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Doctor Faustus and The Picture of Dorian Gray: Comparative Essay

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In both Doctor Faustus, first performed in 1562, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, published in 1890, there is an exploration of demonic powers, and the influence they have over the respective protagonists. Both texts utilise the religious chaos regarding Christianity in the time period of its conception and the sensuality of temptation to depict the extent of the influence the demonic figures have over both Dorian and Faustus. The 1500s-1600s saw the emergence of the Renaissance in England, a period brought forth by intellectualism in a country where religion was at war with oneself. Despite this, radical Christians – Catholic or Protestant – would fear these new intellectuals, ‘atheists’ as they were then dubbed. Through Faustus’ insatiable curiosity for knowledge beyond what should be known, as represented by the new ‘atheists’, he opened himself up for the corrupting influence of the demon Mephastophilis. Similarly, the 1800s saw a new Enlightenment Era wherein questions of the same nature to that of the Renaissance was being explored, however, there is also an exploration of hedonistic pleasure and art through the dominance of Lord Henry over Dorian, which is near demonic in nature, in contrast to the knowledge Faustus seeks. The Portrait of Dorian itself acts as a demon in its ultimate representation of Dorian’s soul and very being.

In both texts, there is a prominent theme of the protagonists making some sort of ‘Deal with the Devil’, which eventually leads them to their downfall, however, it is presented differently regarding how literal their ‘deals’ are.

In Doctor Faustus, Marlowe presents the scholarly figure of Faustus literally forming a deal with the demon Mephastophilis, where he actively puts moral integrity behind him in his search for power and agrees to sell his soul in exchange for twenty-four years of Mephastophilis’ service. In Act One Scene One, Faustus, while describing the influence of magic, says that “Tis magic, magic that hath ravished me.” This shows how he is willing to be influenced by the corruption he is being presented with. During the late Elizabethan/early Jacobean era, the contemporary presence of the drama, any form of magic or witchcraft was inherently tied to devilry. Magic was viewed as an evil temptress and as being alluring. According to T. McAlindon in his work Classical Mythology and Christian Tradition in Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, magic was regarded as “the most dangerous […] of all the shapes which Satan assumed”. This supports the idea of demonic power, and in this case, demonic temptation has such a stronghold over Faustus, that despite his best efforts, he cannot overcome his damnation. The use of the word ‘ravished’ to show the effect of magic only further shows the lusty, almost sensual power of Lucifer and Hell, as well as why it was so easy for Faustus to give in to temptation.

Moreover, thanks to the deal he made, Faustus sentenced himself to damnation; in Marlowe’s adaptation of the Faustus myth, he chose to allow Faustus to be condemned to Hell at the end in contrast to German writer Goethe’s interpretation, wherein Faustus achieves salvation through repentance of the actions that he had done. In Act Five Scene Two, Faustus, in a final attempt to evade his fate, cries out saying that he will “burn [his] books”, and for Lucifer to “come not” for his soul. The burning of books, in this case it is assumed to be booked on magic, was considered to be a traditional gesture in which a magician would prove that they were renouncing magic. However, due to this being a mere attempt just before his deal is completed, it takes away from any sincerity he may have had. Furthermore, during his twenty-four years, as promised by Lucifer, he had committed many feats of evil, such as tricking and harming the Pope in Act Three Scene 1, and had not shown much repentance for those actions afterward. Through this, it is shown that Faustus completely rejects orthodox religion and accepts magic and mythology, it is shown that he has completely succumbed to the corrupting temptation of the deal he made.

Marlowe presented the idea of a ‘Deal with the Devil’ leading to downfall through Faustus’ literal deal with Mephastophilis which eventually leads him to his ruin, however, Wilde chose to present the idea of a ‘Deal with the Devil’ through the more symbolic deal Dorian’s character makes as he wishes for eternal youth in exchange for his soul.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, there is no explicit ‘deal’ made, not in the same fashion as Faustus, as there is no physical demon present. Rather, one of the ways that the demonic power presents itself is through the Portrait, as painted by Basil. When coming face to face with the Portrait, he cries out in jealousy of the Portrait’s beauty and says that he is “jealous of everything whose beauty does not die”. He then later goes on to say that “there is nothing in the whole world [he] would not give! [He] would give [his] soul for that!” It is this moment in Chapter Two, that Dorian has signed his soul in exchange for the eternal youth he is then granted, and in turn made his very own ‘Deal with the Devil’. This marks a contrast as well, regarding how the ‘deal’ is presented within the text. Whilst Faustus had known of his actions, known of what the final consequences would be, Dorian was ignorant to it all; in his envy, he had accidentally claimed to accept the loss of his soul for the sake of vanity. Dorian had unknowingly sealed his fate in his unintentional wish to switch places with the Portrait.

The original wish was to simply gain the eternal youth of the Portrait while the Portrait is the one to grow old, however, it also displays the cruel and corrupt disposition that Dorian manages to hide with his physical appearance. The Portrait was first tainted after Dorian’s harsh rejection of Sybil Vane, as when he sees the Portrait it “was watching him with its beautiful marred face and its cruel smile.” in Chapter Seven. From this point on, Dorian becomes more and more obsessed with his appearance and vanity, as well as more worried about someone discovering the Portrait, and thus, discovering the truth behind him. The Portrait, at the centre of these events takes on the role of one of the demonic figures within the novel, it becomes the cause of sorrow for the characters. Moreover, the Portrait can even be linked to the cause of Dorian’s death. In Chapter 12, Dorian, in fit of hatred, after seeing Basil’s horrified reaction to what had happened to his portrait picks up a knife and kills him. Later, in Chapter 14, Dorian seems more worried about the Portrait, than his murder of a once dear friend, as when looking at the Portrait, it was described as having, “that loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands”. The Portrait seems to be gaining more sentience, as there is the implication that it is alive, and this can then suggest that it is Dorian who is actually not alive. This links back to the idea that Dorian has sold his soul in his ‘deal’, and this could be indicative of the fact that he is, in part, losing his soul.

The sins committed by Dorian, eventually catch up with him, leading him to his downfall, death, in Chapter 20. In Chapter 20, Dorian, completely driven by madness from his macabre actions, takes a knife and stabs the painting, only for it to kill himself. When his servants discover his body, they see the Portrait containing “exquisite youth and beauty,” whereas Dorian appeared “withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage.” This shows how all the years of sin and corruption that could have only once been seen upon the Portrait, was now transferred back to Dorian. In the novel, Wilde had not disclosed where Dorian had stabbed the portrait, however due to the knife being found in the heart of the now dead Dorian, it is implied that it was towards the heart itself. This goes somewhat back to a comment Dorian had made in Chapter 12, when he spoke about keeping a diary of his life locked away in a room. It is implied that the Portrait was his diary and his heart. Furthermore, this goes to show how one of the demonic figures present is the Portrait. Dorian had made his ‘deal’ with the Portrait being the other party. Once Dorian had finally been driven mad from this ‘deal’, the Portrait took his share of the deal, Dorian’s life and soul, something which the Portrait contained.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian makes his ‘Deal with the Devil’ with the Portrait taking on the role of a demon, it is a more implicit depiction of how Dorian was led to selling his soul as he was ignorant to the consequences his actions would have, and wasn’t actively aware of what he had done, eventually leading him to his death. In Doctor Faustus, it is shown that, unlike Dorian, Faustus knew what he was doing when he summoned Mephastophilis. Faustus’ ‘Deal with the Devil’ is a much more literal ‘deal’ wherein he accepts the consequences at first, but then when he is faced with them, tries to ‘repent’, only leading him to his downfall, the loss of his soul to Lucifer.

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Demonic power is presented in both texts through the major influencing figures the respective protagonists are faced with. In Doctor Faustus, there is Mephastophilis who actively influences Faustus to remain on the path he has set out on, often recruiting other demons to help him. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is the character of Lord Henry who is another demonic figure within the novel, regarding the power and influence he holds over Dorian. Unlike Mephastophilis however, Lord Henry is not bound by a contract to serve Dorian as if he was Lord Henry’s Faustus. Despite this, both Dorian and Faustus find their lives centering around these figures of power who tempt and corrupt their lives.

In Doctor Faustus, it is Faustus who summons Mephastophilis for an exchange, their ‘deal’, as was previously established, yet it is Mephastophilis who is actually in power, and who keeps Faustus under his control. In Act One Scene Three, Mephastophilis remarks that he did not appear because of any magic Faustus performed, but rather he heard Faustus “rack the name of God,” and that he “[flies] in hope to get his glorious soul.” This shows the idea that demons fly up whenever someone takes the name of God in vain, denies Christ, or insults the scriptures, thus whenever someone actively works against the Christian commandments. Mephastophilis describes the soul as “glorious”, showing that even he acknowledges that the human soul ought to be revered and kept sacred, however, Faustus, for all his scholarly knowledge, is driven by his gluttonous pride for more knowledge. This heightens the reversal of power, and shows how it is Mephastophilis who is controlling the situation, and manipulating it for his own self.

Moreover, Faustus, as a scholar during the Renaissance, and someone who appears to be heavily influenced by the ‘Free-Thinkers’, a group of intellectuals who were passionate about increasing one’s knowledge, and would often point out inconsistencies with the Church dogma, for all the religious instability in England in the 1600s. Marlowe reflects the darker aspects of this pursuit for knowledge, displaying how Faustus, in a similar manner to that of the ‘Free-Thinkers’, appears skeptical and intellectual, however goes too far in his search for forbidden knowledge, and ultimately ends up damned for it through his violation of the Heavenly Laws.

Additionally, Faustus appears to be a rather weak-willed individual, making it much easier for Mephastophilis to assume the role of control over Faustus. It is him who oversees the pact between Faustus and Lucifer, and he is the one to cajole Faustus into staying loyal to Hell. Due to how impressionable he is, Faustus is shown to constantly go back and forth between repentance and going back to God, and acceptance of the power he gains thanks to Mephastophilis. It is important to note here that Faustus would in fact be powerless without the help of his demon, displaying how regardless of his dubious confidence, it is in fact Mephastophilis who is in power. In Act Five Scene One, Faustus has once more uttered the words “I do repent.” This only angers Mephastophilis, who threatens to tear Faustus apart, a contrast to how he previously dealt with Faustus’ changes in decisions. Previously, Mephastophilis recruited the help of Lucifer and even the Seven Deadly Sins, who had tempted him with what he could have should he choose to stay loyal to Hell. In response to his anger, Faustus asks Mephastophilis to “pardon [his] unjust presumption”, and reaffirms his vows to Lucifer with blood once more. For Faustus, at this point in the play, the meanings of sacred and profane appear to be perverted, as he finds his repentance to be “unjust”, as well as asking a demon to “pardon” him as though he committed a sin. This is supported through S. Snyder’s writing in Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ as an Inverted Saint’s Life, wherein she describes Mephastophilis as a “mentor” figure to Faustus, especially when considering the dominant role he has towards directing Faustus down the ‘right’ path, which just so happens to be the path to hell.

Through Marlowe’s presentation of Mephastophilis, demonic power is shown through the dominant influence he has on Faustus, and the control he manages to retain through a combination of manipulating Faustus’ pleasures and his weak-willed personality. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde chooses to portray demonic power through Lord Henry, who appears to be the equivalent of Mephastophilis when it comes to his manipulations of Dorian.

Lord Henry, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, wields an interestingly powerful influence over Dorian and seeks to dominate him. Lord Henry is described as having “wrong, fascinating, poisonous, delightful theories” in Chapter Six. This aligns with the Enlightenment Era which emerged during the 19th century in England. The Enlightenment brought forth new ideas about religion, science and philosophy, some of which was considered to be dangerous in itself by orthodox religion, and Christianity in particular, of which most Victorians would have excessively followed. This parallels to the ‘Free-Thinkers’, of whom Faustus may have been inspired by. One of Lord Henry’s more dangerous opinions finds itself regarding the institution of marriage. He disregards marriage, finding that it makes people “colourless” and that they “lack individuality”, he even wishes in Chapter Six that Dorian marries Sybil Vane and loves her for six months before being “fascinated by someone else.” He comments on Dorian being an “interesting study” for this. His distaste for marriage only further shows his alignment towards some sort of demonic power, a parallel with Faustus’ inability to marry because of marriage being an institution of God. Lord Henry, through this, distances himself from the laws of Heaven, and instead places himself closer to Hell.

He is the primary corrupting influence on Dorian, more so than the Portrait who earned Dorian’s soul. Lord Henry finds himself intrigued by Dorian’s innocence and purity, as if he was some sort of toy, and uses the reciprocated interest from Dorian to manipulate him. The power dynamics are shown through the way Lord Henry compares talking to Dorian in Chapter 3 with “playing upon an exquisite violin.” This shows the pleasure he gets from exerting his influence over Dorian. Moreover, it is through the influence of Lord Henry that Dorian is introduced to the theories of youth, beauty and pleasure, a point explored through Jean Nounadonde’s work The Supernatural Side in Oscar Wilde’s the Picture of Dorian Gray. This is especially true, considering how it was because of Lord Henry’s speech in Chapter Two on youth and how “there is nothing in the world but youth,” that Dorian even made his ‘deal’ with the Portrait in the first place. There is a parallel between Lord Henry’s role in influencing Dorian to make his ‘deal’ and the role Mephastophilis plays when overseeing the ‘deal’ being formed by Faustus and Lucifer. This emphasises the dominant demonic power Lord Henry has come into, and how he manipulates this into toying with Dorian, similarly to that of an immortal being and an impressionable mortal.

Lord Henry presents himself as an imposing figure, who would “seek to dominate [Dorian]” and “make that spirit his own.” He is presented as the equivalent of Mephastophilis in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and as such, presents his demonic powers through the influence he exerts over Dorian, tempting him into a world of “a New Hedonism”, and most notably overseeing the ‘deal’ between Dorian and the Portrait. This is comparable to the influence Mephastophilis has over Faustus in Doctor Faustus. Mephastophilis is the figure who keeps Faustus in check through their power imbalance and is also the person to make sure that Faustus remains loyal to Hell. Unlike Lord Henry, however, Mephastophilis is contractually obliged, by not just Faustus, but also at the request of his Lord, Lucifer, to serve Faustus for twenty-four years.

In conclusion, both Marlowe and Wilde explore the presentation of demonic power and the corrupting influence they have over the protagonists, eventually leading to the loss of their respective souls. The demonic power present goes hand in hand with the gain of what would be considered forbidden knowledge. In Doctor Faustus, Faustus, as a scholar inspired by the ‘Free-Thinkers’, develops a passion for prohibited magic and is only encouraged by the presence of Mephastophilis. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, on the other hand, Dorian is encouraged to enter what is almost a cult of hedonistic pleasure by Lord Henry, who appears to always know what will happen. Both Dorian and Faustus find themselves handing their souls over to the Portrait and Lucifer respectively, all while being watched by their demons and not being able to think or do anything differently.

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Doctor Faustus and The Picture of Dorian Gray: Comparative Essay. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
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