The Picture of Dorian Gray begon als een korte roman, gepubliceerd in het julinummer 1890 in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Een Nederlandse vertaling door Elisabeth Couperus-Baud verscheen in 1893. Haar echtgenoot Louis Couperus had het boek rechtstreeks van Oscar Wilde ontvangen en zij was er diep van onder de indruk.
Wilde baseerde zijn boek op het leven van John Gray, een homoseksuele priester, die niet alleen lange tijd zijn fysieke schoonheid kon behouden, maar die er ook in slaagde dat zijn begrafenismis in 1934 werd opgedragen door de aartsbisschop. Gray deed Wilde hiervoor wel een proces aan, maar had anderzijds sommige van zijn brieven zelf met “Dorian” getekend. Gray, die pas priester werd nà zijn relatie met Wilde (en – wellicht niet toevallig – nà diens proces) schreef zelf ook gedichten en vertaalde de Franse symbolisten. De parochiekerk die hij liet bouwen werd overigens grotendeels gefinancieerd door zijn nieuwe geliefde, de Franse inwijkeling André Raffalovich.
In de eerste kandidatuur van de Germaanse schreef ik een opstel met als titel “Magic-realism in ‘The picture of Dorian Gray'”.
First of all it is very important to stress the real meaning of the notion “magic-realism”, which is indicated by the hyphen: the magic is not of primary importance, the realism is at least equally necessary. Although “Dorian Gray” is a typical example of romantic magic-realism, there are some indications, which point in the direction of classical magic-realism. Romantic magic-realism still felt the need of strange events by hook or by crook; in a classical magic-realistic novel this doesn’t exist anymore, it seems just an ordinary novel but the magic-realism is to be found in the viewpoint. To illustrate this, I can refer to “Dorian Gray”, in which the magic-realism is NOT the changing of the picture (this is only “magic”), but the way Dorian Gray’s actions are determined by a continual contact with “good” and “evil” (which in fact IS shown by the picture).
But not only the picture is a touchstone for Dorian, also other people and situations are, which I am going to examine at once. Unfortunately I can only put the questions and at most guess a provisional answer, because the real answer could only be given by Oscar Wilde.
First we consider the relation between Dorian and Sibyl Vane. It was not just by accident that Oscar Wilde gave life to her as an actress: it is merely impossible that she should have been someone else. It creates the very strange, but very revealing, situation that Dorian ceases to love her the moment she isn’t able anymore to incarnate those beautiful characters Shakespeare’s genius has invented. Her sudden incapacity is caused by her love for Dorian: she can’t ACT to be in love, because she IS in love! What a fantastic magic-realistic effect!
It also shows us two completely different ways of life. For Sibyl Vane life becomes real when she discovers her passion. Dorian Gray however, under the influence of Lord Henry, lives beyond (here) and beneath (later on) it. HIS only connection with real life is the picture.
Secondly, we find a very important fact in chapter eighteen. Just on the edge of his return to a good life, Dorian tries to persuade sir Geoffrey not to shoot a hare, but he doesn’t succeed. Sir Geoffrey fires but, instead of the hare, James Vane is killed. In this way Dorian is delivered from his greatest fear. Freud could give immediately the reason why Dorian unconsciously tried to save James’ life or in other words why he would give James the opportunity to kill him. I can’t. But I found it interesting enough to state this problem.
At last, I would like to draw the attention to the figure of Alan Campbell. Quite deliberately Oscar Wilde increases the mystery around this person: first he is just a scientific, who must make disappear the corpse of Basil Hallward; afterwards Wilde mentions a letter, that serves to blackmail him, but without going into details; at last we read, just in passing, one line, in which we discover that he has committed suicide. This raises certain problems. Possibly Campbell is a symbol for something good in Dorian, which dies when he kills Basil (I’ll discuss this murder later on).
The main magic-realistic effect is of course hidden in Dorian’s death (*). Discussing the novel we often make the mistake to say that Dorian committed suicide: this is evidentially not true! He only tried to get rid of his past. The question is “why?” an dthe answer may be one of these two (which in fact are completely the opposite of each other): he could have been driven by despair after his unsuccesful try to get better (cp. his relation with Hetty Merton) and to go on living in the dirt again or his motive could have been regret (don’t forget that the picture was the only evidence for himself dat reminded him of the moment he murdered his friend) and then we might suppose that he thought: “When I can get over this, I will become better.” But personally I prefer the first reason, because of that little sentence on page 246: “Was he really to confess? Never”, which illustrates his obstination in evil.
We must get rid of the idea that the picture was only the “soul” of Dorian. I only refer to chapter nine where Basil admits that he has put too much of himself in the picture. If we know that Basil was the admiror of the pure side of Dorian, we see immediately the symbolism of the murder: this deed underlined that Dorian has chosen for the evil and has left his good side behind. We also can draw the line a bit further and consider the picture as a struggle between the personalities of Basil and Lord Henry (the personification of the bad side of Dorian) for the soul of Dorian. Struggle, which is won by Lord Henry during Dorian’s lifetime (the canvas shows us the evil outlook of Dorian) but the final victory is Basil’s (the idealized person has come back).
Thus we may draw the conclusion that (as Johan de Belie points out in his essay “Magisch-realisme in de wereldliteratuur”): “This is the message that Wilde implied in his book: that life is in fact good, although the reality may seem bad. The magic takes everything for the better.”
Ronny De Schepper
(*) Een gelijkaardige dood vinden we terug bij de ontknoping van de balletfilm “Black Swan” (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). Het is natuurlijk wat voorbarig om enkel en alleen op basis van deze scène te besluiten dat de film “magisch-realistisch” zou zijn (we moeten ons ervoor hoeden om elke vorm van symbolisme als magisch-realisme te interpreteren), maar het zou me toch interesseren om te weten wat iemand als Johan de Belie daarvan vindt…