Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray". An analysis with Christopher Booker's "Seven Basic Plots"

Essay 2015 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The Seven Basic Plots
2.1 Overview
2.2 The Picture of Dorian Gray as a Tragedy

3. The meta-plot
3.1 Overview
3.2 The Meta-Plot in The Picture of Dorian Gray
3.3 Evaluation of the analysis

4. Structuralism in The Seven Basic Plots
4.1 Critics

5. Conclusions


1. Introduction

Ever since humans began to develop language there has been storytelling. Making up stories and narrating them to each other has always been nearly as fundamental as breathing. There exist thousands and thousands of wonderful and creative storylines in books and telltales, movies and dramas, theatres, operas and poetry… The diversity of plots is huge.

At least this has been the fundamental assumption, until Christopher Booker published his book The Seven Basic Plots – Why we tell stories, in which he claims that “there is a number of plots which are fundamental to the way we tell stories” (Booker 6) and that every single storyline is constructed of one of the seven predetermined plot developments. Booker characterizes each of the possible plots roughly and then states that there cannot be any story that differs from one of these patterns.

The author then goes even further. He states that every plot actually runs through the same five stages, which he calls “meta-plot” (Booker 157).

In other words C. Booker demonstrates how to analyze the plot of a story by classifying it into the category it fits in and then subdividing its different stages.

But does his concept really work for any story? Is it possible to categorize a book into one of Booker´s seven plots and to subdivide its plot into the five stages of Booker´s meta-plot afterwards?

In order to question whether his theory works for different stories this work deals with the analysis of the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde according to C. Booker´s scheme of The Seven Basic Plots.

2. The Seven Basic Plots

2.1 Overview

Christopher Booker states in his book “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories that there are only seven particular structural features that writers have used throughout history. Therefore he argues that all stories in the world are a variation of one of the seven basic themes (cf. Booker 4-10).

He categorizes the seven basic plot types which a story can follow and calls them: “Overcoming the Monster”, “Rags to Riches”, “The Quest”, “Voyage and Return”, “Comedy”, “Tragedy” and “Rebirth” (cf. Booker 7).

Each of these individual plots is well-defined by characteristic narrative features. Thus the “Overcoming the Monster”-plot is about the hero defeating an (often evil) antagonist force which is threatening the community he lives in (cf. Booker 21). “Rags to Riches”-plots are commonly about a poor protagonist who desires things such as wealth, power and happiness and finally manages to become a successful person and to accomplish his goals by fulfilling his own potential (cf. Booker 51). “The Quest”-plots deal with a hero going on an adventurous journey in order to acquire an important object, facing many temptations and obstacles along his way and finally succeeding (cf. Booker 69). Further there are “Voyage and Return”-stories which feature a protagonist who travels to a strange world but has to escape and ultimately returns home safely with nothing but experience (cf. Booker 87). Then C. Booker talks about “Comedy” which is always characterized by humorous or sarcastic tone and runs through confusion to enlightenment having a happy ending (cf. Booker 107). “Tragedy” is mainly defined by its destructive ending, in a tragedy the goal of the story is not achieved and the hero does not resolve his inner conflict happily (cf. Booker 153). And finally there is the Basic Plot of “Rebirth”, which is characterized by the protagonist being trapped in a hopeless situation and then being freed by another character´s loving act (cf. Booker 193).

2.2 The Picture of Dorian Gray as a Tragedy

In order to find out whether the drama The picture of Dorian Gray fits into one of C. Booker´s “Seven Basic Plots” or even is a combination of several plots, one must compare the typical narrative features of the defined plots to the ones in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Therefore I will go through the different characteristics of Booker´s plots very systematically and draw comparisons to the plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

First of all, it is obvious that the main protagonist Dorian Gray does not defeat anyone from anything evil, how it would be the case in the “Overcoming the Monster”-plot. This plot is rather the other way around when considering Dorian Gray does harm to Sibyl Vane and Basel, as he is responsible for their deaths. Thus the protagonist does definitely not save his community from evil and thus The Picture of Dorian Gray cannot fit into the “Overcoming the Monster”-plot. The “Rags to Riches”-plot has been characterized by having a protagonist without any kind of riches at the beginning of the story. Referring to Dorian Gray in the first scene one can see a beautiful young gentleman who is perfectly satisfied with his life, not a pitiable creature how it would be the case in a “Rags to Riches” story. Furthermore, the protagonist is neither going on an adventurous journey nor travelling to a strange world, so “The Quest” as well as the “Voyage and Return” plots can be both excluded. The plot of The Picture of Dorian Gray is often understood as supremely ironic. For instance, there is the quote “Real beauty ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face." (Wilde 10), which is deeply ironic against the background that this moment is the beginning of the destruction of Dorian’s beauty and soul. So it can be discussed if the storyline is similar to typical features of “Comedy”. But as there is neither enlightenment nor happy ending, this plot does not fit either.

What all the outlined plots have in common is that they have the fundamental impulse to lead the protagonist to a happy ending. This is not the case in The Picture of Dorian Gray which ends with the death of Dorian Gray. His death is very tragic and must not be seen as the ultimate solution of his suffering or the last way out of his inner conflict. The death of Dorian Gray is rather the divine retribution for all his committed crimes and therefore not a happy ending. Hence the only of the seven plots that can represent the events in The Picture of Dorian Gray is “Tragedy”. The Columbia Encyclopaedia defines tragedy as “A drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavourable circumstances.” (cf. The Columbia Encyclopedia, “tragedy”). Besides C. Bookers outlines tragedy as a fall from a high status to the lowest, what is essential to the tragedy, since it makes the suffering all the more distressing. In addition, the protagonist usually has a tragic flaw or some weakness that is the reason for his downfall (cf. Booker 153).

All of these characteristics of a tragedy can be found in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. For instance we have Dorian Gray with a “high status” in the first chapter; he already possesses beauty and youth. Compared to the last chapter where Dorian is dead, “withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage” (Wilde 323), he lost everything what he always wanted to remain and therefore fell to the “lowest status”. Further The Picture of Dorian Gray uses the ideas of the “tragic flaws” which are noticeable in the three main characters. Dorian´s tragic flaw is to be easily influenceable, Lord Henry is too manipulative and Basil just cares too much about Dorian. These are the flaws that finally lead to the ruination of Dorian Gray and make the drama end in a tragedy.

3. The meta-plot

3.1 Overview

Booker believes we tell stories as a mechanism of passing a model for life from generation to generation; and that in essence, all stories are “archetypal family dramas” (Booker 7). He also states that their core message is that we must resist selfish evil. Moreover in Booker´s opinion every story which has ever been told in this world has the same characteristic plot underlying the basic storyline (cf. Booker 7-8).

Therefore, in the book The Seven Basic Plots the author C. Booker describes a “meta - plot” that can be find in every of his seven Basic Plots. He states that every story basically runs through the same five stages and calls these Anticipation Stage, Dream Stage, Frustration Stage, Nightmare Stage and Resolution Stage (cf. Booker 153).

It should be noticed that the word “plot” as used by Booker does not mean the literal events, but rather the symbolic events of the story. Booker names the just mentioned Stages the “Basic Meta-Plot” and then states that the seven different plots respectively follow variations of this Basic Meta-Plot. He then develops more precise Meta-Plots for each of his seven Basic Plots. Since this work focuses on The Picture of Dorian Gray fitting into Booker´s theories and we already outlined that this drama fits into the category “Tragedy” , only the Meta-Plot of tragedy will be illustrated. C. Booker adopts the five Stages for “Tragedy” as they stand but just changes the last Stage of the Meta-Plot. Instead of “Resolution Stage” he names the last one “Destruction or Death wish Stage” when talking about tragedies (cf. Booker 154).



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oscar wilde picture dorian gray christopher booker seven basic plots

Title: Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray". An analysis with Christopher Booker's "Seven Basic Plots"