Sibyl Vane

But what of Sibyl Vane, the actress Dorian falls madly in love with in the fourth chapter? Her character is incredibly involved with the concealment of appearances, as she hides behind theatrics and romantic tales in the face of reality. That is, until she fell in love with Dorian Gray. She refers to Dorian as Prince Charming and regales her brother with the fine heiress he shall save from bandits and marry in Australia, returning to live in London with her, and all that that idyllic story promises. She is very much like the Lady of Shallot from Tennyson’s poem of that name, as it is her realization of the real world that winds up ruining her.

Within a few paragraphs of the reader first meeting her in person, she’s revealed as being capable of some measure of secrecy. Wilde writes that her voice was happy and her eyes “echoed it in radiance; then closed for a moment, as if to hide their secret… When they opened, the mist of a dream had passed” (Wilde 100). In those words, Sibyl’s idealism and concealment are at once apparent. Particularly because her eyes were involved in that reference. Science of the nineteenth century had not only discovered just how the human eye functioned, but they were fascinated with it, so her eye hiding some mystery of her soul is an appealing feature in literature at this time.

It was shortly before her suicide that she explained to Dorian how reality was shown to her through her love and of course, that was where his revulsion with her began. In her death, the terrible strength of an appearance’s exposure is most clear. She’s delighted to tell her love that, “to-night, for the first time in my life, I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played” (Wilde 123). Sibyl is delighted, perpetually glad, that she can’t act anymore for knowing the world too well. But Dorian is sickened, he turns away from her with that beautiful face she so loved, and accuses her of killing his love. At the end of his scathing speech, her pleadings, he finds her not fascinating, but pathetic. In seeing her as she really is, not as her roles made her out to be, Dorian became disgusted.


Lord Henry Wotton

Lord Henry Wotton

Though many people called Lord Henry Wotton wicked, only one person predicted his obsession with Dorian Gray– Basil Hallward. To most, Wotton’s indifferent and hurtfully candid demeanor conceals any malice he might be capable of behind the scenes, so to speak. It is his subtler, more elusive behavior that betrays him as a deceptive individual in the rare times when it shows. Wilde placed a single bread crumb in the early part of the novel, where Dorian arrives at Basil’s studio while Henry is visiting. The painter kindly asks Henry to leave, and he refuses to go so he can meet this Dorian Gray. Once Dorian meets him, he insists that Henry stays or he’ll leave with him.

And Basil, ever-obedient to his ideal subject, asks Henry to stay. In a complete turn of events, Henry says he really must be going and forces Basil to half-beg him to stay. And when all is said and done, and Basil tells Henry that he should’ve left when he was asked to, he has the gall to say, “I stayed when you asked me” (Wilde 67).

Even Dorian himself, a master of being adored on looks alone, described liking Henry as a thing he couldn’t help but do and that was after having just met him in the novel’s second chapter. He called him romantic, like music, interesting and fascinating, with a strange charm to him, and yet Dorian was still wisely afraid of Lord Henry. The fear made him ashamed, but to read one of Henry’s multiple internal monologues on the protagonist, he would’ve been smarter to write Wotton off at that moment.

But Henry’s appearance, constantly depicted as languid, disguises his acute ability for deception and manipulation. Nothing of his visage revealed that he thought Dorian “could be made a Titan or a toy” (Wilde 76) or that he wanted to control him, to “make that wonderful spirit his own” (Wilde 76), or that he considered Basil little more than a psychological trinket. He shielded himself from suspicion with his passive indifference and promotion of a pleasurable lifestyle.

Dorian Gray

Dorian Gray (1945 movie)

Dorian Gray in the 1945 movie adaptation.

To meet Dorian in person, no one could tell just how far he’d fallen. His outward beauty concealed the rot in his soul and when Mr. Hubbard brought two of his men to help move the painting to the attic, one of them admitted to himself that he’d never seen someone as stunning as Dorian Gray. Lady Narborough told Dorian, “you are made to be good — you look so good” (Wilde 209), and Basil confessed that he was “the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal” (Wilde 148). But the first description of Dorian Gray that the reader encounters comes directly from Lord Henry Wotton, whose adoration of pleasure seemed to delight in the very sight of Dorian:

Yes, he [Dorian] was certainly wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp golden hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world. No wonder Basil Hallward worshipped him. (Wilde 57)

Basil Hallward

Basil HallwardIt’s only natural that Basil Hallward, a painter, would have such respect for the power of an image to expose a person. As an example, the reason he gave for not displaying Dorian’s painting in the first chapter of the novel was, “I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul” (Wilde 47).

He also admits that he gets lost in his work and reveals very early in the novel that he only watches intently and doesn’t listen while painting. When Dorian is working as a model for him, and Henry says something that upset him, Basil only tells him to turn his head to the right, thinking, “only that a look had come into the lad’s face that he had never seen there before” (Wilde 58). Basil’s main strength lies in vision and observation, or in other words, perceiving appearances.

To that point, he mentioned that he considered the painting of Dorian to be real, implying that the living Dorian was not. To his merit, that was likely some foreshadowing on Wilde’s part. But he admitted to Henry and Dorian that the young nobleman was like the portrait in appearance, and finished by saying that the painting “would never alter, that was something” (Wilde 69).

Basil said that as Dorian was about to leave with Henry, and in his mind, be forever changed, so he resorted to spending time with the painting he called the real Dorian. Because it could conceal the abandonment he felt as Dorian left and better matched the Dorian in Basil’s mind, he called that painting the real version of his friend.

Christina Rossetti: “In the Artist’s Studio”

That particular sentiment matches neatly with the message in the poem by Christina Rossetti, “In the Artist’s Studio”. These lines specifically reflect their relationship quite well: “He feeds upon her face by day and night, / And she with true kind eyes looks back on him” (9 – 10) and lastly, “Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (14). If the ‘she’ described in this poem, that same person painted over and over again, could be taken as Dorian from Basil’s perspective, his mindset is utterly revealed. He says in the eighth chapter that before he was even using Dorian as a sitter, Basil painted him as Paris, as Adonis, and other Greek figures, nameless or otherwise. In his studio, there was always one person in every canvas – Dorian Gray. That was the revelation he feared, what he called his idolatry.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Ivan Albright

No visual aid would better complement Wilde’s novel than Ivan Albright’s 1943 painting of the same title. The Art Institute of Chicago documents its history as having been painted for the Oscar-winning movie adaptation of this particular novel by Wilde. The Institute describes Albright as a reputable macabre painter of his time whose oil on canvas artwork was exhaustive in exposing the foibles and corruption of Dorian Gray. This attention to visual details is astoundingly resonant with the time period in which the novel was written.

Firstly, the painting itself was made to look unkempt. Rips in the canvas appear all over and it looks dusty from its stays in secret rooms and locked attics. Dorian is horrifically disfigured and weathered from his countless sins throughout the course of the book. The background portrayed in the painting fits so well with the novel’s description of one of its many hiding places, “the whole place was covered with dust… the carpet was in holes. A mouse ran scuffling behind the wainscoting. There was a damp odour of mildew.” (Wilde 186)

The picture depicts him in the finest fashion for any noble gentleman, only his buttons are left open, the fabric is riddled with holes and stains of all sorts, from mold to blood, and his necktie sits crooked and twisted beneath his collar. The deceptive sneer on his face has long since been lost in boils and wrinkles so grotesque as to appear inhuman.

And at Dorian’s left foot, there lies a withered flower that one can almost believe it’s the flower Dorian crushes as he shows Basil Hallward this distorted painting. Albright’s work agrees with the novel in giving Dorian thinning hair with faint blond traces, swollen blue eyes, traces of red still left in the lips, and a distant sense of his lost beauty in the most unnoticeable features. This painting was Dorian Gray’s personal exposure. He claimed it was the face of his soul and to see it only worsened his descent. It was seeing it that filled him with hatred toward Basil, whose death he never truly felt accountable for.

Ever since that point in his life, it seemed, he did all he could think of to correct its hideousness, but only lost himself more. As he tried to spare Hetty Verton, the country girl who he’d grown to love, by leaving her side, Dorian hoped it might fix the decay in his painting. It was too much for him to be scolded by that horrific image, to have it be so repulsive when he was outwardly so attractive to people, and the thought of someone seeing it filled him with revulsion and dread. Its exposure of his true nature overpowered him all too swiftly and again, this novel shows the power that Britain in the nineteenth century attributed to the visual realm.

Greetings and Salutations!

Welcome to the blog of British Literature! This is a collaborative project between Erin, Sara, Lauren, Jacky, Gregory, Megan, and Kristy. We were led by our valiant professor, Captain Cook, in the pursuit of British Literature and its correlation to visual culture.

The subjects covered here range from science, beauty, and vision to more specific aspects such as the Panopticon.