The Picture of Dorian Gray

by

Oscar Wilde

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The Picture of Dorian Gray: Metaphors 5 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Flowers as Metaphor:

Throughout The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Wilde employs metaphors or similes featuring flowers. Often, these comparisons have to do with bodily appearance or beauty. Dorian’s youth is described as a “red rose,” while Sybil Vane’s skin is described as a “white lilly” and her lips as a “rose petal.” In some instances, however, flowers are used in less obvious constructions, as with the “metaphors as monstrous as orchids” that await Dorian in the yellow book given to him by Lord Henry that poisons his mind and hastens his downfall.

Even where metaphor or simile are not present, flowers appear almost constantly throughout the novel. The very first line, in fact, involves not one but two different flowers:

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

As metaphor, flowers are particularly apt because of their ability to conjure clear imagery that is both visual and olfactory. This much is clear from that opening line, which emphasizes the perfume-like qualities of flowers’ scents. Visually, flowers are universally identifiable signs of natural beauty. They are, in some ways, the ultimate object of aestheticism—rich sensory experiences that last only fleetingly, leaving the beholder wanting more. It would make sense, then, why Wilde fixates on their form and function throughout Dorian Gray. The temporary joy brought by a flower underscores the central theme of the story: that beauty is temporary and defies attempts to circumvent its fading. In the "monstrous orchid" metaphor above, Wilde takes things one step further: as a virtue, beauty may only be superficial; even as the metaphors of the yellow book draw Dorian in, they corrupt his mind.

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 10
Explanation and Analysis—Literature as a Drug :

Dorian Gray addresses art's power any number of times, but he applies an especially striking metaphor to the poisonous yellow book that Lord Henry gives to Dorian Gray:

It was a poisonous book. 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, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.

The strength of this metaphor hinges on the similarity between the intense, destructive effects of opium usage and the trance-like dream state Dorian Gray falls into merely through reading. The book is treated very much like a drug, not unlike opium—a comparison that speaks to the potential power of literature to affect a reader like an intoxicant. This is an especially striking portrayal considering the controversy surrounding Wilde's work (and his alleged immorality) when The Portrait of Dorian Gray was published, particularly given the public fear that the rampant excesses of aestheticism and the literary works being produced as a part of the movement would encourage actual hedonistic indulgences like drug use and debauchery among readers.

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Chapter 14
Explanation and Analysis—Murderous Memory:

The morning after Dorian murders Basil, he does not immediately remember what he has done. As Dorian awakens, Wilde cleverly uses personification to give movement to the returning memory of the attack:

Gradually the events of the preceding night crept with silent, blood-stained feet into his brain and reconstructed themselves there with terrible distinctness. He winced at the memory of all that he had suffered, and for a moment the same curious feeling of loathing for Basil Hallward that had made him kill him as he sat in the chair came back to him, and he grew cold with passion.

The memory of the murder, through this personification, becomes a creeping intruder sneaking into Dorian’s head in the “blood-stained” aftermath of a horrible crime. The memory betrays Dorian’s new identity as a murderer by behaving as one, invading his consciousness with knowledge of his actions. By describing Dorian’s memory in this way, Wilde both heightens the horror of Dorian’s actions and brutally conveys the painful feeling of confronting them—whether Dorian wants to or not.  Dorian's inability to escape the consequences of his own actions is a recurrent theme throughout the novel, and this passage is just one more example of Dorian facing down his deteriorating morality.

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Chapter 20
Explanation and Analysis—Portrait Morality:

At the very center of The Portrait of Dorian Gray is, of course, the portrait itself. It becomes a constant presence both in the mind of Dorian and in the mind of the reader, an extended metaphor for the moral cost of utterly self-serving behavior:

Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that. Better for him that each sin of his life had brought its sure swift penalty along with it. There was purification in punishment. Not “Forgive us our sins” but “Smite us for our iniquities” should be the prayer of man to a most just God.

This portrait metaphor, addressed directly in Dorian’s eruption in this passage, is significant enough to transform the story as a whole into a sort of allegory. Try as Dorian might to avoid moral consequences for his rapidly accumulating transgressions, they nonetheless are brought to bear on the increasingly terrifying painting hidden in his house. His “pride and passion,” in the end, are the cause of his unintentional suicide: in striking against the painting that has come to embody his sin, Dorian strikes at the heart of his own being and dies because of it.

As an allegory, then, does The Portrait of Dorian Gray warn the reader not to succumb to the temptations of selfishness? Does Wilde mean to warn the reader that, inevitably, one's sins are reflected in their character in one way or another? Perhaps, but, as Wilde warns in his preface, books are often the victims of spurious attempts to moralize works of aesthetic value that were never designed to carry such messaging. An alternate reading of this allegory could therefore conclude that Dorian’s dramatic descent into the depths of depravity in the aftermath of learning about hedonistic philosophy and reading Lord Henry’s “poisonous book” is a satirically exaggerated thought experiment, meant to critique the protestation and censoring of literature for its perceived effect on the reader’s character.

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