The Hero’s Journey in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

A story which expresses the basic plot of Tragedy with almost allegorical simplicity, like a kind of ‘black fairy tale’ is Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) We meet the hero, a languid and exceptionally beautiful young man, at just the moment when his artist friend Basil Hallward is completing a portrait of him. At this point the ‘dark’ figure of Lord Henry Wootton enters, and tempts the hero with two thoughts. The first is how wonderful it would if Dorian Gray could always remain looking as young and beautiful as he does in the picture, while his portrait took on the ravages of the years instead. The second is how wonderful it would be to live a life of total physical self indulgence, recognizing that the most intense spiritual experiences in life come through the senses.

This is the moment of Temptation, or Focus. The young hero becomes possessed by these two related thoughts, and by the excitement of his ‘dangerous’ new friendship with Lord Henry. He takes his portrait home, and immediately plunges into the Dream stage of his adventure by falling rapturously in love with a beautiful young actress, Sibyl Vane, whom he goes to see playing Shakespeare every night. He proposes to Sibyl; she accepts; and the following night she gives a thoroughly flat and wooden performance. She explains to Dorian that she had only been able to put her heart into acting because it was a substitute for real life, but now he has come into her life, her motivation as an actress has gone. Dorian is horrified and angrily tells her that he had only loved her for her brilliant persona on stage. He walks out on her, and she commits suicide. For the first time he notices a slight change in the portrait which he keeps at home; a new, cruel twist to the mouth. He hides the portrait away, but otherwise experiences no remorse for what has happened.

In a sense the Dream Stage of the story continues for a long time. Dorian throws himself into a relentless round of sensual gratification, sometimes aided and abetted by his friend Lord Henry, and seems able to indulge himself wherever his fancy leads him. But gradually we are made aware that a dark aura of scandal is surrounding his name. A growing succession of young men and women are being destroyed, even committing suicide, because of their association with him. We learn of his increasingly morbid fascination with historical tales about sexual excess, murder and insanity (‘there were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful’); and although after many years he still looks outwardly as young and beautiful as on the day he was painted by Hallward, the portrait locked away in his house shows more and more signs of a terrible corruption.

The Frustration Stage is setting in, and eventually someone – Hallward himself – has the courage to confront Dorian with the shocking stories which are circulating about him. Gray reacts with cold rage and cold – bloodedly murders Hallward. An increasingly nightmarish atmosphere now shrouds the tale, as Gray blackmails a friend into dissolving Hallward’s body in acid, fills the house with orchids to disguise the stench and heads off to the opium dens of east London (‘dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new’). Here, in the fume-filled shadows, he is threatened with a revolver by Sibyl Vane’s sailor brother, who has returned from years in Australia, bent on revenge.

Gray manages to extricate himself from this nightmare scene but is haunted by the mysterious figure of Jim Vane. Staying at a country house, he glimpses Vane peering through the conservatory windows and faints, and although Vane is accidentally killed the next day by a shooting party, Gray’s thoughts are now in a ceaseless turmoil of horro and ‘wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood’ before he had embarked on corrupting and destroying so many people’s lives. A new life! That was what he wanted… he would never again tempt innocence. He would be good.

So he muses, alone one night in his house and decides to take another look at his portrait, which he finds not only looking more loathsome, if possible, than before but shining with new spilt blood. If only he could  ‘ kill this monstrous life – soul’ he thinks ‘he could be at peace’. He takes up the knife with which he stabbed Hallward, to slash the picture. There is a tremendous crash and a cry, and his servants rush upstairs to find ‘hanging on the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man … with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage. It was not until they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was’.