The Picture of Dorian Gray

by

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray: Allusions 5 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusion:

In Chapter 1, when Lord Henry first introduces Dorian, and the reader, to his take on hedonism, he references the ancient Hellenic, or Greek, world:

I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.

Given that he associates the excesses of his personal philosophy with the supposed excesses of the classical world, it makes sense that many of the allusions he makes are to figures of Greek and Roman myth. When discussing Dorian’s beauty with Basil in Chapter 2, he repeatedly draws comparisons between Dorian and famously beautiful men of myth:

Upon my word, Basil, I didn’t know you were so vain; and I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you—well, of course you have an intellectual expression and all that.

While both Adonis and Narcissus are perhaps most famous for their beauty, there is an element of irony to both these comparisons because both of these figures meet disastrous ends. According to his myth, Adonis, who is so good-looking that the goddess Aphrodite herself falls in love with him, dies in a horrible hunting accident—an accident not dissimilar from the one that ultimately leads to James Vane’s death later in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Narcissus, on the other hand, dies as a direct result of his beauty: falling in love with his own reflection, he famously wastes away in front of a pool of water. Although Henry’s invocation of both these figures is ostensibly a compliment to Dorian’s beauty, their mythic demises foreshadow the hedonistic chaos that will eventually lead to the death of James Vane, Basil Hallward, and Dorian himself—a chaos that begins because Dorian, like Narcissus, is unwilling to relinquish his own beauty.

Chapter 2
Explanation and Analysis—Classical Allusion:

In Chapter 1, when Lord Henry first introduces Dorian, and the reader, to his take on hedonism, he references the ancient Hellenic, or Greek, world:

I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal—to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.

Given that he associates the excesses of his personal philosophy with the supposed excesses of the classical world, it makes sense that many of the allusions he makes are to figures of Greek and Roman myth. When discussing Dorian’s beauty with Basil in Chapter 2, he repeatedly draws comparisons between Dorian and famously beautiful men of myth:

Upon my word, Basil, I didn’t know you were so vain; and I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you—well, of course you have an intellectual expression and all that.

While both Adonis and Narcissus are perhaps most famous for their beauty, there is an element of irony to both these comparisons because both of these figures meet disastrous ends. According to his myth, Adonis, who is so good-looking that the goddess Aphrodite herself falls in love with him, dies in a horrible hunting accident—an accident not dissimilar from the one that ultimately leads to James Vane’s death later in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Narcissus, on the other hand, dies as a direct result of his beauty: falling in love with his own reflection, he famously wastes away in front of a pool of water. Although Henry’s invocation of both these figures is ostensibly a compliment to Dorian’s beauty, their mythic demises foreshadow the hedonistic chaos that will eventually lead to the death of James Vane, Basil Hallward, and Dorian himself—a chaos that begins because Dorian, like Narcissus, is unwilling to relinquish his own beauty.

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Chapter 3
Explanation and Analysis—Bacchus and Silenus:

The Portrait of Dorian Gray is chock full of metaphors for the power of language—language as sweet music, language as poison, or language as intoxicating drug. In one striking example, Wilde combines allusion with metaphor to convey the alluring power of Lord Henry’s philosophy as he characterizes it at a party:

The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine-stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. Facts fled before her like frightened forest things. Her white feet trod the huge press at which wise Omar sits, till the seething grape-juice rose round her bare limbs in waves of purple bubbles, or crawled in red foam over the vat’s black, dripping, sloping sides.

In this passage, Wilde conveys the intoxicating power of Henry’s worldview through the comparison between his philosophy and a young dancing woman. The metaphor contains an entire story of this woman behaving like a Bacchante—a female priestess of the Roman god of wine Bacchus. Through allusion, therefore, Wilde accesses the ancient mythical figures of Bacchus and Silenus and uses them to anchor his metaphor. Silenus is the foster father of Bacchus, and together with the Bacchantes, the figures are responsible for all manner of wine-soaked debauchery. Through this metaphor, Henry’s philosophy gains the power of a maddeningly drunk ancient ritual. As the reader soon learns, Henry’s colorful speech proves quite effective: Dorian Gray falls prey to his hedonism and, as the metaphor would have it, "drinks the wine" of Henry’s ideas.

This is one in a lengthy catalogue of classical allusions that Wilde uses in reference to Henry and, in particular, Henry’s affinity for Dorian and his own ideology. By surrounding Henry’s character with the world of classical mythology, Wilde is able to more emphatically differentiate between Henry’s hedonism and Basil’s Christian morality.

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Chapter 7
Explanation and Analysis—Shakespeare:

Wilde makes ample allusions to Shakespeare and his plays in Dorian Gray.  This is unsurprising, given the emphasis the book places on the enjoyment of the arts and the titular character's particular enthusiasm for theater. Perhaps the most significant allusion is to Shakespeare's most famous play, Romeo and Juliet, which occurs during Dorian's courtship of the actress Sybil Vane:

Yet she was curiously listless. She showed no sign of joy when her eyes rested on Romeo. The few words she had to speak [...] were spoken in a thoroughly artificial manner. The voice was exquisite, but from the point of view of tone it was absolutely false. It was wrong in color. It took away all the life from the verse. It made the passion unreal.

Given that Dorian is wholly consumed by the preservation of beauty, Sybil’s botched performance as Juliet—due to Gray’s presence, no less—is especially horrifying to him. This passage represents the first pronounced negative effect the reader sees of Dorian’s exploration into London's underbelly, and also functions as a brilliant bit of foreshadowing: the play famously ends in the title characters' suicides, and Sybil Vane will take her own life after Dorian loses interest in her art and abandons her.

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Chapter 10
Explanation and Analysis—Huysmans' Against Nature:

A turning point in The Picture of Dorian Gray occurs when Dorian Gray reads the "poisonous book" sent to him by Lord Henry. Although specific details on the book are vague, Wilde alludes to the notorious French novel Against Nature. Wilde remarks that it has been written in a “curious jewelled style” from the French “school of Symbolists”:

There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner […] The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music […] produced in the mind of the lad […] a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.

Joris-Karl Huysmans published À Rebours or Against Nature just a few years prior to Wilde's writing of Dorian Gray and was met with immediate public outcry. The novel tells the story of a neurotic aristocrat who attempts to surround himself with an increasingly indulgent world of art and luxury in an effort to escape reality. Some feared that reading Against Nature would contribute to the moral deterioration of the reader, even as critics heralded the book as a major achievement of aestheticism.

It seems fitting that Wilde would reference this book, given that his own story depicts a very similar fall from grace in Dorian Gray’s descent into hedonism. To the extent that Dorian’s ultimate corruption occurs in the aftermath of his reading Against Nature, Wilde’s story may be read as a creative and exaggerated—even satirical—imagining of a world in which the contemporary criticisms of Against Nature were accurate. Wilde’s observations in his preface that there is “no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” but rather simply “well written” or “badly written” books, supports the notion that Dorian’s submission to Huysmans’ ideology is intentionally overblown.

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Chapter 13
Explanation and Analysis—The Lord's Prayer:

In The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wilde uses Biblical allusion to appeal to the supposedly moralizing power of Christianity. Basil Hallward, as a believer in Dorian’s humanity and his potential for redemption despite his obvious sin, invokes the Lord’s Prayer when he discovers what has become of Dorian’s portrait:

"Pray, Dorian, pray," he murmured. "what is it that one was taught to say in one's boyhood? 'Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.' Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also."

By appealing to Dorian's nominal Christianity with a famous excerpt from the New Testament, Basil hopes to help him repent of his disastrous hedonism that has already led to much suffering. Wilde’s decision to associate Basil with Christian morality through this allusion stands in sharp contrast with his use of classical allusion to anchor Lord Henry’s hedonism in the philosophy of the ancient world. The opposition of these allusions enables Wilde to distinguish the worldview of the characters as well as emphasize, at this point in the novel, the sheer gulf between Dorian Gray’s moral compass and Basil’s sensibility.

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