"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde. A Negative Bildungsroman?

Essay, 2014

5 Pages


The Picture of Dorian Gray - A Negative Bildungsroman?

The term bildungsroman was coined in 1819 by Karl Morgenstern and traditionally refers to a type of narrative focusing on the development of its protagonist. This development usually concentrates on both the psychological and physical growth of the protagonist by depicting his maturation as well as his physical growth through the transition from childhood to adulthood. The character’s progress from immaturity to maturity is achieved due to encounters with difficult social or moral issues, changes in the environment of the protagonist, and, of course, education. The progress also involves one or several cross-road situations where the protagonist can move in one of two opposite directions. The decisions made at these possible turning points play an important part in the shaping of the character’s personality. The narrative perspective is usually a homodiegetic or autodiegetic one. Therefore, the narrative perspective coincides with the perspective of the protagonist so that the reader has knowledge of the feelings and thoughts of the protagonist but not of the other characters, which evokes a feeling of close proximity to the protagonist and the events happening.

There are different variants of the bildungsroman which do not always fit into the traditional definition given above. One of these variants is the negative bildungsroman. As the term lets one already assume, the character development in a negative bildungsroman can be said to be the opposite of the development in a traditional bildungsroman. Instead of moral growth, there is moral decay; instead of a character formation, there is a deformation, fueled by choices made that are morally inacceptable. This deformation cannot lead to a happy ending, but inevitably leads to an ending characterized by the protagonist’s loss of luck, identity and faith, as well as his death (see Broich 203/204).

A model example for the negative bildungsroman is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of DorianGray. Dorian Gray is the protagonist of this bildungsroman and the focus is on his deformation which takes place throughout the story.

The differences that can be found between The Picture of Dorian Gray and the format of the traditional bildungsroman begin with the introduction of Dorian Gray. Dorian’s story, and therefore his development, does not begin at the stage of childhood. Instead, Dorian’s body is already the body of a young man. During the plot, his body constantly stays the same because Dorian’s enchanted portrait changes instead of him; therefore, the usual character development of a bildungsroman, which includes the internal and external changes, takes place on two separate entities: Until the very end, Dorian himself is only affected by the internal changes, while most of the external changes, i.e. the signs of age and sin, take place on his portrait.

The introduction of Dorian is also peculiar because the full-length portrait of him, painted by Basil Hallward, is introduced before the actual character Dorian Gray is introduced. The introduction of the portrait states that, at this stage, Dorian is more of a passive object, a patient, instead of an agent. It shows that even though Dorian’s body may be mature his mind is not and that, while he is “a young man of extraordinary personal beauty” (Wilde 7), he lacks personality. To introduce the portrait before the actual character seems fitting, because he is a lot like the portrait, i.e. with a nice outward appearance, but with nothing more behind it. He has not yet formed ideas about the world and is naively unaware of his exceptional beauty and his effect on others, which makes him easily impressionable and manipulated. Dorian Gray can be called a “sleeping beauty” that awakes in the second chapter due to Lord Henry Wotton’s speeches about the importance and the inevitable fading of beauty and youth. Lord Henry’s words bewilder ("you bewilder me", Wilde 26) and fascinate Dorian in a way that leads him to wishing the picture would grow old and ugly in his place (Wilde 34). This wish which becomes reality is the first in a line of many actions which gradually lead to Dorian’s downfall.

Another choice that Dorian makes in the second chapter is the choice between the company of Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton, which is essentially the choice between a life of virtue and a life of pleasure. When Dorian decides to go to the theatre with Lord Henry (Wilde 38), he chooses him instead of Basil as his future mentor. Throughout the story, Dorian makes this choice several times and neglects his friend Basil in the process (see Wilde 54, for example). The meeting and the influence of Lord Henry are important factors for Dorian’s negative development, because Dorian shapes his way of living after Lord Henry’s Hellenistic and aesthetic views of life. As the story progresses, Dorian lives these views more and more consequently and extremely.

A very important part of the plot is the first change of Dorian’s portrait caused by the suicide of Sibyl Vane. This episode in Dorian’s life could have been used to stir Dorian into a more positive direction, but instead it fuels his further moral decay. After watching Sibyl act poorly in the play Romeo and Juliet, Dorian is very cruel to her and tells her that her behavior on stage has killed his love for her (Wilde 101), which shows the superficiality of his love. When he comes home that night, he discovers the first change in his portrait: there is “a touch of cruelty in the mouth” (Wilde 105). At first, this change in the portrait that mirrors Dorian’s soul has the effect of startling Dorian and making him reflect on his behavior towards Sibyl.

“Cruelty! [Have I] been cruel?” (Wilde 106), he asks himself and in doing so seems to become more aware of what he has done. This initial reaction shows the positive effect the enchanted portrait could have had on Dorian. The portrait has the potential of being a warning and a guide; the change from innocence to cruelty portrayed in the picture possesses the possibility of being a reminder to Dorian to act differently in the future. At the time of the discovery this seems like a real option, even though Dorian’s thoughts about changing his lifestyle back to a morally more acceptable one are mostly motivated by his vanity, which is made clear by considerations such as: “For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck [the portrait’s] fairness” (Wilde 107). When Lord Henry visits Dorian the next day (see Wilde 114), Dorian has the intention of telling Lord Henry to stay away from him in the future, which would have been the first step into a different life. However, before Dorian can free himself from Lord Henry’s influence, he learns of Sibyl’s suicide and “[a] cry of pain [breaks] from the lad’s lips” (Wilde 114). The news could have had the effect of fortifying Dorian’s decision to lead a more moral lifestyle, but it actually triggers the opposite. With Lord Henry’s reassurance, Dorian distances himself from the event, comes to the conclusion that this should be seen as “a marvellous experience” (Wilde 121) and then decides to take the opposite path of what he had temporarily intended: “Eternal youth, infinite passions, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins - he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame; that was all.” (Wilde 122/123). Now, contrary to Dorian’s initial response to it, the portrait makes Dorian feel save from decay of any kind, because he knows that none of his deeds and lived years will alter his appearance. This knowledge, as well as this first experience with love, which is usually used to make the protagonist morally grow and mature, leads Dorian to fully embrace an immoral life of sin and pleasure and therefore plays a vital part in his ongoing deformation.

Many years later, on the eve of Dorian’s thirty-eight birthday (Wilde 169), Dorian Gray and Basil Hallward meet again. Over the years of Dorian’s unethical indulgences, they have become estranged acquaintances and Basil intends to learn the truth from Dorian about all the terrible rumors about him (“Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?”, Wilde 173). In a moment of madness, Dorian decides to show Basil the changed portrait and declares: “I shall show you my soul” (Wilde 176). When Basil sets eyes on the picture, the heterodiegetic narrator describes it in a way that makes the reader believe that Dorian is not entirely lost just yet and that there might still be the possibility of a turning point, because “[t]here [is] still some gold in the thinning hair and some scarlet on the sensual mouth” (Wilde 179). As soon as Basil recovers from the initial shock, he proves to be a loyal friend to Dorian, despite of all his committed sins. He hopes to be able to save Dorian’s soul and begins to pray for him (Wilde 181). Dorian then betrays the hopes stirred in Basil and possibly the reader; he does not seem able to accept a helping hand. Instead, he kills his former friend and blackmails another old acquaintance into covering up the murder. Dorian detaches himself from the event like he did after hearing about Sibyl’s suicide. He calls Basil’s dead body a “thing” (Wilde 183) and manages to sleep “quite peacefully” (Wilde 186) the night after the murder, which is proof of the coldness and ruthlessness that the years of sinning without consequences have caused to grow in Dorian.

With these described deeds and more, Dorian has dug himself deep into a life without conscience and morals, which up to this point has not left any marks on him. However, the secret of having murdered Basil and the accidental death of Sibyl’s brother James Vane, which Dorian feels responsible for, begin to take their toll on him. In the last chapter of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian expresses the wish to change by saying: “A new life! That was what he wanted” (Wilde 253). The only way left for Dorian to become at least a little bit closer to the format of the typical bildungsroman hero would be to admit to his crimes and suffer the consequences. He himself observes that “[t]here [is] purification in punishment” (Wilde 252) and if he truly regretted his deeds he might have been able to redeem himself in some degree; but Dorian’s wish for a change of lifestyle soon proves to be of shallow nature and exposes him as a hypocrite. He is not ready to take responsibility for his actions and does not even consider confessing as a real possibility ("Confess? [...] He laughed. He felt that the idea was monstrous.", Wilde 254). He does not want to atone, he does not even regret. He simply wants to leave his past behind him and make crimes disappear, so that he will not be haunted by them. He hopes to have changed the portrait of him already, simply by not spoiling the innocence of yet another young girl, named Hetty Merton (Wilde 253). When Dorian learns that the portrait is not corrupted by his shallow renunciation, Dorian decides to destroy it so that there will not be any proof of his sins left. By trying to destroy the portrait, he destroys himself instead and all the signs of sin and age finally reach his own body (see Wilde 255/256).

Much like the other described actions of Dorian, this last scene serves as another strong argument in favor of the term negative bildungsroman being used to describe The Picture of Dorian Gray, because Dorian could have prevented his fatal ending if he had chosen to act differently. If at any point in the novel, Dorian had chosen to truly try to redeem himself, if he had actually learned something from all the sins and mistakes he committed, if he had morally matured in some way through all his immoral actions — his end might have turned out in a more positive way.

In conclusion, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a negative bildungsroman, not only because Dorian’s development takes the direction leading to immorality and destruction instead of morality and harmony, but also because the Dorian Gray that dies in the end may be educated by Basil Hallward, Lord Henry and himself, but has never actually learned anything from the events happened and therefore possesses a mind that has never fully matured.

Primary Literature

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Penguin Classics, 1994. Print.

Secondary Literature

Boes, Tobias. "Modernist Studies and the Bildungsroman: A Historical Survey of Critical Trends."Literature Compass 3.2 (2006): 230 - 43. Print.

Broich, Ulrich. "Der <<Negative Bildungsroman>> Der Neunziger Jahre."Die 'Nineties. Ed. Manfred Pfister, Bernd Schulte-Middelich. München: A. Francke Verlag, 1983. 197 - 226. Print.


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"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde. A Negative Bildungsroman?
University of Constance
Proseminar: The British Bildungsroman
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picture, dorian, gray, oscar, wilde, negative, bildungsroman
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Silvia Schilling (Author), 2014, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde. A Negative Bildungsroman?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/320583


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