Who Was the Real Painting?

The period of time known as the fin de siecle was marked by uncertainty and doubt, particularly about the role of people in nature. Ideas like natural selection and evolution called into question people’s beliefs about the world and how it came to be. This is often reflected in the literature, especially in the last scene of The Picture of Dorian Gray.  

There are many things about this scene that are somewhat ambiguous, which reflects the contemporary doubt and questioning about the world, but there are also aspects that are more unambiguous. When Dorian is found dead, he is described as “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage” (Wilde Chapter XX). What is not clear is how his face got this way when the curse of the portrait has kept his face young until now. Based on how the final scene is described, I think what happened when Dorian tried to ‘kill’ the portrait was that the portrait had grown in power, so it was able to move and deflect the blade so that it killed Dorian instead. Of course, there are other possible interpretations, including that Dorian got confused in his rush to destroy the painting and stabbed himself instead, but this doesn’t explain how he suddenly aged when he hadn’t been doing so. The fact that this is never fully explained and is mostly left to the reader’s interpretation can be seen as a reflection of the uncertainty of the time. Where most of Victorian England was questioning topics like the role of religion in their lives, Dorian’s friends are wondering how he’s not aging and wondering what happened when they find him with a knife in his chest and the roles of him and the portrait reversed. What is clear is that the painting is now “splendid” when before the subject was described as old and evil-looking. It’s also clear that Dorian now looks old instead of the painting.  

In addition to reflecting contemporary feelings of doubt, the final scene also very effectively wraps up a commentary on the role of art. This is mostly done through the aforementioned ambiguity of the final scene. For example, all we know is that when Dorian is found, he was “a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart” and that they needed to “examine the rings” to determine who he was (Wilde XX). Again, it’s unclear if Dorian tried to ‘kill’ the portrait or if it killed him. We don’t know how the portrait became young again and Dorian became old. The fact that the switch happened seems to suggest that the portrait took Dorian’s place. Maybe the portrait was the real Dorian all along, because Dorian looked the same while the painting changed? Maybe the portrait was always trying to get rid of Dorian and it finally got the chance? Does that mean that art does have a life of its own, as Basil alluded to? 

4 thoughts on “Who Was the Real Painting?”

  1. I like the ambiguity of Dorian’s death because it can be read as an accident or a murder from something more sinister. The fact that a man known for his good looks around England can suddenly only be recognized by material items of his rings is so abrupt and unexplainable that it must be due to the supernatural. All in all, I agree with your analysis.

  2. I like how your post compared how the portrait looked before and after Dorian died. Your post made me wonder if the portrait doesn’t so much reflect Dorian’s changing soul, but absorbs it, and released it when he died. If the portrait looked evil while Dorian looked externally beautiful, then the portrait could have been a supernatural storage unit for “unbecoming emotions,” as Lord Henry would say, such as the shame and guilt Dorian doesn’t really feel when he kills people. Then when Dorian is dead and wrinkled whereas the portrait is innocent, stabbing the portrait released all of his corruption back to Dorian, which restores the painting but shows Dorian’s true, wrinkled, “unbecoming” self. I also like your theory of Dorian being the painting since he never changes externally.

  3. I also really loved the ambiguity of Dorian’s death scene. It made me think about, which I think we talked about in class, the whole split-soul thing when a portrait or painting is done of a person. I thought maybe Dorian’s soul was split into the portrait and his physical body, but then the painting absorbed both parts and that’s why they couldn’t recognize who Dorian was by his body anymore. It was a really weird scene. I liked your question at the end about whether Basil was right about art having a life of its own, I think that Dorian’s portrait is an interesting interpretation of art that seems to have its own life that Dorian ultimately tried to kill.

  4. Within the novel, Dorian is portrayed as a very handsome man that is unchanging in his beauty; however, as your analysis points out, that all ends within the final scene. I enjoy the various reasonings that you have provided since the ending is open, it allows for more ideas to be spun from the same web. Outwardly he expresses that his deeds do not affect him, but deep down in his consciousness, it may be wearing on him. So as when he dies at the end, he had always looked withered while the painting was always young. Reflecting on the age itself, Dorian is guided through his actions as a child instead of solving his own problems or engaging in any critical thinking. As beforementioned, Dorian’s deeds toll him, but we experience for ourselves his childish reaction to the painting. Instead of reflecting on the painting and keeping it for that reason, he, in an almost childish temper tantrum, attempts to destroy the painting, thus revealing his true self and unleashing what may very well be the supernatural within the painting.

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