The Picture of Tom Marvolo Riddle
by Dawson Smith
Years ago in England, a supremely handsome and charming young orphan made a Faustian deal to preserve his youth in spite of his actions. His immortality secured, the young man set off on a personal quest that would encompass every evil act known to man, gleefully throwing away his own soul because he knew he would face no consequences. But even as he continued unabashed, his visage became distorted and hideous, and he had unwittingly sown the seeds of his own destruction.
His name was Dorian Gray.
In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the title character is an Adonis of a young man, drawn into the world of “the new hedonism” on account of his beauty. The novel begins with an artist named Basil painting his portrait as Lord Henry Wotton teaches him of the new aesthetic, in which the only way to rid yourself of temptation is to give into it. Hearing this, Dorian wishes for the portrait to take upon his sins and aging in his place, and soon enough finds that his wish has come true.
Dorian proceeds to follow the teachings of an unnamed French book detailing all of the crimes against nature that one could commit, beginning with heartbreaking of intentional cruelty and leading inevitably to murder, and though he never ages, and never loses his beauty, his portrait becomes a ravaged, cunning, horrible old beast of a man.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Tom Riddle is a handsome young orphan, drawn into the world of magic due to his natural talent. While Dumbledore attempts to instruct him, the members of his house train him in the ways of pureblood superiority and Machiavellian logic. Armed with this knowledge, Riddle builds an army of henchmen through acts of unspeakable cruelty and murder, eventually securing six separated pieces of his soul in “safe” vessels, and wages war on the world with his own safety ensured. And while he remains immortal, his face becomes twisted and snakelike, the outward image of his own wicked soul.
I mention these similarities because, well, there’s no way that J.K. hasn’t read The Picture of Dorian Gray. She is well known for using elements from as varied an array of classic tales as possible, and Dorian Gray is one of the foremost works of British literature. Dorian and Voldemort are two of a surprisingly rare species of villain (or in Dorian’s case, anti-hero): the man whose villainy is facilitated because he will never have to face judgment. Sure, you see it from time to time. The Invisible Man quickly learned that with no one watching him, he was free to do whatever he pleased. Crime and Punishment deals with a man murdering a prostitute, thinking himself a “superman” who is strong enough to deal with the emotional ramifications, and who was smart enough to avoid any possible conviction. Keyser Soze mythologized himself so as to make people believe he didn’t exist. However, Potter‘s Voldemort and Dorian Gray are the only two modern characters I can think of who literally place their respective souls into other objects. It’s also worth noting that in both cases, an outward image of the character takes on the form of the character’s increasingly irredeemable soul.
There’s a scene in Dorian Gray where, eighteen years after the portrait is painted, Basil and Dorian meet again. Basil tells Dorian of the rumors he’s heard around London, of all of Dorian’s acts. Rather than deny them, Dorian shows off the picture, now disgusting and disfigured. What strikes me here is how parallel this is to the scene in HBP in which Voldemort returns to Hogwarts to interview with Dumbledore. The Headmaster reports on the rumors he has heard, but rather than deny them, Voldemort refers to his actions as “greatness,” and as the conversation continues, his eyes burn red and his slit-like nostrils flare.
Harry let out a hastily stifled gasp. Voldemort had entered the room. His features were not those Harry had seen emerge from the great stone cauldron almost two years ago: They were not as snake-like, the eyes were not yet scarlet, the face not yet masklike, and yet he was no longer handsome Tom Riddle. It was as though his features had been burned and blurred; they were waxy and oddly distorted, and the whites of his eyes now had a permanently bloody look, though the pupils were not yet the slits that Harry knew they would become. He was wearing a long black cloak, and his face was as pale as the snow glistening on his shoulders.(page 441, American edition)
In other words, Voldemort’s own visage behaves as the portrait does for Dorian Gray: Both act as physical representations of the marring of the characters’ respective souls.
Basil is not seemingly omniscient or as genuinely good as Dumbledore, but he is in every respect the only character with any real wisdom and forethought in The Picture of Dorian Gray. When Dorian first gazes upon the painting and desires to be that young forever, for the painting to age in his stead, Basil attempts to destroy the portrait, which he himself had just happily completed. Similarly, Dumbledore is the only professor to show any concern for what exactly Tom Riddle’s motives might be. All the other professors, and shopkeepers, and wizarding socialites are simply charmed by this handsome young man, while Dorian was known as simply “Prince Charming” throughout and despite his womanizing.
At the climax of this crucial scene, late in the book, Dorian murders Basil in the attic where the painting is kept. The blood is seen immediately on the hands of the portrait’s subject. Obviously Voldemort does not kill Dumbledore in the interview scene, but he almost attempts it, as Harry sees him reaching for his wand. No, it takes Voldemort another twenty years, but the structure of events, book-wise, is noteworthy.
Dorian Gray is a short novel, whereas Harry Potter is a seven-volume epic. Also, it’s one thing for an author to borrow themes and arcs from influential giants in her field, and another to just transpose them and hope no one will notice. And again, this is first and foremost Jo’s story, and her beats will reflect the story that she wants to tell. Nonetheless, if the six books and seventh unknown volume were compressed to fit the timing and structure of Dorian Gray, then the two meetings and subsequent murders would fall closely in line. If we get past the whole good-evil-I-dunno-Snape question, we can remember that Voldemort was at the heart of it. It doesn’t matter who was hired, coerced, or tricked into committing the deed; Voldemort was the one who ordered it, and the one who made sure that it got done. In both stories, the wise character begs the villain to repent, Basil desperately, Dumbledore resignedly, and in both stories the villain murders the teacher, and for the same two reasons. They knew the villain’s secret to his power, and more importantly, they remembered him back when he had a chance to become something less monstrous than he became.
One of the key moments in Dorian Gray is when Dorian breaks his engagement with the poor, but beautiful and talented Sybil Vane. She is a fantastic actress in a dirt-cheap street theatre performing Romeo and Juliet. Dorian becomes enamored with her portrayal and proposes to her, but when he takes Basil and Lord Henry to see her performance, she has learned true love, and can no longer act it falsely upon the stage. He dumps her, and returns to find the first change in the portrait: a sneer of cruelty in the mouth.
It’s easy to hope for a similar recollection in book seven, of some woman whom Voldemort cast aside, in a humanizing moment for Bellatrix. When we discover that Sybil goes on to commit suicide, though, we realize that this is Merope we’re seeing, beat for beat. Merope is poor and unspectacular, save for her talent to pretend towards love as to charm Tom Riddle. But as she comes to believe their love to be true, she drops the act, only for him to drop her as a result. She then lets herself die in childbirth, having given up on life in Tom’s absence. Voldemort has never had a friend and likely never felt need for a lover; he probably would only give in to the latter for legacy’s sake. However, he believes himself immortal, so what’s the point?
Dorian learns his debauchery from two sources: the French book and Lord Henry. We still don’t know from where young Tom Riddle learned how to create a Horcrux, but the fact that we don’t know is significant. Lady Lupin suggests that it may be Grindelwald, but I’m not sure that the timing works out and wonder if the big G isn’t just another Mark Evans rabbit hole that we’ve been chasing for far too long. No, I think Voldemort stayed just long enough at Borgin and Burke’s to learn everything needed to proceed on his own. Think of it. His reputation was as yet untarnished, and he was still the golden boy of Hogwarts. If all he had in mind was to work in a magical pawnshop in the hopes of retrieving unseen valuables, then surely he could’ve found someplace more reputable. Instead, he chose Knockturn Alley, and listened and learned from a consortium of like-minded wizards obsessed with the Dark Arts. Harry still doesn’t know all he needs to know to destroy the Horcruxes; what if he needs to return to that old shop to learn about them for himself?
Finally, Dorian’s end. After murdering Basil and truly seeing himself in the painting, he attempts to redeem himself, in the hopes that the picture might show an improvement. He chooses to do right by his latest courtship and renounces Lord Henry’s teachings. But when he returns to the portrait, nothing has changed save for a look of cynicism and hypocrisy in the face. He understands how shallow and self-serving his attempt at redemption are, and debates absolving himself in confession but is to cowardly to face any consequences, and so chooses instead to destroy the portrait. When he stabs at it, however, the nursemaids downstairs hear a scream and rush up to the attic to find a decrepit and sickening old man dead on the floor with a knife through his chest, and a picture of their master as beautiful and pure as they’d ever know him.
This is the trickiest to foresee. I can’t imagine any event in the final book in which Voldemort would try to redeem himself, but these futile, desperate, self-serving attempts are a trademark of Snape’s. If faced with himself, would Severus confess to his crimes, or would he try to destroy Voldemort, the symbol of everything he regrets? Moreover, what can be made of Dorian’s ultimate demise? Voldemort has destroyed himself once before by attacking the one thing he, via the prophecy, knew could do him in. Will it happen again? Is Harry a Horcrux, or will love act as a shield once more? And will Voldemort, secure in his freedom from consequence, try to kill Harry, only for people to find a twisted, decrepit, and very dead old man at the feet of a young man, so pure of heart?