An essay by Beatrice Glickman
For Prof. Liana Bellon’s course entitled Introduction to College English
Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Ovid’s “Echo and Narcissus” both explore the theme of self-obsession. Narcissus and Dorian both become obsessed with their beauty: Narcissus with his reflection and Dorian with his portrait. However, Dorian’s self-obsession becomes deeper than that of Narcissus because he sees the painting as an external expression of his conscience (class notes). Furthermore, Narcissus’ fate is predetermined by the gods while Dorian has the free will to shape his future. Additionally, Echo and Sybil both pine for unrequited love, but Sybil chooses to die while Echo helplessly wastes away. Through an analysis of the lives of Echo and Sybil, the moment that Narcissus and Dorian realize their beauty, and their final transformations, we will see that the theme of self-obsession presented by Ovid is reworked by Wilde, who further develops the theme that our state of mind can shape our reality (class notes). Unlike in Ovid’s myth, characters in Wilde’s novel always choose to be affected by their situations.
While Echo and Sybil lead parallel lives, Echo is a passive character, yet events in Sybil’s life are affected by her decisions. Echo and Sybil both express themselves through the words of others. Echo’s first metamorphosis happens when she rebels against the goddess Juno and is punished to “trail/ helplessly after others, uttering/ only the last words, helplessly/, of what [she] heard last” (Ovid 55-58). Ovid’s repetition of the word ‘helplessly’ emphasizes that Echo’s free will has been taken away. Sybil expresses herself through the words of others as well, but this is because she has chosen to experience emotions through the characters she portrays on stage. However, Sybil loses her Wildean belief that “acting [is] the one reality of [her] life” (Wilde 94) and adopts the traditional Victorian belief that the words she acted “were unreal” (Wilde 95) and “shadows” (Wilde 95) of reality (class notes). She then consciously chooses to stop acting well, which can be seen as her first metamorphosis (class notes).
Echo and Sybil both have a final transformation caused by unrequited love. Narcissus rejects Echo and she wastes away, “fading and shrivelling” (Ovid 113) until she is a bodiless voice. Sybil is rejected by Dorian and decides to kill herself, which emphasizes that she has the free will to choose how to react to her situation, as opposed to Echo, who is merely having events happen to her. The deaths of Echo and Sybil can be seen as a criticism of society (class notes). Ovid’s description of the gods can be seen as a criticism of leaders who abuse their power and unjustly punish rebels (class notes). Wilde criticizes Victorian values because Sybil dies when she conforms to the Victorian belief that art should imitate life (class notes). Ovid’s myth criticizes leaders of a society, which implies that leaders have full power over society, whereas Wilde’s novel criticizes the decisions of the individual, implying that individuals have the free will to shape society.
Narcissus and Dorian both become obsessed with their beauty, but Narcissus does so unknowingly while Dorian shapes his obsession. Narcissus does not have any control over his fate because his self-obsession and death are predicted by Tiresias, who states that Narcissus will only survive if he doesn’t “know himself” (Ovid 15), or know that he is beautiful. When Narcissus sees his reflection in the pool, he does “not [recognise] himself” (Ovid 164) and his love is described as a “thirst” (Ovid 149) and “unfamiliar” (Ovid 149), which suggests it is beyond his will.
Dorian is influenced by Henry, but his decisions are always his own and he is aware that he loves his beauty. When Henry first speaks to Dorian about the value of beauty and youth, Dorian is “conscious [of the] influences” (Wilde 20) but feels that the influences “come really from himself” (Wilde 20). This can be seen as Dorian’s shift from innocence to experience (class notes). When he sees his painting, Dorian has a deeper self-obsession than that of Narcissus. Dorian’s awareness of his beauty triggers his awareness that he will “become dreadful, hideous” (Wilde 27) as he ages, and therefore an awareness of his own mortality (class notes). Dorian wishes that “the picture [would] grow old” (Wilde 28) instead of him.
Narcissus, on the contrary, wishes for “death [to] come” (Ovid 249) but for his reflection to “live on after [him], blameless” (Ovid 254). Narcissus wants to preserve the innocence of his reflection, but Dorian wants to preserve his own image. After Dorian leaves Sybil, he sees “lines of cruelty” (Wilde 99) in the portrait’s face and decides that “the picture, changed or unchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience” (Wilde 101). From this point on the picture drives Dorian’s decisions, starting with his decision to “try to love [Sybil] again” (Wilde 101) which is not fulfilled because Sybil kills herself. Eventually all Dorian’s activities become an “escape […] from the fear” (155) of the portrait, which represents “the degradation of his life” (155). Whether or not the picture does change, it changes in Dorian’s mind and this affects his decisions, which emphasizes that he shapes his obsession (class notes).
Narcissus and Dorian both go through a final metamorphosis, but Narcissus’ is driven by the gods while Dorian’s is self-driven. Like Echo, Narcissus is “consumed/ by his love” (Ovid 274-275) and fades away until “nothing [remains]” (Ovid 279). Narcissus finally attains eternal beauty when the gods transform him into a flower. Dorian stabs the painting to try to rid himself of his conscience and the “evidence left against him” (Wilde 247) of his crimes. He then dies and when his body is found, it is as unrecognizable as Narcissus’. However, instead of being beautiful, Dorian is “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome” (Wilde 248). Dorian’s death may be similar to Narcissus, because the painting either restored itself or never changed at all. Dorian’s beauty is immortalized as art, just as Narcissus’ is in the flower (class notes). Dorian also could be punished, like Sybil, for having a Victorian value of believing art is useful – that is, as his conscience (class notes). However, in both these interpretations, Dorian gives the painting the role of his conscience and he causes his obsession and therefore his destruction.
Ovid’s myth explores the idea of self-obsession, and this theme is further developed in Wilde’s novel, which adds the premise that we have the free will to shape our reality. We see this in the lives of Echo and Sybil and the obsessions and transformations of Narcissus and Dorian. Echo and Sybil both express themselves through an external voice, but Echo is forced to do so by the gods whereas Sybil chooses to be an actress and live through the characters she portrays. Echo and Sybil both experience unrequited love, but while Echo fades away, Sybil chooses to die. Narcissus and Dorian both become obsessed with their beauty which ultimately causes their deaths, but Dorian drives his actions while Narcissus’ life is predetermined.
Bellon, Liana. “Ovid’s ‘Echo and Narcissus.’” Dawson College, Montreal. 10 Sep. 2013. Lecture.
Bellon, Liana. “Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Dawson College, Montreal. Oct. 2013. Lectures.
“Echo and Narcissus.” Tales from Ovid. New York: Farrar, 1997. 69-78. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Random House, 1985. Print.