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The Scarlet Prayer: Genesis Allegory and Christian Symbolism in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Dorian Gray and the Bible (NKJV) seem to agree on at least one semblance of doctrine, if only partially. They both maintain that the body is a temple, though the principles to worship within it remain a point of contention between the two. Gray’s religion is a faith of the flesh where one worships on an altar of pleasure. This does not prevent his participation in a narrative full of the themes, narrative structure and principal figures from Biblical history, including the fall of man in the Garden of Eden and the crucifixion at Calvary. Gray’s titular picture, shielding him from the visible consequences of his debauchery, contains an allusion to the Messiah arriving to deliver fallen “mankind” (represented by Gray) from the repercussions of sins against the body’s purity and the will of the creator deity, the God of Abraham. In its role as redeemer and omen, Gray’s messianic painting is the central link in a chain of allegorical and biblical roles spanning from the tempter to the Father himself, and directly parallels the moral history of mankind in relation to the Christian trinity.
Gray’s rapid shift from innocence to inundation in worldly pleasure parallels the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, correlating the Bible’s teachings about the origins of sin. The circumstances of Gray’s corruption resemble those of collective humanity in Genesis. Just as mankind existed in a pristine state before gaining knowledge of both good and evil, Gray has “a simple and beautiful nature” (Wilde 16). His petulant, simpering attitude embodies the naïve purity of the young. The young man’s crimson lips and turquoise gaze reflect how he has “kept himself unspotted from the world” (Wilde 18), just as Adam and Eve, in their incipient innocence, “were both naked [in Eden]…and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25).
In yet another allusion to Eden, the introduction to the possibility of corruption (the original sin from which all future iniquity proceeds) in Dorian Gray occurs in Basil Hallward’s garden. The lavish sanctuary brims with graceful dragonflies and the fragrance of roses, reminiscent of Eden’s multitude of desirable trees, among which God communed daily with untainted man. In Hallward’s garden, Gray’s existence suddenly blazes with moral (or, in retrospect, immoral) revelation in the moment where he awakens, physically and philosophically, from “the candor of youth” into a world ripe with murder, drug use, alien sensory fulfillment, eroticism and “sleeping dreams whose mere memory might stain [his] cheek with shame” (Wilde 21). Wilde’s specific mention of shame here is unique in that it exactly echoes the aforementioned description from Genesis 2:25 of mankind’s previous state as being “not ashamed.” This shame stems from the new moral awareness, or perhaps simply the moral conception of nakedness—physical for Adam and Eve, and emotional for Gray. Wilde does not imply Gray’s emotional nakedness through a heartfelt confession or a personal revelation of some sort, but through his reaction of shame in recognition of his former condition. He is profoundly uneasy in light of his previous moral innocence, or rather, his ignorance of having lived “nakedly” (without knowledge of evil or wrongness, as did Adam and Eve) for two decades in a world whose moral tenets, and the possibility of their reciprocal violations existed, regardless of his participation in upholding or abusing them. This lack of poisonous knowledge, that Wilde portrays as innocence, is the same state that Adam and Eve occupied before their own personal revolutions. The same catalyst as in Gray’s case—the dark knowingness of the world epitomized by “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17)—instigates the couple’s exile.
After listening to Henry Wotton’s hedonist monologue, Gray flees to the garden and obsessively drinks in a flower’s scent, in a frenzy that mimics that of Adam and Eve when “the eyes of both of them were opened” (Genesis 3:7) and, after realizing their nakedness, they sewed themselves coverings of fig leaves. These reactions of bewilderment and embarrassment showcase not only Gray and the Eden couple’s regretful inauguration into their newfound states of awareness, but also their first concessions to the behavioral demands that this fresh moral self-consciousness places upon them. Their implied states of emotional shock also suggest a shared abruptness in their states during the moment in which they awaken to moral choice. Upon discovering of the possibility of wrongdoing, Adam and Eve hide fearfully from the eyes of God, and, as is evident from his hyperbolic desperation in the garden, Gray receives his epiphany with the same shock and dread. In a process that features the same thematic significance with which the eyes of the first of mankind were “opened”, Gray is startlingly awakened to the potential for evil against himself and others.
The Edenic parallel between Genesis and Gray’s representation of fallen mankind is sealed with certainty in Hallward’s garden when Wotton at last pronounces Gray a “wonderful creation” (Wilde 23), alluding to the exultant sentiment that humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). The presence of a being that can conceive of moral and immoral actions (even if that being is still yet considered an animal) among a garden of organisms whose thoughts do not exist on the plain of morality is an exceptional marvel that Eden and Hallward’s gardens clearly share. At the conclusion of Adam and Eve’s narrative, God proclaims that mankind has become “like [a god], to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). Similarly, Dorian Gray’s soul flexes its freedom of will, seeking out “the things it has forbidden to itself” (Wilde 21), and he soon emerges into a world of sordid possibilities, drunk with the power of choice. His actions unfold such that, in the novel’s allegory, he collectively represents mankind from Adam onward, in accordance with the biblical account of man’s moral history and relationship with God, from its tainted roots in Eden to the millennia beyond.
Whether fallen or forgiven, mankind (and therefore, Dorian Gray) suffers from surrendering to the whispered depravities of a tempter. The novel does not leave the allegory lacking in this respect. Wotton, Gray’s acquaintance and later his confidante, describes in the opening scenes his love of “persons with no principles” (Wilde 11) in reference to the unsavory personalities with whom he has made acquaintance. Wotton’s olive complexion and blasé composure beguile the naïve Dorian into insisting that wherever Wotton goes, he shall follow. Wotton waxes fondly and eloquently of the pleasures attainable only in youth, sowing the seeds of Gray’s wickedness with a disturbing prowess for manipulation tantamount with the craftiness of the serpent (commonly assumed to be an incarnation of Satan, who is “more cunning” than any beast in the Garden (Genesis 3:1). Despite the protests of Gray’s friend Hallward that Wotton’s influence may be dangerous, the devious lord gleefully observes Gray’s new, hedonistic psychological outlook. His fascination is rooted (as is Satan’s) in the observation of the destruction of perfect innocence, for which he happily admits he is responsible. He regards Gray’s worldly new self as “his own creation” (Wilde 61). When Gray realizes his mortality and begins to weep, declaring himself envious of all things whose appeal will never fade, Hallward admonishes Wotton, saying, “this is your doing, Harry” (Wilde 29). Hallward’s bitter, fatalistic manner corresponds with the condemnation God issues to the serpent for his role in the beginning of man’s iniquity (Genesis 3:14). As Gray’s innocence degrades, Wotton solidifies his role as the tempter of perfect mankind. Abstentions from sin are merely inexplicable refusals, Wotton says, and the idea of sin is simply a relic of a medieval era. He adds bluntly that yielding to a temptation is “[t]he only way to get rid of…it” (Wilde 20-21), cementing himself in the Christian allegory (at least in semantics) as the “tempter” in Matthew 4:3 who accosts Jesus in the wilderness. However, unlike Christ, Gray yields to the allure of putting Wotton’s views into practice, as he claims to do with everything Wotton says (Wilde 51). Of course, this decision later concludes disastrously for Gray, as it does for Eden’s residents when they heed the tempter’s reasoning.
From the outset, Wilde conceives Gray’s relationship with his painting in terms of salvation and divinity. In particular, the mention of Gray’s soul as an object to be relinquished renders spiritual significance to his pledge that he would give all he possesses for the painting to replace him as he ages so he can remain free from limits of the flesh. The specification that Gray’s physical youth is the painting’s protectorate conjures the promise that “no evil shall befall you, nor any plague come near your dwelling…For He shall give His angels charge over you…lest you dash your foot against a stone” (Psalm 91:10-12). This passage evokes the health (“nor any plague”) and providence that, like angels, relentlessly tend to Gray. In addition to attaining eternal bodily life, for instance, he survives a nearly disastrous confrontation with James Vane, the vengeful brother of one of his dead lovers by virtue of his young appearance, (Wilde 196). This fortuitous occurrence suggests not merely supernatural protection, but also a kind of immunity to the consequences of his past actions. Because this moment of immunity takes place while Gray is spellbound by the painting (which represents the intervention of the supernatural), Gray’s imperviousness symbolizes divine forgiveness for his sins. Manifested in his reprieve from death and physical suffering, this forgiveness is maintained so long as Gray remains within the protectorate of his relationship with the painting, just as in Christianity, a human soul’s forgiven state endures once the person has yielded him or herself to the divine will. Gray’s death at the novel’s closing is also indicative of this arrangement. Determined to “kill this monstrous soul-life” (Wilde 229), Gray stabs the painting and immediately perishes in a moment representing man’s own rebellion against God. It is his ultimate rejection of the divinity that has cloaked him in protection from spiritual death as well as earthly trauma. This is the end of Gray’s arrangement with the supernatural, the murder of the relationship on which his eternal life depends. The action is simply more visual and overt in the novel because of the painting’s earthbound status, and because Gray’s physical body directly relies on the picture to stave off the maladies he has accumulated in his sinful life.
Wilde’s text further implies the spiritual context of Gray’s redemption through the painting when it describes him as burying his face in a cushion after his plea, “as though he were praying” (Wilde 29). Years later, Gray confirms to Basil Hallward that his wish was in fact something that could be called a prayer (Wilde 161). Wilde demonstrates that Gray’s characterization of his plea has a specifically Christian nature when Hallward implores him to pray, “‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities’…Isn’t there a verse somewhere, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow’?” (Wilde 162). This image of redemption recalls Wotton’s comment about Gray’s “rose-white boyhood” (Wilde 21). The color imagery that signifies purity in these metaphors indicates yet another kinship between Dorian Gray and the Bible, specifically in their ideas of morality and the moral cleansing/restoration involved in salvation. The painting redeems Gray (albeit only physically) to his former state of blossoming youth, unburdened by the rot of aging, untarnished by the bruise of his malice, just as Christ does to sinners and forgiveness does to a soul “scarlet” with sin.
Hallward’s quote about sin comes from the book of Isaiah (KJV). This Pre-Messianic text prophesies in later chapters that “unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given…And His name will be called…Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). The origin of this remark implies that readers should view the painting’s powers of restoration as an instance of salvation; limited in this circumstance to the physical self of one blessed, and cursed, man. In Gray’s case, though, the painting is a reverse of Christ in two respects: the picture is an inanimate, enchanted object rather than a divine teacher, and it cleanses from Gray only the physical symptoms of immorality rather than rebuking in entirety the inner, spiritual decay that persists in his soul and soon grows visible on the canvas. However, these anomalies fail to significantly distort the underlying parallel of granted salvation and answered prayers which Christ and the painting share. Nestled in Biblical references that make Wilde’s text fertile ground for symbolic comparison, the relationship between Gray and the painting uncannily mirrors the one between Christ and sin-laden mankind. Just as Gray “converts” into the painting’s protection, the Christian sinners are reconciled to “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21), a spiritual version of Gray’s spotless youth.
As do Adam and Christ, Gray’s painting has a moral, unyielding father who opposes the tempter’s wish to spoil his ward’s golden nature. Basil Hallward is the artistic intellect and grand designer behind the portrait (Christ) which has saved Gray (mankind) from facing the full repercussions of his sinful conspiracy with Wotton (the Devil). Also, like his allegorical counterpart who placed the first man in Eden, Hallward presides over the garden setting in which Gray’s nature is first tempted to indulge its baser desires. As the painting’s “parent,” Hallward symbolically fulfills the role of the Father entity in the Christian trinity. He is the main force in the novel’s allegory that spawns the “only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14) that rescues humanity from being condemned to mortality. He is a plainspoken advocate for tradition and a view of morality consistent with that of the Biblical law the Father espouses: he despises the mischievous, deceptive way in which Wotton speaks of his marriage, laments that his old friend is “thoroughly ashamed of [his] own virtues” (Wilde 6) and refuses to invest in Wotton’s blasé opinion that “conscience and cowardice are really the same things” (Wilde 9).
Years later, in a moment of spiritual orthodoxy, the artist hearkens back to his childhood to recall Bible verses from Isaiah; just as the Father urges humanity to abide in Him, Hallward urges Gray to turn to God for forgiveness: “The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also…It is never too late, Dorian. Let us kneel down and try if we cannot remember a prayer” (Wilde 162). Hallward’s exhortation alludes strongly to his connection with the Father’s relentless nature, embodied in the promise that “I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
After Wotton whisks Gray away from Hallward, his emotions mirror the pain of the Father after being estranged from His creations, “As the door closed behind [Wotton and Gray], the painter flung himself down on a sofa, and a look of pain came into his face” (Wilde 33). Though Hallward warns Wotton not to influence Gray just before they greet the young man, Wotton mesmerizes Gray with his philosophy and spirits him away from his private friendship with Hallward. In the process, Hallward is separated forever from a dear friend, and loses the opportunity to commune with a creature of perfect innocence, just as God loses the chance to know his human creations intimately when they reject Him in favor of the tempter’s twisted notions. This grief is evident in Hallward’s obvious despair after his former, untarnished conception of Gray disappears, yet he remains committed to praying for Gray’s wellbeing, thus displaying the “longsuffering and abundan[ce] in mercy” attributed to the Father God (Numbers 14:18). Each of these emotions mimics on an infinitely smaller scale the reactions and efforts of the Father God to reconcile humanity to His sovereignty, even at the cost of His own son (or, in Hallward’s case, the beauty of his painting).
In Dorian Gray, Wilde’s portrayal of a soul descending into the corridors of pleasure and self-fascination is a reflection, even in grotesque miniature, of the Genesis creation narrative of fall and redemption. Dorian Gray’s antiheroic journey from redemption to disgrace and death is a chronological reverse of the Bible’s own version of man’s moral journey, although this by no means diminishes the symbolic resemblance between the circumstances, events and themes of the two texts. In fact, Gray’s climactic murder of Basil Hallward, the “Father” attempting to save him, is symbolic of mankind thinking itself too modern or too human for God. It serves as a warning, or possibly just a chilling pronouncement, about the haunted state of a humanity that has rebelled bloodily against its native reality, and is now left only to stare its own wickedness in the face.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003. Print.
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