In the preface of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde writes, “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.” When I first read Wilde’s book and encountered these lines, I interpreted them in the context of Wilde’s time and never considered how they may apply to a work like Go Tell It on the Mountain until Dr. Kinyon asked us to contemplate them in class. I then realized that these lines explain the relationship between Gabriel and John.
Gabriel is confused by his strange, intelligent son who reminds him of the white people he hates so much. As a result, Gabriel seems to hate John and treats him with anger. Gabriel’s reaction to John is the “rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.” Gabriel wants John to be like him, but instead, Gabriel sees in his son traits that he associates with whiteness. Like Caliban in this quote, Gabriel is upset to see the unexpected and lashes out.
At the end of the novel, John undergoes his conversion, and thus becomes more like his father, a dutifully religious man. However, Gabriel does not respond to this conversion as you might expect, with pride, joy, and love. Rather, when John turns to face his father smiling, Gabriel does not smile back. Gabriel only thinks of being saved from his own sin. In this way, Gabriel demonstrates the “rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.” Finally, John is acting like his father and embracing the Church, but his dad remains unhappy. He is too consumed by the letter his sister Florence shows him. Gabriel refuses to accept what he sees in the glass, because it reveals the truth about himself and the child he fathered by cheating on Deborah. Whether it is dismay at seeing what he does not wish to see or distress upon seeing who he really is, Gabriel exemplifies Caliban as he looks into the glass.