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.

Gertrude: The Lonely New Woman (with no bicycle?)

Gertrude’s fear of loneliness is apparent throughout The Romance of a Shop. At the end of the tenth chapter, Gertrude “wept very bitterly” out of fear that she would be alone once all her sisters were married off (Levy, 127). Her fear is actualized towards the end of the novel when she feels “very lonely” and is “trying to accustom herself in thought to the long years of solitude, of dreariness, which she saw stretching out before her,” after Lucy married Frank (192). Gertrude proceeds to describe her role as “a strong-minded woman” in the rest of the passage, presenting the downsides of being a “New Woman” (192).

For Gertrude, “the world, even when represented by her best friends, had labelled her a strong-minded woman” (192). “Strong-minded” suggests a sense of independence, which is characteristic of the “New Woman.” In this regard, Gertrude seems to be representing the “New Woman” — she is unmarried (therefore independent of a man) and works a job. Levy doesn’t use passive voice here – a choice that suggests a broader social commentary; rather, Levy states that it is the world that gave Gertrude this label of an independent, “New Woman”-like figure. In that regard, Gertrude did not fully choose the position that she is in – society and her circumstances (e.g., death of her father and subsequent lack of inheritance) did.

The notion that society placed Gertrude in the role of the “New Woman” is emphasized when the narrator says that “by universal consent she had been cast for the part” (192). The metaphor of being “cast for the part” immediately removes Gertrude from any position of power to choose the life she wants to lead (192). It is ironic that the idea of the “New Woman” is contrasted with the fact that women, like Gertrude, were perhaps being forced into this new role. That is, it seems counterintuitive for the “New Woman” to be equated with women not having autonomy as to whether they wanted to lead that life.

As Gertrude recognizes her loneliness as an unmarried, working woman, Levy describes her as being “cast for the part, and perforce must go through with it” (192). The use of the word “perforce,” meaning “must” or “inevitably,” signals that Gertrude may feel stuck in the progressive role of a “New Woman,” just as some women feel stuck in the traditional role of having to get married. In this sense, Levy’s descriptions of Gertrude’s struggles suggests that the “New Woman” is just another role that women become boxed into.

Sedgwick hasn’t met Mina and Lucy

In her introduction to Between Men, Eve Sedwick draws upon queer theory to explore the continuum of male homosocial desire in literature. Sedgwick argues that there is a difference in our society between “the relatively continuous relation of female homosocial and homosexual bonds” and “the radically discontinuous relation of male homosocial and homosexual bonds” (5). Essentially, she argues that for women, homosocial and homosexual bonds don’t fall on the opposite end of the spectrum from each other, but that homosocial bonds can describe the whole continuum; however, she argues that for men, homosocial bonds are markedly different from homosexual bonds. Furthermore, Sedgwick suggests that the reason that we can’t say that male homosocial and homosexual bonds are on the same continuum is because homophobia is necessary to maintain a heterosexual marital institution. Therefore, men work hard to ensure that their homosocial relationships aren’t erotic. When looking at Dracula through the lens of Sedgwick’s argument, we talked in class about the distinct moments where Stoker’s male characters seem to be encroaching on a homosexual relationship. However, Sedgwick’s argument fails to account for the moments we discussed where Mina and Lucy also exhibit homosexual behaviors, not just a homosocial bond, and how the book works to maintain heterosexuality.

To follow Sedgwick’s argument would entail us to view Mina’s obsession with Lucy and her appearance as simply being part of homosocial bonds. However, our class discussions have called out the times where their relationship crosses into more erotic territory. When Mina and Lucy visit the graveyard, Mina recounts how they sat together, saying “it was all so beautiful before us that we took hands as we sat” (Stoker, 76). One could argue that the two women holding hands is erotic because it is a display of desire. Sedgwick might counter that to say that Mina and Lucy holding hands still exhibits a homosocial bond because homosocial bonds in women can include eroticism, but male homosocial bonds can’t include eroticism because “homophobia is a necessary consequence of such patriarchal institutions as heterosexual marriage” (Sedgwick, 3). However, immediately after Mina’s description of them holding hands, she says, “and she told me all over again about Arthur and their coming marriage” (Stoker, 76). For this reminder of heterosexuality to so closely accompany a display of physical affection between women suggests a need to counter any assumptions of homosexuality between Mina and Lucy, like what Sedgwick suggests men have to do.

We talked in class about Mina’s obsession with Lucy; how she looks, where she sleeps. At one point, Mina describes Lucy as having “more colour in her cheeks than usual, and looks, oh, so sweet” (Stoker, 99). Her attentiveness to Lucy’s appearance and well-being appears to be more than the behavior of two friends. At another point, when Lucy is getting up in the night and getting dressed, Mina describes how she “managed to undress [Lucy] without waking her, and got her back to bed” (Stoker, 96). Reading through the lens of Sedgwick, these actions still fall under the umbrella of homosocial bonds for women; however, the fact that both Mina and Lucy are in romantic relationships with other men lends itself to there being an “‘obligatory heterosexuality’” that “is built into” both “male-dominated kindship systems” as well as female relationships (Sedgwick, 3).

Van Helsing’s Critique of Certainty and Modernity

Bram Stoker’s Dracula highlights the “ambivalence of modernity” described in Ledger and Luckhurst’s chapter on the ‘Fin de Siècle’ (Ledger and Luckhurst, xiii). We see the fear of uncertainty played out in Harker’s journal, where he expresses that “it was the doubt as to the reality of the whole thing that knocked [him] over,” not his harrowing experience with the Count (Stoker, 200). In an age of uncertainty, people need to find things that they can place their trust in, such as science; however, it is this search for certainty that Van Helsing pushes against in his conversation with Dr. Seward.

When Van Helsing shows Dr. Seward the newspaper article about the children whose throats had bite marks like Lucy’s, Dr. Seward infers that there may be a correlation between the bites on Lucy’s neck and the bites on the children’s necks; however, Van Helsing already believes that the bites “were made by Miss Lucy” (206). He criticizes Dr. Seward of being “too prejudiced” because he is listening to what he believes, not what the evidence is showing him (204). However, for Dr. Seward to listen to the evidence rather than his beliefs would result in him ignoring what science has shown to be possible. Van Helsing takes this opportunity to deliver a message critiquing “the authority of science” which is so crucial to the Fin de Siècle (Ledger and Luckhurst, xv).

Van Helsing argues that “there are things old and new which must not be contemplate by men’s eyes, because they know – or think they know – some things which other men have told them” (Stoker, 204). He seems to be discrediting science as being only something “which other men” have created. This statement puts science on similar grounds as religion; that is, it is something that has been told to us by others and that we then believe. As discussed in class, the crisis of faith at this time was concurrent with the permeation of science – how can one have faith if science has disproven the biblical story of creation? Van Helsing’s direction to have “an open mind” seems to be the response to this question, and one that encourages a sense of uncertainty (206).

Van Helsing believes that “it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain” (204). By claiming that the problem with science is that it desires to have an answer for everything, Van Helsing seems to be arguing that there is not, in fact, an answer for everything. Acknowledging that there isn’t an answer for everything and that no one knows everything creates a sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty is placed in conjunction with modernity when Van Helsing describes that “we see around us every day the growth of new beliefs” (204). Growth is quintessential of modernity, but the idea of “new beliefs” sparks an interesting debate as to what constitutes a belief for Van Helsing.

In his statement about what people “know – or think they know” because of what “other men have told them,” Van Helsing suggests that knowledge and science are beliefs held by people who have been told what to believe (204). Perhaps, the “beliefs” that he is referring to in his comment about “the growth of new beliefs” are the same developments of “psychology, psychical research, sexology, and eugenics” that Ledger and Luckhurst outline as “‘new’ human sciences” (xiii). In these few passages, Van Helsing calls out the new “knowledge” and developments of modernity as creating a false sense of certainty and truth that prevents Dr. Seward from seeing the reality of Lucy’s situation.