In this extract from chapter 9, Basil, who is unaware of the change in the picture, explains to Dorian why he feels so strongly about it and pleads with him to lend it to him for an exhibition of his works. At first, he didn’t want it to be exhibited because he thought it showed too much of himself, but now he has got over this feeling. However, Dorian won’t either let Basil borrow the picture or even see it and does not account for his refusal.
I will first study Basil’s confession, then I will deal with Dorian’s reaction and the relationship between the two characters.
In the first part of the extract, Basil narrates his friendship with Dorian. Nevertheless his speech does not hinder the dramatic tension of the story, since both the reader and Dorian expect a revelation from it. Indeed, when Basil introduces the subject, Dorian is upset: “‘Basil!’ cried the lad, clutching the arms of his chair with trembling hands and gazing at him with wild startled eyes.” He supposes that Basil knows the secret of his portrait.
Instead, Basil tells Dorian that he has been fascinated by him ever since he first saw him because he sees in him the embodiment of his aesthetic ideal: “You became to me the visible incarnation of that unseen ideal whose memory haunts us artists like an exquisite dream. (…) I had seen perfection face to face.” This is why Dorian became his favorite sitter for every subject that he painted: Paris, Adonis, Antinous or Narcissus.
Of course, it would be even more difficult for the twenty-first century reader than for Wilde’s contemporaries to overlook the thinly-veiled/thinly-disguised homoerotic subtext. Wilde obviously uses the names of Narcissus and Antinous as barely covert pointers, in much the same way as he nudges the reader by referring to Plato and Michelangelo elsewhere in the novel. Anyway, the very words of his speech are enough to amount to a declaration of love. Although the word “love” itself is never pronounced, everything that it stands for is present in Basil’s address. In Victorian England, this understatement is probably the closest that a writer could get to actually write about a homosexual theme. One cannot but be reminded of Wilde’s words at his first trial about the “love that dare not speak its name”: “The ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made as the very basis for his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michaelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michaelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”
Of course, it would be a blatant mistake to oppose the two aspects of this speech. Basil’s speech is not a bawdy metaphor at once pointing to and concealing a prurient content, Basil does not just lust after Dorian: his love for Dorian and his seeing in him his ideal are one and the same thing, just as it is for many of us. His love is at once a “mad worship,” an “idolatry,” an “intolerable fascination” and an “ideal, and remote” contemplation. More than that, it is the former because it is the latter.
In a way, Basil faces the same problem as Oscar Wilde. When he finally paints a real-life portrait of Dorian instead of picturing him as a mythical or historical character, he is faced with the impossibility of going public. Just as an overt statement that does not hide in a metaphor is impossible for Wilde, a picture that reveals Basil’s passion without the disguise of fiction cannot be exhibited to the world at large.
Dorian’s reaction is very complex, even ambivalent.
He is relieved to realize that he was mistaken after Basil has made his confession: “Dorian Gray drew a long breath. The colour came back to his cheeks, and a smile played about his lips. The peril was over.” However, he has not been given the explanation that he expected, however fearfully, about his picture.
We can sense a certain degree of contempt in his “pity” for Basil. This can be read in more than one light. First, Basil has stated that Dorian “dominates” him: he is in his power. In the second place, Dorian knows Basil’s secret while Basil does not know Dorian’s. Once again, the relationship is an asymmetrical one between non-equals. Thirdly, Dorian, like the astute reader, has probably heard Basil’s shameful confession for what it is. As a perfect (and straight) gentleman in Victorian England, he cannot but scorn an invert. Once more, knowing this secret places huge power in Dorian’s hands: “gross indecency” was punishable by/liable to two years’ hard labour (the sentence delivered on Wilde himself in 1895) under section 11 of the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act (homosexuals were liable to death sentences until 1861 and life sentences prior to the 1885 act – that is, during Wilde’s lifetime).
Dorian’s refusal to Basil cuts both ways. On the one hand, he frustrates the painter by preventing him from looking at his lifetime achievement. On the other hand, we can wonder how Basil would react if he did see his picture as it is now. It represents for him the best thing he has ever done, and, much more than that, it symbolizes his aesthetic ideal, which informs his whole life. He would probably be shattered by its degradation, so that Dorian can be said to protect him from the extreme moral destress, even catastrophe that would ensue.
Moreover it can be argued that Basil does know the secret of the portrait: he says that it lays his soul bare, which is precisely what it does to Dorian. In addition, Basil tells him this is the reason why he at first would not exhibit it, just as Dorian hides the picture away because he cannot bear the idea of anyone seeing his soul portrayed. In addition, Basil says that Dorian was unaware of his influence on him and on the picture. Likewise, Basil does not know what he did to Dorian when he gave him the picture.
Where to go from here:
· Therefore we can try to bridge the “two secrets” of the picture. Does it show Dorian’s soul because Basil showed his own soul in it? In other words, is it poisonous to Dorian because when Basil gave it to him he gave him his forbidden love?
This question leads us to the issue of the relationships between Dorian, Basil, Lord Henry and the picture.
· We can see that Dorian’s relationship to the picture is a repetition of Basil’s relationship to the same picture.
· Basil’s relationship to Dorian is more successful than he thinks: although he now feels alienated from Dorian, the picture is a very powerful link between them.
· When Basil describes the influence that Dorian has had on him, it makes Dorian think of his own relationship to Lord Henry.