I greatly enjoyed and learned from Alex Ross’s lovely essay on Oscar Wilde in the New Yorker, but I want to pause to register a quibble. Ross writes,
Last spring, I spent a few hours looking at the autograph manuscript of “Dorian Gray,” at the Morgan Library. When Dorian attempts to destroy his portrait, the manuscript has him “ripping the thing right up”; Wilde then adds the phrase “from top to bottom.” Nicholas Frankel, the editor of the new Harvard edition of “Dorian Gray,” notes that the eviscerating gesture evokes Jack the Ripper, whose crimes had filled the papers two years earlier.
I think Frankel is quite wrong: the line Wilde added has nothing to do with Jack the Ripper. The genuine and key reference here is to the Passion narrative in the Gospels:
Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
At times Wilde tried to downplay his Biblical knowledge. (One of my favorite anecdotes about him concerns his taking a viva voce examination at Oxford to demonstrate his competence in New Testament Greek, during which he fluently translated at sight a passage from the Passion narrative. After a few lines the examiners, thoroughly satisfied, told him he could stop, but Wilde replied, “Oh do let me continue. I want to see how it comes out.” I testify not to the truth of this story.) But his writings, like those of most of his contemporaries, are saturated with Biblical allusion.
The tearing of the picture “from top to bottom” is an especially powerful and rich one. Wilde would have known that this event in the Passion story was widely thought to indicate that the sacrificial death of Jesus ends the separation between God and humanity (represented in the Temple by the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the world, the veil that only the High Priest could cross) and effects a reconciliation that makes further sacrifices at the Temple unnecessary. Here, then, Dorian’s slashing of his own portrait — which brings about his own death, as he surely knows it was likely to do — ends his own bifurcation. It makes him whole again, though at the cost of his own life.
A hundred years ago most readers of The Picture of Dorian Gray, who were educated much as Wilde was, would have caught the reference; now even the experts are likely to miss it. Jack the Ripper is the kind of thing we are interested in, thus we see Jack the Ripper — even though what Dorian does is a deeply guilty man’s self-mutilation, not a monstrous killer’s preying upon innocent victims; while the Bible is not the sort of thing we are interested in, thus even a direct quotation can be invisible to us. Given that this alteration has happened in little more than a century, it makes one wonder how much else we scholars have managed to lose sight of. Perhaps every English department should keep a Christian around just to catch Biblical allusions that his or her colleagues won’t recognize.