Contemporary Ancient Myth in Ovid’s Echo and Narcissus and Wilde’s Dorian Gray
Each time a story is told, elements of the original are often changed to suit new situations and current societies, or to offer a new perspective. Over the centuries, Ovid’s tale of "Echo and Narcissus" has been told many times to new audiences, and in the late nineteenth-century, it took the form of The Picture of Dorian Gray. "Echo and Narcissus" is the tale of a beautiful boy who fell in love with his reflection in a pond, and spurned others who loved him because he was so fixated upon himself. As a result of his extreme self-worship and consequent inability to love another, Narcissus perishes. Although several aspects of the original myth are retained in Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray is shocking and its characters commit acts that lead to ultimate decay and destruction. By changing elements of Ovid’s original tale, Wilde expands the myth of Echo and Narcissus to express the inevitable punishment and ruin that excessive desire brings.
The prophet Tiresias in Ovid’s "Echo and Narcissus" can be compared to Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray in that all play a role in determining the protagonists’ fate. Tiresias enigmatically determines Narcissus’ fate by revealing that Narcissus will "live to see ripe old age...If he never knows himself" (Hendricks 93). In foreseeing the boy’s future, the prophet acts as a sort of father figure to Narcissus, whose real father is absent from his life. Narcissus cannot escape from Tiresias’ prophecy, and when he gains knowledge of his beauty, or "knows himself," Narcissus is plagued by self-love which destroys him. Thus, the prophet influences the boy’s future by setting the conditions under which Narcissus’ life will end prematurely. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, both Lord Henry and Basil fulfill a fatherly role, as Tiresias did for Narcissus, by providing Dorian with direction that affects his life. Basil, the painter of Dorian’s portrait, causes the innocent Dorian to realize his beauty when shown his painting. Like Narcissus, Dorian becomes vain and self-absorbed as a result of recognizing his physical magnificence. Under the influence of Lord Henry, "Dorian throws off all moral restraint and lives a life of passionate self-indulgence" (Miller 384). Therefore, the lives of both Narcissus and Dorian are shaped by the actions of their mentors.
In adapting Basil’s persona from his mythological counterpart Tiresias, Wilde alters the original character to illustrate how Basil’s excessive admiration of Dorian led to the youth’s eventual demise. While Tiresias played only an indirect role in Narcissus’ life by foreseeing his future, Basil actively leads Dorian to his corruption. Basil Hallward’s extreme fondness for Dorian arises from the inspiration that Dorian’s beauty and purity provides in the expression of his art. Basil says to Dorian, "I quite admit that I adored...