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.

Elementary vs. Arthur Conan Doyle

As classic as reading Sherlock Holmes has become, it has also become tradition to recreate the story, and bring the beloved detective to light again. Jeremy Brett, Basil Rathbone, Robert Downey, Jr., Ian McKellan, Benedict Cumberbatch, and many, many more have taken on the role to bring the story into more modern context. As of late, the trend has been to bring Holmes and his trusted partner, Watson, out of the Victorian context, and into the modern era, as this can be seen with both the series Sherlock, and Elementary.

Elementary even takes Holmes one step further out of his original context, by bringing the stories across the pond, and having them centered in New York City. With that, and the racebending and genderbending of Watson, I tend to see Elementary and the original Sherlock Holmes stories as being inherently different. She is brought in as a mostly different character– a woman having seen the worst as a resident surgeon, and having left practice after a fatal mistake, is now acting as a sober companion. This is extremely different from the Watson of the stories, an army surgeon looking for someone to share a flat with after coming home from deployment. The terms of their living arrangement is totally changed: instead of Watson looking for a flat to share, Joan is hired to live with Holmes as a sober companion. The point of view changes entirely, from the enamored view of Watson in the short stories, to the outside view, following the story of Holmes as he interacts with Joan.

Changing Watson’s character as they did, Elementary starts to try and reflect a more modern and diverse world. Creating Joan as a woman who not only speaks and thinks for herself, but exists as an individual outside of Holmes, starts to chip away at some of the sexism and misogyny of the original text. Even Irene Adler, who was only ever a character through Holmes, takes on her own agency. Instead of an opera singer who blackmails German royalty, she is an art dealer turned master forger, who refuses Holmes advances to start. She created her own terms to start the relationship and, in the end, creates her own terms to end it, as well.

Despite losing this smitten narrative from Watson, and the Victorian context, these two story lines are inevitably similar, as they have to be. Holmes is still and addict, to both substances, and solving crimes at whatever the cost. One can see in plenty of episodes Holmes insatiable curiosity, in how he continues to try and figure out Joan, and how he continues, in his boredom, to experiment on his pet tortoise, Clyde. Joan Watson is still the grounding factor, ever intwined in Holmes’ life, fascinated by how he works. She even goes forward, as the Conan Doyle version of Watson did, to work her own cases as a private detective. The two different versions of the classic criminal mystery stories, as told and solved by Watson and Holmes, stay essentially the same. But, through the modernisation of the roles of Joan Watson and Irene Adler, and the change in time and place, the underlying narratives are thoroughly different.

Laws of the Island of Dr. Moreau

Throughout The Island of Dr. Moreau, by H.G. Wells, there seems to be a continuous commentary on the idea of laws. In the very beginning of the text, before Prendick even gets to the island, he is faced with the concept of laws that he does not understand, with the drunken ship captain: “Who are you to tell me what I’m to do. I tell you I’m captain of the ship– Captain and Owner. I’m the law here, I tell you– the law and the prophets,” (9). Seeing this as early as the third chapter, I found that I was confronted with the concept of an authority figure who assumed power via ownership. It was very interesting, also, that the religious aspect was drawn in this early, too. The captain said how he was “the law and the prophets,” turning his power on the ship into an almost religion to follow. Moreau does the same thing on his island, with the Beast Folk. He has quite literally created them: he takes ownership over the responsibility of their existences. Whether or not he has facilitated it, Dr. Moreau has become a deity of sorts to the Beast Folk, through the implications of ‘the Law.’ These beasts have been quite literally created by the mysterious Dr. Moreau, and they worship him through the recitation of ‘the Law.’ “A horrible fancy  came into my head that Moreau,  after animalising these men, had infected their dwarfed brains with a kind of deification of himself,” says Prendick (43). Though Prendick removes all agency from the Beast Folk to have put Moreau on this pedistal on their own, he does make a point, in that Moreau has become a religious figure to these Beast Folk. The reciting of ‘the Law’ can be eerily compared to that of a religious mass: “A kind of rhythmic fervour fell on all of us; we gabbled and swayed faster and faster, repeating this amazing law,” (43). They are worshiping the standards of Dr. Moreau, almost the same that the civilised humans with which Prendick was familiar might worship God’s standards. Prendick even makes a point to say that he has no idea who the He/His/Him in the chants could be, and yet, he continues to follow in the almost spiritual aspects of the reciting of ‘the Law,’ following as blindly as he did when dealing with the drunken captain in Chapter 3.  

I think the passage where we first encounter the chanting is more of a commentary on the worship of authority figures. The laws as dictated by humanity don’t seem to apply in this book, but in their place, are the law of the authority figures. The way the chanting comes off as a religious experience, just as much as it does an internalising of laws that are followed because the authority figure says so, not just because they have been deemed reasonable to follow, speaks to that idea. Later in the text, Mongomery even says, “Much the brutes care for the Law, eh– when Moreau’s not about?” (66). Plenty of religions have this same idea: the idea that you shouldn’t murder because God says not to, not just because murder is a terrible thing to do.