Looking Through the Opera Glass

The influence of technological advancements on the nerves of the average Victorian is evident in Jean Lorrain’s short story Magic Lantern as well as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, more specifically with the presence of opera glasses in both texts. In both texts, male characters use the opera glasses to analyze and critique the women around them, however in Magic Lantern, the narrator is tricked into thinking that the cosmetic fashions of the women at the theater make them appear to not be human, whereas, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian all of a sudden sees that Sibyl Vane is all too human – a quality that is much too repulsive his taste.

Within the text Magic Lantern, it is only by looking through the opera glasses that our reader-in-the-text / narrator is able to see the other people – specifically the women – in the theater as nonhumans due to Andre Forbster’s instructions. Under the influence of the opera lens, the user becomes open to potentially being manipulated into seeing things in a new, and in this case, horrific light. The preluding conversation between the narrator and Forbster is in support of this technological manipulation, as the narrator was complaining that the current climate of technological advancements ruined horror as an active genre by being too analytical and logical: “You suppress it in the end … after you have analysed it, explained it, determined it, localised it, you heal it as required – and by what means! By electricity and therapy! You have killed the Fantastic, Monsieur” (Lorrain 172). Forbster counters this argument by literally showing the narrator through opera glasses the women of the theater as roaming supernatural predators, proving that technology like opera glasses can instead be used as another medium through which to view the fantastic: “What is the magic that emanates from such creatures – for they are not even pretty, these marrow-crushers, but rather frightful, with their mortuary tint and their blood-tinged smiles?” (Lorrain 174). The descriptive language used here is particularly curious: “Take note of those eyes, with their irises of crystal, and that gleaming tint of porcelain! Her hair is silken, her teeth authentically pearly, like those of dolls” (Lorrain 174), as it is focused on the woman’s physical appearance, but twists it so that what should have been normal and beautiful, meaning silky hair and shining eyes and teeth, instead serves as indicators of her lack of humanity.

This is somewhat echoed in The Picture of Dorian Gray, however, instead of seeing Sibyl Vane as a supernatural creature, Dorian Gray is instead disappointed that she is not any of the persons she portrays on stage and is simply a beautiful young girl. This text also differs in that the opera glasses were used by Lord Henry and not Dorian: “Basil Hallward leaped to his feet and began to applaud. Motionless, and as one in a dream, sat Dorian Gray, gazing at her. Lord Henry peered through his glasses, murmuring, ‘Charming! Charming!’” (Wilde 80), however, it can be argued that the inclusion of the opera glasses indicates that Dorian used his companions’ eyes as lenses in lieu of the glasses. Instead of using the glasses and seeing things in a different light, the mere suggestion of examining another person closer was enough to alter his opinion. While Sibyl’s performance, as opposed to her beauty, was what had shifted in Dorian’s opinion, the language used to describe her acting was still focused on her physical attributes: “She looked charming as she came out in the moonlight. That could not be denied. But the staginess of her acting was unbearable and grew worse as she went on. Her gestures became absurdly artificial. She over-emphasized everything that she had to say” (Wilde 81). Much like in Magic Lantern, the languages can be twisted to read like a critique of her performance as a woman, where her exaggerated movements are not considered charming and instead are annoying and fake.

2 thoughts on “Looking Through the Opera Glass”

  1. I’m glad you highlighted that Henry was the character who actually used the opera glasses in The Picture of Dorian Gray and drew the connection to how his use of them changed Dorian’s perception. I think another important distinction between the stories is what the analyzed women are doing. Within the Magic Lantern, the women observed are patrons of the event, and the gruesome actions associated with them are merely rumors, which as a medium lend themselves to the fantastic. In the case of Sybil, she is acting on stage and it is her actions which betray her. This contrast between visibility and invisibility of action add another layer to the possible reasons why the women in each story are characterized on opposite sides of humanity and bestiality, as it is much easier to portray someone as monstrous when you can twist the story.

  2. I found this observation about the opera glasses very interesting–it reminded me of two paintings from the late nineteenth century, by Mary Cassatt and Pierre-Augustus Renoir, but more specifically Mary Cassatt’s “In the Loge” from 1878: https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/in-the-loge-31365. Here, Cassatt shows a woman doing the looking in the stead of the more typical men of Dorian Gray and Magic Lantern. While the woman looks on the stage, a man in the background focuses his own glass upon her, reiterating the idea of the woman as an object for the male gaze evoked by the Magic Lantern.

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