aust Picture Dorian Gray EssaysDorian as Faust in The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a rich story which can be viewed through many literary and cultural lenses. Oscar Wilde himself purposefully filled his novel with a great many direct and indirect allusions to the literary culture of his times, so it seems appropriate to look back at his story – both the novel and the 1945 film version – in this way.
In many ways, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a retelling of the Faust story. A temptation is placed before Dorian, as with Faust, and he falls for it–offering up his soul to get it. In fact, one of Faust’s principal wishes is also to remain young. Faust and Dorian also each seduce a young woman, then lead her to her death, as well as leading the woman’s brother (Valentine in Faust and James Vale in Dorian Gray to die in attempting revenge for his sister.
It is also a Doppelganger story, like Adelbert Chamisso’s “Peter Schlemihl” (in which Peter foolishly sells his shadow) and even more like Edgar A. Poe’s “William Wilson” (in which the narrator is tormented by a schoolchum who looks and sounds exactly like him, and which ends much like Dorian Gray, with its more sinister overtones.
Dorian Gray has a theme of eternal youth, bought at the price of one’s soul, and continued through the destruction of others, in common with vampires as well. And, of course, Dorian Gray has to be run in the mind’s eye against the backdrop of Oscar Wilde’s life, particularly his affair with the young aristocrat, Lord Alfred Douglas, which eventually landed Wilde in jail for sodomy, and pretty much ended his career.
Along these lines, the life of Oscar Wilde and his novel, Dorian Gray can also be compared to that of rock star Freddy Mercury of Queen and their song, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Here we have Oscar Wilde, fun-loving, witty, cynical, decadent kind of guy, undone by his homosexual liaison with Lord Alfred Douglas, languishing in jail for sodomy. A few years previous to this sad turn of events, he writes The Picture of Dorian Gray–about a decadent, immoral murderer, who also has homosexual relations (with various young men who die, become drug addicts, commit suicide, etc.), and who dies a horrible and disfiguring death due to his evil ways. Now, we also have Freddy Mercury, who lived a flamboyant and decadent lifestyle as a sexually ambiguous rock star. (Perhaps not so ambiguous: the group called itself Queen, for goodness sake; hiding Freddy’s sexual preferences must have been something of a grand joke). At any rate, old Freddy died a horrible and disfiguring death due to his lifestyle. We’ll never know if he picked up AIDS as a result of some sexual relation, from drugs or by some other means, but the analogy holds, in the popular imagination at least: he died horribly as a results of his “sins.” Finally, we have the character in the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” who admits he has murdered someone. He doesn’t want to die, but he’s going to anyway as payment for his sins, his crime. We hear him worrying about his early death, how he wishes he had never been born, etc. While you can’t make one-to-one equations between these various characters and people, the Angst surrounding their circumstances resonates in a similar manner.
With these themes in mind, among others, let me start with the movie. This is my second viewing, and I was watching for interesting visuals and details. I saw lots. After the opening quotation from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, we see Lord Henry Wotton, perfectly cast with that quintessential cad, George Sanders, arriving at Basil Hallward’s studio. As he gets out of the carriage, he closes up the book he’s reading”Les Fleurs du Mal”– a collection of poems deemed decadent and perverse, but one which I’ve never gotten around to reading.
Then there’s Basil’s studio, which is a fascinating study in careful detail. Basil has: a statue of Mercury (androgyny, as in Freddy Mercury), an Egyptian cat statue (which plays a large role in the movie, though not in the book), what appears to be a noose hanging above the cat statue, lots of paintings of naked ladies (decadence and, at the same time, a balance to the hints of homosexuality), and a book: “The Wisdom of Buddha” (which is Basil’s style, though not Dorian’s nor Henry’s). And he has Dorian, posing for a portrait, which also includes the cat statue.
Basil is nicely portrayed, sort of blandly likable, while Lord Henry is cynical, smug and superior, while being nastily witty. But the choice of Hurd Hatfield for Dorian is an odd one. He’s aesthetic, detached and terribly stiff – almost wooden. He’s sort of smooth, clear and unemotional. Dorian has detached moments like that, but he also has bursts of passionate emotion; I just can’t see a passionate Hurd Hatfield. Nor is Hatfield very good-looking, while Dorian is supposed to be strikingly beautiful. Hatfield is more of a Christopher Walken type, but without any of Walken’s evil charm, rather, just glassy-eyed and cold. This works fine for some limited scenes, but falls short for the overall portrayal.
But, as in the novel, we begin with the relationship between three men. They make rather an odd trio. Basil is obsessed with Dorian, who is still young and rather innocent of his beauty. Basil is jealous that Lord Henry will steal Dorian away from him, and worried he’ll spoil Dorian by making him conscious of his beauty and teaching him to take advantage of it by indulging in decadence. Basil has good reason to worry; that is exactly what Lord Henry does. He plants ideas in Dorian’s head, like yield to temptation in order to overcome it (which is an example of Lord Henry’s annoying love of paradoxes). Lord Henry also makes Dorian conscious of his beauty, robbing him of that form of innocence, as the youth in Heinrich Kleist’s “Ueber das Marionettentheater.” Specifically, Lord Henry tells Dorian: “What the gods give, they take away,” so Dorian should enjoy his youth.
This seduction of Dorian’s thinking takes place parallel to the capture and destruction of a beautiful butterfly, as a specimen. Whether the analogy is to the destruction of the beautiful Dorian, or to Dorian’s destruction of others, is left ambiguous, while the (seemingly) innocent destruction of a butterfly may have been inspired by the opening sequence of the 1944 movie Curse of the Cat People.
The first female to enter the story is Basil’s niece, Gladys, a character who is not in the novel. After a shot of a statue’s feet (a god’s feet of clay?), and a comment from Lord Henry about how women spoil relationships, little Gladys, perhaps 5 years old, bursts in upon the group of three men as they converse in Basil’s studio. She flirts with the grown men, especially Dorian, foreshadowing later relationships. She also signs a letter “G” below Basil’s signature on Dorian’s portrait, which will be a key to identifying the painting later after it has changed.
The biggest question about Gladys is why she was added to the movie. It has been suggested that “she served as a go-between in the relationship between Dorian and Basil “… the director didn’t want the relationship between these two men to get too intense or overtly homosexual, so he inserted her as a way of distancing Basil from his beloved Dorian.” (Yoshi Bird, from a post to emailprotected 14 APR 1998)
This role as “distancer” holds true, but it isn’t all there is to it. After all, Dorian wasn’t strictly homosexual; he was out ruining young women too (He was an equal opportunity destroyer), and that is the case in the novel too.
Gladys is also there to take the place of the innocent country girl in the book–the one Dorian “spares” in one of his periodic attempts to go straight (pun intended), by which I mean to reform and behave nicely. He goes off to the country to get away, he meets a sweet innocent young peasant girl, who falls for him, and he tries to refrain from destroying her by dropping her. He’s feeling pretty good about himself until he runs into Lord Henry who tells him that it’s too late: now the country girl will never settle for a simple country lad, she’ll always be hankering for a fella above her station in life and she’s ruined in that way. What a balloon-buster that Harry is!
In some ways, the addition of Gladys is a small improvement on the book. Instead of introducing some additional character, the story is tied together more tightly by having her introduced early on and related to one of the other characters. It also makes the idea of her ruin more horrible, since she is the niece of the friend Dorian murders.
I personally see both Basil and Lord Henry as being at least partly responsible for what Dorian becomes. Basil less so; he seems an unwitting and involuntary agent through which evil works. But Lord Henry is quite active along these lines, tuning Dorian in to decadence, turning him away from repentance, always there, a regular “eminence gris” setting Dorian off on the wrong path whenever possible, watching the results with amusement. And he’s such a misogynist – he knocks females every chance he gets. He is just played so well one can’t help loving to hate him.
The key scene of the story is the one in which Dorian wishes the portrait would age, while he could stay young. “I’d give my soul,” he says, little knowing the Faustian bargain he is making. This is where, in the movie, the whole business about the Egyptian cat is introduced. Lord Henry tells Dorian he shouldn’t wish such things before the cat statue. The cat is apparently the Mephistophelean agent of the pact.
However, later in the movie, as in the novel, Basil tells Dorian that he felt something odd about the portrait even as he was working on it. This would seem to work against the idea that it is Dorian’s wish alone which causes the picture to age in Dorian’s stead. This issue is left unresolved.
The Sibyl Vane story is the first critical moment for Dorian. He falls in love–or thinks he does – with a young vaudeville singer, Sibyl Vane – a very ironic choice of name. A Sibyl is supposed to see the future, while this poor creature is quite blind in her innocence. In the novel, she, like Dorian, is beautiful and talented precisely because she is innocent, unconscious of love and its vanities. But when Dorian walks into her life, she is changed, and her self-consciousness ruins her talent, whereupon Dorian loses all interest in her.
It’s also interesting to watch the jealousy of the two other men over Dorian’s (proposed) engagement to Sibyl. Basil is beside himself with unhappiness. Lord Henry just doesn’t believe it, cynic that he is, and it is he who, in the film, sets in motion the events that squash the romance.
In the movie, Lord Henry proposes a most cruel test of Sibyl. Dorian should tempt her with all the wiles and cunning of an older man, a man of power, glamour and position, to spend the night. Then, if she refuses, he should turn cold if and see if it changes her mind. If she leaves anyway, Lord Henry tells Dorian, he should run after her, apologize and marry her. If she gives in, she isn’t as worthy as he thought. At Dorian’s, Sibyl gets a hint in advance in that she thinks she sees movement in the eyes of the cat statue. But she stays on, listening to Dorian read from a book beside the cat: “Wake foul dreams of sensual life.” When he makes his proposal for her to stay on, she refuses, and almost makes it away, because she is very good. But at the last, he plays the music with which he first enthralled her, and she gives in. Next morning he rejects her horribly and cruelly for doing just what he wanted, and accuses her (in a letter) of being false to the image he made of her! What’s more, he sends money with his letter, in effect making Sibyl into a whore. How utterly evil! And it will show in his portrait.
Another note or two about Sibyl Vane and her relatives: Sibyl is played quite well by a very young Angela Lansbury. She must have been about 20 years old. Her mother in the novel is the vain one, never for a moment worrying about her daughter’s safety, reputation or heart. She thinks a man of Dorian’s station would really marry Sibyl, or make her his mistress. Mom thinks either would be a good deal. In the movie, the mother worries some about Sibyl’s relations with Dorian, but she still hopes for advantage from the liaison. In both, Sibyl won’t hear any warnings about Dorian. In both book and movie, Sibyl’s younger brother, James, (who is 16 in the book, and considerably older in the movie) is most concerned and doesn’t trust Dorian from the get-go. Personally, I view Sibyl’s mother (and to some degree also her employer) as complicit in Sibyl’s seduction; they are all too eager to “sell” her to the fine young gentleman. Only her brother truly cares what happens to her, but he is absent at the critical moment.
Two interesting details to look for in the Dance Hall scene: Look for a sandwichboard advertisement for Dr. Look, Optician, which can be seen through a small window in the door of the dance hall-like an all-seeing eye; and look for a slightly risque puppet show, with a female puppet who lifts her skirts and wiggles her “parts” at the audience.
And a note on the music: Dorian is a pianist in the movie, and he uses his music for purposes of seduction. His music is full of emotion, but it is not happy. More details: While in the schoolroom locking away the portrait, Dorian knocks over a toy knight (Sibyl had referred to him as “Sir Tristan.”) This act is symbolic of his abandonment of chivalrous behavior, or of the true nature hidden behind his image of apparent goodness. In fact, judging people’s morals based on their looks (and how misleading that is,) is a theme running through the whole story. Dorian also stabs a knife into a heart carved on an old schooldesk, indicative of his callous attitude towards love.
Another Wildean ironic twist: When Lord Henry has told Dorian about Sibyl’s suicide, he suggests that Dorian join him at the theater for a showing of “Don Giovanni”! For those who aren’t into opera, “Don Giovanni” is about an evil and dissolute cad who seduces women, often leading them to their ruin. In the end, a vengeful spirit destroys him. You just have to be educated to keep pace with Oscar Wilde – he leaves me in the dust several times.
The movie manages to translate some of this contemporary literary culture into visuals quite nicely; for example, in one scene, a character is idly flipping through a book of illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, who is probably best known for his rather decadent illustrations.
One key contemporary book is referred to at great length in the novel, but only once in the film, and then very obliquely. In both cases, though, the title is not given, but it is Joris Karl Huysmans “A Rebours.” Basil tries to get Dorian to stop reading this corrupt, evil, decadent book which Lord Henry has loaned him; in the film, Basil recommends reading Buddha instead.
When Dorian sets off on a life of utter decadence, it’s only hinted at in the movie (women he’s shamed), while it’s shown in more detail in the book (lists young men who’ve killed themselves, etc.). There is some mention of “fatal friendships” with young men in the movie, but mostly it glosses over the homosexual aspects of Wilde’s story. The book, on the other hand, provides lists of famous homosexuals, notes a cross-dresser, refers to the “Satyricon,” and mentions Dorian’s visit to Algeria. Also, Basil confronts Dorian with a laundry list of young men associated with the “hideous things that people are whispering about him.” This is the first time any of these whispered “sins” are referred to in any direct way.
Wilde also deals more directly with drugs than comes out in the movie. In fact, I can’t recall seeing anything of drugs in the movie, while in the novel, after murdering Basil, Dorian goes to an opium house to take his mind off his deeds. There he meets one of the ruined young men from his past, Adrian Singleton. This significant scene, in which Adrian reveals “Sir Tristan’s” identity to Sibyl’s brother, James, is transplanted from the opium den in the novel to a much less effective seedy bar in the movie.
Adrian is one of a group of three “other” men in Dorian’s life. His role is greatly truncated in the movie, but he does get a neat scene in which he writes Dorian’s name and address on an alleyway wall. Adrian ends an opium addict in the novel, and a dissolute drunk in the film.
A second young man is Alan Campbell, who has had some sort of secret, shameful unspoken relations with Dorian in the past. This secret allows Dorian to blackmail Alan into disposing of Basil’s dead body. Alan later commits suicide as a results of his involvements in Dorian’s dirty deeds.
James Vane, Sibyl’s brother, is Dorian’s albatross, following him, haunting him and hunting him. However, his ironic accidental death is indicative of Dorian’s corrupting influence touching all around him, even when he doesn’t personally take a hand. It’s as if some evil angel were watching over him to make sure he is hale and whole when the Devil comes to collect on his bargain. Dorian cries out to the old man not to shoot at the rabbit, just as Faust is reluctant to kill Valentine in Murnau’s silent film version of *Faust*, and Mephistopheles does it for him. James’ death, and the way Dorian is so frightened by it, is a bad omen for Dorian and reminds one of the killing the albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
In fact, the whole business with Dorian’s pale attempts at goodness is pretty pathetic: he calls out for the rabbit not to be shot, he claims he’s going to be good (to Sibyl, to the peasant girl in the book, to Gladys in the film, etc.), but these are all half-hearted at best – he hasn’t the will to turnover a new leaf or to be good.
Near the end, he reaches to set the toy knight upright, symbolic of his desire to reform, but it’s too little, too late.
The ending, when he stabs the portrait in an effort to destroy it, is very much like Poe’s “William Wilson,” which also ends with the protagonist trying to kill his Doppelganger, which causes his own death.
So Dorian, who is Faust, and William Wilson, and Peter Schlemihl, and a vampire, and Narcissus, and Freddy Mercury and Oscar Wilde all rolled into one, meets a horrible end which he richly deserves. But the ending doesn’t bring that feeling of the destruction of a horrible monster–it’s more like the tragic passing of a victim. Was Wilde trying to say something with that? Was he feeling guilty? Was he feeling self-pity? (And the worst was yet to come for him). Or was he just taking some circumstances of his own life to weave a richer yarn?
aust Picture Dorian Gray EssaysDorian as Faust in The Picture of Dorian Gray