Dorian Gray- Oscar Wilde
“Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be- in other ages, perhaps.” source: link
This is a quote taken from a letter which Oscar Wilde wrote as an introduction to a later version of the Picture of Dorian Gray. This explanation about Wilde's choice of characters interested me. Whilst reading, I began looking for signs showing Wilde's relationship between the three main characters; Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray. I will try to explain each of the characters relation to Oscar Wilde, and connections to the actual life of Wilde.
I will start introducing the characters, then analyse them using the quote and state their connection in the life of Wilde. Then I will discuss some more events which prove that Oscar Wilde wrote the book partially about himself.
Are the characters from the Picture of Dorian Gray really much like Oscar Wilde himself, or do they resemble something else?
Dorian Gray, the main character in this book, is a rather narcissistic and extremely beautiful male. Throughout the book we follow Dorian's development from being a innocent boy to a corrupted villain.
Dorian is introduced in the book as a youngster, a beautiful boy unspoiled by life or sin. But he is about to change. When he meets lord Henry, Dorian soon adapts his theories on hedonism, sinning and pleasure. This changed Dorian. It altered his views on the world. He started to love himself, thinking himself above others because of his unmatched beauty. The only thing which holds Dorian off from sinning is that it would alter his looks. Dorian says: “Sins are written across one's face.” Dorian is afraid to loose his beauty, and therefore does not want to participate in evil doings.
Then an opportunity showed itself to Dorian. Basil had painted him and portrait of extraordinary beauty. Dorian wishes in himself that he could switch situations with the portrait, being able to remain always young and commit as many sins as he would want. Strangely this wish is granted, and Dorian is finally able to accomplish the one thing he had always wanted: pleasure, being moral or immoral. Many years later, when Dorian is in his mid-forties, a series of events triggers him to try and start a new life. He lives in constant fear, afraid of letting anyone see the picture which reveals his corrupted soul. After several failing attempts of cleansing his soul Dorian realises that only one thing can fully rid him of his sins: to destroy his portrait. Dorian then stabs the portrait with a knife, reversing the switch he and his portrait undertook. Dorian then is turned into the older, uglier man he should have been. This proves fatal to Dorian, he dies after having stabbed the picture, strangely enough by a knife plunged into his chest.
But what is Oscar Wilde's connection to this all? Wilde states in his quote that in another life, he would like to be Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde was a homosexual. He could not show his feelings towards other men, and the society in which he was living did not accept homosexual practice. This made Wilde lock up his feelings in himself, hiding from society. He married a girl at age thirty-four, an age Wilde would certainly have discovered his feelings towards men. It hurt Wilde that he could not show his homosexuality, and he wished he could just participate in homosexual practices without changing. This was exactly what Dorian Gray was able to do.
By use of the painting Dorian Gray was able to sin, be immoral and do wrong without anyone noticing the difference. It seems Oscar Wilde wished for this too, and therefore he would like to be Dorian, in another life.
But that is not all. It seems Dorian himself was homosexual, or at least bisexual. His extraordinary beauty and his gift to stay always young enabled him to seduce women easily. He could get any women he wanted, whenever he wanted. This soon started to bore him. He went looking for more immoral pleasure. He then stumbled across homosexuality. Although Wilde does not describe any practise of homosexuality in the book, he strongly hints Dorian Gray had relationships with more than only females. After Dorian meets Basil again after a good ten years of not seeing each other, Basil asks Dorian why there are such shameful rumours about him going around in the upper-class society. He asks why Dorian's friendship is so fatal to these young men , how he brings so much shame and sorrow to the families and fathers of the young men. This suggests Dorian seduced these young men into having sex with him after becoming intimate with them. This brings shame over the boys and their families, but does not affect Dorian as he looks just as innocent as he did before. The name 'Dorian', is from Greek origin. Greeks are believed to have accepted homosexuality, they even
had a very obscure idea about sexual preferences:
“Sex with females is for reproduction, sex with males is for pleasure”
This is, what Oscar Wilde wanted for himself, and this is why he wishes to be Dorian Gray in another life. He just wants to be homosexual without consequences. Unable to achieve this at first, he started hiding and controlling himself, much like Basil Hallward did.
Basil Hallward is a painter, which provided the portrait Dorian used to sin. Basil is a very good painter, which according to Lord Henry makes him a rather dull person. He is also very naïve, he does not see much evil in other people, and tends to believe people when they lie. On his search for pure beauty to put into his paintings he met Dorian Gray. He befriends him, and starts to paint him in all sorts of environments. After a while he decides to paint Dorian as he is, without any ornaments or accessories. This painting becomes his masterpiece, and is so close related to Dorian that Dorian is able to switch situation with the painting and stay always young, as Dorian always wanted. Basil also introduces Dorian to Henry Wotton. Basil seems to be an old friend of Lord Henry, but he rejects Henry's immoral theories. Basil warns Lord Henry not to influence his friend Dorian, but Henry ignores Basil.
When Basil finishes his masterpiece, Henry asks him to reveal it to the public. Basil rejects this idea, stating that the painting reveals to much of himself to show to other people. He then hands the picture to Dorian, who takes it home with him.
A month later or so, Basil visits Dorian and requests to see his work. Dorian refuses, and Basil becomes wary. Dorian then persuades him to leave the house and never ask about the matter any more. Being so naïve, Basil accepts Dorian's request and leaves him.
A very long time later, about twenty years, Basil visits Dorian again. He states to have heard dreadful rumours about Dorian, and he wants Dorian to lie to him again and tell him that the stories are wrong. Dorian only verifies the rumours, and Basil is unable to believe it. Dorian then shows him the altered picture, and Basil is shocked. He then insults Dorian, and Dorian kills Basil using a knife. The next day Dorian calls upon Alan Campbell, and blackmails him into dissolving Basil's body in acid.
What was Basil in relation to Wilde? Wilde stated that he thought himself to be like Basil. Wilde thought himself to be the brilliant, misunderstood artist which tries to be best to humanity and paints real beauty. Basil Hallward obviously shows signs of homosexuality, just as Wilde did. Basil greatly admires Dorian, more than a heterosexual man would. He competes with Lord Wotton about Dorian's attention, and is badly hurt when he discovers Dorian is not the man he thinks he is. Unlike Dorian however, Basil does not show his homosexuality or sleep with men, because he lacks the means to stay hidden. This is a clear similarity between Basil and Wilde, for Wilde also hid his homosexual feelings up until a certain date, which is actually marked with the death of Basil.
It seems that like Dorian Gray resembles the wild, evil and lustful part of Wilde, Basil seems the controlled, nicer and more introverted. Basil does not commit immoral acts, but controls himself and hides his homosexuality from society. These two opposites are made clear in the book, especially at the point of the murder of Basil. As Wilde sees himself as Basil, he believes he is still in control of himself, and stays on his good “side”. He believes he is just as innocent and nice, but it seems the world sees him otherwise. The world sees him as Lord Wotton.
Lord Henry Wotton is the first character introduced in the book. He is an aristocrat, and interested in psychological studies of humans. He tends to form theories about life, pleasure, women and much more, most of those theories being immoral or wrong in some way. Lord Henry's influence is the main reason Dorian corrupts so much, although Lord Henry never meant to change Dorian's personality. Henry thinks that Dorian, just like Henry himself, would analyse the theories but not live according to them. Lord Henry is described by multiple characters in the book as a very interesting personality, who speaks only immoral things yet does only moral deeds. It seems Henry is smart enough to think of new ways to receive pleasure and new standards to live by, but he lacks the courage of testing them himself. Therefore he uses test subjects, which he influences with his theories, and watch the results. Henry might seem a wicked person, but he is not at heart. He only makes up his theories, but I doubt he really believes them, or would be willing to live by them.
At first, when Henry Wotton meets Dorian Gray, they share an intense friendship, close to homosexuality, but later on Henry starts seeing Dorian much more as his test subject then as a friend of his. He starts testing his immoral theories on Dorian, and the personality change in Dorian is the direct result of it. Henry starts advising Dorian Gray what to do and what not to do, and even talks him out of his guilt, for instance when he persuades Dorian into believing that Sibyl Vane's death was not a tragedy at all. He actually helps Dorian on his path to evilness. Henry does not seem to understand what he is doing. When Dorian asks Henry if he could believe that Dorian killed Basil, Henry laughs at Dorian, stating that Dorian would be unable to preform such a deed. Although Lord Henry corrupted Dorian, he does not take notice of it.
But what is Henry's connection to Wilde? Henry is according to Wilde the way the world sees him. Not as a nice, controlled person like Basil, but as the wicked, yet scared Lord Wotton. It means that Wilde is seen as a person who likes to study people and think of immoral theories and things, but never does anything immoral. In the book, Lord Henry criticized the society in which they were living multiple times. Oscar Wilde also criticized the same society, in which men often lied to each other to be polite, and gossip about each other when the other was absent. Oscar Wilde's criticism on the society he was living in can be clearly viewed in his masterpiece: the play The importance of being Earnest. This great play is still shown across the world, but not only made Wilde famous, but marked his downfall. Society started to criticize Wilde, much like Wotton, and he ended up being punished to serve two years in a Labour camp. Another possible link between Wilde and Wotton is that both their wives divorced them over another man.
Yet there is one positive aspect of Wilde not being seen as Basil but as Henry. Lord Henry Wotton seems much less homosexual then Basil does, and this must mean that Wilde was also judged less homosexual by society then he was actually feeling. This positive point however means nothing to the great negative aspects of being seen as Henry Wotton.
The Murder of Basil Hallward
If Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward represent two parts of the personality of Oscar Wilde, why did one kill the other? Shouldn't they like each other, because they are two parts of one personality? When I read the passage I could not find an answer, so I decided to look up some things about the murder. In the book the murder is described to be at the ninth of November, Dorian Gray's own birthday. In one of the early editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray is this evening described to be the date of Dorian's thirty-second birthday.
Thirty-second was also the age of Oscar Wilde when he first participated in homosexual practices. The society he grew up in did not accept homosexuality, and thought is people to reject and hate this. Oscar Wilde was thought the same, and he started hating his own sexual preference, describing it as 'sinning' rather than loving. When Oscar Wilde finally showed his feelings towards other men he thought himself to be a bad person, who could not withstand the perverse temptations of homoeroticism.
In the book, Basil resembles the good, controlled version of Oscar Wilde. The version that was hiding his homosexuality, and accepted by society. Dorian Gray however resembled the 'evil' side of Oscar Wilde, the side he would liked to be in another life. This side sinned without penalties and the book hints that Dorian Gray frequently participated in homosexual events, and brought shame to they families of his partners.
But what is the meaning of the murder? It seems to me that at this point of Dorian's life, his thirty-second birthday (and that of Oscar Wilde's), he took over from Basil. The murder of Basil means one thing: In the eyes of Oscar Wilde his bad self takes his good self over. Dorian kills Basil, and the good side of Wilde kills his bad side. At this point of the life of Wilde he finally surrenders to his feelings and openly admits he is a homosexual. Because this was a crime in that time, Wilde saw himself as a sinner, as something evil. As Dorian Gray. This clearly shows the connection between some events in the book and some events in the actual life of Oscar Wilde, which strengthens the believe that the three main characters, Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward and Henry Wotton are in fact no other that aspects of himself.
It is clear that Oscar Wilde not just made up his characters, but used them as representatives of different parts of his personality. It seems Wilde's quote about the connection between himself and his characters is quite true. Basil Hallward is indeed how he saw himself until his thirty-second birthday, being controlled and good. Lord Henry Wotton is the person other people saw in Wilde when Wilde thought himself to be Hallward, a critic of society and sayer of immoral things. Dorian is indeed Wilde's deepest wish, to give in to his fleshly needs and surrender to homosexuality, without consequences. Partly, this happens when Wilde openly admits he is homosexual, at the same age Dorian, Wilde's bad part, killed Basil, Wilde's Good part. Actual changes inside Wilde himself are shown in character development in the book, another clear example of a connection between the main characters from The picture of Dorian Gray and it's author. It is even safe to say that some of the most event sin the book, for example the murder of Basil, are symbols for changes which happen at the exact time they happened to Wilde himself. In my opinion you can form the personality of Oscar Wilde by connecting the three main characters with each other: Henry Wotton who thinks himself Basil Hallward, but wishes to be Dorian Gray. It seems to me that one of the largest issues in Wilde's life might have been to cope with these different parts of his 'soul'. The writing of the picture of Dorian Gray can be seen as his struggle to do so and his attempt to criticize the Late Victorian prejudices against homoeroticism.
I will conclude my essay with providing yet another quote of Oscar Wilde:
“In every first novel the hero is the author either as Christ or Faust ”
This states that according to Wilde every first novel is based on the author himself, either as being good (Christ) or evil (Faust). This confirmed that Dorian and Basil both are aspects of Wilde himself, as this quote is taken by himself and should contain is own opinion.