Judging a Book By Its Cover: A Comparison of The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Happy Prince”

Class: English (ENG3U1)
Date: June 20, 2006
The Assignment: Compare a novel and short story written by the same author.

Oscar Wilde was known to carry similar motifs throughout his work and to reuse some of his best lines. The title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray appears beautiful, but has an appalling personality. “The Happy Prince” is caring and generous, but he must sacrifice his appearance for his acts of kindness. Wilde’s theme of judging a person by their appearance, also known as physiognomy, appears in both works. The similar relationships and downfalls of the main characters and the different protagonists serve to reinforce this theme. The reader learns by the end of both stories that it is often a mistake to judge a person solely on their outward appearance.

Main characters in both stories experience similar relationships with other minor characters. Dorian Gray falls in love with and plans to marry a beautiful girl named Sibyl Vane, despite his friend Basil Hallward’s protests: “[b]ut think of Dorian’s birth, and position, and wealth. It would be absurd for him to marry so much beneath him” (96). Basil is horrified at the prospect of his friend marrying a common actress, but Dorian is only interested in experiencing new pleasures and sensations. In “The Happy Prince”, The Swallow falls in love with an attractive Reed and chooses not to heed his friends’ warnings that “[i]t is a ridiculous attachment… she has no money, and far too many relations” (36). The other Swallows echo Basil’s concern about money, but The Swallow is too love struck to listen to their reasoning. Both Dorian and The Swallow are naïve, but also have friends who watch out for their best interests. Unfortunately, both characters refuse to listen to their warnings because their girlfriend’s appearance has tricked them into believing that she is flawless.

After the characters decide to follow through with their relationships, they quickly realize their mistakes and leave their lovers. After Sibyl gives an awful performance at the opera, Dorian angrily tells her “you have killed my love…. I loved you because you were marvelous…. You have thrown it all away…. You are nothing to me now” (112). Dorian was only in love with Sibyl because she was beautiful and an actress. Once she lost her talent, Dorian realizes that he did not truly love her. The Swallow also realizes that he was not really in love when he learns that the Reed is boring, domestic, and too flirtatious. He gives her one last chance and asks, “’[w]ill you come away with me?’ …but the Reed shook her head, she was so attached to her home” (36). The Swallow decides that his love of travel is greater than his love for The Reed; once he has spent time with her, he realizes she was not what he really wanted. Both characters are shallow and are only attracted by beauty. Both characters also realize their mistake and leave the relationship.

Although Dorian and The Swallow are similar, Dorian and the main protagonist, The Happy Prince, are exact opposites. By the end of the novel, Dorian’s portrait — symbolic of his soul — is described as having “a look of cunning [in the eyes], and in the mouth the curved wrinkle of the hypocrite. The thing was still loathsome… and the scarlet dew that spotted the hand seemed brighter, and more like blood newly spilt” (27). Dorian’s portrait bears all the marks of age and sin, and he has committed many evil deeds in his life. However, at the end of “The Happy Prince” it is proven that the protagonist has a beautiful soul: “’[b]ring me the two most precious things in the city,’ said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart [of the Happy Prince] and the dead bird” (44). The leaden heart is considered by God to be precious, showing the true beauty of his soul. Dorian possesses an ugly soul, the consequence of his sins; the Prince possesses a beautiful soul, obtained through his selfless good deeds.

The physical appearances of Dorian and the Prince are the opposite of the appearance of their souls. In exchange for selling his soul to the devil, Dorian keeps his youthful and beautiful appearance. His friend Lord Henry Wotton tells him that “[y]out are really wonderful, Dorian. You have never looked more charming than you do tonight. You remind me of the day I saw you first” (269). Henry is completely unaware of Dorian’s true nature, and can only see that he is still beautiful. The Prince is in the reverse situation, however; he generously gives away the gold and jewels on his body for the betterment of the city, but the Mayor remarks “[d]ear me! how shabby the Happy Prince looks!… in fact, he is little better than a beggar!” (43). The Mayor is only concerned about the appearance of the statute, and since it is ugly, he must get rid of it. Neither Lord Henry nor the Mayor can see past the protagonists’ appearances. They both believe that appearance is everything and if someone is beautiful, they must be good. However, this is not the case in either story.

Several characters in both works meet their demise before the end of the story. Before Dorian’s friend Basil is murdered, he tells Dorian about a letter in which “[y]our name was implicated in the most terrible confession I ever read. I told him that it was absurd — that I knew… you were incapable of anything of the kind” (192). Basil’s life and art were highly influenced by Dorian’s beauty and Basil was far too trusting of his attractive young friend, who ultimately ended up killing him. The Prince’s friend The Swallow also dies because of the Prince’s manipulation. He tells the Prince “[i]t is not to Egypt that I am going… I am going to the House of Death” (43). Previously, the Prince had continually asked The Swallow to stay with him and help the people in his city, but winter arrived and it was too late; The Swallow dies at the feet of his friend. The protagonists exercise a great deal of influence over their friends who are eager to help and unable to realize their friends’ true nature because of their deceiving appearances.

Finally, both protagonists get what they deserve in the end. In the final chapter, Dorian attempts to destroy the portrait but instead succeeds in killing himself. Soon after, he is found “[l]ying on the floor… with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage” (279). Dorian now appears as old and ugly as the portrait previously did, and he still keep his ugly soul; in the end, he gained nothing from his bargain with the devil. After the Prince has become ugly, he is thrown away, but rewarded by God who says, “in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me” (44). The Prince’s kindness and good deeds earn him his way into heaven. Both characters’ appearances were restored to what they truly should have been; Dorian was punished and the Prince was rewarded.

Characters in both The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Happy Prince” mistakenly make assumptions about people without knowing their true nature. Dorian Gray has remained beautiful and youthful, so people assume he must be a good person; this is proven false when he dies and regains his true form. The Happy Prince is believed to be useless if he is not beautiful, but the people of the city are unaware of his good deeds that have done much to help. People must learn to set their biases and first impressions aside; otherwise they may face the consequences of being involved with an immoral person or miss out on the benefits of knowing a moral one.

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. “The Happy Prince.” Great Short Stories of the World. The Reader’s Digest Editors. Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1972. 35–44.

Wilde, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Gray. London: CRW Publishing Limited, 1890.