“The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Essay
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The two books I have chosen for my open study are: The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first one, written in 1890 by Oscar Wilde, is the story of a young, aristocratic dandy who, influenced by a friend, becomes a hedonistic, selfish man who ends in tragedy. The second, written in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson, is the story of a scientist, Dr. Jekyll, who, under the effect of a potion, mutates into a terrifying monster every night, killing whoever doesn’t please him.
Choosing the books was not a difficult task for me: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a book I read last year, and took great pleasure in reading, but I felt as if I didn’t get some of the messages and ideas of the novel. This is why I thought that choosing it for my essay could help me understand it better. I then thought of choosing the second book based on the features of the first: I wanted a book written in the same style, of the same genre, in the same period of time and with a similar plot. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde fitted perfectly.
These two books link and differ in various ways. As I have said, they are particularly similar in style of writing and period setting, as they were both written and are set towards the end of the 19th century, but then differ a great deal in social aspect and characters. Dorian Gray is an aristocratic young gentleman, with love and friends whilst Henry Jekyll is a reserved, middle-class scientist. The genres can be considered similar and different at the same time. The two books are actually both of the horror and mystery genre but the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is much more classical and mainstream than the original and controversial Picture of Dorian Gray, creating an opposite ‘clash’ between the two books.
For my open study essay, I will analyse in depth the beginnings and endings of these two books.
The Picture of Dorian Gray starts with a classical description of the setting. The first short paragraph is a description of the aromas that can be sensed in the studio of Basil Hallward: “The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses…” (p.3 – The Picture of Dorian Gray) this section runs smooth and gracefully, illustrating “the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn” (Loc. Cit.) as if these fragrances were circling in motion, overlapping each other, one after the other.
Then a new paragraph starts with the introduction of a character that clashes with this parade of essences. The character is Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil Hallward. He is lying on a sofa of Persian saddle-bags, smoking cigarettes. In contrary to the first paragraph, the portrayal is now centred around what the Lord can see from where he is sitting: “From the corner of the divan […] Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of beauty” (Loc. Cit.).
Wilde has been very thoughtful using the word honey in repetition, and selecting the laburnum, which bends downwards in a careless manner. With his choice of words, he is truly giving the reader a sense of the slow-motioned afternoon stickiness that the Lord is experiencing by relaxing and smoking on the sofa. Further more, the laburnum is a poisonous tree of the pea family. Certainly, Dorian Gray turns out to be poisonous to many characters and, like the laburnum, has difficulty bearing ‘the burden of beauty’. This symbol seems to foreshadow many plot developments.
Then, the shadows of birds in flight flitter across the silk curtains, creating strange patterns. This effect reminds the Lord of Japanese painters, so the narrative, together with Henry Wotton’s mind, jumps to the other side of the world: “…the long tussore-silk curtains [produced] […] a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and made him think of those pallid jade-faced painters of Tokyo who […] seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion” (p.3). Here, the word ‘jade-faced’, was written to have a double meaning. The Jade is a precious green stone, but the verb ‘ to be jaded’ means to be worn out and lacking enthusiasm. In this context, either options could be correct. In addition, the birds’ shadows moving on the curtains, seems to reflect the book’s main object which is the distorted painting. Again, this is another symbol that prefigures the book’s events.
As if Wotton was getting bored of thinking about Japanese painters, his attention goes back to the garden, and the depiction follows it, now describing the sounds that the Lord is able to hear: “The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the struggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive” (Loc. Cit.). This phrase seems to stress the monotony and impatience that Henry is experiencing on the sofa. Words like ‘sullen’, ‘monotonous insistence’ and ‘oppressive stillness’ give the reader a feeling that the day is endless and that it is dragging itself on, making Wotton long for something to happen.
Moreover, it is as if the delineation of the noises, is getting always further away from the character listening, by following the bees’ trail. At first, just outside the studio, on the grass, then around the flowers of the pollen-full honeysuckles to then disappear somewhere else. As if the sound of the bees has suddenly vanished, the Lord’s mind switches directly to what he could not hear previously: “The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ” (Loc. Cit.) This short phrase is very effective and completely detached from all the previous descriptions. As if there is nothing else to see, nothing else to smell, and nothing else to hear, Lord Henry Wotton can now listen to the distant background sounds of London, which he could not hear previously due to the surrounding distractions.
Concisely, this is a vivid description which includes details on three of the five human senses: first the smell, then the sight, to end with the sound. Even though it does not talk about the senses of touch and taste, these elements can be found in between the lines. For example when Wilde uses words such as honey repeatedly, which gives us an idea of sweetness and smoothness in the air that can be tasted. Or even by just referring to something, such as Lord Henry’s fuming tobacco which, in contrast to the honey, has a much more strong and bitter taste. “…smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes” (Loc. Cit.).
Also the element of touch can be found, even if more vaguely: when the author is describing the material of Lord Henry’s sofa, we can imagine how it feels like to sit on it and feel it: “…the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying…” (p.3). We can imagine a slightly rough, hand-made saddle bag with actual Persian colours such as ‘Persian red’ and ‘Persian indigo’.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starts with a description too, but rather than a setting, Stevenson creates a thorough depiction in which he sketches the character of Mr. Gabriel John Utterson, a wealthy London lawyer, and main point of reference for the external narrator, who uses the lawyer as the story’s steering wheel. It is an extremely detailed description, concentrated more on the character’s personality rather than the physical aspect. He is a very reserved individual and perhaps even boring man: “Mr. Utterson the lawyer was […] never lightened by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse” (p.29 – The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and other stories). Hence, he is an uninteresting character, “lean, long, dusty, dreary” (Loc. Cit.) in personality.
The whole passage gives us the general image of a rigorous man, struggling to maintain a certain respectability to the point of becoming ridiculous. Nevertheless, it is as if the lawyer is hiding under a mask, and under the mask there is a lovable man who has a tendency to “help rather than reprove” (Loc. Cit.) In effect, probably the main theme of the whole passage is Utterson’s ‘lovability’. This sociability and friendliness make the lawyer the central element of the story, so that all the other characters confide in him and turn to him for help, permitting him to access each person’s point of view throughout the course of the events.
Secondly, the passage talks about Utterson’s eager interest in people with dark secrets and those who have experienced humiliation: “But he had an approved tolerance for others; sometimes wondering, almost with envy, at the high pressure of spirits involved in their misdeeds.” (Loc. Cit.) Without a doubt, the lawyer wonders with jealousy at the inspirations behind people’s misdeeds or transgressions. Even if entirely unsuited to a dully respectable man, this curiosity tempts him to involve himself in the unfolding mystery.
In brief, this description is an extraordinarily interesting account of Mr. Utterson, but at the same time a much more plain, and simple description of the lawyer’s behavioural traits than the intricate and vivid depiction of the setting in the opening paragraph of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In actual fact it is simply talking about how tedious the lawyer was, but at the same time loved by everyone. However, one can easily spot a few elements which might help us deduce the lawyer’s physical aspect. We must note, for example, that the man is most probably of a certain age, from the quote: “…he had not crossed the doors for twenty years…” (Loc. Cit.), referring to the doors of a theatre.
We can also figure out elements of his life that have not been specified in the passage, such as the fact that he has a brother: “I let my brother go to the devil in his own way.”These two beginnings have numerous similarities to be summarized and pointed out. The extracts, like the whole novels, are both set in London towards the end of the 19th century, but the settings are definitely unalike. The Picture of Dorian Gray is set in an aristocratic community of dandies with inherited money and no job, whilst Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is based around a community of hard-working middle-class characters. In actual fact, these two stories, however implausible they may be, have happened in the same time and place.
Other than this, neither of the two novels in question open with the main character. These are Dorian Gray in Wilde’s work and Henry Jekyll in Stevenson’s. Both books open with the same kind of character, as both Lord Wotton and Mr. Utterson are the individuals who watch the events from above and are followed by the author through the narrative. This technique is very effective for the kind of genre used, as in both books the main characters are not introduced until some chapters into the books, causing the reader to develop an increasing interest and suspense.
Another relevant similarity is the fact that in both openings, many things have to be deduced from the text: in Wilde’s novel, the senses of touch and taste can be presumed from the remaining three whilst in Robert Louis Stevenson’s work one can speculate elements of the lawyer’s private life and physical aspect from a clear and vivid portrayal of the character’s personality.
The differences, instead, are not many. One is the obvious difference in the type of description but it is to be noticed that there are also the different narrative techniques that the authors use: The Picture of Dorian Gray is smooth and slow-paced, going on fluently with some elements of poetry such as alliteration: “rich odour of roses” (p.3), “perfume of the pink-flowering thorn” (ibid.).
In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde instead, the narrative is fast-paced, frenetic and angry, making the reader interpret the passage swiftly. Stevenson creates this effect by using many monosyllabic, harsh words “lean, long, dusty, dreary” (p.29), long sentences but a huge amounts of punctuation, making the phrases look chaotic and in no particular order: “He was austere with himself; drank gin when he was alone, to mortify a taste for vintages; and though he enjoyed the theatre, had not crossed the doors of one for twenty years”(ibid.).
Something else that I would like to point out is the theme of duality in human nature, recurring in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde more than anything, but present in The Picture of Dorian Gray too. In different ways, the doctor and the young man, both develop a second personality through the book. The first, to become a fierce monster each night and change back to normality in day-time and the other to actually alter his personality permanently to the opposite that he was before.
Both characters manage to be freed from their exhausting and persecuting second personality in the same way: death. Even so, these deaths are completely different from each other: Henry Jekyll dies of intentional suicide, when coming to know of his ‘dark side’ and Dorian Gray dies in the attempt to destroy his deformed portrait, killing himself unintentionally. This shows us the huge difference between the two characters in question.
In conclusion, I would say that The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, at first impression, were two completely different novels, that had nothing to do with each other: one was the story of a young man who gets caught by temptation and indulgence, and the other the story of a ferocious beast that kills people in the night-time. After having worked on my open study, though, this vision changed, and now I can see the young man just as I had seen the monster and what was the monster is now nothing but an innocent full of guilt.
I dare say this has not been an easy task for me. The books and subject of the essay I have chosen have brought me massive problems throughout my work and research. The biggest ones have been the excessive amount of material for The Picture of Dorian Gray and the minimal for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the superfluous length of the essay which obliged me to cut down a whole part of it and change the title. Nonetheless, as I had expected, this essay has indeed helped me in a better understanding of the whole books, and not only the passages I selected. Additionally, if previously I couldn’t get a clear image of the similarities and differences in my head, now I can clearly detect them and understand them in a completely different way.