Last of a three-part series on flower symbology in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
So far, we’ve looked at flower symbology in Dorian Gray generally (Part One), and with respect to specific flowers (Part Two). It’s true that some of what I’ve pointed out could be happenstance: Wilde clearly liked flower imagery, and he might have been using it merely decoratively, as random details to fill rooms, like the divans that characters constantly fling themselves into (no one ever just sits down in this novel). But here, in Part Three, we’ll look at some interesting parallel structures that Wilde built into the novel, using flower-related imagery. I think it’s a good bet that these parallel constructions are conscious and deliberate.
Lilacs, a symbol of innocence and first love, bookend the saga of Dorian’s life. The novel opens with lilacs (and roses).
The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.
We already saw in Part Two how prominent lilacs were when Henry first lured Dorian onto his eventual life’s path. This is the last thing Lord Henry says to Dorian, on Henry’s final visit before Dorian dies:
The park is quite lovely now. I don’t think there have been such lilacs since the year I met you.
The cycle is complete: the lilacs came back in all their past glory, and Dorian is about to die.
In Basil Hallward’s garden in Chapter One, Henry wants to know why Basil refuses to publicly show Dorian’s portrait. Basil demurs, saying Henry wouldn’t understand.
Lord Henry smiled, and leaning down, plucked a pink-petalled daisy from the grass and examined it. “I am quite sure I shall understand it,” he replied, gazing intently at the little golden, white-feathered disk, “and as for believing things, I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible.”
And so Basil confesses his fascination, his obsession with Dorian, and how he fears that these passionate emotions are too obvious in the portrait. And Henry pulls the daisy he’s holding to bits as he listens. Later in the conversation, he plucks another daisy, saying “Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one.” And indeed, when Lord Henry leaves Basil’s studio that day, carrying Dorian off with him, he is laughing. Poor Basil.
Much later in the novel, Basil confronts Dorian over Dorian’s increasingly shady reputation. Dorian finally shows Basil what’s been happening to the painting. Here, Dorian watches Basil try to come to grips with what he sees.
The young man was leaning against the mantelshelf, watching him with that strange expression that one sees on the faces of those who are absorbed in a play when some great artist is acting. There was neither real sorrow in it nor real joy. There was simply the passion of the spectator, with perhaps a flicker of triumph in his eyes. He had taken the flower out of his coat, and was smelling it, or pretending to do so.
“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. …”
As Henry did in the beginning, Dorian destroys a flower. Daisies can signify innocence and purity, and at first I thought the damaged flowers in these parallel scenes represent Dorian, so innocent at the beginning, so debauched by the end. But on further reflection I think they might be Basil. In fact, Basil says to Henry, during their Chapter One conversation in the garden:
Now and then, however, [Dorian] is horribly thoughtless, and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain. Then I feel, Harry, that I have given away my whole soul to some one who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day.”
You can call Basil’s love for Dorian pure and innocent, in the sense that it’s sincere and not self-serving; in the garden Henry is about to break Basil’s heart — and destroy his artistic muse — by stealing Dorian away. And later Dorian breaks Basil’s heart again, by revealing that he (Dorian) is every bit as corrupt as everyone says he is.
Note that soon after Dorian takes the flower out of his coat and crushes it, he murders Basil.
Let’s go back to Lord Henry tempting Dorian in Basil’s garden with his provocative, suggestive utterances. The spray of lilac has just fallen from Dorian’s hand (we saw this in Part Two).
A furry bee came and buzzed round it for a moment. Then it began to scramble all over the oval stellated globe of the tiny blossoms. … After a time the bee flew away. He saw it creeping into the stained trumpet of a Tyrian convolvulus. The flower seemed to quiver, and then swayed gently to and fro.
We know that lilac means innocence. During the renaissance times, convolvus was thought to be an aphrodisiac. And specific flower symbology aside, the bee’s actions and the quivering convolvus mirror Dorian’s emotions of the moment.
A bee shows up again the morning after Dorian has dumped Sibyl. Dorian awakens refreshed, half believing that the night before, when he discovered that his painting was changing, was only a dream.
It was an exquisite day. The warm air seemed laden with spices. A bee flew in and buzzed round the blue-dragon bowl that, filled with sulphur-yellow roses, stood before him. He felt perfectly happy.
Yellow roses, as we saw in Part Two, can mean extreme betrayal, and Dorian definitely betrayed Sibyl. But they can also signify optimism. Both meanings apply to this situation, and the bee again mirrors Dorian’s present mood.
Gardens in themselves are key settings in the novel. Lord Henry first leads Dorian astray in Basil’s garden, like the serpent in the Garden of Eden, only with lilacs and roses. Dorian makes his fatal wish about the painting in Basil’s studio, where the scent of the roses from Basil’s garden “seemed to brood over everything.”
When Dorian awakens the day after dumping Sibyl, he resolves to write her a letter of apology. As he does, he almost convinces himself that he still loves her, and that “the birds that were singing in the dew-drenched garden seemed to be telling the flowers about her.”
But then Henry comes with the news that Sibyl has killed herself. Dorian is, of course, upset. Sort of.
So I have murdered Sibyl Vane,” said Dorian Gray, half to himself, “murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife. Yet the roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden. And to-night I am to dine with you, and then go on to the opera, and sup somewhere, I suppose, afterwards.”
Henry assures Dorian that Dorian needn’t mourn, because Sibyl the person (as opposed to Sibyl the artist) doesn’t matter: “Mourn for Ophelia, if you like. Put ashes on your head because Cordelia was strangled. Cry out against Heaven because the daughter of Brabantio died. But don’t waste your tears over Sibyl Vane. She was less real than they are.”
What follows is the paragraph that to me is the most important passage in the novel, because it marks the crucial turning point in the narrative. Dorian contemplates Henry’s words.
There was a silence. The evening darkened in the room. Noiselessly, and with silver feet, the shadows crept in from the garden. The colours faded wearily out of things.
The darkness falling on Dorian’s soul, perhaps? Because after this passage, Dorian decides Henry was right, shakes off Sibyl’s death, and joins Henry at the opera. After this point, there’s no going back for Dorian, not even any looking back.
The next day, a shocked Basil confronts Dorian over how indifferent Dorian seems to Sibyl’s death. Dorian looks out his window at the “flickering, sun-lashed garden.” If you think of Dorian as the garden, then it’s not hard to imagine Basil as the sun, tongue-lashing and berating Dorian for his attitude.
There’s more that I could point out, and probably even more that went over my head, but I’ve gone on long enough. I hope you’ve enjoyed playing this game with me, and that it inspires you to read The Picture of Dorian Gray again.
And when you’ve finished, do consider checking out The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray. Not only are the stories wonderful in and of themselves, but each of them calls out some particular theme or detail of the novel and illuminates it in a fresh way. Reading the novel and the anthology back to back added to my enjoyment of each. Definitely recommended.
Teleflora’s flowers and their meaning page.
The Flower Meaning blog.
Plant symbolism page at Wikipedia.
Meier, Allison. The Secret Victorian Language of Flowers from hyperallergenic.com, an art and culture blog.
Illustration from Keynotes series of novels and short stories, Aubrey Beardsley (1896). Source: Old Book Illustrations.
Detail from Lilac (Plate 51) of La plante et ses applications ornementales, E. Hervegh (1896). Source: Internet Archive
Honey Bee and Cherry Blossoms, attributed to Olive E. Whitney (1886?). Source: reusableart.com
Detail from Solomon’s Seal (Plate 35) of La plante et ses applications ornementales, M.P. Verneuil (1896). Source: Internet Archive
Daisy Repeating Border from Birds of Prey, Prang’s Natural History Series for Children (1878). Source: reusableart.com