Room for the Past

In Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian’s decision on where to place his portrait piqued my interest. Though seemingly a trivial choice, I believe that Dorian’s room is representative of the fin de siecle as an era, but let me explain myself first.

Incase you missed it, prior to coming in contact with the portrait painted by Basil, Dorian is synonymous with purity and naïveté. But as time progresses, it becomes evident to both Dorian and the reader, that the painting reflects Dorian’s ever-changing personality, and as he commits worse and worse actions, the painting changes to be more and more ugly. This important relationship between Dorian’s past actions and the representation in the painting becomes a key point in understanding his childhood rooms’ meaning.

First, I want to draw attention to the paragraph on page 117 that outlines a basic understanding of the room itself. It starts,  “He had not entered the place for more than four years – not indeed since he had it first used as a play-room when he was a child, and then as a study when he grew somewhat older” (Wilde 117). In this paragraph, Dorian views this room with a nostalgic lens about his past, one that I would argue is representative of his innocence. However, by introducing the painting into a space representative of his innocent past, he corrupts it with a physical item relational to his new recent history. This reading of the room as a symbol for the past takes veering turns throughout the text as well.

Jumping ahead in the novel, Dorian reveals his secret of the changing painting to Basil, the artist who originally painted the portrait. In a wild fit of fear and insecurity, Dorian murders Basil in the very room that he had played in as a child (Wilde 151). As Dorian’s actions become more severe, the room takes on a greater representation of both his past actions and present state of being. Another facet that is important to keep in mind is the fact that the painting is just as representative of Dorian as it is of Basil. By killing the creator of the painting, Dorian in turned killed half of what the painting stood for as an object; the unification of two men on a 2-D surface.

The final place in the text that I want to direct attention to is when Dorian kills himself. He decides ultimately that the portrait is the source of his problems and takes the same knife that killed Basil and lunges towards the painting. However, the knife is turned on him and he is left dead, old, and withered (212-13). Here, the room is the final resting place for our main character, ultimately serving as a timeline. Instead of pointing the blame at himself, Dorian is the cause of his own downfall, and points the knife instead. Based on the text, it is unclear if the painting somehow turned the knife on Dorian, or if he kills himself. I read the ending as a sudden realization that Dorian makes: he is the root of the problem and the only way out is via suicide.

Thus leading us to my overall argument that Dorian’s room is representative of the fin de siecle. Now, I am well aware this may be a stretch, however the fin de siecle is an era where lingers of pessimism and degeneration are prevalent in hundreds of texts. I strongly believe that Dorian’s room is a timeline for his degeneration and cannot help but be a pessimistic space for Dorian.

As always, please tell me your thoughts.


4 thoughts on “Room for the Past”

  1. This is a really interesting argument. I agree that we can, and should, view Dorian’s room as emblematic of his descent into degeneracy and as such can be viewed as an example of the decadence of the Fin de Siecle more generally. I think it further plays into this idea that Dorian’s largest act of violence, or of evilness, the murder of Basil Hallward, occurs in this space as well. Thus, we further see the connection between the destruction of Dorian Gray as a symbol of the Fin de Siecle. Super Cool!

  2. It is very interesting that he put the painting in the room where he used to play as a child. As a child, he was likely very innocent and like a blank canvas and this painting shows the opposite, it shows only evil and demise. In a way, this can be seen like England where it was once this great land and seemed beautiful but then it became run down and broken. Perhaps Dorian wanted the room to capture his old innocence but the painting took it all away, maybe it was a way to protect himself from the painting.

  3. This is a really evocative read — that the room that Dorian puts the portrait into becomes a timeline not just of his corruption but of his lifetime is a great interpretation. I had in no way thought of the room holding so much representation, but now I can never read this the same way, which I’m glad for. Beyond this key idea, two of your points really stuck out to me: that the portrait was a joining of Basil and Dorian, and that the physical action of placing the portrait into his childhood room was an act of corruption. I had not considered the portrait to be equally holding Basil within it, but I suppose that it captured Basil in many ways that mirrored its capture of Dorian’s youth and innocence.

  4. Dear JAY WALKER,
    I’m extremely impressed that you picked up on that small detail of Dorian’s childhood room, and then interpreted it as representative of both Dorian’s innocence and the fin de siecle!! I would like to offer an alternative reading of the part where you state “By killing the creator of the painting, Dorian in turned killed half of what the painting stood for as an object; the unification of two men on a 2-D surface.” While I agree that Dorian killed half of what the painting stood for, I believe that the painting is a subject rather than an object. At least in the very beginning, the painting starts out as an object because Basil creates the portrait of Dorian with intention. Basil, as an artist, paints Dorian to capture his ideal of Dorian’s soul: The beauty of Dorian’s innocence. However, this intention changes when Dorian’s subconscious is impressed by the portrait, causing him to question himself and his desires. From there, the portrait changes from a depiction of form to a reflection of expression (expression here being Dorian’s mortality and morality)

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