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Both Wilde’s ‘The
Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1890) and Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ (1950) explore the
dangers of falling under societies influence as a major theme. While Esther
experiences the struggles of societal influences being the catalyst to her
mental breakdown, the corruptive influences on Dorian turn him into a sinful


It becomes obvious
from the beginning that Lord Henry will be a destructive influence upon Dorian,
being the embodiment of the aesthetic philosophy in England. He tells Dorian
the first time he meets him ‘the only way to get rid of a temptation is to
yield to it.’ Wilde immediately introduces his character as one full of
poisonous theory of new hedonism, making him into the epitome of society’s
rejection of conventional moral codes. In addition, being a rich and
well-respected man of society, this adds to his power of affliction upon
Dorian’s initially innocent character. The irony of Lord Henry telling Dorian
that to eliminate temptation is the only way to escape it, exemplifies how dedicated
his life is to seeking pleasure by engaging in temptations available. His
luxurious diction and syntax further reels Dorian into the new ideas presented
to him of living in the pursuit of pleasure and experience without remorse for
the consequences. As lecturer Simon
Minodor Otilia agrees, ‘Indulging in life’s momentary pleasures and not caring about
their fatal consequences, the carpe diem sentiment holds true for both Wilde
and his main character.’ 1A
socialist would argue that this carpe diem movement overtakes moral people’s
thought and lead them to committing immoral sins. Furthermore, his rhetoric language choices seen
throughout the novel directly mirrors the pressure imposed upon Dorian as a result
of the decadent society he is living in. Although some may say that Lord Henry
is motivated from a homosexual stance, we see that instead he is just
overwhelmingly absorbed in the search for ultimate forms of beauty that are
directly seen in Dorian. Moreover, playing to Lord Henry strengths, as the
novel progresses we see just how well he is aware of his manipulation of
Dorian. ‘Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered
to every touch and thrill of the bow.’ The simile of likening Dorian to the
delicacy of playing the violin suggests that Lord Henry is very aware of his control
and they are gradually becoming well-tuned minds, thinking alike. Wilde’s use
of simile highlights how just like it takes great skill to play a violin, it similarly
takes precision and intelligence to change a man’s morals. Wilde thusly from
this makes both a contemporary and Victorian reader challenge how strict moral
behaviour really is and how it is society as an overpowering influence that
will shape one’s character.

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When looking at Plath’s’ novel, we see a
similar idea of direct corruption by an individual and in this case an
oppressive male. This masculine power of Dr. Gordon, Buddy and Marco all act as
microcosmic figures of men in 1950s America in society and how they should be
the ones to take responsibility for influence on individuals. Diane Bonds
comments on Esther’s depression as an ‘intolerable psychic conflict produced by
trying to meet cultural expectations of women.’2 Marco calls Esther a ‘slut’ after he attempts to rip her dress off to
rape her against her will and Buddy calls her a ‘true neurotic.’ Both these men
explicitly show the struggle that women of America faced in the 1950s as a
result of social expectations and sexist values. The reader feels sorry for
Esther and in doing this Plath critiques with the reader this patriarchal
society women of the time were forced to face.


Lord Henry and the
societal hedonistic thoughts are wholly summed up within the ‘The Yellow Book’.
Wilde refers to it as a ‘poisonous book’ and ‘the heavy odour of incense seemed
to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain.’ This book was a magazine
which ran from 1894-97 and associated itself with aestheticism and decadence
proving to be a major corrupting influence in Dorian life, ultimately leading
to his downfall. It decadent message acts as a guide for his life and debauched
lifestyle. ‘Heavy’, ‘cling’ and ‘trouble’ all suggest that after reading the
book, Dorian’s life has suddenly become one carrying great weight and its
thesis has penetrated right through to every thought of his brain. A psychoanalytical critic would recognise this as the
exposure of the feebleness of the human mind and how easy it is to
unconsciously let it be controlled by the world around you. Instantly, this changes
Dorian’s world and its seduction blurs the lines of morality, taking over his
soul. The book essentially stands for how society’s new thoughts of
aestheticism at the time exposes how powerful a societal influence can be in
occupying the way that people live and establish moral code. This idea is
similar to how Wilde’s life was heavily subjective by how he was a homosexual
and society made this strictly forbidden.


Notably, psychoanalytical critics often
recognise the glorifications a World of Fashion should give and the intense
pressures of being a woman, supposedly making her feel glamourous and happy but
instead she finds it filled with poison, drunkenness and violence. Esther is
recognized by society as being on the internship amongst the ‘prettiest,
smartest bunch of young ladies.’ Esther understands that she is ‘supposed to be
having the time of her life.’ America in the 1950s, had certain expectations of
young women to fulfil the societal expectancy of being confident and cheerful,
as well as having romantic and meaningful relationships with men. Esther is
only to discover relationships as distrustful and brutal. Society expected
women of Esther’s age to present themselves in a certain way whilst having
successful lives. The immense pressure this gives leads to Esther’s downfall. This perception is underlined
when Bennett writes that Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ offers a ‘brilliant evocation
of the oppressive atmosphere of the 1950s and the soul-destroying effect this
atmosphere could have on ambitious, high-minded young women like Plath.’ 3Clearly
the protagonist is a victim of this condition like the author is. Bennett
acknowledges the semi-autobiographical element of the novel and the hard-ships
they would have both shared as young women of the 1950s. Setting up this
tyrannical atmosphere from the beginning of the book structurally gives
Esther’s demise greater gravity. Set upon this
backdrop of social pressures intensifies Esther’s struggle, and shines light
upon the desperation to fit in to her setting.


some argue that Dorian had a choice and as Helga
cites in her critical reading, ‘his dilemma exists in every human4’,
the reader becomes increasingly certain that the corruption of society
ultimately leads him to his fate, without choice in the matter. Dorian himself becomes the
unfortunate result of the heavily influenced society he was living in in late
19th century England. When speaking to Lord Henry, Dorian says ‘the
soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought, and sold and bartered away. It can
be poisoned, or made perfect.’ The careless attitude to his soul that can
easily be ‘bought’, ‘sold’ and ‘bartered away’ exaggerates how easily influence
can take hold. This implies that other things are more important in life than ethical
morals and where necessary, those other things should take precedence. Wilde
suggests that the soul is a target for society to influence throughout life and
as a result can become ‘poisoned’ or ‘perfect.’ The juxtaposition of ‘perfect’
and ‘poisoned’ suggests how drastic a change Dorian undergoes under the
influence. It also stands for how easily interchangeable the two are depending
upon who your soul has been metaphorically ‘sold’ to. Dorian clearly is a
character that is willing to follow his extreme desires in spite of the
potential ‘poisoning.’ While Dorian initially greatly values aesthetics, he
uncovers that it will soon become his ‘terrible reality’ in which he cannot
escape, similar to Esther’s position of lack of escape. It is important to note
that Dorian is described as having ‘darkening eyes.’ This proves that his soul
has turned dark and it is often said that the devil holds a dark soul as a
result of the temptations of immorality.


The climax of
Plath’s novel comes when Esther explains, ‘the air of the bell jar wadded
around me and I couldn’t stir.’ The metaphorical entrapment she feels is purely
imaginary yet it is all encompassing to her. Its glass walls present a
smothering, stiff, unbreakable case which captivities her mind directly
mirroring the constraints of society. This glass dome reflects how Esther is
unable to break out of her suicidal thoughts impacted on by society.  A case
study written by Stephanie Tsank, notices that ‘the bell jar is a symbol of
society’s stifling constraints and befuddling mixed messages that trap Sylvia
Plath’s heroine within its glass dome.’5
This shows that again, Esther
is broken down as a cause and effect of the American world surrounding her. It is
revealed at the end of the novel that she is never truly able to escape the
feeling of being confined by society’s restraints. Plath presents the idea that
society will always remain judgmental and something that should take
responsibility for itself. She says, ‘wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or
at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass
bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’ This again highlights how, no matter if
her life takes her to the most amazing places and she seems on the peripheral
to be successful again, she will never escape the harsh pressures that an
American society can bring her. If this novel is read from Plath’s perspective,
we would confirm the idea that the bell jar can indeed descend again. Subsequently,
Plath is telling her readers that the pressures of society will still exist
beyond previous circumstances and can resurface again in later life as it does
with Plath’s suicide. Dorian, also clearly in the end feels this idea of not
being able to ever fully cope with the changes he undergoes as he ends his
life. Both authors expose how society’s influences can eventually lead to their
extreme circumstances.


Originally, we’re told that his ‘finely shaped
fingers could never have clutched a knife for sin’ yet the reader discovers
that he can and without guilt. The only way that this metamorphism could have
arose would be due to an extreme change in moral values. Dorian Gray, once beautiful in mind, body, and soul, turns into a
version of Lucifer. He begins his unravel of personality and becomes the face
of an angel with the mind of the devil. It is particularly pertinent to see that Wilde
wants to use Dorian as a mirror of Victorian society to see themselves in. As we’re told in the preface, the ”nineteenth
century dislike of realism is the rage of the Caliban seeing his own face in a
glass.’ 6 This adds to the fact that Dorian is easily able to hide how heavily
influenced he has become as the Victorian society itself is the one who should
be held accountable for it and so they are consequently blind to his actions. Dorian
admits, ‘I am what I am. There is nothing more to be said.’ The bluntness of
these two short sentences in quick succession moreover exemplifies even a
change in ton to the way Dorian speak to a way that it more like how Lord Henry
speaks. The languid, indulgent way Dorian used to speak now harshly contrasts
he speech now. Evidently, we see Dorian here as a direct replica of what
society pushed him towards – an extreme version of Lord Henry’s ideals.


As with Esther,
after her suicide attempt, she goes from being one of the ‘prettiest bunch of
women’ to someone who’s unrecognisable from her former self. When she is at the
asylum, the other patients see a photograph in a magazine of a ‘girl in a
strapless evening dress of fuzzy white stuff, grinning fit to split.’ When they
suspect the girl is Esther, she tells them ‘Joan is quite mistaken. It’s
somebody else.’ The recurring motif of the colour white, symbolising purity, is
used as a symbol of what society wanted her to be and the photograph acts as
the ideal character of an American young woman. Esther noticeably can easily
separate herself from her younger years firstly because of her mental state,
but also because she believes that she is not the same person inside anymore,
despite people recognizing her on the magazine purely through looks. This
importance of appearance is almost sexualised and relates to the pressure of a
sexist society in the 1950s also. A feminist
critic would explore this as the restriction of gender roles at the time for a
woman to look good at all times for the sake of men. To society, her ‘grinning fit to split’ is seen as ecstatic happiness
and excitement for life. Conversely, ‘fit to split’ could be read as
overwhelmed and falling apart. The smile, while it may look pretty superficially,
actually stands for the front she has had to put on as a result of the damage
society and societal figures have inflicted upon her character. Here is where
the reader is most obviously able to recognise how humanity can associate a
person merely by what they can see on the surface, whilst choosing to ignore
what is underneath. Thus, the pressure Esther must have felt to upheave these
societal expectations of being pretty and smart would have been intense. This
is where the gap between what society says she should experience, and what she
does experience of the supposed lavish lifestyle in New York comes in.
Eventually, this gap that exists between expectation and reality becomes so
tremendous that she breaks.


To conclude, both authors
similarly critique the societies that both characters live in and the damaging
effects that they can have upon mentality. While Plath remains an author that
fights to advocate social change through her own experiences voiced in Esther’s
character, Wilde likewise establishes how hedonistic values of society can
impact severely one’s mind. As a whole, both make society question their
responsibly on individuals and how influences can greatly affect people’s
lives. Wholly summed up by W.H Auden for Wilde’s novel, it is ‘specifically
structured to provide a moral.’ 7 This moral seen as a
similar warning in both ‘The Bell Jar’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is of
the dangers tyrannical figures and views that society can bring upon

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