This week, we began reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” Oscar Wilde’s only novel. I had read this book in highschool and thought it was going to be a laid back read, but upon reading the first chapter I realized there was so much that I never picked up on before. In class, someone said that there was an analysis that said the three men of the story reflected the three versions of himself that existed within Wilde. I was intrigued by this idea, and wanted to examine it within the frame of the various flowers littered within the pages of the novel. Reading a novel by such an enigmatic author is both challenging and consuming. While there are so many avenues to explore, there’s always that underlying question of whether or not we should even look that deep. Maybe Wilde simply stumbled upon a pretty flower one day and decided to add that imagery to his work, or one of his fleeting passions of the time was flowers and their delicate beauty. Nonetheless, what could be the author’s whim becomes the subject of great conversation by those who read him.
From the very beginning, Dorian Gray is compared to a rose with its deep beauty and romantic connotations, but every rose has its thorns. That is to say, looks can be deceiving. This became increasingly clear with the chapters we read this weekend as Dorian realizes his material luck leaving his emotional and moral burdens to the portrait in his school room. We see Dorian begin his descent from purity slowly, then all at once when Sybil loses her artistic value blossoming in her true love instead of the theatricality of stage life. Here we see how his thorns pierce those who get too close to his intoxicating beauty. In a way, there is a perfect metaphor for the Decadents, who find their value in the material and art for simply art’s sake. Those who become useless to them, losing their artistry, get tossed into the garbage. Dorian, who is the unknowing worshiper of the decadent, destroys Sybil once she loses her artistic value. Although Dorian is lauded as this perfect epitome of beauty and youth, we are beginning to see how the outward vanity tarnishes the inward beauty. Like with the rose, it is dangerous to get too enraptured with the outward beauty because you will fall prey to the dangers below the surface. Duality plays a large role within this comparison with the allure of the facade to shield from the shallow ideals below.
While the other men in the story are not directly compared to flowers, there is imagery throughout the novel that I think connects back to these characters. When Lord Henry and Dorian converse in the garden, Dorian is playing with a spray of lilac, but once he hears Lord Henry’s ode to the importance of youth, the spray falls from his hand. Lilac itself is a symbol of purity, innocence and first love. At this point, we see Dorian being lured away by the pleasure Lord Henry preaches. Basil is left behind to his world of morals and passion, whereas Dorian is entering the world of pleasure. The spray that falls from his hand signifies his descent from purity on the inside, and in the social sphere. Basil clings to the idea of the pure hearted Dorian, but that man is no more. His first love, his fiery passion, his muse is fading away being corrupted by material pleasures.
Lord Henry, the manipulator, talks about his previous obsession with violets when Dorian speaks of cultivating poppies in his garden in remembrance of Sybil Vane. Violets symbolize truth, loyalty, and humility. A sense of irony forms when you think about Lord Henry being obsessed with these flowers for a time. We know that he is obviously not a humble person, nor does he have any care for the truth. He leads his life in pursuit of life’s pleasures and once they pleasure him no more they are useless, which seems to run in opposition to truth and humility. But if we look at this through the lens of Wilde, wouldn’t the truth be ever changing and contradictory? In that respect, these flowers perfectly signify Lord Henry’s vision of himself in the world. He does not have the answers, but he speaks out to the world as if he knows all. In his world, he is the truth, and he will impart his “truth” onto his new creation: Dorian. Lord Henry is quite loyal to his new creation because he was a blank slate to be written on.
Each of the principal men in the novel are complex characters which cannot be embodied by a singular representation, but these comparisons to flowers enhance the reading of this story, opening different avenues of analysis and the overall message Wilde is trying to impart on his readers. Beautiful imagery enhances a story of the dangers of beauty and pleasure. Everything is connected in one way or another, and these connections make life complex and messy leading us down dangerous paths of sin.