The concept of evil has been around since the dawn of time like a parasite it disguises itself in many different shapes and forms. It is not necessarily an action but instead a general sense. Evil is essentially the absence of good. Oscar Wilde being a gay man had a strong grasp on what it meant to be evil. It is in human nature to be always looking to fill sinful and evil desires with forbidden pleasures. Having been a gay man in the oppressive late 1800s Oscar Wilde used his personal experiences when writing The Picture of Dorian Gray. He channeled his encounters with evil men into his book. In his novel the reader sees how a man named Dorian Gray transforms from a pure beautiful creature into a truly evil man. A picture of him is painted and he is faced with an opportunity to act on his desires with no consequences or reparations.
After befriending a selfish, gross, misogynistic, aristocrat who is a perfect example of an evil man, it fuels his desires to act out and Dorian Gray becomes cruel and rude to anyone and anything.
From page one the novel opens as a war between good and evil. A war of morality and selfishness. The story offers the reader both sides, Christianity, represented by Basil Howard, and the enticing satanic clutches of Lord Henry. A battle for whom gets to lay claim to the innocent, untouched soul of the pure young Dorian Gray. From the start of the story Dorian is sheltered, loved, and never had a hardship or care in the world. He shares a mutually beneficial relationship with a painter Basil, flattered and enamored with the pictures and words he gives to him. Basil feeds his giddy personality and love for everything around, while Dorian gives to Basil a life his art has never before possessed. As everything fades, their relationship does too. When the novel’s antagonist was introduced like a moth to a flame Dorian is drawn to him. Feeding on every word Lord Henry has to offer. He becomes in love with this new exciting outlook the Lord has shown Dorian and the readers see’s him divert to his inherently evil core.
This de-evolution of the books protagonist does not happen overnight. It is a process that shapes him through each trial and tribulation. From the beginning to the end Dorian was offered many scapegoats, to reform and choose a path of good and selflessness. With his newfound outlook on life and no repercussions for his actions Dorian shows his true colors. Dorian himself encompasses both pure good and pure evil but as the his life progresses with Lord Henry the scales are tipped and the good leaves him.
The society in the Victorian Era were strictly patriarchal, it being the norm for men to live and act as the wish. For a man to indulge in whatever he may like. Women were expected to have children and look over the house, they could not vote, sue, and if a marriage ended in a divorce all the property would go to the husband. In Wilde’s novel Lord Henry was a typical wealthy Victorian man; privileged, entitled, and with limited self control. He was portrayed in this way to show the face of evil in this time was a familiar one. It was extremely rare to have a character such as Dorian; with his kind nature and pure heart.
To be of his age and uncorrupt, being raised in this society young men are handed what they would want and lust for, but Dorian had yet been tempted by the fruit that was presented to him all up until Henry started to corrupt his soul. “… to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him” (Wilde 8). In Lord Henry’s moral system, the only thing one must do is follow one’s urges. As flawed as his logic or whatever rationalizations Henry provides it just furthers the intrigue of Dorian Gray.
Lord Henry’s derogatory, condescending view of women is a theme that lingers through the entire book. As offensive as it would be in today’s society, Henry’s views were common shared views among most men in the Victorian Era. The fact that all people have worth, and how openly objectifying and oppressing women is evil and wrong, is far easier to see now then when the novel is set. Whilst under the friendship of Lord Henry, Dorian fell in love with a beautiful but poor young actress by the name of Sybil Vane. He hastily got engaged to her but one night after a bad performance Dorian becomes cold and callous to the young women, he tells her that he no longer loves her and shall never see her again.
Having no money and her heartbroken she sees there is nothing left to live for and takes her life. Lord Henry is the one to break the news to Dorian the next morning, but instead of consoling him he manipulates Dorians emotions. He explains how it was destined to fail from the start, and in fact Sybil taking her life was what needed to happen to free Dorian from it all and show how much she loved him. ‘Someone has killed herself for love of you. I wish that I had ever had such an experience” (Wilde 8).
Wilde presents this constant battle between good and evil within the novel in order to show that when the protagonist is faced with a choice to do what is right or what is wrong, he chooses wrong every time. At the core of the human soul is something wicked yet shame usually prevents individuals from committing wrong doings, no matter how small. That feeling of shame is embedded into the human cognition, although all people have the capacity to do wrong.
Time and time again, man has shown a lust to fulfil their evil desires through the pursuit of power and greed. When presented with a choice, individuals will disregard feelings of shame to meet their cravings for endorphins and the rush of it all. Wilde portrayed this through the book’s protagonist Dorian, by enticing him with evil pleasures and experiences at no personal cost. Of course this distorts Dorian but helps the reader uncover his true self. It is in man’s nature to look out for themselves even at the price of someone else. In the novel, Sybil Vane fell casualty to Dorian’s newfound metaperception. The book came to a tragic, but righteous end proving that without a judgemental, empowering society man will revert to their innermost wickedness.
- McGovern, Kieran, and Oscar Wilde. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Pearson Education, 2008.