The Picture of Dorian Gray and “My Last Duchess”: The Divided Self
Modern life is somewhat obsessed with iconography. The word “icon”, in fact, is attached to multitudes of famous people, suggesting that the sheer images of them transmit the force of what makes them established presences. This seems to reflect a cultural bias strangely reminiscent of past ages, when mystery and power were associated with portraits. The modern trend is all the more remarkable, given the insights into psychology since explored and revealed, and may point to a deep-rooted disbelief within humanity that an image is nothing more than that.
Two masters of prose and poetry, Oscar Wilde and Robert Browning, were fascinated by the same conundrum. Both questioned in their work, not only how separate the self may be from the image of it, but also how divided the self may become when confronted with its representation. In The Picture of Dorian Gray and “My Last Duchess”, two unique perspectives challenge the frustrating, existential nature of image. They seem to attribute to it a raw, primal power far beyond that of any artistic object, but the reality is that each painting is never anything more than what is needs to be seen as. Each is a symbol of the divided self, but no half of it.
Dorian Gray and Disintegration
Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray has become something of an icon himself, as the character lives on as the hero of a parable. In broad terms, the novel may be interpreted as little more than a morality lesson; give in to self, discard ethics and goodness in the pursuit of hedonism, and the soul must die. His portrait literally permits this: “The metaphor of the painting in the novel, which merges art and life, allows Dorian to violate taboos while avoiding moral consequences” (Bloom 150). Of course, such consequences cannot be avoided forever and, as rich and layered as Wilde’s story actually is, this does represent its core truth. Ultimately, it is Dorian’s obsession with his gratifications which bring about his destruction.
The painting itself, however, does not really allow the reader to walk away so easily, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is no simple fable about the evils of narcissism because Dorian is no foolish narcissist. His journey is marked, step by step, by an uncanny partnership with his image, and nothing of outright self-adoration is ever present in him. It is, in fact, those around Dorian who push him into both the need to document his own beauty and his later obsession with it.
The artist Basil is a key component in what will be the dilemma of Dorian’s divided self because he is as far removed from an objective perspective as a painter can be. When he and Dorian argue over Basil’s refusal to exhibit the portrait, he confesses to a terrifying awe of Dorian that motivated the work (Wilde 150). Dorian’s friend Lord Henry adds to the confusion, by indirect route of flattery: “Beauty is the wonder of wonders…The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible” (Wilde 34). Gray’s fascination with his own image is a road he travels, but one he has been set upon by others.
This is pivotal, in that it brings into play how the external world demands a capturing of a human essence. That Dorian’s portrait grows grotesque as he himself remains unchanged is less important than the schism within Dorian himself, one admittedly encouraged by the supernatural work. The picture is an implement, one allowing Dorian to probe into excesses of evil as he also must contemplate the goodness he discards. It lets him be two men, only to ultimately reinforce that his self can never be truly divided; Dorian escapes physical degeneration, but he is never free from moral turmoil. It is as though Wilde is saying that, if mankind achieves perfection in imagery, it will not save him. The image can only reflect, and never bear the responsibility for the actions of the living.
There is also in the novel the sense that late Victorian attitudes on art are being criticized. The era idolized virtue as embodied in form, no matter the hard realities, and it is arguable that the decay of the painting represents the sham of such “art”. It is not so much that the society was decaying, although it was; it is more that any glorification of an object, even a living one, is an artistic untruth. Life decays, and art can never be allowed supremacy over it simply because it does not. That is the real force behind the novel, in place below its frantic cries for everlasting beauty. As Dorian learns at his end, the divided self, like art, is illusory.
Critics tend to view Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” as a paradigm of strict dramatic monologue. In the relatively brief poem, the Duke of Ferrara is entertaining an emissary there to negotiate a new marriage for him. He uncovers the portrait of his late wife and, in the course of describing it, reveals that she was unfaithful to him and suggests that her death was by his act. The real drama of the poem/speech lies in how it reflects nothing but a single character’s voice and feelings. It could, in fact, be a scene from a play.
This is exactly why the poem is so intense and multifaceted, for Browning’s duke, even so briefly revealed, is dimensional. Some critics feel that the duke exposes his crime because he cannot help himself; he is lost in his own, narrative effusion and memory. Others maintain that the confession is deliberate, and something of a ploy in the romantic negotiations currently at hand (De L. Ryals 259). In either event, however, it is the painting that has the power, and it actually creates a scenario of more than one divided self because the duke employs it to do precisely that.
As with Dorian Gray’s image, this is no ordinary canvas, by virtue of what the owner invests in it. Gray’s is intended to preserve perfect beauty, as is that of the duchess. The latter, however, has another agenda attached, for the duke’s blatant fascination with her image clearly expresses what he felt in her lifetime. It is as though he still cannot get past how her beauty exists when she was, at least in his estimation, a worthless woman. This is an image somehow created to torture, rather than, as with Dorian Gray’s, lead to pain.
Then, there is also in the duke’s seemingly light-hearted talk a sense of victory; the painting allows him to gloat to the woman who caused his misery. Divided and conflicted by her when she was his wife, he maintains the schism after her death through her image. Through his mind and through the artist’s work, he has enshrined her in as living a way as he can, and the image obviously affects him as powerfully as the living woman did (Wagner 269).