Sophie from Blackwell’s Bookshop delves into the history of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the nature of sin and what effect it has. All in an attempt to prepare you for what’s in the basement of the Norrington Room.
Oscar Wilde’s first and only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890 and caused quite a stir. Rich in imagery and saturated with witty characters, Dorian is introduced to the reader through a painting that is underway. The artist of this painting, Basil Halward, is having a conversation with his friend Lord Henry Wooton about Dorian and he admits to Harry that Dorian is all his art to him now.
Dorian is presented through these characters to us as beautiful and full of youth; he’s called ‘Adonis’ and ‘Narcissus’. It is a crucial moment in Chapter Two when Dorian enters Basil’s studio and meets the two men. Dorian is struck very quickly with the influence of Harry Wooton. Dorian seems to become aware of his beauty and all that it could do for him with Henry’s guidance. Seized by a fit of passion brought on by a realisation of mortality, Dorian throws himself around and wishes he could remain young while the painting aged. This is the crucial point in the book because it is from here that Dorian begins to change.
After meeting the actress Sibyl Vane and falling in love, very quickly, Dorian is urged by Harry to call off the engagement. We discover Lord Henry’s view on marriage and needless to say it is rather negative. Impressionable man that Dorian is, he takes Henry’s advice and calls it off with Sibyl. Tragically, Sibyl, pregnant with Dorian’s baby, kills herself at this news. Dorian’s first act of sin results in a sneer forming on the paintings surface.
From then on Dorian experiments with all sorts of weird and wonderful pleasures. If you have read the book, you may remember, possibly with a sigh, Chapter Eleven and his shenanigans! From jewels and rich furnishings, opium to cross dressing, Dorian really did try many things. However after all of this debauchery he returns unblemished, not a day older than when the painting was finished. The portrait on the other hand is rotting away in Dorian’s attic, a clearer image of his soul.
The Victorians paid heed to a pseudo science called physiognomy which meant that they believed a person’s moral character could be judged just by looking at that person. So, take Dorian for example, he is fair, beautiful and young. To anyone he comes across, he is taken at face value and believed to be trustworthy and of good moral character. There are only some in the book who are not so convinced and they tend to be older men. Strange that. So, Wilde is doing a really clever thing here by presenting Dorian as someone pure and innocent and then getting away with all kinds of sins. He brings into question the nature of what sin is in the first place and what effect it has.
With all of this said, The Picture of Dorian Gray sounds like it is made for the stage. Don’t you think?
Sophie from Blackwell’s Bookshop