Dorian Gray, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, is one of the most iconic characters in literature. The basic premise of his story is well known. While his portrait ages, he enjoys everlasting youth and beauty. “I bet he/she has a painting in the attic somewhere” is a phrase used even by those who haven’t read the book to compliment people who look younger than their age. His story is everyone’s story. We all have a little bit of Dorian Gray within us for who hasn’t harbored a desire to drink from the fountain of eternal youth, to stay unwrinkled and unblemished forever?
Basil Hallward, an artist who lives only for his art, is utterly besotted with the amazingly handsome Dorian, his muse. He paints a strikingly beautiful portrait of him but does not want to exhibit it to the world as he has put too much of himself into it. While Dorian sits for his picture, he meets Lord Henry Wotton, Hallward’s old friend who also ends up being captivated by him. Lord Henry encourages him to cherish his good looks and lead a life devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure. Basil believes him to be a bad influence on Dorian and asks him to refrain from advising him.
He speaks too late though for Dorian is already succumbing to Lord Henry’s influence. His words prompt him to unwittingly make a wish that will change his life forever. “ If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” He wishes his appearance would remain the same forever just as it is in the portrait and his wish is miraculously granted. He keeps his beauty intact and remains unsullied while the portrait pays the price for his excesses by changing into an ugly picture and becoming a grotesque reminder of his dishonorable behavior.
Lord Henry Wotton becomes Dorian’s mentor, philosopher and guide. He tests his theories and philosophies on the impressionable young man and gives him a book that serves as a blueprint for how he should live his life. Dorian lives a life of extravagance and debauchery ruining himself and those around him. When he breaks a young girl’s heart and drives her to commit suicide, he notices an evil glint in the eye of his portrait. With each of his transgressions, he remains pure and untainted but the figure in the portrait bears the burden of his actions and withers. His soul becomes more dark and damaged as he descends further and further into depravity and his picture continues reflecting the ravages of his lifestyle.
Dorian Gray’s situation reminds us of Faust’s pact with the devil for he is eternally enslaved to the picture. Even the sight of the aging picture fills him with grief. There is no deal with the devil here although one could say that Lord Henry is akin to the devil. He takes a fiendish delight in being the instigator while remaining unscathed himself as a passive observer.
Basil and Henry seem, respectively, like the good and evil conscience of Dorian’s nature. It is interesting that Oscar Wilde had once remarked: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.” Like Basil, Wilde was a devotee of the cult of beauty and believed in the purity of art but was ostracized by society for being gay. Lord Henry could have been his public persona, the delightful dandy who regaled everyone at parties with his witticisms. And perhaps, Wilde wished to be loved and admired as Dorian and to indulge in a licentious lifestyle without suffering the consequences of his actions.
The book is known for its homosexual undertones. I would even say it is explicitly homoerotic. You don’t have to read between the lines. When it was published, it was considered ‘effeminate’ and ‘contaminating’ and was used against Wilde during his trial with the result that he was eventually prosecuted and imprisoned ‘for acts of gross indecency’ with other men. The fetishized descriptions of Dorian mirror Wilde’s own fascination with the young poet Lord Alfred Douglas with whom he had an affair and who, like Dorian, had a similar resemblance to Adonis, the Greek God of beauty and desire.
The story begins as an amusing novel of manners reflecting the aristocratic lifestyle of old Britain with intellectual and witty conversations in the drawing room and friendships that blossom over tea and strolls in the garden. There are male characters picking flowers for their buttonholes, perfuming themselves with exotic scents and fainting at the drop of a hat, reflecting the dandyism of the era but slowly the story takes a darker turn and incorporates Gothic elements of violence, horror and doubling- the portrait functioning as Dorian’s doppelgänger.
Dorian devotes himself to the study and acquisition of beautiful objects like tapestries, embroideries, perfumes, musical instruments and jewels. His journey through the dark and dingy streets frequenting an opium den and encountering men of disrepute contrasts with the opulence he enjoys and reflects the lifestyle of unbridled hedonism that he has embraced. For all his vices, I didn’t view the morally depraved Dorian as a villain. I felt the poor guy needed a mother figure to knock sense into him. Eventually his conscience catches up with him and we have one of the best and most brilliant endings in literature.
The ending seems to contradict the preface to the novel which is a meditation on the nature of art and the concept of aestheticism or art for art’s sake. The novel paradoxically has a moral message although Wilde wasn’t a moralist. The question we have to ask ourselves is if art can be be truly beautiful without conveying some truth!
I view the book as a cautionary tale. It is a study of vanity, selfishness, shallowness and moral turpitude. It is a philosophical and psychological novel with a fascinating look into human nature. What is the meaning of beauty, what is the true value of external beauty when it is ephemeral and what is the price we are willing to pay for eternal youth and beauty? Could you be beautiful on the outside without inner beauty? It is a timeless story that addresses these questions that are as relevant as ever in our current times with our unhealthy obsession on physical beauty.
Oscar Wilde’s prose is rich in dialogue in keeping with his talent as a playwright. This book which happens to be his only novel is full of quotable quotes- little nuggets of wisdom mouthed by Lord Henry. Even Dorian remarks on his caustic wit : ‘’You cut life to pieces with your epigrams.’’ We could call these epigrams Henryisms or rather Wildisms for Wilde was well known for his acerbic wit. I had read this fin de siècle novel as a teenager and I enjoyed revisiting it again now with a deeper understanding. There is a misogynistic worldview espoused by some of the characters and that’s the only flaw I can reproach the author with in an otherwise outstanding piece of literature. I leave you with some of the humorous repartee as I conclude my post:
“….there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it & your soul grows sick with longing for things it has forbidden itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”
“Yes; she is a peacock in everything but beauty.”
“She behaves as if she was beautiful. Most American women do. It is the secret of their charm.”
“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”
“There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.”
“……each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved. Difference of object does not alter singleness of passion.”
“Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love: it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.”
“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”
“The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past while every sinner has a future”
And last but not the least, the aphorism that could apply to the book itself: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”
The Picture Of Dorian Gray is an introspective read that had me completely enthralled. Reading the book is like looking into a mirror and gazing at your own soul.