What is a symbol? In the broadest sense of the word, a symbol can be anything that signifies something else (Peepre: 58). Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s dyadic theory of signs can well be applied when talking of literary symbols; after all, symbols are signs and vice versa. Central concepts in Saussure’s theory are signifier and signified, which together constitute the sign itself. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde is playing with these two concepts – signifier and signified – which acquire quite unexpected roles.
While it is not the only symbolic element in the novel, the portrait of Dorian Gray is by far the most obvious and central symbol, the theme, around which the story revolves. It is perhaps the symbol most suitable for closer analysis, although this means having to give other potentially interesting symbols somewhat less attention. Especially interesting of these would be a closer look at Basil Hallward, Lord Henry and Dorian Gray as three different symbolic representations of Wilde’s personality – what he though he was, what the world thought he was, and what he would have wanted to be, respectively, as Terence Dawson suggests in his essay on the subject (Dorian Gray as Symbolic Representation of Wilde’s Personality).
In a mad moment of vanity and narcissism, Dorian Gray offers his soul in return for everlasting youth. This is the moment the portrait abandons its static form, to take a life of its own. But is it still a reflection of Dorian Gray, or is Dorian Gray in fact himself a reflection of the portrait? Has the portrait ceased to be Dorian’s diary, and turned things to the opposite? From the moment Dorian sells his soul, the portrait is no longer a reflection but, in Wilde’s own words, ” something fatal It has a life of its own.” The fact that the portrait knew of the death of Sibyl Vane, even before Dorian himself knew, suggests that the portrait is indeed constructing and influencing Dorian, leading him in a certain direction towards a life filled with perversion and decay of the soul.
But what caused this change in Dorian Gray? What made him mutate from the innocent and pure Adonis to the cruel and cold murderer that ” dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table.”? By selling his soul to the devil, he invited evil into his life – an evil which took the form of Lord Henry, whose radical influence on Dorian was the onset of a chain reaction that was to end only by Dorian’s own hand, some 20 years later. Of the two opposing forces in his life, good and bad, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry, the latter always seemed to have a stronger grip on Dorian, and a definite and final grip after Dorian eliminated the creator of his misery, the one person that urged him to pray in repentance.
Certainly, Dorian becomes greatly disturbed by the portrait, by its mere presence in the same room. Not only knowing what he has done, what sins or crimes he has committed, he has to face them in his portrait each day. When he sees the alterations on the portrait and decides to hide it in his childhood study room, is he repentant? Does he wish he could withdraw his prayer for perpetual beauty, like he does later in the novel: “There is no one with whom I would not change places.”? In essence, when he wraps the portrait in the purple satin coverlet, that ” had perhaps served often as a pall for the dead,” he is wrapping the physical manifestation of his conscience and soul, to bury it in the dusty past of the old study room. At least now he is free to live in ignorance of both the past and the portrait, and continue leading a double life. “And yet the thing would still live on. It would always be alive.”
To be able to continually ignore the portrait, to live in a state of denial, Dorian has several different methods. The novel goes to great lengths describing Dorian’s sudden obsession with art, music, perfumes, jewels, embroideries etc. By immersing himself in these interests, he keeps reality at a distance. “If one does not talk about a thing, it has never happened. It is simply expression, as Harry says, that gives reality to things,” he comments on his feelings after the death of Sibyl Vane, denying all moral implications of his actions. Dorian is clearly keeping a mental distance from this cruel and evil alter-ego, which he is not willing to recognize as his own, but which is recklessly destroying his life. Yet he can not always ignore reality: “There were moments, indeed, at night, when, lying sleepless in his own delicately-scented chamber, or in the sordid room of the little ill-famed tavern near the Docks, he would think of the ruin he had brought upon his soul ”
Although not exactly a symbol, homosexual narcissism plays a great part in The Picture of Dorian Gray. As a Narcissus par excellence, Dorian is described kissing his own portrait, in ” boyish mockery of Narcissus.” If, and when, the reader is aware of Wilde’s personal sexual preferences, the relationship between Basil Hallward, Lord Henry and Dorian Gray gains a new perspective. Can their relationship in the novel be described as a mere undercurrent of homosexuality, or is there more to it that meets the eye? The ideal of Basil Hallward, the ideal that he immortalized on the canvas, even himself admires the product – he is quite stunned by its beauty – but does he love the painting, or the object the painting depicts? There can hardly be a more clear parallel to the Greek myth about Narcissus, and in that case, to self-centered homosexuality.
At the end of the novel, when Dorian is trying to free himself from the wretched life the painting has made him succumb to, the signifier – signified contrast appears again. Dorian realized, or thought he realized, that by destroying the portrait he would be free, free from the conscience that the portrait had held hidden for so many years. The same knife that had killed the creator of the portrait, ” would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be free. It would kill the monstrous soul-life, and, without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace.”
But did he strike the knife into the heart of the portrait, or into the heart of himself? What was he meaning to do? Or did he, indeed, even have any power of decision? After all, the painting was the one that was leading his life in a certain direction, making choices prior to his knowing, as suggested by ” without its hideous warnings ” Did Dorian Gray stab himself in the heart all the same, regardless of whether he stabbed his physical self or the portrait?
Dawson, Terence: Dorian Gray as Symbolic Representation of Wilde’s Personality,http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/hypertext/landow
Dawson, Terence: Basil, Lord Henry, and Wilde: A Jungian Approach to The Picture of Dorian Gray,
Fraile, Isabel: Taking Risks: A reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
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