both stories, the victim of deceptive actions of people with bad intention is the leading element that makes them to do things that they did. Evidently, even though the villains did not have remorse when dealing with their victims, it is evident that they get to regret later, as seen through Dorian Gray who notes at the end of the novel that Basil would have indeed helped him if he had listened to him. Furthermore, the relationship between the two novels is revealed in the way the evil voices triumph over the good voices. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry manages to turn Dorian Gray into a deadly person to the extent that he kills that only good voice, Basil, who was trying to help him overcome the deception from Lord Henry. In Faust, the character does not listen to the advice of his friends who urge him to look for repentance for causing the death of an innocent woman.