Significant Locations In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’
In his novel of 1891, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Wilde uses setting and location to explore not only the character and moral conscience of his protagonist but also the divides inherent within Victorian society as he contrasts the wealthy homes of Mayfair with the crowded poverty of London’s East End. The dissimilarities between locations so geographically close reflect the duality of Dorian Gray’s own identity while simultaneously raising questions as to the hypocrisy of aristocratic life towards the close of the nineteenth century.
London, the setting for the majority of the novel, is throughout personified as something monstrous. Though most explicit in descriptions of the East End, where “this grey, monstrous London of ours” stretches out “like the black web of some sprawling spider”, it is present too even in scenes apparently without threat, its “dim roar” heard even from Basil Hallward’s studio, a location which seems to symbolise all innocence. Perhaps this was intended to show how inescapable the nature of the city is. Victorian society was much concerned with the ever-growing London and the looming threat which an expanding working class posed to the refined way of life enjoyed by the elite aristocracy and a London which seemed conscious and omnipresent could be a presentation of this fear.
The idea of a sentient location is not unfamiliar to the Gothic tradition where old houses or castles often seem to display a personality or a mindfulness to cause harm. However, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ breaks from convention by taking place not in a remote location but in the heart of a vast metropolis. This could be Wilde’s response to the changing fears of his audience, a world no longer afraid of isolation but of other people. Indeed, more rural and secluded locations – such as Dorian’s own Selby Royal and the surrounding countryside – are presented as ways of escape, even of redemption. It is there that James Vane is killed, thereby freeing Dorian from the threat of his revenge. It is in a small orchard where Dorian decides that he is “going to alter” and subsequently begins his “reformation”. Thus the novel reverses the traditional Gothic concepts of danger and safety, bringing the fear closer to the reality of the readers.
Location is also used throughout the novel to mirror Dorian’s fall from grace. He is first encountered, “untouched”, in the prelapsarian enclosure of Basil Hallward’s studio and garden. However, as his sin increases, the novel follows him to Whitechapel and the docks, “the sordid shame” of the city. This descent into sin echoes the fall of Lucifer, or perhaps Belial. Following this interpretation, Basil’s garden is a representation of heaven. This is evidenced by the abundance of beauty present. The description is sensory, lingering especially on the sense of smell with talk of “delicate perfume”, “rich odour” and “heavy scent”. This creates a near-overwhelming sweetness which is later mirrored in the “heavy odour of opium” which fills the air of a Whitechapel den. While the scent of opium is known to be both sweet and floral, it lacks the connotations of purity associated with actual blossoms and instead suggests corruption. This could suggest that Dorian is attempting unsuccessfully to replicate the paradisaical nature of his youth which his since escaped him. The two locations are, however, contrasted in their colours. Basil’s garden is depicted in light, bright colors, from “pink-flowering” plants and “honey-coloured” blossoms to the “blue thread” of a dragonfly. Whitechapel, on the other hand, is filled with “grey-flannel mist” broken by “orange, fan-like tongues of flame”. These create a more hellish aspect, one of fire and darkness rather than growth and light. It could be considered that this is a place of death, where Basil’s garden is a place of life.
The people themselves also demonstrate the heaven/hell divide of the locations. The key figure in the opening Eden is, in fact, Dorian himself, the very image of classical beauty with his “passionate purity”. Contrastingly, the people of the East End are often dehumanized in their presentation, described as “monstrous marionettes”. This nightmarish vision lends unreality to the East End and its people, their “fantastic shadows” making it seem more an underworld in the mythological sense than in terms of class and law. This development from the pure and perfect setting of the opening of the novel to the dark and hellish end demonstrates for the reader the change in Dorian’s situation, his metaphorical shift from angelic to demonic.
Furthermore, the settings within the novel could be seen to be an exploration of the duality of Victorian society. The divide between East and West London allows Dorian to live his double life, shifting identities as he passes from one to the other. This could be seen to demonstrate the hypocrisy of high society as they criticize the uncouth and criminal nature of those who dwell in poorer neighborhoods but make the most of the freedoms those offer to they themselves. Perhaps more noticeably, it illustrates the divide between the classes, with the people of the lower classes being seen as steeped in sin and scarcely human whilst the aristocracy exist in a more refined atmosphere. The proximity of these two worlds, separated geographically only by a few miles, emphasizes this contrast and suggests a denial on behalf of the gentry of the world outside their window. Their proximity in the text works along similar lines. For example, Chapter XVI sees Dorian visiting an opium den by the docks while the chapters both before and after depict Mayfair homes and drawing rooms. This could be seen to illustrate the duality of society, providing a direct comparison and showing with what ease Dorian moves from one to the other. Their very closeness emphasizes the fear felt by many Victorian aristocrats that the working class was a threat hanging over them, a growing danger to their way of life.
Additionally, it is only in the East End that people see Dorian for what he is: a man corrupt. Though there are “whispered scandals” and “strange rumours” about him in the West End clubs, these words suggest that they are unsubstantiated, mere speculation. Indeed, few ever appeared able to entirely believe these stories as there was “something in the purity of his face that rebuked them”. This purity does not appear to affect the people of the East End, who openly insult him, declaring him “the Devil’s bargain”. Perhaps then it could be said that the people from the lower, darker parts of London see the truth more clearly; they are closer to reality. This is seen again in the way they are almost always portrayed outside, people of the streets rather than of indoor rooms. They are experiencing the world rather than shutting it out. In the West End, however, the novel almost always focuses on the indoors, on drawing rooms, parlors and ballrooms. A layer of etiquette and gentility hangs over everything. It could then be said that the people of the upper classes are detached from reality whereas the lower classes or not. Similarly, Dorian’s beauty and charm hiding his corruption parallels the beauty and charm of the homes of the aristocracy, perhaps a subtle commentary on the darker secrets concealed by the outer appearances of Victorian Society.
In conclusion, the locations of the novel – most notably, London – can be seen as an illustration of the fears of much of Victorian society at the time. The city seems a living thing, consciously allowing sin and danger to encroach upon the lives of those who might otherwise be kept apart from it, chiefly the upper classes. The East End and all that goes with it by way of corruption and unpleasantness becomes increasingly present to the point of seeming almost inescapable towards the conclusion of the novel. In this way, Wilde plays on the fears of his readership at the time in order to bring the Gothic out of the distant past and into the modern world.
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In his novel of 1891, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Wilde uses setting and location to explore not only the character and moral conscience of his protagonist but also the […]