Several moments of this novel captivated me, but there is a particular scene in which our protagonist laments a terrible loss, stating that “it has all the terrible beauty of a Greek tragedy, a tragedy in which I took a great part, but by which I have not been wounded.” Oscar Wilde’s only novel expounds on the ideas of aestheticism, or “art for art’s sake.” As Wilde states in the preface, the idea is “to reveal art and conceal the artist.” How then do we classify The Picture of Dorian Gray? Is it a morality tale on the dangers of corruption? Perhaps it is an allegory to forbidden passions. Another option is that it is simply a science fiction/fantasy story about a magical painting that grants a young man’s wish. I have actually been meaning to read this one for ages, particularly since fellow book blogger Adam at Roof Beam Reader wrote a fascinating series examining Dorian Gray, In Theory. After finishing it, I regret not having read it sooner as it has become a solid favorite worth several rereads.
Although this novel is a tragedy in the truest sense of the word, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of humor, specifically the words spoken by the character of Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton. An unapologetic hedonist, Lord Henry is quite comfortable with himself and some of his dialogue had me laughing out loud. However, he also serves a more sinister purpose to this tragedy than mere comic relief. As the proverbial serpent to temptation, Lord Henry is the catalyst that leads Dorian from a path of innocence to one where he desires pleasures of the flesh and a lifestyle of pure decadence. On the opposing end, we have artist Basil Hallward who clearly is in love with the innocent Dorian and is fearful of Lord Henry’s corrupting influence. There’s a foreboding air from the beginning, as Basil declares he will never exhibit it, saying: “There is too much of myself in the thing … I am afraid that I have shown with it the secret of my own soul.”
Then we have Dorian who demonstrates that bad boys will always be the more interesting characters in literature. While many would characterize him as narcissistic, I felt a measure of empathy towards him in the beginning. As the serpent (Harry) has enlightened Dorian to the passage of time and the inevitable loss of his youthful appearance, Dorian whispers an unholy prayer that his portrait should age and bear the scars of his misdeeds. His wish is granted, allowing him to maintain the appearance of youth and innocence while the painting suffers for his life of pleasures. Once he realizes that the picture is changing with the destruction of his soul, Dorian hides the picture away where it continues to age and decay with every misdeed.
I love the allusions that Wilde places in this novel, not only to mythology but to the Bible as well. In addition to the initial scene in the garden where Dorian’s “awakening” begins, I viewed a later scene in the theater of Dorian’s love interest Sybil as representing “Hell” with its downcast and decadent players. Practically every scene of this work is brimming with philosophical arguments for the way we should live our lives.
“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”
The eradication of consequences allows Dorian to indulge in any decadent desire he wishes. Although we are never given specifics to all of his activities, perhaps the work is stronger as we can only imagine. While initially his path is one of pure hedonism, Dorian quickly becomes someone who is dangerous, a fire that consumes and destroys all that stands in his way.
Near the end, Dorian attempts to change his ways through a small act of kindness towards a woman he chose not to deflower. To his dismay, our protagonist learns that his one small act is not enough to change his ultimate and tragic fate. He had the wrong idea. The removal of a conscious led to a failure to understand that being a good person takes time and effort. This one charitable act, if one can even call it that, was performed under selfish reasons as Dorian was trying to save himself. In order to free himself from a lifetime of debauchery, Dorian would have to walk a selfless path that seemed impossible.
Although Wilde did make a name for himself as a playwright, his solo work as a novelist represents the best qualities that this author gave to the world. He is a master of prose, creating dialogue that is intelligent and extremely witty. As I mentioned, it is one that can be studied under a number of different lenses. However, it is a novel that can be enjoyed for its own sake as it is exciting, moving, and at times filled with horror. There is a lot of love in this work, and every sentence serves a purpose.
Underneath all of this, there is passion in the material. Oscar Wilde was unfortunately condemned as a criminal for not being allowed to live on his terms. In reading his sparkling dialogue, it seems as though the witticism of Lord Henry served as the voice of the artist himself. One of my favorite comedic lines would have to be “There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating – people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.” Wilde’s unique sense of humour is present throughout the story, even during the more horrific scenes. There is a beautiful balance that takes place in the story, clearly showing the author’s experiences as a playwright. The three primary players each bore an aspect of the writer’s soul, with Hallward reflecting Wilde’s misunderstood love and Dorian as the fire in his soul.
Though a product of the Victorian age, this exceptional novel has a very modern feel. I don’t only mean that readers today can easily relate to the story, but that the sensibilities are so perfectly fitted to our time: humorous, sarcastic, tragic, and conflicted. This work is a true feast for the senses.
After having an opportunity to learn more about Oscar Wilde and his extraordinary life, I admit to feeling a kinship for this man that was able to be this shining light in a society that perhaps closed its eyes too many times. While The Picture of Dorian Gray is about someone who continues to slowly destroy his soul through his actions, we are left breathless by the novel’s inherent beauty. As with the title character who remains eternally young and pleasing to the eyes, we simply cannot look away.
“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”