Do You See What I See? Idolatry in The Picture of Dorian Gray

“‘I don’t believe it is my picture.’ ‘Can’t you see your ideal in it?’ said Dorian, bitterly. ‘My ideal, as you call it…’ ‘As you called it.’ ‘There was nothing evil in it, nothing shameful. You were to me such an ideal as I shall never meet again. This is the face of a satyr.’ ‘It is the face of my soul.’ ‘Christ! What a thing I must have worshipped! It has the eyes of a devil’” (Wilde, 132). 

In his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde paints a portrait of the dangers of idolatry in art and appearance. The above passage is from a conversation between Dorian and Basil in the middle of chapter 13, when Basil sees the portrait of Dorian as it has transformed to reflect his soul. Basil cannot “believe it is [the] picture” he painted of Dorian because it is now so ugly. Dorian asks Basil is he can still see his “ideal” in the portrait, to which Basil replies, “there was nothing evil in it, nothing shameful.” The “it” in the sentence could be Basil referring to the original painting as something that wasn’t “evil” or “shameful” when he first painted it. However, the “it” could also refer to Basil once considering Dorian to be his “ideal.”

Basil seems to be defending his idolization of Dorian when he says, “there was nothing evil in” this idolatry, “nothing shameful.” However, Basil reckons with his idolatry when Dorian confides that the portrait in its current state “is the face of [his] soul.” Basil’s own acknowledgement of having idolized Dorian is most apparent when he exclaims, “Christ! What a thing I must have worshipped!” Basil did not just admire Dorian, nor was he simply obsessed with him – he worshipped Dorian in a god-like way.

The passage seems to be suggesting that idolatry is dangerous because you can never fully know the ins and outs of who or what you are idolizing. Dorian’s appearance is beautiful, but as the portrait reflects, his soul is ugly. What you think could be “Christ!”, as Basil ironically says in his reaction to the portrait being a depiction of Dorian’s soul, could very well be the “devil.” Perhaps, the novel is making a broader statement about religion and art – that to put art in the place of God is a wrongful glorification of beauty and appearance.

2 thoughts on “Do You See What I See? Idolatry in The Picture of Dorian Gray”

  1. One thing I like about this reply is that I think Wilde would have really enjoyed the suggestion that his book had themes of blasphemy. This idea is really interesting to me, because I find that many if not most of the characters in this novel are driven to obsession over a particular object. Several of them can’t help but be drawn towards Dorian, with his admittedly angelic outer appearance: Basil, Lord Henry, and Sybil Vane. Dorian himself seems to be in love with art: Basil’s portrait of himself, Sybil, and even the decadent lifestyle portrayed in Henry’s book. The possibility that all of these characters met such bad ends because they were godlessly wandering after the wrong idol seems to me very appropriate emblem of the fin de siecle portrayed in the book, with art serving as a new golden-plated tower of Babel leading mankind astray. Like the bad ending of Pygmalian, something has answered the artist’s prayers and brought his masterpiece to life, but it was not God.

  2. I think the passage you chose effectively highlights the intersection between religion and art in the novel. Basil’s use of “Christ” as an exclamation is ironic, considering the subsequent revelation of the portrait’s demonic quality. This juxtaposition raises questions about the substitution of art for religious devotion. The novel seems to caution against placing too much faith in external beauty or artistic representations, as they may conceal hidden, undesirable truths that stray from the acceptable. The juxtaposition of “Christ” and “devil” really emphasizes the potential dangers of replacing genuine spiritual values with superficial, aesthetic worship. I think this caution is completely intentional given the anxieties of the fin-de-siècle in fearing a sort of moral and spiritual decay.

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