After reading Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), I was struck by how much his theme about the value of art resembled the one found in Poe’s 1842 short fictional work, “The Oval Portrait.” Both stories focus on the relationship between the artist, his subject, and the viewer, or, in the case of literature, the reader. In Poe’s story, the young artist is driven to paint the ultimate portrait of his beautiful new wife. His goal was to produce a masterpiece that would portray a symbol of youth and vitality that would last an eternity. Poe writes, “As a thing of art, nothing could be more admirable than the painting itself.” The artist writes about the bride (the subject of his art): “She’s a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover.” However, she wanted to satisfy her husband and sat idly for days, while the artist was engrossed in his creation. He “turned his eyes from the canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife.” After his last brush stroke, “the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought.” Instead of joy, “he grew tremulous, very pallid, and aghast crying with a loud voice, ‘This is Life itself!’ [and] turned suddenly to regard his beloved—She was dead!” Poe’s story shocks readers and forces them to make a judgment on the artist’s values, as well as their own values. Some might conclude that the story demonstrates that the value of even the most beautiful art is diminished when an artist lives without compassion and positive connection with humanity. Others might conclude that the value of art exceeds the human sacrifice it took to produce it. “The Oval Portrait” also foreshadows the idealistic relationship that modern artists have with their work, as they splash images of their creations across social media and urge people to “Like” them. In many cases, they value their work more than they try to establish and maintain positive human interactions.
Wilde writes, in his Preface of the Picture of Dorian Gray, “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it.” Wilde, like Poe, focuses on the relationship between the artist, his subject, and the reader: In the opening pages, he writes, “As the painter looked at the gracious and comely form he had so skilfully mirrored in his art, a smile of pleasure passed across his face.” The artist was deeply satisfied and even “riveted” by the profundity and beauty shown in his painting. The viewer of the painting, Lord Henry, who also symbolizes the reader, or the critic of art, remarks, “It is your best work, Basil, you must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor.” The painter remarks that he cannot send it the exhibition, because “I have put too much of myself into it.” Lord Henry, acting as the art critic remarks, “What odd chaps you painters are. You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away.” Although Basil is still interested in having his art recognized, he cannot risk showing Dorian’s portrait because he fears that it will expose the darkness of his soul. The artist believes that he has become too emotionally connected to his subject to allow the purveyors of art to view his creation. Basil was once as scornful of his painting as Poe’s young bride was. However, he becomes enthralled with it after it is finished, and wants to keep it as a symbol of his youth. He makes a Faustian-like request: He wishes to remain eternally young and beautiful, and in his steed, his portrait would age with time. As this a Wilde novel, he is granted his wish. As he ages, he decides that he must hide his painting in the attic for fear that someone might discover that he has found the secret formula to eternal youth. Poe was also consumed with writing about the secret of longevity and eternal life and developed this theme throughout his career in several fictional works, including “Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” and “Some Words with a Mummy,” and in his final science treatise, Eureka: A Prose Poem.
Since he is granted long-lasting youth, Basil’s youthful appearance does not change after several decades. However, his life becomes increasingly decadent and even more violent than any character in a Poe story! He heartlessly scorns his lover, Sybil Vane, because she proposes to love Dorian rather than to continue as being a famous Shakespearean actress. In her final stage role, she portrays Juliet, who died an unnecessary death in Shakespeare’s tragedy. When she ceases to be an idealistic object of worship for Dorian Gray, she becomes totally undesirable to him. Dorian’s heartless rejection of her also causes her to commit suicide in real life. Afterward, Dorian and his mentor, Lord Henry, coldly justify that her dramatic death was even more profound than her life would have been as a faded actress and wife of an artist. The scenario with Sybil reminds readers of the wife, in Poe’s story, who was more dedicated to her husband than to his art, and of her the husband, who was more dedicated to his art than to his loving wife. The tragic suicide of Sybil, a word meaning an auspicious omen, foreshadows the tragic downfall of Dorian and, by psychic connection, of Basil, the artist who painted him. Due to Dorian’s decadent human activities, his portrait increasingly begins to mirror his corrupted soul. In the final scenes of the book, he must decide what he is going to do to relieve the guilt he feels when he looks at his hideous portrait. He tries to resolve his tormented soul by killing the artist who painted the work and by destroying the picture. But, does he succeed? Not all that we see in Gray is certain. Readers are as shocked about the conclusion of Wilde’s book as they were about The Oval Portrait. But, they are not certain if Dorian Gray was conveyed realistically or whether it was entirely imagined in the mind of both the artist and his subject. The creator of the novel, Oscar Wilde, provides little to no clues to help unravel the mysteries of his well-constructed story. Instead, he challenges us to draw our own conclusions. There are several unanswered questions. For example, Did Dorian’s immoral behavior cause the painting to deteriorate? Was there a psychic connection established between the artist and the subject which caused both of them to see the painting in the same way?
Oscar Wilde’s book, Dorian Gray, was also continuing a trend that was pioneered by Poe, which introduced indeterminate endings. In this type of literature, readers had to use their own resources to unravel the loose ends of a story. For example, we do not anything about the relationship between Poe’s artist and his wife before he created his painting. We also don’t know if or how the artist changed after his wife’s death. Readers and literary critics are uncertain whether Gray’s actions caused the portrait to revert back to its former youthful vibrancy, or whether the changes seen in the portrait were only in the minds of Dorian and the artist who created the painting. Wilde wrote that art imitated life and that life imitated art, concluding that readers could understand much about themselves by the ways that they interpreted literature and art. If they thought that the lack of morals caused the tragic destruction of Dorian Gray,then that would be one conclusion about the over-arching theme of the story. However, if they concluded that Dorian lived a full and productive life of hedonistic pursuits, then they might consider that his death could be considered as noble. After all, he did try to reach for eternity. I have stopped a bit short of fully describing the final ending so that readers might explore it and draw their own conclusions about The Portrait of Dorian Gray! However, if you do like that book, I suggest that you also read any of Poe’s stories—many of which had a strong influence on Oscar Wilde’s masterpiece!
Murray Ellison received a Master’s in Education at Temple University (1973), a Master’s of Arts in English Literature at VCU (2015), and a Doctorate in Education at Virginia Tech in 1988. He is married and has three adult employed daughters. He retired as the Virginia Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Correctional Education in 2009. He is the founder and chief editor of the literary blog, www.LitChatte.com. He is an editor for the “Correctional Education Magazine,” and Co-Editor of the 2016 book of poetry, Mystic Verses, by Shambhushivananda. He also serves as a board member, volunteer tour guide, poetry judge, and all-around helper at the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond Virginia. He will be teaching literature classes in OSHER Program at the University of Richmond and offering book club discussions at the Midlothian Library (Virginia) beginning in January 2017.