The Portrait of Mr W H
Narrator’s Reaction to Erskine’s Death in “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”
The long, antepenultimate paragraph of “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” neatly interrupts the dialogue that has just revealed the true nature of the death of Erskine, a friend of the narrator. The narrator is taking in the shocking news that Erskine had died naturally of consumption and not by suicide, as a letter from Erskine himself had previously led the narrator to believe. Then, in considering the odd circumstances surrounding his friend’s recent demise, the narrator asks himself why Erskine in his tragic egress “turned back to tell [him] what was not true” (100). The paragraph continues with the narrator musing on the meaning of his friend’s dying untruth, ultimately in an attempt to convince himself of its “very uselessness” (100) in converting him back to the theory of Willie Hughes. However, latent in the language he uses to dismiss and devalue Erskine’s letter lays that exact capacity for reconversion that the narrator explicitly denies. He is almost desperately persuading himself that he has lost faith in the theory. He wants to believe that he had at that same moment in which his faith left him, experienced a fundamental change in his character and sensibility that prevents him from being affected by Erskine’s pose of martyrdom. He assures himself that Erskine’s act was futile and that he is firm in his unbelief, but in assuring himself, his very deliberate language rife with ambiguity, deception, and misrepresentation seems to suggest that Erskine’s pose is slowly instilling in the narrator a nervously revived belief.The narrator, stepping away from the doctor who just informed him of the suicidal nature of Erskine’s death, immediately asks himself a litany of questions, pondering the motive for his friend’s lie. Characteristic of Wildean narration, he paraphrases and misappropriates a literary source. He alludes to a passage of indirect speech from Les Misérables, generalizing it and attributing it to Hugo himself. By first posing the question “was Hugo right?” the narrator asserts a rhetorical mode and, given Hugo’s respected and well-known place in literary history, there is a preemptive level of external authority lent to the succeeding question: “is affectation the only thing that accompanies a man up the steps to the scaffold” (100)? By posing his citation of Hugo as a question, the narrator wants to be taken on his word that this is an accurate, unloaded representation of Hugo’s own thought. He distracts from the problem of the veracity of the attributed paraphrase and redirects attention to the veracity of the formulated question. However, on closer inspection, it seems to be a paraphrasing of convenient misremembering or, more likely, of calculated misrepresentation. In Hugo’s novel a Bishop goes up the scaffold with a condemned man. The narrator in Les Mis, who probably most nearly approximates Hugo, actually calls the act “sublime” and misunderstood (326). It is only some of the “people in the town who said it was all affectation” (326). Wilde’s narrator reorganizes the passage, eliminates the sublimity, attributes the misunderstanding of the townspeople to Hugo himself, and ultimately presents a misleading paraphrase to characterize Erskine’s action. As a result, he reveals his actively depreciative and misleading tendencies that set the tone for his subsequent musings. Nevertheless, he does so in the form of questions that demonstrate his palpable doubts and indecision about the thoughts crossing his mind. He compounds that uncertainty with the subliminal connotations of the true, contradictory passage from Hugo that is ineluctably entwined with the paraphrase. So, while he is ostensibly questioning the futile affectation of Erskine’s dying act, he is implicitly suggesting the incompatibly sublime aspect of the act that was Hugo’s real assertion.Wilde’s narrator continues along the same line of thought with one more question: “Did Erskine merely want to produce a dramatic effect” (100)? No, the narrator admits, confident in his ability to pigeonhole his friend, “that was not like him” (100). In fact, according to the narrator, attempting to produce such an effect was more “like something I might have done” (100). What is initially striking about this sentence is the vagueness inherent in constructing a sentence around a simile with the decidedly vague descriptor “something.” Yet, it is also notable that the narrator chooses to make this confession in the potential pluperfect tense coupled with ‘might.’ The use of this tense demonstrates the careful and deliberate break that he is making with his former self, the narrator from the beginning of the story, since he could just as easily have constructed the sentence using the present tense. His use of the verb ‘might’ draws even more attention to his phrasing and, in the process, causes his assertion to seem somewhat suspiciously labored. The ‘might’ creates even further distance by insinuating that even if he was like he used to be, there is still only the possibility of him producing something like such a dramatic effect. He could have used the conditional ‘would’ in place of ‘might’ and created less of a rift between himself, both past and present, and the hypothetical production of such a dramatic effect.The narrator “had grown wiser,” though, than he was at the beginning of the text and that’s why it is only his past, naive self that might possibly do something similar to what Erskine did. Considering his effusive praise and passionate emulation of Cyril Graham for the majority of the text, before he claims to have lost belief in the Willie Hughes theory, he is required to admit the possibility of his former self being desirous of creating such an effect. However, it is possibly the fear that Erskine’s dramatic pose at a self-realized departure is affecting his disbelief in the theory that leads the narrator to distance himself self-consciously.Nevertheless, the narrator claims that he does not think that mere dramatic effect was the purpose of his friend’s letter. He claims that Erskine “was simply actuated by a desire to reconvert [him] to Cyril Graham’s theory” (100). Essentially, the narrator sets up two possible motives for his friend’s letter: to create a dramatic effect or to reconvert him to the theory. He dismisses the former in favor of the latter. But, oddly, he uses synonymous adverbs in both instances. “Merely” and “simply” both provide a plain, stripped-down, almost diminutive description of the two possible motives. This is another conscious move to minimize the significance and influence of Erskine’s letter. However, in juxtaposing the two potential motives as separately uncomplicated and dismissible, either as untrue or ineffective, does that not leave room for the effectiveness of their conflation? This conflation does not enter into the narrator’s thought process and understandably so, as it would, no doubt, force him to admit the effect that Erskine’s letter was having on him, despite his protestations. For isn’t the production of a dramatic effect, in this instance, inextricable from Erskine’s actuation of a desire to reconvert the narrator? Especially given the narrator’s aesthetic sensibilities and his friend’s intimate understanding of his predilections and personality?As the pace continues to build in the narrator’s thoughts, he becomes more blatant in his use of misrepresentation as a means to cope with his unwanted reconversion. He says that Erskine “thought that if [the narrator] could be made to believe that he had given his life for [the Willie Hughes theory], [he] would be deceived by the pathetic fallacy of martyrdom” (100). He pretends that his friend thought that he would never find out that he actually died of consumption, which is utterly ridiculous given the fact that Erskine asked his mother to present the narrator with the portrait. Cyril Graham’s suicidal martyrdom was the impetus of the narrator’s original belief, but it seems as though he may have, in fact, grown wiser or more jaded. But Erskine was aware of this; he was aware that martyrdom is “merely a tragic form of skepticism” (100). Therefore, it is not on actual martyrdom that Erskine relies to reconvert the narrator, but the pose at martyrdom, the realization of his “own personality on some imaginative plane out of the reach of the trammeling accidents and limitations of real life” (33). The narrator continues to harp on martyrdom, though, as if the suicide was not a pose. He claims “no man dies for what he knows to be true” (100). Again, he makes an irrelevant, deceptive point in an attempt to protect his waning disbelief. His assertion is without traction since no one has claimed to know the truth about the theory, rather Erskine believes in it and desires to transfer that belief. In discussing martyrdom the narrator seems to forget that Erskine died naturally, so no one has died for anything. Erskine died by consumption and posed his death as a martyrdom to something he believes in, knowing full well that the fallacy of his pose would be revealed, but confident that his deliberate “mode of acting” (33) would, nonetheless, affect his friend, the narrator.The interrupting thoughts of the narrator culminate with a declaration of “the very uselessness of Erskine’s letter” (100). This uselessness is exactly what the narrator has been approaching all along; it is exactly what he has been using to fight his encroaching reconversion: a confusion of “an ethical with an aesthetical problem” (33). For Erskine merely wished to go out as he pleased, trumping the limitations of his fatal disease, approximating the death of his dear friend, Cyril Graham, and providing a last hurrah for a theory he had been reconverted to on his deathbed. Erskine is not a slave and true martyr to the theory, but the emptying ciborium of its legacy.Therefore, the narrator’s declaration of Erskine’s letter’s uselessness is based on the preceding sense he gives that he thinks Erskine thought he would never find out about the true nature of his death. This is decidedly untrue. In stooping to misguided and misleading utilitarian ethics to dismiss Erskine’s letter, the narrator appears to be flailing about in a last ditch effort to assure himself that he has not been infected with belief. However, it is apparent that he is merely trying to avoid admitting his subtle reconversion. The subsequent paragraph gets more explicit about the narrator’s reentrance into the cult of Willie Hughes. Erskine’s mother returns and hands him the portrait, that symbol of a faith based on deceit. Then, as regent to the deceased high priest, her son, baptizes the narrator as “her tears fell on [his] hand” (100). This happens without narrative comment and all of the denials of reconversion seem ridiculous when in the last paragraph, written in the present tense, the narrator looks at the portrait and admits “there really is a great deal to be said for the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare’s sonnets” (101). And isn’t he ultimately carrying out the legacy that was given to him, “stained with the blood of two lives” (98), by telling the story?