The Picture of Dorian Gray
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Even if you've never read this book, chances are you know exactly what the deal with the infamous picture is. Articles about celebrities' age-defying secrets name drop Dorian. There's a Dorian Gray syndrome. Dorian Gray pops up in scholarly articles about psychoanalysis, and about narcissism in politics.
The portrait is a kind of living allegory, a visible interpretation of Dorian's soul. Early in the novel this painting seems to be infused with nostalgia for lost youth, and the scary frailty of human life:
For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. And when winter came upon it, he would still be standing where spring trembles on the verge of summer. When the blood crept from its face, and left behind a pallid mask of chalk with leaden eyes, he would keep the glamour of boyhood. Not one blossom of his loveliness would ever fade. Not one pulse of his life would ever weaken. Like the gods of the Greeks, he would be strong, and fleet, and joyous. What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas? He would be safe. That was everything. (8.25)
But we can read this symbol, ultimately, as a commentary on the ways in which evil can often be hidden away from sight. Basically, the picture represents Dorian's inner self, which becomes uglier with each passing hour and with every crime he commits:
Hour by hour, and week by week, the thing upon the canvas was growing old. It might escape the hideousness of sin, but the hideousness of age was in store for it. The cheeks would become hollow or flaccid. Yellow crow's feet would creep round the fading eyes and make them horrible. The hair would lose its brightness, the mouth would gape or droop, would be foolish or gross, as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat, the cold, blue-veined hands, the twisted body, that he remembered in the grandfather who had been so stern to him in his boyhood. The picture had to be concealed. There was no help for it. (10.14)
This picture is the image of Dorian's true nature and, as his soul becomes increasingly corrupt, its evil shows up on the surface of the canvas. It seems that Dorian himself isn't completely free of the picture's influence: as it becomes uglier and uglier, Dorian pretty much loses it. It becomes a kind of conscience, and it reminds Dorian constantly of the evil at the heart of his nature. (Check out our "Character Analysis" of Dorian Gray for more about the man and the portrait.)