The Portrait That is Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a text constantly analyzed with a philosophical eye. Seeing as it is a literary text that deals with the issues of morality within the hedonistic lifestyle, one can see why this is a common. To clarify, hedonism is the practice of fulfilling pleasure over pain whenever pleasure presents itself; a lifestyle of freedom and luxury usually appealing to the wealthy who can support it. Hedonistic pleasure is usually linked to the pursuit of physical beauty, which plays a major role in Wilde’s novel. His explanation of Dorian Gray’s beauty is repeatedly expressed by multiple characters creating an inescapable visual image in the reader’s mind. Thus, I have come to believe that this text is not only a literary work but also a visual artwork of Dorian Gray that can be examined through the narrative.

Thus, this essay will focus on an artistic analysis of the narrative surrounding the beauty that is Dorian Gray and what this analysis uncovers. Three artistic concepts that play a pivotal role in the visual construction of Dorian Gray are John Berger’s idea of the male gaze, the interchangeable problem of object and subject in art, and the theory of scopophilia. This essay will briefly discuss and define the key points of the latter three aspects as they pertain to art. Once this is complete, I will utilize this knowledge in a critical analysis of how Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, and Dorian Gray himself view Dorian Gray with the male gaze thus making him an object, one of desire based off the theory of scopophilia, that appears rather than a subject which acts.

The male gaze is an artistic point of view developed by John Berger in his book The Ways of Seeing. For Berger, art records the sexualisation of the female image that remains culturally central today (Berger). This reassures men of their sexual power and at the same moment deny any sexuality of women other than the male construction; in essence men act and women appear (Berger). Although traditionally a male perspective, the male gaze can be used by all genders (Wykes). Such a view is closely related to the problem of subject and object; for example, in art when one utilizes the male gaze does the person they view become merely an object rather than the subject of the art? The subject of art is usually the focus of the piece that draws your attention and relays some type of meaning (Petit). The object of art is usually in the background and its sole purpose is to be viewed rather than induce meaning past viewing (Petit). In other words, the subject acts and the object merely appears.

Rooney and Bruno, "Subject/Object" (2012)
Rooney and Bruno, “Subject/Object” (2012)

Finally, the theory of scopophilia was first coined by Sigmund Freud and can be literally translated as the “love of watching.” Whereas Freud based scopophilia solely on its relation to the sexual fore-pleasure of people and its possible deviations from the “norm” if repressed, many have now integrated it into a much more broader sense of viewing; in other words a move from the “love of watching” to the ways in which we watch (Fenichel). Yet, no matter the transition in definition, scopophilia is a viewing of something as an object and usually one of desire; the most noteworthy means of looking at an object are to see oneself in it, to be like it, or to admire oneself as an object (Fenichel).

Let us now apply what we know to the analysis of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Almost immediately, even before the reader is introduced to Dorian Gray himself, the character is placed under the male gaze and quickly situated in the category of a scopophilic object of desire rather than a subject of action. This is done by Basil Hallward and Lord Henry as they look upon the portrait of Dorian Basil has painted. Basil claims, “I have put too much of myself into it [the painting]” to which Lord Henry replies,

…I really can’t see any resemblance…Why, my dear, Basil, he is Narcissus, and you- well, of course you have an intellectual expression…Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are…[Dorian] is some brainless, beautiful creature, who should be always here in winter when we have no flowers to look at, and always here in summer when we want something to chill our intelligence. (Wilde 6-7)

Basil, in an attempt to defend Dorian as well as express how he felt the first time he met him, says to Lord Henry,

It is not merely that I paint from him, draw from him, sketch from him. […] But he is much more to me than a model or a sitter. […] The merely visible presence of this lad – for he seems to me little more than a lad, though he is really over twenty – his merely visible presence –ah! I wonder can you realise all that that means? […] Harry! if you only knew what Dorian Gray is to me! (17)

Despite his effort, Basil fails to explain his feelings to Lord Henry, and, eventually, he gives up trying: “As long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me. You can’t feel what I feel” (19-20).

Dete, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" (1922)
Dete, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1922)

As soon as Basil claims he has put himself into the portrait Henry quickly distinguishes between the intelligence of Basil and the beauty of Dorian Gray. Whereas Basil is an intellect, Dorian resembles the Greek mythological character of Narcissus; a character known for his great beauty and minute intellect. Furthermore, consider when Henry claims Dorian, “should be always here in winter when we have no flowers to look at, and always here in summer when we want something to chill our intelligence.” Flowers represent beauty and when the winter kills them one should look to Dorian to fill the void. Yet, in summer, when the flowers are blooming, one may look to Dorian’s beauty to quell the exhaustion of intellect.

Thus, Dorian is not something that thinks or makes one think such as Basil or Henry, he is merely an object to be admired. This male gaze Henry uses to place Dorian in the realm of object entities is rebutted by Basil but it is a rebuttal that only proves Henry’s placement. Basil claims Dorian is not merely a sitter he paints but that the man means so much more. Yet, Basil cannot describe what this “so much more” is; for example, Dorian is not wise, well learned, or complex. All Basil can do his express his awe in Dorian’s beauty that he reiterates twice in one sentence. Finally, consider the context in which they are speaking of Dorian Gray’s beauty. They are talking about the character’s literal beauty but based off of a portrait of that character; a sort of artistic meta-narrative. This suggests Lord Henry and Basil are literally placing Dorian Gray’s beauty in the realm of object entities; he is the portrait to be viewed and not a subject person.

Dumas, "The Image as Burden" (1994)
Dumas, “The Image as Burden” (1994)

Thus, we see how the use of the male gaze by both Lord Henry and Basil construct Dorian Gray as an object rather than a subject so early on in the novel. Now allow me to define how Dorian is a scopophilic object of desire to both Basil and Lord Henry. Basil’s scopophilic desire for Dorian is expressed in the rebuttal I discussed above. By Basil claiming he has put too much of himself into the portrait and then not being able to move past Dorian’s beauty to defend the man as a subject suggest Basil’s desire to look like Dorian. This suggestion is furthered by Henry’s contrast of Basil’s looks to Dorian’s, letting the reader know the two are nothing alike. Thus, the notion of Basil, an intellect, putting too much of himself into a portrait of beauty, an object, makes no sense other than the fact that Basil wishes to have Dorian’s beauty. Therefore, Dorian is something Basil would like to be in terms of Dorian as a scopophilic object of desire.

For Lord Henry, Dorian is something he sees in himself. Henry is “fascinated” and “intensely” interested in Dorian but solely based on his youthful beauty and easily influenced mind (27). It reminds Henry much of himself when he was younger but the beauty Dorian possess can lead to far greater things. Lord Henry himself claims he has finally found a “subject made to his hand” that he can now dominate (41). Do not be confused by the use of the word subject here, for it pertains to the scientific application of the word and not to the meaning I define it by in this essay. For Lord Henry to say Dorian is the subject made to his hand is similar to claiming he is the glove that fits perfectly; he is an object to be filled. Thus, for Lord Henry, Dorian, as a scopophilic object of desire, reminds the Lord of himself in his youth and propels Henry into a further desire of controlling this object.

Goldin, "Scopophilia" (2011)
Goldin, “Scopophilia” (2011)

Lord Henry and Basil represent the minority of characters that view Dorian as a scopophilic object of desire with the male gaze constructing him as an object to be viewed rather than a subject that acts. Yet, no one better places Dorian Gray in the realm of object entities than the character himself. The first time the reader is introduced to him, Dorian is overlooking Basil’s portrait and,

A look of joy came into his eyes as if he had recognized himself for the first time. He stood there, motionless and in wonder…The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation… “How sad it is” murmured Dorian… “I shall grow old, and horrible… If it were I who was to be always young and the picture that was to grow old…I would give my soul for that.” (27-28)

Dorian’s own beauty mesmerizes him and leaves the character in awe of himself. He is having a revelation and so is the reader; Dorian Gray is his own scopophilic object of desire. One could argue Dorian’s scopophilia changes throughout the book when one considers his relationship with other characters such as Sibyl Vane; whom Dorian falls in love with based largely on her looks. Yet, even then, Dorian’s own beauty is the true focus of his gaze due to the fact he turns himself into an object in the very moment provided above. When Dorian wishes he could sell his soul to stay beautiful forever and his “ugliness” infest the painting this is exactly what happens. Any aging or sin Dorian commits is relayed through the painting as his body remains youthful and unscathed. Just as when we saw a form of meta-narrative appear in the discussion Lord Henry and Basil had about Dorian’s portrait we see it again in Dorian’s own narrative. He is looking at an object representation of himself and defining himself by that object representation; he is turning himself into the object. This artistic meta-narrative is completed by the “selling of his soul” to the painting. Seeing as the soul is commonly viewed as ones essence, where morals and identity are kept, it can also be defined as a subject; it is an active complexity. Thus, by Dorian literally relinquishing his subject matter to the painting he has become the object of the painting; and an object to be viewed in general.

Gerwell, "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
Gerwell, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

Thus, through the use of the artistic concepts of the male gaze, scopophilia, and the problem of object and subject we see how Lord Henry, Basil Hallward, and Dorian Gray construct Dorian as an object to be viewed rather than a subject that acts. All these characters utilize the male gaze in doing so but each frames Dorian as their own scopophilic object of desire; for Basil it is the desire to look like Dorian, Lord Henry sees his youth in Dorian, and Dorian desires himself. Yet, although different characters desire Dorian’s beauty in different ways, the underlying aspect is that no matter how he is desired, Dorian Gray is desired and constructed as an object of beauty to be viewed rather than a subject of complexity that acts.

Works Cited

Berger, John. The Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1990. Print.

Fenichel, Otto. The Collected Papers of Otto Fenichel. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1954. 374-394. Print.

Petit, David. “The Object as Subject in 20th Century American Art.” Art Education 43.2 (1990): 36-41. Web. 20 Feb 2015.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Wykes, Maggie, and Gunter, Barrie. The Media and Body Image. London: Sage, 2005. Print.

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  1. Parkinson

    I want to say it out loud: The Picture of Dorian Gray is my favourite book ever.

  2. Interesting analysis. The ending chilled me and how wonderfully fitting it is. It serves as a perfect closing to the tale of Dorian Gray.

  3. Lashunda Milner

    This is the book that had my tears falling onto it, in my classroom, during breaktime, in my 14th year. A somewhat embaressing, though unforgettable, experience.

  4. The moral tale in itself is good. It challenges ideas of art, the soul and social position.

  5. Nice post. I originally read this book 30 years ago, and I remember really enjoying it then.

  6. I felt a bit sorry for Dorian in places. He does seem rather naïve at the start.

  7. Jaramillo

    “Like the painting of a sorrow,
    A face without a heart.”

  8. Dorian Gray is a fascinating character that had me hating him and pitying him at the same time.

  9. UnitedOllie

    I can’t say I liked Dorian. (Though I realize I’m not supposed to.) I certainly don’t learn much from him. He’s a spoiled, vain, pompous, arrogant man with not much of conscience.

  10. Oscar Wilde was a genius.

  11. Pure artistic craftsmanship at it’s finest.

  12. This was not a comfortable read for me; in fact, it was quite difficult for me to finish.

  13. Brandon T. Gass

    Interesting article.

  14. Munjeera

    So many ways to interpret this story and yet you have brought an original and fresh look to the characters. I really liked your analysis and interpretation.

  15. A fascinating tale of morality.

  16. Absolutely fantastic, gripping, and immensely well-written.

  17. Oscar Wilde’s commanding use of the English language is a joy to read.

  18. Antebellum

    I really liked this take on the story. Neat idea to apply theories of scopophilia and art to a book like this.

  19. True masterpiece in every sense.

  20. You really summed up the Gaze theory well.

  21. Every time I read a classic, I end up with a new favorite book. This one ends perfectly!

  22. This is a timeless classic

  23. Thank you for your analysis. It’s not one you often read, so I was happy to see it here.

  24. The transposition from ‘subject of complexity that acts’ to ‘object of beauty to be viewed’ is elegantly captured in the analysis; and with it, lends a sort of recursive tension between the two regimes: each expressed as a recombinant meta-tag derived from the invisible aspects coiled in each other’s male gaze.

  25. The transposition from ‘subject of complexity that acts’ to ‘object of beauty to be viewed’ is elegantly captured in the analysis; and with it, lends a sort of recursive tension between the two regimes: each expressed as a recombinant meta-tag derived from the invisible aspects coiled in each other’s male gaze.

  26. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay, enjoyable to read.

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