Character Design in the Picture of Dorian Gray

By Liebman, Sheldon W. | Studies in the Novel, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Character Design in the Picture of Dorian Gray


Liebman, Sheldon W., Studies in the Novel


Until the 1980s, The Picture of Dorian Gray was generally considered to be a deeply flawed novel. To some critics, it was simply badly written.(1) To others, it was hopelessly confused, reflecting Wilde' s uncertainty and irresolution.(2) To still others, it was negligible or, at best, second-rate because it was merely an expression of the 1890s, in which case it was historically important but otherwise unworthy of critical attention.(3) Within the last two decades, however, many readers have called Dorian Gray a great book.(4) Indeed, its most recent critics have treated the novel as if it were neither the product of Wilde's confusion nor merely a period piece. Its irresolution is taken to be an expression of Wilde' s understanding of the human condition. And Dorian Gray' s broader philosophical concerns are assumed to be those of a moralist who is fully aware of the failure of Victorian (or, in fact, any conventional) morality and is exploring the consequences of its demise.

Interpreting rather than evaluating the novel, most recent critics have seen Dorian Gray as in some sense a running debate between two of its major characters, Henry Wotton and Basil Hallward, and, furthermore, a debate carried out in the mind of Dorian Gray. In the past, many readers concluded that this opposition represented a plain choice between right and wrong: "conscience and temptation," "good and evil," "positive and negative moral influences," or "love" and "egoism."(5) Although this opposition was usually seen as a battle symbolically waged by Henry and Basil, it was sometimes taken to be a conflict between warring psychological faculties ("conscience" vs. "libido" or "intelligence" vs. "sensibility") and, for some critics, as Regenia Gagnier has noted, a projection of the war in Wilde's own psyche.(6) The consensus among these critics was either that, in Wilde's judgment, Dorian Gray chooses wrongly and pays the ultimate price for his serious moral error, thus confirming the existence of cosmic justice, or that Dorian never really makes up his mind, thus reflecting Wilde's "warring energies"--his "schizophrenia" or, less grandly, his "identity crisis" or, less pathologically, his "immaturity."

Nearly thirty years ago, however, Houston A. Baker made the interesting point that in "The Critic as Artist" Wilde calls not for a choice between "conscience and instinct," but for a "merging" of these two faculties. And Dorian's fate, Baker continued, is a result of his inability to reconcile these two aspects of his personality.(7) This approach to the novel is suggestive because it implies, first, that the conflict between Basil and Henry is not simply a matter of good vs. evil and, second, that Dorian's failure to integrate his opposing "selves" is not a consequence of his own psychological inadequacy, but a condition of modern life.(8) From this perspective--and in my judgment, which I shall try to substantiate in the following pages--Dorian Gray is torn between two mutually exclusive interpretations of human experience: one, optimistic, religious, and emotional; the other, pessimistic, cynical, and intellectual. In the course of the novel, the reader (if not Dorian) discovers that neither interpretation is adequate and that, from Wilde's perspective, there are no alternatives.

Of course, this is essentially the majority view of the novel today, with which I have no quarrel. My only complaint is simply (but significantly, I believe) that the opposition between Basil and Henry has been seriously oversimplified by most critics, reduced as it usually is to a battle between ethics and aesthetics.(9) (This formula also suggests that the novel is really, after all, a product of its time and, because it fails to deal with more universal issues, is not relevant to readers in the twentieth century.) Thus, my main point is not merely that Wilde' s characters stand for opposing values, but that the belief systems they embody are complex as well as internally logical and consistent; that the story in which these characters act on their values is a test of their viability and applicability to real life, not just to the exotic worlds of decadent sensuality and drawing-room repartee; and that Dorian, as the protagonist in this drama of universal moral conflict, is a major figure in the development of the modern novel. …

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