Posted by: charlottedawn | December 14, 2020

Thematic and Philosophical Comparisons Between Star Wars and The Picture of Dorian Gray

Having never read The Picture of Dorian Gray before this class, I was unsure of what to expect from one of the most famous novels of all time. However, I was familiar with Wilde’s writing style and ideas about aestheticism from reading The Importance of Being Earnest previously. Going into the book with fresh eyes and a more vague understanding of the plot than I thought I had, I was struck by the amount of thematic and plot similarities to one of my favorite franchises: Star Wars. Am I particularly proud to admit this? No. But I love it nonetheless. I’ll try to keep this brief to prevent it from becoming one of those twelve-page author biographies one has to weed through before finally getting to the cornbread recipe you forgot you were even trying to find in the first place, but my association with Star Wars has been anything but fleeting. Growing up reading the then-sequels (Timothy Zahn’s unmatched Heir to the Empire trilogy) and any other book, be it a film novelization or another addition to the ever-expanding universe, I would enthusiastically compare anything else I read to the stories and characters that existed in the galaxy I considered as real as anything else I learned in school. For what reason should I regard George Washington and Luke Skywalker as fundamentally different? I certainly wasn’t going to meet either one of them, and Luke I could actually watch fight in a revolution (well, rebellion). In any case, if anyone was writing historical fiction about Washington (and I’m sure they were), I certainly wasn’t reading it. Learning my history was familiarizing myself with every step Boba Fett took after his father’s death to become one of the most successful bounty hunters in the Galaxy, making sure I memorized even the tiniest details of every single beautiful outfit Padmé wore, and, most importantly, immersing myself in the post-film universe. Mon Mothma and Bail Organa were the only political figures I saw fit to concern myself with, and Luke and Mara’s son, the three Solo children, and all their friends, partners, and enemies were worlds more relevant to me than any long-dead president. Priorities, you know.

I like to think that I have at least a superficial understanding of the general plot of the films, and maybe even a tangential grasp on the thematic continuity of the Star Wars universe, but, according to many a forty-something-year-old man on Facebook, even that is debatable. Honestly, it’s not about to stop me from writing this comparison, so the point may as well be moot. Immediately upon opening Dorian Gray, because I am to this day incapable of not immediately trying to thread through how to tie completely unrelated pieces of media to my beloved galaxy, the gears started to turn. Specific quotes caught my interest, as well as a general plot similarity I was extremely intrigued by.

Of the many characters I loved as a child, many did not survive the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney, which wasted no time stripping the vast majority of the books I read religiously from official “canon” in order to establish their own “real” timeline which they would proceed to follow in their creation of the sequel trilogy and all media produced after the acquisition of Lucasfilm. One of my beloved characters who received the scorched-earth treatment was far from specific to me; Grand Admiral Thrawn, the eponymous Heir to the Empire, was one of the most popular non-film characters ever created, and for good reason. A different kind of villain than many of the unquestionably evil-for-kicks, kills-for-fun standard fare, he was endlessly composed, legitimately stylish in his crisp all-white uniform, and best of all, was a master tactician. Thrawn had a seemingly unique ability to be able to examine the art of a species and generate from what he saw a sort of guide on how to most effectively defeat them. As one of the most popular characters ever (and yes, one of my personal favorites, he’s well-loved for a reason!), Disney eventually brought the venerated Admiral back in their new timeline, a bit neutered, perhaps, but here nonetheless. His origin, some of his personality, and even his iconic blue-skinned, red-eyed appearance were altered significantly to fit the more family-friendly mold, but his thrilling, sometimes insufferably accurate ability to analyze the art of a species as though it were a written history book on them remained.

Basil Hallward would hate him.

As he describes the portrait he painted, he laments how obvious his adoration for Dorian is in every brushstroke. He is embarrassed by how unexpectedly private the titular portrait wound up being, exposing his “artistic idolatry” of the young man, and swears to never display the painting. Distraught, he bemoans to Lord Henry how “There is too much of myself in the thing—too much of myself!”. He indirectly cites Aestheticism as his personal ideal for the public’s consumption of art. “I hate them for it,” cried Hallward (“them” being poets, or individuals in general seeing the painting, who would be able to identify the “idolatry” he is mortified about). “An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Some day I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray.” His wish for a purely aesthetic consumption of his art, with no regard for his intention or emotion, only an acknowledgement of its visual allure, is a nearly verbatim description of Wilde’s personal philosophy on art, Aestheticism. Thrawn’s approach is nearly as opposite from this as one can get. “Learn about art, Captain”, he remarks to one of his officers, Captain Pellaeon. “When you understand a species’ art, you understand that species”. Although the Star Wars universe is home to hundreds of species, and therefore has more wiggle room for classifying art as distinct to a particular group, the argument’s basis is the same: bear witness to the art an individual creates, and they will reveal themselves to you. In his huffy rejection of it, Basil confirms his belief in the philosophy’s accuracy. His admiration for and love of Dorian is conspicuous in every brushstroke, and he is unwilling to subject himself to the mortification that would result from a public exhibition of the work, essentially inviting all who see it to witness, and judge, his idolatry. I enjoy the layering to this; coming from an author less willing to interrogate their own views, Basil may have simply insisted that no art has meaning and that he cannot be judged for anything he creates as it need only be beautiful to have value. However, he interestingly acknowledges that his emotions are visible in his work, and that the product is inseparable from the process, lamenting the fact that judgement of pieces of art cannot solely be passed on their level of beauty.

Veering away from the more philosophical comparisons and towards the plot similarities, another early standout to me in the book is Lord Henry’s thorough and almost immediate manipulation of Dorian. The inarguable main plotline of Star Wars is the life, corruption, and eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the given name of the iconic villain better known as Darth Vader. The unanimously loved (joke! this is a joke!) prequel films depict his growth in the ways of the Force, his relationship with his wife, Padmé, kept secret out of necessity, and the steady building of his fear, anger, and resentment. He is masterfully manipulated the entire way by the Republic (essentially the galaxy’s government)’s Chancellor, Palpatine. Palpatine, who becomes the seemingly unkillable Emperor seen in the original films (…and the sequels), is a man of extreme power, and he grooms Anakin for over a decade to become his ideal servant, stroking his pride and feeding his greatest fear – the death of his beloved wife. His Machiavellian direction of Anakin’s emotions, with the Jedi following all his seemingly earnest advice, culminates in Anakin losing complete control of himself and choking his heavily pregnant wife into unconsciousness in a blind rage, and in a vicious battle with his once-closest friend, the well-known Obi-Wan Kenobi, he is struck down, his legs amputated at the knees, and his body slides into lava, charring his once handsome form beyond all recognition. Padmé dies shortly after this (but not before giving birth to Luke and Leia – irrelevant to Dorian Gray, but I couldn’t leave it out), devastated at the cruelty Anakin has given into. The cruel irony of the entire story is that the exclusive reason Anakin was willing to descend to more and more disturbing levels of violence and rage was that he was convinced by Palpatine that the latter was the only individual with his best interests at heart, and the only person able to keep him and his wife safe. Before Vader’s story ends with his death in Return of the Jedi, having sacrificed his own life to save his son, he eventually kills his once-dear friend, Obi-Wan, at this point having completely succumbed to the Dark Side. While the general arc of Anakin Skywalker’s life moderately mirrors that of Dorian Gray, albeit with a different conclusion, it is the manipulation of the two by Palpatine and Lord Henry, respectively, that I’m most interested in looking at.

Palpatine is generally widely considered one of the most genuinely evil characters in Star Wars. Extremely intelligent, a very powerful combatant, and, most dangerously, an expert at hiding in plain sight (he almost single-handedly started a war that went on for years, costing countless lives and sending the galaxy into chaos, only so he could play both sides, setting himself up as the only answer to the chaos he himself orchestrated), his primary agenda is to accumulate power, extend his own life indefinitely, and eventually free himself from the very cycle of life and death, essentially triumphing over nature and fate itself. His manipulation of Anakin, which lasted for over a decade, was almost solely to trap him into becoming a disciple powerful enough to do his bidding, but never quite powerful enough to overthrow him (what he didn’t count on, however, was the power of LOVE! and COMPASSION! and the INNATE GOOD OF HUMANITY! I love Luke Skywalker so much). And yet, for all of this, Lord Henry grosses me out more.

In terms of, like, actual havoc wrecked and general mass destruction, Palpatine wins, hands down. But his goal was never legitimate malice. He had no qualms about cutting down anyone and anything he perceived as a threat, but never really went out of his way to be manipulative for the sake of being manipulative. He did so as a means to an end; he needed an unquestioningly loyal servant, this was the only way to get the most powerful one. Lord Henry, however…eeeek. He strikes legitimate terror into my heart. He’s not going to blow up a planet or shoot lightning from his fingers, but he is going to purposefully destroy someone’s life for the enjoyment of it. His completely nauseating musings on the pleasure he gets from manipulating Dorian, particularly this quote from Chapter 3, is profoundly disturbing to me. “Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow…. There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it. To project one’s soul into some gracious form, and let it tarry there for a moment; to hear one’s own intellectual views echoed back to one with all the added music of passion and youth; to convey one’s temperament into another as though it were a subtle fluid or a strange perfume: there was a real joy in that—perhaps the most satisfying joy left to us in an age so limited and vulgar as our own, an age grossly carnal in its pleasures, and grossly common in its aims…. He was a marvellous type, too, this lad, whom by so curious a chance he had met in Basil’s studio, or could be fashioned into a marvellous type, at any rate”.

Lord Henry hears Basil lament about the hold Dorian has over him with his beauty, and immediately starts upon wondering how he can assert his hedonistic worldview upon an innocent. His exploitation of Dorian for his own amusement he compares to playing music. Corruption, to him, is a form of art. His ability to influence another into ruining their own life, causing the deaths of others in the process, brings him legitimate pleasure. Although he and Palpatine both begin the real work of their manipulation with a speech about the transience of youth and life, respectively, both also using attending the theatre as a partial conduit to do so, interestingly, Lord Henry’s ultimate goal is not the acquisition of a lackey or the accumulation of power. His motivation is debauchery in the lowest form, an indulgence in encouraging another to succumb to their darkest thoughts, and he reclines in poisonous pleasure amid the resulting chaos. His existence in a much more realistic setting than a high science-fantasy space opera is what cinches the disturbingness of his actions for me. Although Dorian Gray has Gothic and fantastic elements, most obviously with the titular picture, Lord Henry is no supervillain. He and the sickening pleasure he takes in encouraging others to engage in immoral behavior resulting in the injury and death of innocents are starkly realistic in a sobering way. I will never meet a Palpatine, but I am sure to pass by more than a few Lord Henrys on the street in my life.

Lucas, George, director. Star Wars. 20th Century Fox, 1977.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, 1890.

Zahn, Timothy. Heir to the Empire. Bantam Spectra, 1991.


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