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? 

Amy Levy: Feminist Friend or Foe?

In the late nineteenth century, the beginnings of modern feminism were beginning to take root. Some people clung strongly, as is also the case today, to the traditional view that men and women were meant to fill different roles in society, and that women should be subservient to men. Some women, including Amy Levy, agreed with this sentiment, at least to some extent. Others started to promote the idea of a “New Woman,” who was independent and did not rely on men for her needs. Amy Levy did not identify as a feminist, but she seems to have some support for the movement, and she explores these complicated feelings in The Romance of a Shop.

More specifically, Amy Levy uses the characters of Gertrude and Lord Watergate to explore some complex feelings about the burgeoning movement of feminism. Levy writes that Gertrude “had told him not to return and he had taken her at her word. She was paying the penalty, which her sex always pays one way or another, for her struggles for strength and independence” (Levy 294). The use of the phrase “paying the penalty…for strength and independence” indicates a disdain on Levy’s part for women who try to achieve such “strength and independence,” because a woman who even desires such things, much less works for them, is portrayed as someone who must be punished. This is a common trope in literature from this time period, the fin de siècle, for example in Henry James’s Daisy Miller, in which a woman is sent away and ultimately dies, and it is suggested that this is her punishment for being too strong, independent, or acting too much like a man. Therefore, this passage can be read as an extension of that tradition, and as a critique of feminism and women’s emerging independence.

Despite the fact that this passage reads as a critique of feminism, there is one phrase that suggests that it might be something more. Levy writes that “Lord Watergate might have loved (Gertrude) more if he respected her less…” and this is a surprisingly critical phrase that one would not expect to see in a passage critiquing feminism (Levy 294). It seems to critique the idea of heterosexual love by implying that a man must disrespect a woman in order to fully and truly “love” her. It would be expected in a feminist critique for a man to be portrayed as able to love and respect a woman while also keeping her in a subordinate and subservient position. However, in the next half of that sentence, Levy writes that Lord Watergate could also have loved Gertrude more if he “allowed for a little feminine waywardness,” which undermines the point that was just made, implying that all women are naturally unpredictable and disloyal. In this way, therefore, Levy uses The Romance of a Shop to explore complex ideas surrounding feminism.

Is the Dracula Gang Just Dracula Part 2?

Dracula explores various aspects of good and evil in unique ways. Carol Senf, in an article titled “Dracula: The Unseen Face in the Mirror,” argues that the people who vow to destroy Dracula at any cost are not much different from him in terms of their behavior. 

Senf’s main argument that Dracula revolves around the similarities and differences between good and evil reveals a lot about the characters’ actions. Using this interpretation, it is clear that while the main characters, especially Mina and Quincey, aim to destroy Dracula in the name of good, they perpetrate many of the same actions that he does. For example, Senf argues that “Lucy’s death might just as easily be attributed to the blood transfusions,” yet Dracula is blamed for Lucy’s death (425). She also argues that “Mina acknowledges her complicity in the affair with Dracula by admitting that she did not want to prevent his advances” (425). Her ultimate conclusion, therefore, is that by pledging to destroy Dracula by any means necessary without even concrete evidence of his wrong-doing, and resorting to illegal actions to do so, puts the main characters on the same moral level as Dracula himself. This argument certainly has support in the novel. For example, Van Helsing suggests that “…if we can so treat the Count’s body, it will soon after fall into dust. In such case there would be no evidence against us, in case any suspicion of murder were aroused” (Stoker 313). The fact that erasing evidence was considered necessary lends support to the idea that the main characters knew that they were in fact committing at least some form of crime by destroying Dracula. Their complicity and moral grayness are further supported by the fact that the only comparable crime to what they were doing was murder. In this way, Senf’s article highlights some of the moral hypocrisy of a group of people who plot to kill a person or person-like creature in the name of good. 

However, Senf’s argument overlooks a few key aspects of the nature of Dracula that somewhat undermine her analysis. For example, while stuck in Dracula’s castle, Jonathan sees a woman outside yelling “Monster, give me back my child!” (41). She is then attacked by a group of wolves. The obvious logical conclusion here is that Dracula killed her child and then sent wolves to kill her. This event continues in various iterations throughout the story, where Dracula attacks innocent people and anyone who stands in his way. By the end of the novel, Dracula has killed countless people himself and through his other servants like Lucy. The group of main characters then commits their only murder to destroy the creature who has taken countless lives. While Senf is correct that Dracula is “tried, convicted, and sentenced by men…who give him no opportunity to explain his actions,” the main characters clearly didn’t view it that way (Senf 425). Mina writes in her journal “But to fail here, is not mere life or death. It is that we become as him, that we henceforward become foul things of the night like him, without heart or conscience, preying on the bodies and the souls of those we love best” (223). Mina, Jonathan, and their friends felt a moral imperative to destroy Dracula before he could hurt any more people. Dracula was a threat that needed to be destroyed, like an aggressive animal that needs to be put down, not a person who also has feelings. One could argue that this makes them more morally repugnant because they don’t care about this creature that clearly has some human-like emotion, but in the end, they only wanted to destroy what could have been an even more dangerous threat if they’d waited and tried to get Dracula to “explain his actions.”  

Dracula and Xenophobia

Dracula is a fascinating case study of late Victorian England’s negative attitudes toward immigrants. The fin de siècle was a tumultuous and uncertain time for English society as a whole and was marked by changes that were seen as frightening, unwelcome and overwhelming. This led many to resist change in various forms, including immigration of people from other countries, due to fears about England becoming tainted or corrupted by foreign influence. This was accompanied by the Social Darwinist movement, which used Darwin’s studies of evolution in birds to justify treating non-white and non-English people with contempt and disgust. In Dracula, Bram Stoker encapsulates and reflects the many anxieties surrounding foreign immigration and influence, especially through the character of Dracula.  

The idea that immigrants could corrupt England and force it backward in time is evident from the very first chapter. When Jonathan Harker first arrives in Eastern Europe and informs people there of his eventual destination, they desperately try to convince him to turn around and leave. An older woman begs him not to leave, or at least to go on a different night, and when she realizes she can’t convince him, she gives him a protective charm. Instead of listening to her, however, Jonathan brushes off her concerns as “very ridiculous” and says she was making him “not feel comfortable” (4). The use of the phrase “very ridiculous” suggests that Jonathan considers himself superior to the people whose country he is in simply because he is British and there on “important business” (4). Additionally, Jonathan’s complaint that the lady who was desperately trying to help him was making him uncomfortable further conveys his sense of superiority over others simply because he is British. He seems to think that these people are “backwards” and too superstitious to bother listening to them. Furthermore, when Jonathan arrives at Dracula’s castle, he quotes Dracula saying “I rejoice also that there is a chapel of old times. We Transylvanian nobles love not to think that our bones may lie amongst the common dead” (20). Jonathan’s modern, young, and well-furnished lifestyle is instantly contrasted with old Dracula’s preoccupation with history and death, shown by his reference to “a chapel of old times” and where his family’s “bones” will lie. This serves to reflect the English sentiment of the time that they were more modern and therefore more “advanced” than other societies, due to the widespread trend of the development of new technologies that were propelling their country forward, while leaving others behind. 

Not only is the “modern” Jonathan contrasted with the ancient foreigner Dracula, but Stoker also adds a more sinister aspect to this contrast with the implication that foreigners might attempt to corrupt England and drag it into the past or destroy it forever. For example, Jonathan discovers early on that Dracula’s castle is “a veritable prison” and that he is “a prisoner” (22). This use of the words ‘prison’ and ‘prisoner’ preys on the fears of English people at the time to suggest that foreigners might want to ‘trap’ or ‘imprison’ England’s progress and modernity, as well as its people. Furthermore, the novel opens with the premise that Dracula requires assistance from Jonathan to move from Transylvania to England, but he is later discovered to be a blood-sucking monster. This is accompanied by a scene in which he is caught feeding off Lucy. Stoker describes this scene as follows: “There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, “Lucy! Lucy!” and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes.” The use of the imagery of “half-reclining white figure” contrasted with “something long and black” suggests a corruption of someone who is “white” and “pure” with something that is “black” and “impure.” The implications of this contrast are numerous, but in this context, the imagery serves to reinforce the message of an evil foreigner who is determined to come to England to spread corruption and evil. In this way, then, Stoker’s Dracula successfully and memorably reflects the anxieties of the time concerning foreigners.