In Oscar Wilde’s chilling fable, handsome, charismatic Dorian Gray stays forever young while his portrait ages and becomes corrupt. In this episode, Gray – now turned cynical and weary of life and morality – confronts the original artist, Basil Hallward.
The alert reader will find many similarities with a certain novel from our GCSE course. Oscar Wilde was known to borrow freely, even from his own works, and perhaps it is no coincidence that The Portrait of Dorian Gray was written several years after the novel of which I speak. And, yes: there IS a homosexual sub-text!
Anyway, let’s hush – there’s murder in the air…
“So you think that it is only God who sees the soul, Basil? Draw that curtain back, and you will see mine.”
The voice that spoke was cold and cruel. “You are mad, Dorian, or playing a part,” muttered Hallward, frowning.
“You won’t? Then I must do it myself,” said the young man, and he tore the curtain from its rod and flung it on the ground.
An exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in its expression that filled him with disgust and loathing. Good heavens! it was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at!
He had never done that. Still, it was his own picture. His own picture! What did it mean? Why had it altered? He turned and looked at Dorian Gray with the eyes of a sick man. His mouth twitched, and his parched tongue seemed unable to articulate. He passed his hand across his forehead. It was dank with clammy sweat.
“What does this mean?” cried Hallward, at last. His own voice sounded shrill and curious in his ears.
“Years ago, when I was a boy,” said Dorian Gray, crushing the flower in his hand, “you met me, flattered me, and taught me to be vain of my good looks. One day you introduced me to a friend of yours, who explained to me the wonder of youth, and you finished a portrait of me that revealed to me the wonder of beauty. It is the face of my soul.”
“Christ! what a thing I must have worshipped! It has the eyes of a devil.”
Dorian Gray glanced at the picture, and suddenly an uncontrollable feeling of hatred for Basil Hallward came over him, as though it had been suggested to him by the image on the canvas, whispered into his ear by those grinning lips. The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything. He glanced wildly around. Something glimmered on the top of the painted chest that faced him. His eye fell on it. He knew what it was. It was a knife that he had brought up, some days before, to cut a piece of cord, and had forgotten to take away with him. He moved slowly towards it, passing Hallward as he did so. As soon as he got behind him, he seized it and turned round. Hallward stirred in his chair as if he was going to rise. He rushed at him and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table and stabbing again and again.
There was a stifled groan and the horrible sound of someone choking with blood. Three times the outstretched arms shot up convulsively, waving grotesque, stiff-fingered hands in the air. He stabbed him twice more, but the man did not move. Something began to trickle on the floor. He waited for a moment, still pressing the head down. Then he threw the knife on the table and listened.
He could hear nothing, but the drip, drip on the threadbare carpet. He opened the door and went out on the landing. The house was absolutely quiet. No one was about. For a few seconds he stood bending over the balustrade and peering down into the black seething well of darkness. Then he took out the key and returned to the room, locking himself in as he did so.
The thing was still seated in the chair, straining over the table with bowed head, and humped back, and long fantastic arms. Had it not been for the red jagged tear in the neck and the clotted black pool that was slowly widening on the table, one would have said that the man was simply asleep.