by Alexis Lawhorn
The concept of immortality both seduces and frightens humankind. Most people are drawn to the idea of being able to live forever because of the endless options it would provide; Dorian Gray was one such man. A character from the novel A Picture of Dorian Gray, he is reimagined in the television show Penny Dreadful, which adds suspenseful twists and new characterization to traditional monstrous tales. The show takes place in the Victorian Era and involves iconic characters such as Jack the Ripper, Victor Frankenstein, and Dorian Gray. Dorian is immortal due to the fact that his soul is trapped in a painting, and all his dastardly deeds are reflected through the ever-altering portrait. Dorian embodies one reoccurring theme within the show: pushing social boundaries due to an insatiable appetite for the perverse. As a monster, Dorian Gray defies categorization and pushes the boundaries of Victorian society through his desire to seek pleasure in unorthodox ways.
The first thing the audience may notice when being introduced to Dorian Gray is that he does not care for the boundaries of Victorian society. He makes his debut in the episode “Séance” when he enlists a local woman, Brona Croft, to pose for pornographic pictures. As the session goes on, he discovers that she is ill with consumption; this only intrigues and arouses him more, and the two fornicate while the photographer snaps pictures. Thus, from his introduction, Dorian Gray is unorthodox. But, according to the theories of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Dorian’s desire also makes him monstrous. In “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Cohen discusses what characteristics create and define monsters. As Cohen states, “by refusing an easy compartmentalization of their monstrous contents, they [monsters] demand a radical rethinking of boundary and normality” (6). As monsters defy societal norms and push boundaries, Brona and Dorian become increasingly monstrous the more they diverge from the behavior that is expected of them. This scene contrasts the image of a gentleman that Dorian presents later in the episode while at a ball. Dorian defies Victorian norms and pushes the boundaries of society in order to achieve tantalizing entertainment for himself and his peers.
As Dorian has no concern for the consequences that his actions will have on his soul—or, rather, the appearance of his soul—he is able to push beyond the bounds that confine other humans. He is also pushing the boundaries of society through his subtle encouragement of unorthodox behavior in others. Since Dorian appears as a normal man, it is increasingly uncanny when he reveals that he is anything but. Even modern viewers, who may embrace a variety of sexualities, might nevertheless view Gray’s behaviors as obscene. As such, this leads viewers to question their own sense of boundaries: how far is too far?
As Penny Dreadful progresses, Dorian Gray embodies the darker nature of desire. Dorian has a reputation for throwing gallant balls, during which he allows people to seek out their darkest desires. Though he hides behind the mask of a young, rich, high-society Englishman, this mask only allows him to push the boundaries more forcefully. In “Predators Far and Near,” Dorian and Lily Frankenstein (who have banded together in their immortality and lust for power) begin to recruit girls who have been sex slaves in order to create an army, which will allow them to gain more power. Dorian and Lily go to watch an event in which a young sex slave, Justine, is to be brutally murdered, but, instead, they murder all of the witnesses and “rescue” the girl. After saving her, they hold one of her abusers captive, so that Justine can slit his throat and obtain revenge. The scene becomes even more unnerving when the three of them bathe in the man’s blood and copulate. It is in this scene that Dorian begins to encourage others to embrace their dark desires, thus enhancing and spreading his monstrous nature. This is one of the many scenes in which Dorian displays desires that are outside of normal societal expectations. As Cohen states, “The monster awakens one to the pleasures of the body, to the simple and fleeting joys of being frightened, or frightening – to the experience of mortality and corporeality” (17). Through the arousal of bloodshed and revenge, Dorian is arousing Lily and the young girl to the powerful aphrodisiac of instilling fear and a sense of mortality in those around them.
The most prominent theme within Dorian’s character is an insatiable appetite for perverse pleasure, which then places him in a position of power. In “Momento Mori,” Dorian inquires, “Don’t we all want to paint ourselves into something better than we are?” His despicable actions illustrate the irony of this quote. He is attempting to portray himself as better than he is, not through the literal painting of his soul, but through his embodiment of the human desire for pleasure. Dorian attempts to use pleasurable activities to appear more amicable to the people around him. Employing this pleasing mask, he eradicates the knowledge of his true, wicked behavior so that he can continue to do what he enjoys; he remains unpredictable and aloof through his barrier of immortality, which aids him in avoiding consequences. He pushes societal bounds, defies individual categorization, and encourages a lust for power and pleasure within others. Ironically, it is because of these characteristics that he is held in esteem within society – he allows high-class individuals to come out from behind the masks they wear to conform to societal norms, and to turn instead to vile actions for pleasure. Each of Dorian’s acts, from pornography to murder, displays how his soulless, immortal nature leads him to act, through a desire created from an insatiable appetite for pleasure, in a venture for power. As the audience witnesses Dorian’s descent into monstrosity, the viewers realize their own dissonance between who they truly are and how they present themselves to society, through the use of their own hypocritical masks.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses). Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.
“Momento Mori.” Penny Dreadful, season 2, episode 8, Showtime, 21 June 2015. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80045622?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C7%2C925370c1-bf08-496f-b5f9-13c360411bce-156263911
“Predators Far and Near.” Penny Dreadful, season 3, episode 2, Showtime, 8 May 2016. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80085098?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C1%2C437c7be6-4cfd-4c10-a341-cadbf8009b4e-109371250.
“Séance.” Penny Dreadful, season 1, episode 2, Showtime, 18 May 2014. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/80013255?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C1%2C437c7be6-4cfd-4c10-a341-cadbf8009b4e-109371250.