Angels and Demons in The Picture of Dorian Gray

As I’ve been taking this course on Victorian literature, I’ve been studying Medieval texts through the idea of Medieval angels and demons. We’ve followed the development of the representations of these dichotomies through the morality plays, and then through to some early modern plays. In the morality plays, a playwright could actually show on stage the entities of God, Christ, and Satan, just not the actual sacraments. This stemmed out of the idea that, because the actors were all monks for the morality plays, if the sacraments were performed on stage, it wasn’t so much an act or show anymore, it could be considered the real deal. Past the Reformation, though, as drama evolved, and societal ideals changed, plays couldn’t have God, Angels, Demons, or Christ on stage. Charles Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus was one of the last of these plays that could do this, and the shift can be seen with Shakespeare’s plays. Because these entities couldn’t show up on stage any more, playwrights had to get a little more creative, and had to start representing these same ideas, just through the characters on stage. So no longer were there characters like Mephistopheles, but you could start to see angelic characters, like Desdemona, and demonic characters, like Iago.

Because of these readings, I have had a bit of a difficult time looking at the Victorian text, The Picture of Dorian Gray, without a sort of bias. In the beginning of the book, it starts with a beautiful garden, and a painter creating a work of art. This immediately harkened to the imagery of the garden of eden, and the creation of man. Basil, the painter, begins to talk about how he has “put too much of [himself] into it,” for him to be able to part with the painting, which just made me think of the idea of how in the Bible, God created man in his image. For the two men, Basil Hallward, the painter, and Lord Henry Wotton, the onlooker, to then go and argue in the beautiful garden, about this creation of an image of a man, really just solidified that imagery. In addition to this, Lord Henry continues to put down the church, and talk about vanity, and pride in one’s own image, not in any virtues. Lord Henry continues to make these seemingly outrageous claims, such as that he “like[s] persons better than principles, and [he] like[s] persons with no principles better than anything else in the world,” (Wilde, 12). Basil continues speaking the praises of Dorian, and continues to insist that he “[doesn’t] agree with a single word that you have said, and what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either,” (Wilde, 12).

In his role of creation of an image of man, and insistence in the good of both this man, and in Lord Henry, I can’t help but see Basil Hallward take on a god like role in this text. He continues to try and stand by Dorian’s side, even as Dorian seems to fall from Basil’s grace, and listen more to Lord Henry. Lord Henry Wotton, on the other hand, keeps on tempting Dorian, and talking him into his shallow and materialistic way of thinking. Lord Henry seems to corrupt Dorian, just as the devil would have tempted and corrupted mankind, in the tradition of the morality plays from Medieval literature.

4 thoughts on “Angels and Demons in The Picture of Dorian Gray”

  1. Although you have primarily focused on the religion aspect of the connection between Medieval drama and Dorian Gray, something that stood out to me while reading was the connection of acting. You mention that “if sacraments were performed on stage, it wasn’t so much an act or show anymore, it could be considered the real deal.” This reminds me of Dorian’s descriptions of seeing Sibyl Vane act, stating that she entirely became her character, making the two inseparable from each other. This did not have as much of a real impact as dramas from your other class might have, but it is interesting that Sibyl’s final performance is essentially what damned her and assisted her to the point of suicide.

    1. The idea of performance involved with this is interesting, because of how much Wilde emphasizes the nature of performance in the novel. My question is, does this make Sibyl’s whole existence just a performance for others? She was only ever the characters she portrayed to Dorian. Even to her mother, Sibyl was just an extension of the mother with whom to create a performance on stage. It also plays into the idea that her last performance was that of Juliet, and the performance of that became in itself real, as she died of a poisoning not much later.

  2. I find the implications of Basil Hallward being a god-figure really interesting. Not only does Dorian turn his back on god and fall from grace, just like Adam and Eve in Genesis, he actually kills “god.” That’s a pretty blatant rejection of religion. However, in the end I think Dorian rejects the devil, Lord Henry, as well. He tries to destroy the portrait, which is sort of the forbidden fruit in this scenario, as well as the evidence of all the ways he has sinned. In death the portrait returns to its original form––a god’s creation, an ideal for humanity and art.

  3. Having had a whole class on Milton (focussing on Paradise Lost) I really appreciate the idea of Dorian falling from grace. The dynamic of man versus god or man versus the devil is a really fascinating dynamic, and when you get to compare works like Dorian Gray to those dynamics, it gets to be complicated. I never thought of the portrait as a forbidden fruit, as something that a god created (if in this case we look at Basil as God) that was unattainable for man.

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