I was watching the original film version of The Wolf Man and got the notion to try writing a story that reverses The Wolf Man‘s premise. In the original, the man is transformed into a wolf, and the animal is shown as an unthinking monster. Thus, the most immediate technical problem presented to me was how to portray the wolf before he transforms into a man. I did not particularly want to anthropomorphize the wolf–have him think in words–but if not, how was I to get across what happens in the wolf’s mind? I decided to review the works of others to see how they handled it.
I skimmed the start of The Call of the Wild and a bit of White Fang, and put them aside, realizing that Jack London gives us the dogs’ thoughts as if they were human.
Then I picked up Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Kipling begins by stating that wolves don’t communicate in words like men do, but he expresses what occurs between them in words, as if he is translating. Though I quickly realized Kipling’s treatment also would not serve my purpose, I was entranced by his writing, couldn’t put the thing down, and read to the end. When I first encountered the book (I believe my brother read it to me when I was young), I loved the adventure of it. But this time around, I found a depth in it that I had not expected: Mowgli is a person caught between two cultures, or as some sociologists might put it, “lost between two worlds,” and ultimately not able to live comfortably in either of them. This led me to think of the duality inherent in both Mowgli and the Wolf Man and that, in turn, led me to read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Although I have read many other works by Robert Louis Stevenson, I had never read Jekyll and Hyde, but had only seen it on film. In reading it, I was astonished to find that it is not presented as science fiction or as horror, but as a mystery. Throughout most of the chapters, one is led to believe, along with the narrator, that Mr. Hyde is a separate person who is blackmailing Dr. Jekyll. It is only near the end that we discover they are one man split into two, and only in the last chapter that we get Jekyll’s recitation of events, which becomes the basis for the film versions.
Jekyll writes very specifically of man’s dual nature–indeed, he postulates that man may have many sides (a precursor of the theory of multiple personalities?)–and that he had felt that “if each…[of the two natures] could be housed in separate identities…the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.”
This explanation of the duality of man’s nature in the Jekyll and Hyde novella, published in 1886, led me to wonder when Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, also about the dual nature of man, was published (it first appeared in 1890), and what there was in their common era that led writers particularly to explore this theme. So off I went to reread The Picture of Dorian Gray.
To me, the most puzzling aspect of this novel is Oscar Wilde’s own comments on his characters. Wilde wrote that Basil Hallward (the honorable artist who begins by worshipping Dorian and ends horribly murdered by Dorian when he takes him to task for his infamies) “is what I think I am;” that Lord Henry (who espouses an amoral aesthetic and ostensibly leads Dorian astray) is “what the world thinks me;” and that “Dorian [is] what I would like to be–in other ages, perhaps.” I can easily believe Wilde’s statements about Basil and Lord Henry and, given the double life Wilde, as a homosexual, was forced to live, I can understand an affinity for a character living a double life. But, given the novel’s presentation of Dorian as a shallow, rationalizing, and ultimately cowardly, self-deceiving hypocrite, what does Wilde mean when he says Dorian is what he would like to be?
In addition, when I originally read Wilde’s works, I felt them quite clever, but also shallow, and at the same time, in some instances, moralistic to the point of melodrama. Now though, rereading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I wonder how much of the cleverness may have been a pose he hid behind in order to prevent being hurt, and how he might have written if he had lived in our time which, though not where it should be in the treatment of gay people, is, I expect, somewhat less punishing than the time in which Wilde lived.
These questions have taken me to what I am reading now: Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellmann, and Wilde’s long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis.