Wilde's portrait of subtle control

Wed, Apr 7, 2010, 01:00

Considering his leanings towards theatricality and excess, Oscar Wilde brought unexpected artistic discipline to ‘ The Picture of Dorian Gray’, this year’s choice for the Dublin: One City, One Book campaign

A YOUNG man gazes at a portrait, mesmerised by its ethereal beauty. The painting is of his face. His pleasure quickly turns to wistful sorrow, then despair. “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June . . . If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that – I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” Dorian Gray’s Faustian pact has been struck, although he is yet to realise it.

In this extraordinary Gothic parable, exploring the triumph of art over life and honour, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) reveals the dark side of his instinctive genius. The story, with its echoes of Baudelaire and Poe, is shocking and ironic. It evokes the opulent decadence of the 1890s, the society which was about to feed upon Wilde’s heart; yet his novel’s defining power lies in the brilliance of the stately prose and rich imagery. There is also the presence of an earlier Irish writer, Charles Robert Maturin (1780-1824), the first of the Irish Gothic novelists.

Initially influenced by Lady Morgan in novels such as The Wild Irish Boy(1808) and The Milesian Chief(1812), Maturin became famous with Melmoth the Wanderer(1820) in which the eponymous anti-hero sells his soul to the devil in exchange of longevity.

Just as Faust shaped Maturin, both are evident in Wilde’s novel. The disgraced Wilde later assumed the name Sebastian Melmoth as he began in Paris what would prove to be the final phase of his tragic life.

The Picture of Dorian Grayis the culmination of the Irish Gothic as mastered by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) in a genre initiated by Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto(1764). The Irish Gothic, however, was not as tied to the medieval as was its English counterpart. Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1897) drew on Le Fanu’s Carmilla and European tales of vampires extending back to Vlad the Impaler. But Wilde’s story, reflecting the cosmopolitan, is sophisticated and rooted in the time during which he was writing. It is not about the supernatural, but is instead concerned with human corruption.

Throughout the narrative Wilde sustains a precise balance between the languid wit of the bored aristocrat, Lord Henry Wotton, whose sardonic observations introduce the sinister twist the story will take, and the increasing hell of Gray’s cursed existence, which is described with a precise detachment.

Wotton first encounters Gray at the studio of an artist, Basil Hallward, who has not only recognised young Gray’s dangerous allure but has captured it on canvas. Wilde, who always suffered for love, well understood the vulnerability of the lover.

Wotton immediately seizes on Dorian Gray as a potential plaything, but Hallward is reluctant to share him, and his unease is obvious. The painter sees, what he calls, “a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction” and in the course of the conversation, Hallward emerges as a remarkable individual, the artist figure destined for tragedy.

“I turned halfway round, and saw Dorian Gray for the first time,” recalls Hallward. “When our eyes met, I felt I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me . . . ” His candid remarks have little effect on Wotton, who delights in drawing the young man away from the painter. Meanwhile, Gray has become obsessed with a lovely young actress who nightly performs scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. He wants to marry her and persuades Wotton and Hallward to accompany him to the theatre. That evening, before their eyes, her acting lacks its usual skill. She has decided that now she is loved, she no longer needs to perform other roles. Her symbolic gesture eludes Gray who, furious that she has embarrassed him, denounces her. Having adored the actress, he rejects the real girl. Later that night he detects the first signs of change in his portrait. Alarmed, he plans to seek her forgiveness, but it is too late; she has already killed herself. Gray’s fate is also decided.

Having begun life with a sweetness of nature, Gray becomes increasingly remote and depraved, sampling each evil he is offered or seeks out. Gray’s reputation descends to such depths that Hallward attempts to warn him of the offence his conduct is causing. On seeing the changes in the painting, the artist is shocked. Gray reacts violently, commits a terrible act and then demands help from a former friend, who fearing blackmail, assists Gray in concealing the crime.

In a final act of madness, the tormented anti-hero attacks the by-now hideous painting, which has become the record of his life. The portrait regains its original beauty, while its master and victim lies dead, Gray’s sins irrefutably evident in his ravaged features.

First published to some scandal in Lippincott’s Magazinein 1890 and as a novel the following year, this crafted, astutely-paced melodrama is as technically accomplished as it is imaginative, atmospheric and daring. The importance of this novel as a work of art is immense; it also provides an eerie insight into the tragedy that was Oscar Wilde.

For all the irony of his literary reputation which remains dominated by the quick fire of comedies such as The Importance of Being Earnest(1895), his artistic vision was essentially tragic. He saw the artist as the doomed lover. Hallward is Wilde although the restlessness of the tormented Gray also reflects a side of Wilde’s personality.

There is no disputing that had Wilde survived beyond the age of 46, his would have left a broader legacy. Many ironies surround him, this son of flamboyant parents – his father, Sir William Wilde was a surgeon and antiquarian with proven flair in a range of scholarly pursuits, his mother, “Sperzana” was a nationalist poet. The strongest irony of all, is Wilde’s ironic awareness. In his most powerful literary statement, the posthumously published De Profundis(1905), Wilde not only castigated his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, denouncing the younger man’s greed and ingratitude, he lamented his own waste of time and talent, “I treated art as the supreme reality and life as a mere mode of fiction.”

Considering his theatricality and excess Wilde brought unexpected artistic discipline to The Picture of Dorian Gray. Once the anti-hero recovers from his initial shock at his portrait’s subtle transformation, he enters into a perverse collusion with evil, increasingly testing his ability to sin without paying the price. Wilde presents an individual in moral free fall; moving on from mere selfishness and vanity, to depravity and murder. Many elements make it a great novel – the tension, the beauty of the prose, the power shifts, the morality – yet Wilde’s achievement, interestingly, owes equal measures to restraint and subtle control as it does to imaginative urgency.

Go Wilde in the City
  • TODAY:Killing On Peacock with Two Stones: Dorian Gray and the Downfall of Oscar Wilde. Wood Quay Venue, 7pm. Admission free.
  • TOMORROW:The Birthday of the Infanta. Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Grafton St. Mon-Sat, 1.10pm, €15. Booking: 086-8784001
  • SATURDAY: Self-Portrait Workshop for Adults. Dublin City Gallery at the Hugh Lane, Parnell Sq. Booking: 01-222-5564.
  • Oscar Wilde, Bosie, Lady Gregory, Sarah Bernhardt, Ada Leverson and Bernard Shaw promenade around the city ending at the bandstand in St Stephen’s Green, 4pm.
  • For more, see: dublinonecityonebook.ie

The new edition of The Picture of Dorian Graycosts €9.99 and is published by Penguin Classics.

It is this month’s choice of The Irish Times Book Club. See: irishtimes.com for more