Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic of English literature. I’m writing a review of it because I want some horror to feature on Halloween.

Dorian Gray is, in my mind, a weird tale. Wilde produces a sense of creepiness that begins even in the seemingly light and hopeful first chapter. The title portrait is a supernatural object that horrifies and fascinates Gray. He is preserved in youth and beauty, and possibly even saved from the consequences of evil deeds, but the portrait become a mirror to his dark and sinful soul, something that eventually becomes too horrible for him to endure.

In addition to being a weird tale, it is a moral tale. Gray has beauty, wealth, and status, but he gives himself over to any kind of wickedness if their might be pleasure in it. At first, it is the infatuation of a hollow love for the actress Sibyl Vane. When she disappoints him on the stage by failing to present an ideal picture of love because acting it seems shallow compared to her real passion, he rejects her. Her suicide nearly turns him off the path he is pursuing, but when the thrill of the moment passed, he nearly forgot her. The sins of youth and ignorance turn more willful as he falls into using drugs and prostitutes. Eventually he murders a man. The book hints at other wrongdoing, possibly homosexuality, affairs with married women, seduction for the sake of its own pleasure, gossip, excessive drink, greed, blasphemy and leading  others into all these things.

The book could be a social commentary on the upper class of his time. With all the advantages they had, they were still corrupt. A fortunate life is not a sign of a good person. As with Job, poverty and hardship are not indications of an evil life.

Some think Wilde is exploring own life in the book. One can read hints of homosexuality in Basil Hallward’s feelings toward Gray (Basil paints the portrait), and in Gray’s feelings toward Lord Henry Wotton. Possibly Wilde was critiquing his own aestheticism, finding that it did not necessarily lead to a higher morality, but could as easily lead one to an immoral, selfish, and consuming pleasure-seeking.

In the book, Wilde never comes out and says what his intentions are, if he has any at all in terms of exploring himself, his society, or notions of beauty, art and morality. It seems clear, though, the Wilde suggests a person cannot be separated from his deeds and his consequences as Gray is with the aid of his magical painting. A man, his deeds, and their consequences may not be the same thing, but they are linked in a powerful way. When Gray tries to destroy the painting that bears the ugliness of his soul, he plunges the knife into his own heart.

Though some have accused Wilde of writing an immoral book, one could as easily argue that he wrote a very moral book. Gray is sympathetic to a degree, but he is an evildoer destroyed by the evil he did. The reader can contemplate issues of art, beauty, and morality for himself. Along the way, he can enjoy a creepy thrill.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray1890. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2003.