Published on June 26th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Written in 1890, The Picture of Dorian Gray was Oscar Wilde’s only novel, his other works all comprising of plays and poetry.
The novel tells of a young up and coming man in society, the eponymous Dorian Gray, whose beauty mollifies all around him. He is being painted by long-time friend Basil, whose talent is able to capture well Dorian’s good looks.
A new wave friend of Basil’s called Lord Henry, a man of fairly high standing with questionable morals, soon meets Dorian much to Basil’s dismay, who believes that Lord Henry will corrupt him.
Obviously corrupt him he does as Lord Henry begins preaching his ideals to Dorian, who in a moment of anger and despair, wishes that his painting would incur age and ugliness, leaving his own features unmarred.
The story is very Faustian, Gray essentially makes a pact with the devil by dooming his painting to age whilst reaping the benefits of youth himself.
Dorian Gray becomes more and more debauched, leading to his eventual demise.
The novel was a hot topic at the time with many readers and critics angered by the dubious morals and curious relationship between some of the characters. It was edited upon publication in a magazine and was also subsequently edited by Wilde himself after the criticisms after initial printings.
There are three main characters in the book, all supposedly based on different versions of the author, however I feel that there appears to be allusions to the story of Adam & Eve here.
Dorian Gray is young and handsome, at the beginning of the novel he is sweet, young and unassuming, he represents humanity in this allegory. His naivete leads him to ignore Basil’s advice regarding Lord Henry and he begins to converse with him. The unexpected darkness which he is exposed to, is too much for him to bear and he soon goes into a fit of depression. Upon acceptance of the new information, Dorian sees the only real answer as going along with all that Lord Henry says.
Basil is the good conscience of the story and closely resembles aspects of God in Paradise Lost. Through his attempts to hide the forbidden fruit of knowledge and pleasure from Dorian, left him vulnerable to temptation. He loves Dorian in a clearly homosexual way, but also as a teacher. He is upset when he sees Dorian change.
Lord Henry, the satan and the serpent. He is a unapologetic hedonist whose decadent views on pleasure and the senses inflicts a painful realisation on Dorian when he realises he will grow old and presumably in Lord Henry’s realm of existence, mean little to people. He states that beauty is the most important thing for people and art and that Dorian must enjoy himself all he can so as not to live in regret.
The path with Dorian begins to tread eventually leads him falling into further mishap than Lord Henry, without the perception and the throwaway temperament of the latter, Dorian becomes a slave to his desires and guilt. He begins to enjoy the suffering of the painting, knowing it is not happening to himself. As the book progresses he becomes more and more laudable, echoing some of Paradise Lost’s focus on a antagonist for a main character.
Dorian starts to live a life of duality, where one side of him is charming and proper while the other side hurts people and drives them to self-hatred, much like with what Lord Henry did to him, but much worse as the people he affects do not have the same cold potential he did and they often appear to end up taking their own lives. We do not find out exactly what it is that Dorian does to these people, but his corruption spreads to all he specifically chooses.
Lord Henry’s fleeting attitudes become more apparent in their straying from Dorian’s own dedicated world view as Henry appears to change his opinion whenever it suits him.
In the end, many frights are the only thing that cause Dorian to decide he wishes to change, yet so unhonest is he to himself he soon discovers that he isn’t capable any longer as all actions have become self-serving.
The writing is beautifully pithy, you wouldn’t expect anything less from a talented writer of prose.
What makes the book important however is its enduring commitment to satirising the viewpoint of late Victorian times and also how it can preach certain elements of Hedonistic living while reproaching others. It’s almost as if by hitting every wrong target, we get an exact idea of the many facets of Wilde in this book as each is open and easy to read, much like Gray’s painting.
What surprised me however, is that firstly how strong the elements of homo-eroticism are, even though they are toned down. Despite their presumed ignorance it didn’t escape readers of the time from realising, as rumours of Wilde’s sexuality were dated before his poorly executed prosecution of Queensberry.
Also I was under the impression that if Gray were to see his own portrait, all of its magical power would cease and he would grow old, but in fact it’s only when he physically harms the picture that this happens. It’s not just age that affects the painting, every lurid act and evil intention is marked upon the oiled face, as stated that this also happens in real life, but I’m not sure what people Wilde knew, but pretty people can indeed be wankers too.
The novel feels evocatively eery and it’s interesting to think about the society to which it belongs and was made in and for, also it’s pleasurable to think how the people which Wilde pokes fun at felt whilst reading this work and possibly whether they were in denial or truly had faith in themselves.
Endlessly quotable, provocative and maddeningly enjoyable. Who doesn’t watch with glee the downfall of the beautiful and the hopeless tragedy we secretly hope we’re better than?
Every generation has a brilliant mind that can pour the evils of their world into a giant pot and manage to stir a thing of beauty such as this out, but none do it so well as Wilde.