Faustian tropes are intertwined within the bosom of Christopher Marlowe and Oscar Wilde’s contemporary societies, encapsulating the literary intellects to portray the parallels that lay within. Marlowe’s Renaissance play Doctor Faustus (1604), and Wilde’s Victorian novel The Picture of Dorian Gray are two pieces of literature that integrate very protuberant features of their societies- creating two texts that share various similarities, particularly in accordance with the plot; relationships amongst the main characters and the two title characters themselves. There is also literary likeness in the rudiments of the gothic and doppelganger life themes. Aestheticism, hedonism and the Faustian bargain, in many ways, illustrate The Picture of Dorian Gray as a reiteration of the story in Doctor Faustus; both the protagonists enter the world of evil. Dorian Gray pacts with the devil naively, whilst Doctor Faustus conjures the devil ignorantly. By analysing the Faustian tropes persistent in the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray- Doctor Faustus can be employed as the model for presenting the story of the Faustian fall. Good and evil is enthralled through the sequence of the protagonists mirrored lust for evil as the metaphoric marriages between Dorian Gray and the devil, as well as Dr Faustus and the devil condense themselves as the root of the two plots.
Doctor Faustus is a type of morality play, where the strengths of good and evil are embodied out of an inner battle in the human soul. This battle is shifted to the outside world, and it signifies “man’s need for salvation and the temptations which beset him on his pilgrimage through life to death” (Cuddon 1999: 519). Marlowe’s play is largely based on psychomachy in the manner of the conflict between the good and evil forces. The conflict becomes conveyed through Good and Bad Angels, who illustrate the tension inside the protagonist’s soul. The Angels try to convince Faustus why he should and should not interfere with necromancy. This nature of personification is not portrayed in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian’s inner fight is voiced through his way of thinking; he perpetually rationalises to himself why he ought to surrender to the world of pleasures, although nevertheless contemplates the question: “What are the moral consequences of this choice?”. Conversely, the picture performs as memento, a type of psychomachy to which Dorian doesn’t pay anyway meaningful consideration at first, but develops to be more and more cognizant of it, up until it holds the role of his conscience displaying how Dorian’s soul is steadily being distorted. The Picture of Dorian Gray and Doctor Faustus both encompass the theme of the confrontation between good and evil in the world, and the human soul.
The battlefield where Dorian’s fight with the opposing forces takes place is within his mind. This is a fierce, close fight for at one point “[o]ne could never pay too high a price for any sensation” (Wilde 2001: 47), at another he wants to be good (79). What is more, “there were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful” (116), but then again, he decides not to do any hideous acts anymore (166). One of the best examples of his inner fight may be when he is disappointed with the acting performance given by Sibyl, an actress with whom he is supposedly in love. After just one bad performance, Dorian is disappointed with her since she has lost all the aesthetic features of her person which have made her exquisite in his eyes. He breaks his promise to marry her, insults her, and runs away for she has killed his love and destroyed the romance of his life (71). But the picture that “taught him to love his own beauty” now teaches him “to loathe his own soul” (74). His thoughts wander so far, that at one point he gives the impression of a lunatic:
For every sin that he committed, a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness. But he would not sin. […] He would resist temptation. He would not see Lord Henry any more […] He would go back to Sibyl Vane, make her amends, marry her, try to love her again. (74)
Longing to atone for his sins, he goes astray and is unable to think clearly, and therefore becomes hasty in making decisions. The painting is Dorian’s Good Angel. Even though it may have the appearance of something wicked, it provides him with insight into his soul. It shows him what the sins he commits do to his soul, and reminds him to be careful and not allow the evil inside of him triumph over his virtue: “But here was a visible symbol of the degradation of sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls” (78).
But it’s not only the picture that takes the role of the Good Angel from Doctor Faustus. There is one character whose love for Dorian is unconditional and who helps him save his soul and escape Lord Henry’s bad influence10 – the painter, Basil Hallward. Dorian is aware that “Basil would have helped him to resist Lord Henry’s influence, and the still more poisonous influences that came from his own temperament. […] But it was too late now” (96). He even confesses to Basil that he is better than Henry, but weaker (89), and it is bad influence that usually prevails over the good one. In chapter twelve, Basil tries to point to the change that has happened inside Dorian, but the latter is not willing to hear it, or perhaps not able to do so. The painter reminds Dorian that status and affluence are not the most valuable things in life, that one cannot hide from sins, that dignity, virtue, and chastity matter in life, and that God sees the soul of a man (118-121). Furthermore, Basil could be seen as an allegorical figure, in the same way as the Old Man who represents Faustus’ last chance to repent and choose the good side, but also “Faustus’ unwillingness to accept, or even to see, the proffered hand of redemption” (Simkin 2001: 98). In that way, the Old Man is an extrinsic guide and advisor sent from God. The line “I do repent, and yet I do despair” (xviii, 71) that Faustus says is, as Simkin (100) describes, “a wonderfully compact, concentrated assessment of his spiritual status”, just like when Dorian realizes he has become sinful and still is unable to step to goodness. Basil asks Dorian to pray for “prayer of your repentance will be answered” (125). Tragically, prayers are now meaningless to Dorian, and he goes from sin to sin accepting the fact that he has become wicked.
Faustus believes that his sins are so great that God will not forgive him, and he accepts the Devil. This does not happen instantly, he actually contemplates the consequences of turning to the Devil. Nevertheless, when Mephistopheles describes Satan’s fall by “aspiring pride and insolence, / For which God threw him from the face of heaven” (iii, 70-71), we realize that this is an alternative that awaits Faustus if the evil overcomes the good within him. In the same manner, Dorian listens the outcome of both good and bad things from Lord Henry, but somehow chooses to hear only the positive side of them. We expect, nay, believe in the possibility of Dorian’s redemption, for he inspires us to have faith in him. He hesitates, contemplates, decides, but changes his mind again, until the moment he consummates evil. The point when we stop believing in the possibility of his salvation is when Dorian kills Basil, for “murder is always a mistake” as Lord Henry claims (Wilde 2001: 169).
Both characters want to repent and be good, but it’s long overdue. They are now “between a wrathful deity and the torments the devils are inflicting” (Simkin 2001: 204) and “[e]ach of us has Heaven and Hell in him” as Dorian believes. But having been committed to evil for so long, even by picking the proper option the catastrophic outcome is inevitable. Ultimately, as Wilde claims in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “[v]ice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art” (2001: 3). And, without a doubt, he made use of vice and virtue in creating this classic.