Beyond Don as Dorian: Fin de Siècle, 'Mad Men', and Aesthetics

Elizabeth Howells

Given the parallels between Dorian Gray and Don Draper, can we use the lesson of the former to predict the fate of the latter?

In a Time Magazine cover story from last spring, James Poniewozik asserts, “If The Sopranos aspired to the level of movies, Mad Men aspired to the level of literature” (7 April 2014). If that is the case, it is no surprise that Mad Men is rife with literary allusions. On bedsides, we peek at scene-setting reading material from Rosemary’s Baby to Valley of the Dolls. We also contemplate the establishment of relevant themes in the references to Emerson, Twain, Shakespeare, and Shelley. We see central figure Don Draper reading Dante at the beginning of season six, and we can’t help but hear the echoes of Gatsby in Betty’s golden blondness and the crispness of Draper’s shirts, which also leads us to wonder if we are witnessing the Death of a Salesman.

The Oscar Wilde Picture of Dorian Gray precedent is there every time we witness Draper sparkly, suited, and slick after a night of smoking, drinking, and carousing. However, this precedent is made explicit in episode one of season four, entitled “Public Relations”, which directly asks the audience: “Who is Don Draper?” The question is posed in an Advertising Age article investigating Draper’s Glo Coat ad success, but also as a question on which the show has been centered for the three prior seasons.

The episode quotes the article as containing the line directly referring to Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: “One imagines somewhere in an attic, there’s a painting of him that’s rapidly aging” (episode 1; 25 July 2010). On the surface, Draper is positioned as a kind of metonym for the era: everything is not what it appears. Beneath the sheen lurks something monstrous. This tension undermines our commonplace and nostalgic notions of the era, also undergirding our narrative experience in delivering suspense that implicates and engages the audience. Things weren’t too good to be true: they weren’t true.

This dramatic irony puts us on the right side of history and in a righteous seat of judgment. As London Review critic Mark Grief summed it up in his review of the first season of the series: we watch because we know better. Thus, if we know what happens to Dorian Gray and examine the precedent established by this comparison, then do we know what happens to Don Draper? Can we prognosticate about Mad Men’s future and Draper’s finale by digging into this genealogy?

On the surface, for most of the first six seasons of the award-winning AMC period drama Mad Men, produced by Matthew Weiner, Draper is successful as an advertising creative director who has risen to a partnership in ad agencies, even founding his own in Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce. Since the series premiered on 19 July 2007, we have witnessed Draper lording over the creatives demanding more and getting more from them, yet he’s also still got it, coming up with pitches in the eleventh hour and smooth talking, handling, and winning over clients with a clever quip and a dazzling smile.

Furthermore, he seemed to have it all at home, with a lovely housewife and three kids in suburban Westchester. Upon having lost that, he still lands on his feet with a young actress trophy wife -- former secretary and sexy French singer -- in a chic downtown penthouse. Of course, we know that a mere scratch reveals a much uglier story beneath the surface of Draper, as the seasons have revealed an abusive childhood in a bordello, a time as a deserter during the war, and the necessity of stealing another man’s identity to become Don Draper (not Dick Whitman) and rise from rags selling furs to riches selling anything on Madison Avenue.

Beneath all of the glamour and success lies a haunted man, haunted by his past and searching for himself and happiness in all the wrong places. He can’t but drink, smoke, seduce, and undermine this success at every turn. He is all surface, no substance; all art, no truth; nothing but an empty promise. In short: false advertising. As lead actor Jon Hamm -- Don Draper himself -- put it to Time: “The outside looks great. The inside is rotten.”

Draper, our protagonist, ultimately, is no hero; rather, he should be labeled an antihero. He lacks many conventional heroic qualities, and somehow inspires both profound respect and intense hatred. We pull for him and despise him simultaneously. Weiner says: “We can’t help ourselves.” We may applaud him for being a better parent than Betty, but we condemn him for his chauvinism. We like him more than Pete Campbell and maybe believe he is a better person, but when his daughter Sally catches him in bed with the neighbor, we don’t like him at all. We may find him charming, but we also find him contemptible. In fact, Lee Cole’s PopMatters article entitled “In Defense of Don Draper” annotates the critical history of Draper haters and the long line of critical commentary on this anti-hero, including LA Times television critic Mary McNamara’s article “The Devil in Don Draper”, which describes him as “Satan in a starched collar.” Weiner summed up the complicated relationship with Draper as protagonist to The Atlantic: “The hero is an antihero. If the hero is squeaky clean and perfect, you’re going to be interested in the villain.”

Draper is shot often as a portrait, in profile, in windows and elevators, and on moving sidewalks, in the case of this past season’s opening. This is done in order, as cinematographer Alan Taylor puts it, to partially obscure and maintain an air of mystery about him. In this way, Draper is framed as a portrait every bit as beautiful as Dorian Gray, who we learn of in Wilde’s 1891 novel through admirers Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wotton. Not unlike Draper, Gray too received his share of haters. After Lippincott’s published the story in serial form and the novel came out via the only press that would accept it (Ward, Lock, & Company) the following year in 1891, Wilde found himself in the position of defending the work and Gray in print in the face of scathing commentary and what one critic described as “unanimously hysterical critical reaction.” A Daily Chronicle reviewer asked of Wilde, “Why go grubbing in muck heaps?” Another critic described these muck-heaps as “an atmosphere… which is heavy with the nephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” Wilde replied:

It was necessary, sir, for the dramatic development of this story to surround Dorian Gray with an atmosphere of moral corruption. Otherwise the story would have had no meaning and the plot no issue. To keep this atmosphere vague and indeterminate and wonderful was the aim of the artist who wrote the story…. Each man sees his own sin in Dorian Gray.

In this way Gray, according to his creator, was conceived as a kind of metonym for his era, a kind of archetype, and a means for audience engagement. With regard to Dorian Gray, Wilde also contends the value of an anti-hero in much the same terms Weiner did of his protagonist:

Good people, belonging as they do to the normal, and so, commonplace type are artistically uninteresting. Bad people are from the point of view of art, fascinating studies. They represent colour, variety, and strangeness. Good people exasperate one’s reason; bad people stir one’s imagination.

Ultimately, Wilde asserts that the morality of the story is decidedly obvious, conventional, and to him disappointingly overt: “And the moral is this: All excess, as well as all renunciation, brings its own punishment.” This confirms the Faustian allusion in the subtitle of the novel: “The Story of a Soul”.

In a letter to one of his editors, Wilde situated the book as updating an old story, thus, creating a new kind of archetype: “I first conceived the idea of a young man selling his soul in exchange for eternal youth -- an idea that is old in the history of literature, but to which I have given new form.” Critic Richard Ellman marks the moment of the novel’s publication as launching a new era in Victorian literature: “No novel had commanded so much attention for years; or awakened sentiments so contradictory in its readers.” In his Ulysses, James Joyce quoted Wilde’s own estimation from Critic as Artist: “The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass. The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass…” For Wilde, the controversy over the novel spoke to its “complexity and vitality”. The recognition of the reality in this fiction is what inspired such fear and anxiety. The fact that WH Smith wouldn’t carry it made it “poisonous but perfect”, as he put it.

In some ways, Weiner has taken this same tack with his show. He too has engaged his critics by being decidedly prolific and outspoken and controlling about the nature of both the show’s production and its consumption. Weiner is sympathetic and realistic about his protagonist, as he told NPR:

I don't really have a lot of judgment for Don... He makes me nervous. I feel bad for him. I want him to be able to get out of things. I know that he has a lot of love in his heart. I just don't know if it's possible to stand up and rectify everything by telling the truth.

His anti-hero, Draper, seems cut from similar cloth as Dorian Gray. They both seem to have sold their souls to the devil. The innocent Gray apprentices under Lord Henry. Roger Sterling, the mentor who discovered Draper in a fur shop, seems to have taken a page from the book of Lord Henry with his witticisms. He, like Lord Henry, is given some of the best lines.

Compare their observations of the fairer sex. Where Lord Henry has, ”Never marry at all, Dorian. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed” (41), Sterling has, “When God closes a door, he opens a dress.”

Gray learns the lessons of Lord Henry:

I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream -- I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal… Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.

Sterling also seems to have followed this prescription, with his drug trips and threesomes in season six of Mad Men. Through the novel’s Gothic magic, Gray’s secrets are kept locked in the portrait in the attic. While his face maintains its beauty, the painting portrays the reality of his own drinking, carousing, and murderous deeds: “the face on the canvas bear[s] the burden of his passions and his sins; that the painted image might be seared with the lines of suffering and thought, and that he might keep all the delicate bloom and loveliness of his then just conscious boyhood” (73). However, in the end, Gray breaks under the weight of “the living death of his own soul” and can’t maintain the split and cannot survive their reconciliation.

Throughout season six, we wonder if Gray foretells Draper’s fate. Up until then, revelations about his past came in dream sequences, nightmares, drunken reveries. Only a few people found out or were let in on that secret past. This appeared to be like the story of the show: things are not what they seem. In that final episode of season six entitled “In Care Of”, Draper’s desire to reconcile his bordello past with his boardroom present loses him his job. The final scene leaves him showing his children the home where he grew up. So will the last act of the show, the last half of season seven, reflect Gray’s last act and the show’s opening montage with the falling man? This penultimate season seems to suggest that the show will be about the uncomfortable reconciliation of the sides of Draper.

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