Art and Immortality in “A Portrait” by Michael Field and Dorian Gray

While reading the poem “A Portrait” by Michael Field, I was immediately reminded of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray – not only because of the shared theme of the portrait, but also the mutual themes of art and mortality vs. immortality. One can see this theme present in the last two lines of the poem:

“The small, close mouth, leaving no room for breath,

In perfect, still pollution smiles – Lo, she has conquered death!”

By posing as the subject of the portrait the woman achieves immortality, having “conquered death.” In effect, she becomes an object, rather than a person – a static, visual representation of herself. This objectification of bodies relates to the Victorian obsession with material objects and the favoring of aesthetics over ethics, as Robert Mighall states in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Dorian Gray: “For Wilde, art is superior to nature and to life, and aesthetics are always higher than ethics.” (xxv) As an object, the woman’s body becomes sexualized:

“To give her fragile shapeliness to art, whose reason spanned

Her doom, who bade her beauty in its cold

And vacant eminence persist for all men to behold!”

Her body becomes simply a “vacant” shell, whose sole purpose is to look beautiful for “men to behold.” By becoming a portrait, she shifts from the realm of mortality and ethics to the realm of immortality and aesthetics.

In Dorian Gray, however, we see a reversal in the role of art and mortality vs. immortality – Dorian’s body stays young and beautiful forever, while the portrait ages and distorts with every sinful act he commits. In this case, Dorian becomes the immortal, aesthetic object, while the portrait becomes the mortal, ethical living-being. The notion of giving life to art occurs throughout the entire novel, in  which, according to Mighall, Dorian “brings his moral life to the portrait, confusing art with life, and ethics with aesthetics.” (xxv) The result of this confusion of ethics and aesthetics “is disastrous for the work of art; what should have been hailed as ‘one of the greatest things in modern art’ is transformed into a horrifying record of corruption, ‘bestial, sodden, and unclean (…).'” (xxv) Dorian’s ethical reading of the portrait takes on a form of “aesthetic heresy,” and could even be interpreted as being “Dorian’s greatest sin.” (xxv)

A similar example of the confusion of ethics and aesthetics occurs with Dorian’s love for Sibyl Vane – he falls in love with Sibyl’s acting, rather than her person. When Sibyl ties her love for Dorian with her acting, her art is destroyed – she performs badly in the play, and Dorian loses his love for her, because she becomes a “person” rather than an object. The influence of life on Sibyl’s art ultimately leads to her death when she commits suicide, proving that “art is destroyed by life and morality, and that ethics and aesthetics belong to separate spheres of thought and judgement.” (xxvii)

This notion that the realm of art and the realm of life should be kept separate is the basis of the Aesthetic belief, as Oscar Wilde writes in his Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray: “To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.” (3) According to the Aesthetic movement, art should exist solely as an aesthetic entity, removed from the intention of the artist – ultimately, it should exist purely as “art for art’s sake.”

Ethics vs. Aesthetics – the Role of Art in Sibyl’s Life and in Dorian’s Portrait

Something that really stood out to me while reading The Picture of Dorian Gray was the curious figure of Sibyl Vane, who appears only shortly as Dorian’s “great love,” but who just as quickly disappears when she commits suicide. After Sibyl performs badly in the play, Dorian immediately loses all love for her: “He flung himself down on the sofa, and turned away his face. ‘You have killed my love,’ he muttered.” (84) What is it that triggers such an immediate response of disgust in Dorian?

In the introduction found in the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, Robert Mighall addresses this curious relationship between Dorian and Sibyl, analyzing the significance of Sibyl as an actress. According to Mighall, Sibyl is an artificial character in the novel – in a sense, she is an actress not only in the story, but also in the novel itself. She is “living in a fairy-tale world,” in which Dorian becomes her real-life “Prince Charming,” and her sole existence occurs on the stage (xxvi):

“‘To-night she is Imogen,’ [Dorian] answered, ‘and to-morrow night she will be Juliet.’

‘When is she Sibyl Vane?’

‘Never.'” (54)

Dorian is “in love with Sibyl’s acting rather than the women herself.” (xxv) For Dorian, Sibyl is an archetype of art – therefore, Dorian’s love of Sibyl is not an emotional love, but an aesthetic love, which can be connected to the theme of Aestheticism that runs throughout the entire novel. According to Aestheticism, ethics and aesthetics are distinct from each other and can’t coexist. This can be seen when Sibyl acts in “Romeo and Juliet” just before she commits suicide – she weaves her love for Dorian into her role of Juliet, intermingling reality with art:

“(…) Dorian, before I met you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived. (…) The painted scenes were my world. (…) You came – oh, my beautiful love! – and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is.” (84)

Sibyl’s failure to act well when introduced to reality, as well as her suicide immediately after, are a testament to the Aesthetic notion that art and ethics are opposites, and that “art is destroyed by life and morality, and that ethics and aesthetics belong to separate spheres of thought and judgment.” (xxvii) One could extend this theory of the separation between ethics and aesthetics to the portrait of Dorian Gray – in “real life,” Dorian is an aesthetic version of himself, a handsome man whose beauty remains intact forever, while the portrait is a moral version of himself, a face that becomes more and more corrupted with every sinful act he does. In an interesting reversal, Dorian becomes the “art,” while the portrait becomes the ethical and moral judgment.

Dracula and Renfield – an Unleashed Homoeroticism?

In his essay “Gender and Inversion in Dracula,” Christopher Craft discusses the inherent homoeroticism present in Dracula, which is constantly bubbling beneath the surface, yet never quite makes itself manifest: “(…) The sexual threat this novel first evokes, manipulates, sustains, but never fully represents is that Dracula will seduce, penetrate, drain another male.” (446) This “sexual threat” is evident in Jonathan Harker’s encounter with Dracula in his mansion, in which Jonathan cuts his throat while shaving. Dracula, rather than give into his desire to drink Jonathan’s blood, restrains himself:

“When the Count saw my face, his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury, and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away, and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him, for the fury passed so quickly that I could hardly believe that it was there.” (33)

Why would Dracula stop short of drinking Jonathan’s blood? What is holding him back? This is a testament to Craft’s theory of the “sexual threat” – the act of drinking a person’s blood, a form of “penetration,” has clear sexual connotations. In the novel, this penetration only occurs between a male that penetrates and a female that is penetrated; although Dracula comes close to drinking Jonathan’s blood, with a “blaze” in his eyes that can clearly be read as sexual passion, he must restrain himself lest he disrupt the strict gender binaries on which the novel is constructed. In order to avoid this homoerotic penetration, Dracula has his three vampire women, which embody the masculine role of the “penetrator” – concealed, however, by a pronounced femininity. When the vampire women seduce Harker, the language surrounding the seduction takes on much greater freedom than the near-penetration occurring between Harker and Dracula (“moisture shining on the scarlet lips,” “langourous ecstasy” (45-46)), because the dilemma of the male-male penetration has been eradicated. Despite this, the women are still unable to penetrate Harker, because they would take on the role of penetrator, making Harker the one who is penetrated – a reversal of the heteronormative sexual norms. Thus, as Craft states:

“Here, the ‘two sharp teeth,’ just ‘touching’ and ‘pausing’ there, stop short of the transgression which would unsex Harker and toward which this text constantly aspires and then retreats: the actual penetration of the male.” (447)

Taking this into account, how, then, does one interpret the strange relationship between Renfield and Dracula? Though it is suggested that Dracula had some influence on Renfield, the matter never fully resolves itself, leaving behind only a misty understanding of what actually occurred between the two. After Van Helsing and Seward find Renfield lying on the floor of his room and covered in blood, Renfield tells them of Dracula’s regular visits: “I would’t ask him to come in at first, though I knew he wanted to – just as he had wanted all along. Then he began promising things – not in words but by doing them.” (297) Why does Dracula have a desire to enter Renfield’s room? What is it that Dracuala “does” when he is promising things? Renfield tells them that Dracula would give him “lives” in the form of rats – but why would Dracula do this? What interest does he have in Renfield? Renfield then recounts the moment when Dracula entered his room:

“(…) Before I knew what I was doing, I found myself opening the sash and saying to Him: ‘Come in, Lord and Master!’ The rats were all gone, but He slid into the room through the sash, though it was only open an inch wide – just as the Moon herself has often come in through the tiniest crack, and has stood before me in all her size and splendor.” (298)

Dracula, in this description, possesses a clearly feminine quality, as he is described as being like the Moon – a symbol of femininity. Also, Renfield describes Dracula’s appearance with a sense of awe and admiration (“stood before me in all her size and splendor” (298)), suggesting a sort of homoeroticism. Renfield continues, saying:

“When he slid in through the window, though it was shut, and did not even knock, I got mad with him. He sneered at me, and his white face looked out of the mist with his red eyes gleaming, and he went on as though he owned the whole place, and I was no one. He didn’t even smell the same as he went by me. I couldn’t hold him. I thought that, somehow, Mrs Harker had come into the room.” (298)

Again, there is an element of homoeroticism present in the relationship between Dracula and Renfield – Renfield says that he “couldn’t hold him,” and that he didn’t “smell the same.” This suggests that there must have been some kind of physical contact between the two – otherwise, why would Renfield be saying this? Also, Dracula’s entering of Renfield’s room through the window takes on a form of “penetration” itself (“he slid into the room through the sash, though it was only an inch wide” (298). This penetration seems to resemble an act of rape in the passage above, where Renfield says: “he went on as though he owned the whole place, and I was no one.” (298) Am I reading too much into this, or is it possible that this seemingly homoerotic relationship between Dracula and Renfield is the fulfillment of a male-male sexual penetration to which, as Craft states, the novel “constantly aspires and then retreats”?

Parallel Between the “Ambivalence of Modernity” and the Language in “Dracula” – Connection, or merely Coincidence?

While reading the first chapter of Dracula, I was particularly struck by the rather peculiar language surrounding the description of the Transylvanian landscape during the journey to Dracula’s house:

“As the evening fell it began to get very cold, and the growing twilight seemed to merge into one dark mistiness the gloom of the trees, oak, beech, and pine (…). Sometimes, as the road was cut through the pine woods that seemed in the darkness to be closing down upon us, great masses of greyness (…) produced a peculiarly weird and solemn effect, which carried on the thoughts and grim fancies engendered earlier in the evening (…).” (14)

The existence of dark, ominous language, along with the “great masses of greyness” that appeared to be “closing down upon us,” seems to resonate with Ledger and Luckhurst’s introduction in their book The Fin de Siècle – the gray, looming shadows that are described in the Transylvanian landscape mirror the looming anxiety that Ledger and Luckhurst outline regarding the turn of the century. The shadows represent, as written by Max Nordau, the inevitable “dusk of nations, in which all suns and stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is persisting in the midst of a dying world.” (xiii)

This sort of language is repeated later on in chapter two, when Jonathon Harker is in Dracula’s house:

“(…) I could not help experiencing that chill which comes over one at the coming of the dawn, which is like, in its way, the turn of the tide. They say that people who are near death die generally at the change to the dawn or at the turn of the tide; any one who has when tired, and tied as it were to his post, experienced this change in atmosphere can well believe it.” (31)

Again, the language seems to suggest a sort of foreboding, as in an approaching end or death, which is reflected in the “turn of the tide,” which closely resembles the Victorian “turn of the century.” However, here the language seems to suggest a beginning as well, which is embodied through the use of the word “dawn” – this can be tied to the Victorians’ fear of the ambiguity surrounding the beginning of a new century, as well as a realization of possibility and innovation. The interaction between these two contradictory feelings is what Ledger and Luckhurst refer to as the “ambivalence of modernity,” or “the way in which assertions of the limitless generative power of the British nation were haunted by fantasies of decay and degeneration (…).” (xiii)

How, then, can we interpret this “ambivalence of modernity” in terms of Dracula? Are these similarities within the text simply coincidental, or do they point to something greater? I feel like I am unable to analyze them just yet, as we have only read two chapters, but I am curious to see if this is a theme that will be continued later on in the novel.

Man vs. Machine – Moreau’s Attempt to “Perfect” Mankind

Reading through The Longman Anthology, I was struck by a quote found under the section titled “The Age of Energy and Invention,” which illustrates Karl Marx’s view of the obsession with science and innovation which marked the Victorian era:

“[Marx] saw that through the hoopla of the marketplace, products had acquired a ‘mystical character’ and ‘theological niceties’ of their own. Yet Marx did not regard commodities as proof of God’s existence; instead, he argued that they functioned as deities in their own right. (…) Looking around at the wonders of British industry, Marx decided that people had become, finally, less important that things.” (1055)

I found this quote to be crucial when discussing The Island of Dr. Moreau, because the idea of humanity as something imperfect, something that should (and can be, through the eyes of Dr. Moreau) perfected through the modes of science and technology, acts as the foundation of Moreau’s ideology. One can trace this idea specifically to Moreau’s theory on the nature of pain and pleasure, which he reveals while talking to Prendick about his “praxis”: “The capacity for pain is not needed in the muscle, and it is not placed there (…). Pain is simply our intrinsic medical adviser to warn us and stimulate us. (…) I never yet heard of a useless thing that was not ground out of existence by evolution sooner or later. Did you? And pain gets needless.” (55)

Moreau views pain as an unnecessary trait, and something which he believes can, ultimately, be conquered. He continues, saying: “This store men and women set on pleasure and pain, Prendick, is the mark of the beast upon them, the mark of the beast from which they came. Pain! Pain and pleasure – they are for us, only so long as we wriggle in the dust…” (55)

Pain and pleasure are two characteristics that are unmistakably human, and without the capacity for those two things, there is little that distances humans from machines – and yet, it is exactly those two things that Moreau wants to eliminate. Moreau sees pain and pleasure as weakness, and he wishes to conquer that weakness just as one would fix a bug on a computer, or replace a rusty screw. In this regard, Moreau embodies Marx’s notion that people were becoming less important than things, and that humanity was becoming increasingly replaced by science. The obsession with invention and the endless striving towards an ever-greater perfection can be summed up in a quote towards the end of The Island of Dr. Moreau:

“A blind fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence, and I, Moreau by his passion for research, Montgomery by his passion for drink, the Beast People, with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.” (74)

To me, this “vast pitiless mechanism” is representative of the obsession with science and the attempt to shape and perfect nature, to “cut and shape the fabric of existence,” that I have been trying to outline in this blog post – it is the central conflict, and the engine that gives power to the novel as a whole.