One of the many fascinating aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray is the immense power Dorian and Lord Henry wield in the narrative, especially compared to Sibyl and Basil. It’s particularly curious because Basil and, more minorly, Sibyl, are the text’s artists, but are simultaneously the ones most under Dorian’s spell and are relatively powerless to save their art from contact with him. Basil says that Dorian is “all my art to me now” and that “the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life” (23). He places a power and personal weight in Dorian’s beauty, noting the control it has over his art. When Dorian will no longer sit for Basil, Basil claims that in refusing, Dorian will “spoil [his] life as an artist” (91). This personal investment in Dorian, as his artistic ideal, eventually becomes his downfall. In a similar way, Sibyl’s love for Dorian comes between her and her art. After she kisses Dorian, she proudly loses her ability to act — in finding real love for Dorian, all of her stage love seems to her a sham and Dorian is “more to [her] than all art can ever be” (71). As we know, however, Dorian values the Sibyl of the stage more, the ideal she portrays through her art, and so her investment in Dorian also becomes her downfall. Each is robbed of their life and ability to make the art that made them special, one because Dorian was art’s ideal and the other because Dorian became more real than art could ever be.
It sort of echoes our class conversation on “The Ballad of a Barber,” that perhaps there’s a limit to what the artists can make more beautiful or perhaps that there’s something maddening about true natural beauty, despite the fact that Basil says “there is nothing that Art cannot express” (23). This raises another question for me however — is Dorian really beautiful? Obviously he is physically beautiful and seems at first to have a sort of naive beauty of spirit too. But as his soul degrades, does he stay beautiful? At what point does his outer beauty become a sham too, the beauty of his form robbed of the beauty of his soul? Is he fascinating simply because he is beautiful or because of the juxtaposition of the perfect exterior and corrupt, rotting interior and the way it is hard to reconcile those two?
After reading the “The Ballad of a Barber,” and some of The Picture of Dorian Gray, I started to think again about the idea of creation of beauty, artist as creator, and corruption of beauty.
In “The Ballad of the Barber,” the barber is known for his abilities to make things beautiful. Just as much as an artist in any other sphere of art, the manipulation of hair and one’s face with makeup is an act of creation. But the barber suddenly loses his ability to do so when he is confronted with the young princess, an already stunning girl. The princess is naturally beautiful. Perhaps, like in “The Decay of Lying,” one’s natural state being beautiful is something hard to understand. If it is not man-made, then it can’t be beautiful. But since the princess already is, perhaps that is why she was killed by the Barber. His act of murder may be a sort of morbid creation itself. He could not understand or handle her natural beauty, and so had to get rid of it, or one-up it with her murder, in a twisted way.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is also already beautiful. With Basil, he is admired for such beauty. He is confined to the inside world, where he sits for portraits and enjoys his influence over Basil. He’s like a princess sitting in a castle. But Lord Henry gets him out of the castle. Again, this sense of twisted manipulation comes in. Lord Henry enjoys corrupting Dorian, he has this power over him that he utilizes. Dorian is described using flower-like imagery, showing he is beautiful, pure, fragile, and corruptible. Henry likes to think that he created Dorian out of his influence, like I’m sure the Barber felt he created beautiful things out of his influence. Perhaps, like the Barber, Lord Henry does not know what to do with something so naturally beautiful except to corrupt it. That is the only thing you can do to something that you can’t make any more beautiful: try to ruin it. Or maybe, to try and make it one’s own. Murdering the princess gave the Barber a tie to her. I’m not sure yet if Lord Henry is really trying to “ruin” Dorian, but I get the sense that he has this compulsion to corrupt, and a compulsion to make Dorian his own.
I’m interested to see how Lord Henry and Dorian’s relationship develops throughout the rest of the story, and if it is going to go down a similar path as the princess’s fate.