Theme: The Author in their century /THe Encounter with the otherChapter VII
from « where he went to he hardly knew. » to « The thing was horribly apparent »
Dorian´s duality reflected by the two facets of London
- The painting as a mirror
- Realisation : Dorian is playing a losing game. He cannot escape… from himself
In Victorian England many writers criticize the importance alotted to appearances as well as the stifling and alienating social conventions. People reject everything in themselves that they are not supposed to be and this leads to psychological disorder, as symbolized with the theme of the DOUBLE.
The passage here echoes themes of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. R.L Stevenson is one of the authors who used the doppelgänger motive
Artistic movement : aestheticism
- The description of Covent Garden is aesthetic.
- Dorian is an aesthete. He loves art. However his taste of beauty brings hims to his fall because he confuses art with reality
Why was the 19th century experiencing a revival of the Gothic genre ?
- The gothic genre, with its atmosphere (gloomy scenes stuck in the past characters torn with regrets) themes (the weight of the past, of what one has not accomplished, especially owing to social conventions, the doppelganger motive, duality, madness) and symbolism (mirror, ghost) is the perfect genre for authors to mirror the duality of their society and especially the inner conflicts, the inner duel the Victorians experience between being and seeming, between being oneself and being who they are supposed to be.
The excerpt exemplifies how Oscar Wilde uses SPACE and especially the strongly contrasted East End and West End of London, the first being the poverty-stricken area and the latter the affluent part of the town.
Dorian has a blurred memory of the streets of the East End he has just been wandering through. What he reports of having seen and heard there is somewhat confusing.
This idea that he is hardly aware of where he has been gives the impression that he has not been quite himself there. Now clarity is coming as he walks in the West End towards Covent Garden and he is being really conscious, present to the moment. This transitory passage gives one the impression that he lives a transformation and the reader may reminisce Mr Hyde coming back to Dr Jekyll´s laboratory after a night of debauchery and changing into the doctor. In that story Dr Jekyll felt that he was totally exempt from sin. In that regard Dorian is also similar to the doctor. He is unable to recognize that he has wronged Sibyl and coming to the safer area of London he feels relieved (« anodyne »), as if the place had an influence on his feelings and maybe cleansed him of his misconduct.
The description of the surroundings appeals to various senses (sight, sound) and contributes to create the impression that Dorian has been wandering in a hellish environment. The overall atmosphere is very Gothic (“Dimly-lit streets”, “black-shadowed archways”). The evoked shadows do not solely aim at conjuring up a gloomy atmosphere. From now on the word will invade the text of the novel and chase the main character.
There is a strong association between the people described and their environment as the people are deprived of humanity (“monstrous apes” ) while the buildings are personified (“Evil-looking houses”, “gaunt … archways”). This blurred distinction between the animate and the inanimate is typical of the Gothic genre.
We will see later that Oscar Wilde debunks this myth that the people of the East End are as worthless as the area or at least he questions this assumption. For the moment, one may say that the word “monstrous”, used to describe the dwellers of the place will gradually come to be associated with Dorian as, just like the term”shadow” it will be repeatedly used about Dorian in the novel.
After the impressions of obscurity, uncertainty, ambiguity and imminent danger raised by the passage about the East End, the reader feels that Dorian is coming to a light-flooded area. Dorian feels secure.
“the darkness lifted, and, flushed with faint fires….” (note the alliteration in f’s that underlines the change of scene). This marks a return to normality, just as the word “breaking” as well as the subject “dawn” (a symbol for renewal) indicate a break from the previous scene.
Just as the description of the East End was very subjective, Dorian believing that the houses were evil-looking, the description of Dorian´s familiar West End made through his eyes is subjective. It is idyllic.
The description of Covent Garden is very aesthetic. It is vivid, colourful, poetic. It appeals to senses. It has a potent visual quality thanks to the many descriptive details provided. It also slightly appeals to the sense of hearing and smell.
“shaking their bells and trappings” (harnais)
“the air was heavy with the perfume of the flowers”, “lilies”, “tulip” and “roses”
In Covent Garden, Dorian finds his landmarks again.
Covent Garden was the place of London’s central market and the opera. It was a very particular area where two contrasting worlds would meet, that of the gentemen and ladies who would stroll on the square and that of the merchants, of the hard workers who worked in the market. It was full of life and colours.
The time of the day and the replacement of darkness by light make it obvious that this is a return to normality. He feels better indeed : “the air was heavy with the perfume of the flowers, and their beauty seemed to bring him an anodyne (calmant) for his pain.”
(If he has been suffering it’s not because of the loss of Sybil, but because of the loss of his beautiful love story with an actress and certainly also since he has felt humiliated in front of his dearest friends because of her poor performance.)
As exemplified in the excerpt, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the outside world seems to change depending on the moods of the characters. This intense focus on the characters represents a growing concern in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with matters relating to individual psychology and development, and allows an exploration of the lives of the characters.
Nonetheless, Dorian is not only relieved but also estranged (détaché) by that normality to the point that he can’t understand the generosity of a carter who offers him cherries. This might underline the fact that Dorian doesn’t really belong to that world anymore. He is stained by his sins and can’t understand a generous gesture.
Dorian is unable to understand that this is a mere act of generosity. He is suspicious, believes there is more to it. He has lost his original, naivety, innocence, candours.
Thus, the idyllic place contributes to dissipate Dorian´s sense of insecurity. Dorian feels totally safe in Covent Garden but he is deluded. Little does he know that he is actually far from being safe.
He has committed an irremediable act that has sealed his fate forever. He is actually unsafe.
The gradation between the dangerous East End to the safer West End and finally the safest place, home is absolutely misleading. The shadows of the East End have followed him to his home (“fantastic shadows”). From now on there is nowhere he can be safe. He may draw the curtain on the painting or remove the latter to the attic, these attempts are vain. He is tracked by his sins and his guilt.
- Through the decoration of his house
We are introduced for the first time to the luxury and the refinement of his home, that has an impressive interior. One understands that he attaches much importance to making a strong impression on people and to appearances. His interior also confirms the idea that he prefers art to life.
Sibyl contrasts with Dorian starkly here. She confessed to him that he was « more to (her) than all art can ever be ». She had suddenly realized that the setting, the play, the lover, Romeo were mere illusions. Now that she could experience love for real she did not want to, even could not play and pretend anymore. Unfortunately, Sibyl has failed to grasp that what Dorian loves is just that fakeness. Sibyl´s talk is a passionate love declaration.
Far from touching Dorian´s heart, this declaration brings him to understand that he cannot love her anymore. Who he loved was the actress. Now she means nothing to him anymore (« You are nothing to me now. Without your art you are nothing » / « I will never see you again. »). Even Sibyl’s begging and kneeling does not move him. He proved to be cruel to her and to enjoy it (as the oxymoron revealed « exquisite disdain »)
Before leaving after the play, Basil tried to warn Dorian (« Love is a more wonderful thing than art ») but Dorian was inconsolable.
Instead of touching Dorian this declaration brings him to understand that he cannot love her anymore. Who he loved was the actress. Now she means nothing to him any longer (« You are nothing to me now. Without your art you are nothing » / « I will never see you again. »). Even Sibyl’s begging and kneeling does not move him. He proved to be cruel to her and to enjoy it (as the oxymoron revealed « exquisite disdain »)
Before leaving after the play Basil tried to warn Dorian (« Love is a more wonderful thing than art ») but Dorian was inconsolable.
- Another element that acts like a mirror to Dorian to the benefit of the reader and, this time, to the benefit of Dorian himself is the portrait
Through the descriptions of Covent Garden and of D’s luxurious house, the tension abates (decreases). Dorian feels perfectly safe. Even the reader’s suspicions of a bad event may be discarded because the character is back home and that’s when something horrible happens. Dorian almost immediately sees something unusual in the painting. He cannot quite believe it at first. He perceived an expression of cruelty in the smile.
After the passage he questions himself as to his behaviour and finds all sorts of excuses. He convinces himself that Sibyl is to blame. Lord Henry´s teachings are in progress and Dorian is becoming perfectly selfish. Then fearing for himself, he resolves not to act wrongly any longer, to become good, not to listen to L.H. anymore and to reconcile with Sibyl.
1. the portrait urges the story into the fantasy genre
“one would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange.” Right from the outset, the change is qualified as “strange”. The word is repeated twice and it closes one paragraph. This marks the appearance of fantasy in the book and it is intensified with the menacing shadows that have chased him from the East End.
Furthermore, the inanimate seems once more to be alive : the sunlight quivers to show him the lines of cruelty round his mouth ; the shadows lay shuddering ; the arrested light struggles ; the dawn floods the room and sweeps the shadows.
The irruption of fantasy in Dorian’s life is also highlighted by such terms as “changed”, “change”, “altered”. The repetition of the word “cruelty” 3 times and the terms “horribly” and “monstrous”, which are recurrent in the novel, make it clear that this change is a tragic one. the shadows that were chasing him in the East End have followed him back home. they belonged not so much to the place — as he supposed — as to him. he regarded the people he encountered in the streets as « monstrous ». Now his own monstrosity is blatantly put into light. He thought himself unscathed of any sin whereas he is actually corrupt and definitely marked.
The portrait has changed. one understands that the wish has come true, that this novel is a fantasy novel and that this story is a supernatural story.
2. The search for meaning in the portrait, which acts as a true mirror
Dorian wonders what this change in the painting is about. He checks his appearance in the mirror looking for meaning. In the novel, speculation and specularity are linked : “He winced … What did it mean?”
Then he examines carefully the portrait and comes to an unavoidable conclusion : “the whole expression had altered. (…) The thing was horribly apparent.” This thing is visible. One cannot avoid it. (Dorian cannot find words for this. He refers to it as: “the thing”.)
One of the recurrent elements of the portrait, “the red lips”, establishes a link between the mirror, the character and the portrait. The portrait is a mirror to Dorian, as it is stated clearly : “The quivering, ardent sunlight showed him the lines of cruelty round the mouth as clearly as if he had been looking into a mirror after he had done some dreadful thing”. This portrait brings Dorian to reflect on himself. It is a mirror to his soul. Of course Lord Henry´s oval glass fails to reveal Dorian´s cruelty. it can only mirror his appearance. This introduces the theme of appearance versus reality.
The portrait is going to play a prominent role from now on. It may help Dorian to redeem himself by bringing him to reflect on his actions or, on the contrary, it could encourage him to go on sinning as long as proof is made that the young man himself will not alter, will remain young and handsome whatever he does. And seeming prevails over being for the Victorians so the portrait and the deal associated to it are a free ticket for Dorian to sin.