The British writer, Oscar Wilde is known for his witticisms and humor. However, in his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a darker side of the writer appears. The novel tracks the moral bankruptcy of a young, beautiful man, Dorian Gray, during Victorian England. While the novel focuses on the superficial qualities of beauty in society, there is also a subplot that provides added depth to the novel. The subplot involves the character of James Vane, the brother-in-law of Dorian Gray. Vane portrays a grittier version of society. He is a sailor and does not hesitate to threaten harm to people. He also is protective of his sister. While the other characters are shallow and narcissistic, including Vane’s mother, the character of James Vane shows a man who truly knows how to love and to care for another person. He would go to any lengths to protect his sister. Sadly, this desire to protect his sister eventually leads to his death. However, he shows a much deeper part of the novel and through this subplot, the reader can reach a greater level of understanding about the character of the protagonist, Dorian Gray.
The character of Dorian Gray is noted for his beauty, youthful looks and charm. Due to these qualities, a painter, Basil Hallward, decides to use Gray as his inspiration and his muse. He paints a full size portrait of Gray and it is an amazing tribute to the beauty of the young Gray. When Lord Henry sees the painting, he declares of Gray, “’Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you—well, of course you have an intellectual expression, and all that. But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins’” (Wilde 5). This statement indicates both the beauty of the protagonist and also the primary theme of the work: beauty if the all-important quality in a person and in possessions. In an attempt to keep himself beautiful and not to age, Gray sells his soul. He hides the portrait away where it will show all the signs of aging and moral corruption. His face will remain perfect, young and innocent looking. He is more concerned with maintaining his youthful beauty than he is in saving his soul. His soul means nothing when compared to his beauty.
Gray takes a wife, Sibyl Vane, an actress he saw in a Shakespeare production. She is quite beautiful and he marries her despite the fact that her she is below him in social standing. Her mother is happy with the union because Gray has money. In this way, she is also vain, like Gray. She is concerned only with material things and beauty. However, Sibyl and her brother, James, are the two characters in the novel who are not vain, which explains the irony of their last name. James has no desire to be one of the beautiful people. When Dorian suggests that they go do the park, James responds, “I am too shabby. Only swell people go to the park” (Wilde 79). James does not care to have a respectable life. He shows the side of humanity that is content with a non-beautiful existence. His sister points out that he might have entered a solicitor’s office, which is more respectable than the sea-faring life he chose. James responds that he hates offices. He would rather a less respectable existence where he is happy than a fashionable one where he is not.
When Dorian proposes marriage to the family, James threatens Dorian’s life. He indicates that he will kill Dorian if Dorian ever hurts his sister. He is not scared of a man who is his social superior. Vane had previously only loved acting and the theatre. However, she quickly discovers true love in her love for Gray. She is capable of feeling true emotion, unlike Gray. Gray hoped that she could only feel emotion for beauty and for art. She quits the theatre, much to the dismay of Gray. Gray discovers that he no longer loves her. He ends their relationship. He believes that he has been cruel, and he sees that this cruelty appears on his painting’s image, rather than on his own face. Sibyl commits suicide in her desperation. She drinks prussic acid.
James Vane vows his revenge on Gray. This part of the novel shows the darker side of human actions. While the darker side of Gray’s actions were only seen on his portrait, Vane’s subplot shows that there are actual dark actions that might occur in real life, rather than only in art. However, when James finds Dorian Gray, Gray convinces him that he is not the person he seeks. He insists that he never knew Sibyl Vane. After all, eighteen years have passed and Gray has not aged at all. James mistakenly believes him because it would seem impossible that a person did not age in nearly two decades.
The passage of time reveals not only Gray’s success in his vanity, but also the true depth of nature in James’ love for his sister. Despite the passage of time, he will not give up on avenging her memory. James continues in this quest until he is eventually shot by a hunter. James’ insistence at protecting his sister, even in her death, indicates that he truly loved her. Dorian’s love for her was nothing more than a passing vanity. The character of James Vane shows that truth was found outside the realm of aesthetics. James had a true and dignified life, even if others did not see it as such. He did not choose a respectable life, with offices, clerks and gentleman’s clubs. Rather, he chose the rugged life of the sea. His hands were torn from the job he did. He was not a pretty man and his looks would be hardened by the weather conditions. However, he showed a true character that Gray did not. Gray, for all his youthful beauty, had a horrific soul. Vane had a good soul that wanted only to protect the ones he loved.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is a novel that depicts the moral depravity of Dorian Gray. In an attempt to stay young and beautiful, Gray sells his soul. His portrait shows all the horrors of his lifestyle and his corruption. However, the character of James Vane, who was not of the same crowd, represented a true character with actual goodness in his soul. He was not shallow, but rather a complex character.
- Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Penguin, 1983.