The Elements of Gothic Fiction in Dorian Gray
Gothic literature is a genre that is famous for focusing on horror, ruin, decay, the supernatural. The first gothic text that gave birth to the genre is believed to be Horace Walpole’s 18th Century novel The Castle of Otranto. Some theorists believe that gothic writing was a response to the enlightenment period that had taken place just before the genre first became popular in the late 19th century. since its conception, the gothic genre has created some of the most highly praised pieces of literature including Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Many theorists also argue that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a definite gothic text and is called a ‘superb example of late-Victorian Gothic fiction’ as it is a ‘representation of how fin-de-siècle literature explored the darkest recesses of Victorian society and the often disturbing private desires that lurked behind acceptable public faces'(Buzzwell 2014). Along with novels such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray ‘explore[s] the theme of the human mind and body changing and developing, mutating, corrupting and decaying, and all do so in response to evolutionary, social and medical theories that were emerging at the time. (Buzzwell 2014). This essay will look at how the term gothic raises expectations for certain tropes and aspects of the genre to appear gothic texts clearly and if they do so in The Picture of Dorian Gray and how that effects the story as whole.
One of the key tropes of the gothic genre is the use of the supernatural and unknown powers to help lead the story of Dorian Gray. The gothic genre often has this trait in its texts as it adds a ‘distinct element of feeling which is not drawn from ordinary, or “natural,” experience’ which ‘evokes an echo from the reader’s sense of reality’ (Varnado 2015).
A perfect example of this idea in practice is ghost stories as very few people can claim they have seen ghosts, yet most people are still somewhat afraid of them. An example of this in Dorian Gray is the whole plot point of Dorians relation to the picture as throughout the novel, Dorian does not age but the picture does and at the end, when Dorian dies, the picture returns back to how it once was. The only explanation for this happening is when Dorian exclaims ‘If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that — for that — I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”. And, just as Dorian gets his wish and never ages, the picture it is said to “Hour by hour, and week by week, the thing upon the canvas was growing old. It might escape the hideousness of sin, but the hideousness of age was in store for it.”
By having the picture age instead of Dorian almost with no explanation other than Dorian ‘giving his soul’ for it, the supernatural trop is fulfilled due to the uncertainty of not knowing how such a phenomenon can come to be and almost create a fear of the unknown which then immediately separates Dorian Gray from being just another text about a rich man to a gothic tale with quite dominant supernatural undertones.
In relation to when Dorian Gray was first released, the supernatural and sci-fi themes were still very new concepts with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein coming out only in 1818, around 70 years before Dorian Gray. Therefore, the supernatural would have had a much bigger impact on 19th century audiences than to modern readers as many of these new concepts; such as vampires and mutant creations, have been, to some extent, overdone in recent years. Therefore the fear and shock from these stories today are incomparable to those of when Dorian Gray was first released.
This then show how supernatural aspects of stories play huge parts in Dorian Gray due to it prominence throughout the genre. Now the supernatural is synonymous with modern gothic texts so modern expectations now could taint what we expect from gothic texts of old and not all classic gothic texts could meet all these new expectations.
An Evil Figure
Another expectation of Dorian Gray is for the devil or some type of evil to play a key roll in setting up the story. Often “gothic text concerns its representation of ‘evil’” as “demonisation of of particular types of behaviour makes visible the covert political views of the text” (Smith 2013)
For many, the aristocrat Lord Henry Wotten is the evil figure in the novel as he is shown to somewhat corrupt Dorian throughout the text. Within the text there are indicators that Henry doesn’t have the best intentions for Dorian as “Basil would have helped him to resist Lord Henry’s influence, and the still more poisonous influences that came from his own temperament”. Henry also is the character to implant the worry of growing old in Dorians mind as he says to him “Some day, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines, and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you will feel it, you will feel it terribly…And beauty is a form of genius — is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation”.
As it is Basil, one of the clearer representations of good in the text who realises that Henry is ‘poisonous’ to Dorian, it could be argued that this is a minor instance of good vs evil within the text as they both try to convince Dorian to do very opposite things. This is then further shown by henrys disinterest in basil’s murder, despite them being friends from university. Also, the main cause of dorians downfall was wanting to stay young and beautiful forever, an idea that was only implanted in his head by Henry saying beauty is genius and even more powerful still.
It could be interpreted that Henry just being a plot device to move the story on however, as characters actually within the text acknowledge that Henry isn’t good, it shows that, even within the reality of the story he does not have a good heart.
As Henry Wotten is viewed both in and outside of the text as at least a bad influence it is fair to say that he is at least the antagonist of the novel because he is the only character to do so and an expectation of evil being present within gothic texts suggest this is necessary.
Scary atmospheres are also often created and expected within gothic texts due to these settings working well with the supernatural to create this fear of the unknown which then adds to the non realistic fear that the audience can feel.
These types of settings are often found because ‘characters in Gothic fiction…find themselves in a strange place; somewhere other, different, mysterious. It is often threatening or violent, sometimes sexually enticing’ Bowen (2014) as this relates back to the more common use of gothic, to describe architecture which is often perceived as very grand but also sometimes garish.
Examples of these mood settings include when describing the room that the painting is key in: ‘They walked softly, as men do instinctively at night. The lamp cast fantastic shadows on the wall and staircase. A rising wind made some of the windows rattle’. Also the description of the opium den achieves this gothic atmosphere:‘A cold rain began to fall, and the blurred street-lamps looked ghastly in the dripping mist. The public-houses were just closing, and dim men and women were clustering in broken groups round their doors. From some of the bars came the sound of a horrible laughter. In others drunkards brawled and screamed’.
The use of describing sound creates a very real atmosphere despite just being words on a page as the combination of regular sounds and fear of the unknown due to supernatural aspects adds sinister or somewhat scary undertones. Laughter and screams being described together does this very effectively as they are polar opposite exclamations, representing different feelings, yet them appearing together suggests they could be linked, adding possible extra narratives to the scene.
Many early gothic novels of the time relied on the creation of a creepy atmosphere to add fear to certain emotions from the audience. they also help signify if a location is linked to darker moments of the story. for example, in Dracular, the description of the castle, a setting commonly used in gothic texts, points out to the audience that it is an important setting where some of the more gruesome moments of the text happen.
Compared to other ideas that steam from the gothic genre, creating a somewhat creepy atmosphere is possible one of the most important tropes for authors to stick by as, being in the same genre as Dracula and Jekyll and Hyde, with no atmosphere for the readers to respond to, a text could easily fall short and just be seen as just another sci-fi or horror text. As Dorian Gray creates this atmosphere so well, however, it is now itself viewed as a staple read of the genre and a classic piece of literature in its own right.
Power and Constraint
Finally, power and constraint is another common part of gothic literature and the genre often shows that it is ‘fascinated by violent differences in power, and its stories are full of constraint, entrapment and forced actions’. (Bowen 2014)
The best example of power and violence in Dorian Gray is the murder of Basil Hallward by Dorian. Wilde describes dorian as gaining ‘suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him. The mad strong emotions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he hated the man who was seated at the table, more than he had ever hated anything in his whole life’. Another thing to point out is the depth of the description of the murder and, especially, the blood as it is simply described as ‘Something [beginning] to trickle on the floor’ adding a much more gruesome layer to the act.
This moment signifies an important turning point in the story as Dorians character hasn’t shown overwhelming violence like this thus far in the novel and possibly shows the moment his obsession over the painting and never ending youths effects finally has a lasting effect on dorians character. By describing the emotions as that of a ‘hunted animal’, it shows how Dorian is now loosing parts of who he was in the beginning of the text in exchange for a more primal and animalistic part of his character. Violence is not necessarily a key expectation of the gothic genre but the way Wilde uses it to show how much Dorian has changed from the beginning and marking this almost as the point of no return for the character as the murder of Basil is an event that dorian can not take back nor rewrite. This is now a method that many authors use in their work to signify when a character has reached a milestone in character development.
To conclude, expectations of the gothic genre are mostly met within The Picture of Dorian Gray to a large degree as the novel does in-keep with 4 of the main tropes of the gothic genre to a great deal of success. Despite Dorian Gray not appearing as a gothic text in the beginning, as the story progresses, the novel transforms into one of the finest examples of gothic literature as it sophisticatedly incorporates the main themes of the supernatural, power and constraint and the possible presence of evil concisely into a well developed tale, whilst providing eery settings for the story to take place in. This then means that, whilst there are many expectations that come with being labelled a gothic text, The Picture of Dorian Gray rises to these expectations and stands out from other texts because of it.
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