The Elizabethan and Victorian eras marked a plethora of changes throughout England, both stabilizing the previously turbulent political field, and initiating periods of prosperity. That shift allowed for new artistic endeavors and cultural refinement and posed questions regarding the established values and conventions in society. Particularly, the Elizabethan era, or, as it has been dubbed, “England’s Golden Age”, and the apogee of England’s Renaissance, provided a catalyst for English Theater, and the royal patronage of the arts allowed for the establishment of staple literary figures such as Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Similarly, during the Victorian era, literature was popularized and widespread, with the novel and prose being accessible and affordable to all. Among the Victorians there was a strong religious drive for higher moral standards, placing emphasis to the didactic role of art, and a strict code of conduct shaping their outward social image, that praised restraint and moderation. According to the dominant religion, that is Protestantism, salvation was the duty of the individual, and it was the individual, through his own faith and conscience that was responsible for it. With all that in mind, in this essay I will compare the characters of Doctor Faustus and Dorian Gray, and examine the influences that led to their downfall and eventual damnation, and the struggling manifestations of conscience of these two figures.
The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, or more simply, Doctor Faustus, is an Elizabethan tragedy by Christopher Marlowe, based on the anonymous German Faustbook. The play, as Schelling (1914) puts it, “tells the world-story of a man who, seeking for all knowledge, pledged his soul to the devil, only to find the misery of a hopeless repentance in this world and damnation in the world to come.” This anxiety permeates the play, as even the scenes of joy seem to be mere procrastinations in the grand scheme of the plot, and the lack of character development augments the tragic element. Faustus is not redeemed or pardoned; despite his attempts at repentance. Is what ensures the contract’s successful completion the combined effect of books Faustus and the forbidden knowledge Mephistopheles provides?
Faustus, from the beginning of the play is presented to the audience as a scholar in his study, inspecting the books he owns. After going through a list of the major fields of human knowledge—logic, medicine, law, and theology—and citing for each an ancient authority (Aristotle, Galen, Justinian, and Jerome’s Bible, respectively), he decides to reject them all and throw them away as he has presumably mastered all these sciences and reached the end of knowledge (“… Then read no more, thou hast attained the end…”, “… Why Faustus hast thou not attained that end?…) . By this rejection Faust severs ties with his formal education and the medieval world and with that he denounces hopes of salvation (“Divinity, adieu!”) and turns to books of magic and necromancy. Curiously, Faustus’ motives for seeking knowledge are not straightforward, and his interpretation of the ancient texts is skewed and superficial. His true desires are revealed to be material aspirations, instead of intellectual “… a world of profit and delight, Of power, of honour, of omnipotence…” and they are made physical (“glutted”). Faustus’ friends give him books to learn conjuring, the devils provide him with books of spells, books of shapeshifting to distract his existential ponderings. As the end of his contract draws near, Faustus cries he would rather have “never read book”, pledging to burn them all and renounce his magic. All in all, books, both the canonical literature and the magic books provide comfort and direction to Faustus.
Mephistopheles, the summoned demon, is the main companion of Faustus for the majority of the play. In the Introduction of the Complete Plays he is described as “a new kind of devil, quiet, melancholy, menacing in the very honesty with which he explains his coming…” (2003). Surprisingly, it is Mephistopheles at the beginning of the play who gives voice to the orthodox dogma (“Why, this is hell… my fainting soul”), and his words would serve almost as a warning or cautionary remark. He answers Faustus questions regarding heaven and hell, perhaps giving him the answers he expects to hear. However, once the contract has been signed, he becomes less eager in answering questions and his chief concern is how to keep Faustus from repenting. He appeases and distracts him with gifts, tricks, books, performances (the pageant of the seven sins) and pleasures, but also calls upon Lucifer when Faustus’ resolve wavers and cruelly reminds him that he is damned. Mephistopheles is enough to temporary satisfy Faustus’ hunger for luxury and power, but the voice of his good angel persists. When all is said and done, Mephistopheles’ responsibility is to ensure Faustus’ soul for hell and uses all means to accomplish that.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, the notion of influence is predominant in the novel. Dorian Gray, a handsome young man, who once made aware of the ephemeral nature of his beauty, unknowingly trades his soul for everlasting beauty and youth, with his portrait bearing the physical marks of time and sin in his stead. Emulating Lord Henry’s cultivated cynicism and his yellow book, Dorian leads a hedonistic double-life. The Victorian notion of physiognomy, that is, the widespread belief that an individual’s appearance, particularly his or her face reveals character, frees him of consequences and raises him above suspicion.
The yellow book Lord Henry lends to Dorian has a great effect on him. Specifically, Dorian identifies himself in the protagonist to the extend that he sees in its hero “a kind of prefiguring type of himself. And, indeed, the whole book seemed to him to contain the story of his own life, written before he had lived it.” This book, which remains unnamed in the novel, seems to be partly modelled after Huysmans’ A Rebours, a volume admired by Wilde. Dorian becomes so enraptured by this book that he allows it to dictate his life and actions, be a guide to him. At the same time, he is aware of the “poisonous” effect it has on him and blames Lord Henry for introducing him to it. However, Lord Henry deflects his accusations by paraphrasing Wilde’s own belief of books and their influence: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all,” and “It is the spectator and not life that art really mirrors.” Thus, it is Dorian’s own fault for reading the yellow book in such an autobiographical manner and allowing it to affect him.
Lord Henry, on the other hand, is a character very much aware of his influence of Dorian. To him influence as something intimate, a form of metempsychosis, and immoral. “There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr Gray. All influence is immoral […] Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts or burn with his natural passions.” Lord Henry observes the effect Dorian has on Basil Hallward, and he consciously strives to induce that effect in Dorian. A discrepancy between theory and action is observed in the novel, though. Lord Henry renounces the culture of “self-denial” and supports pleasure through the senses in theory, but Dorian is the one who lives to regret it. When in the end Dorian all but confesses to be responsible for Basil’s murder, Lord Henry dismisses him, as he could not look as handsome as he did, had he committed such a crime. In an ironic twist, the cynical character that Dorian once idolized and followed at the end comes across as naïve and hypocritical.