“Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.” – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In a fashion similar to that of a darker, more gruesome, Jane Austen, The Picture of Dorian Gray is absolute prose and dialogue brilliance. Never before has there been a literary novel such as this, for this is arguably the greatest study of shallowness, gluttony, and unrelenting narcissism ever wrote.
This was my first encounter with Oscar Wide, the mad scientist behind the mesmerizing words. Though the book flows in a flowery manner- babbling over smooth rocks and delicate crevices- the content behind the words is hefty and leaves the reader feeling woeful.
For those who have not undergone the journey of Dorian Gray, here is a soft outline of the plot: The book follows three main characters, Lord Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray. Basil Hallward is the artist responsible for painting the portrait of Dorian Gray, the boy he believes to be his muse in life. Dorian is introduced to Basil’s friend, Lord Henry, and becomes obsessed with him, much the same way Basil is obsessed with Dorian. Dorian falls victim to the sensuality of Lord Henry and his views on life, which are that of severe selfishness and deplorable greed. According to Lord Henry, the only life worth living is one spent gratifying the senses— living in luxury and over indulging in everything, from alcohol to drugs to women. The belief in self-indulgence is so strong that the two men no longer live within the confines of the human experience. Rather, it seems, they fancy themselves outside of the human experience so that emotions, such as love and respect, are treated as nothing more than laughable sensations. Even human life itself is dispensable.
“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.” (Lord Henry, Chapter 2)
The amount of deceitfulness and total disregard for humanity that Wilde’s characters display is unnerving and I found myself in a state of utter disbelief for most of the book. Still, I hungered to reach the finish line. Surely, surely, the characters could not grow worse, yet, they did.
The relationship between Lord Henry and Dorian teeters on the edge of student and teacher to lovers. The dialog between the two is particularly intriguing, though entirely disturbing. The conversations are carried out with such refinement that one almost overlooks the wicked words being exchanged between them. Lord Henry is reluctant to soil his good name and takes advantage of Dorian’s longing to preserve his youth by living vicariously through him. Despite all his talk about the stupidity and uselessness of women, Lord Henry is married and therefore chained to a certain amount of responsibility. He lives entirely through Dorian by enabling him to pursue a life of vanity and corruption; one, big, social science experiment.
“I wish I could change places with you, Dorian. The world has cried out against us both, but it has always worshiped you….You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything…Life has been your art.” (Chapter 19)
The relationship between Dorian and Basil Hallward is also an interesting one. To Basil, Dorian is the archetype of exquisite male youth. The conventional painter is so taken with him, that he bleeds true love into his painting. Basil’s effect on Dorian is the complete opposite of Lord Henry’s. While Lord Henry leads Dorian into a soul-sucking life of pleasure-seeking, Basil attempts to ground him by showing nothing but undying love and a strong belief in the purity of Dorian’s soul, which he is determined to save. But for the already corrupted youth, these acts of pure kindness angers him and ultimately leads to Basil’s demise in a very symbolic gesture of killing off one’s innocence.
Dorian’s purity is stripped from him from the moment he meets Lord Henry and it is throughout the remainder of the book that he fights to regain that feeling of absolute innocence. However, he is unable to quit committing heinous acts against humanity, as he does not understand that once innocence is lost, it is lost forever. It is this realization that drives him to madness.
Loss of innocence is a powerful theme within the book. Dorian is looked upon by society as virtuous. No one is aware of the crimes he has committed and he’s determined to keep it that way by stashing his portrait behind a curtain in the attic. From time to time, he climbs the stairs, unlocks the door and pulls back the curtain to study the painting; his only act of curiosity in getting to know his altered and repressed self.
As adults, we understand there comes a time when the innocence of youth is lost on us. Needless to say, there are things throughout adolescence (and well into adulthood) that we would have liked to keep hidden for fear of criticism by our peers and society as a whole. Ultimately, we know this method of secrecy will not work forever and it is when we begin to accept the “ugly” qualities about ourselves that we realize human beings are not perfect creatures. We accept the animalistic aspects of our brains and move on the best we can. For Dorian, however, there is no acceptance until the very end, and the reality of it all kills him.
“How sad it is!” murmured Dorian Gray with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. . . . If it were only the other way! 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!” (Chapter 2).
Why are we so fascinated by The Picture of Dorian Gray, the gruesome novel about cruelty and loneliness? Is it because it unearths certain aspects of ourselves that we would have rather kept undetected; hidden away in a box someplace dark and damp? Perhaps. Let us dive deeper.
Throughout the book, we condemn Dorian for the manner in which he lives, yet is there not a part of us that envies him, or is at least mesmerized by him, if only by a bit? The book encourages one to think about the meaning of living a limitless life. What would you do, how would you act, if you knew you could live without consequences? Go one step further and ask yourself how you would feel if you could live as a beautiful youth without limitations or consequences? Is your imagination running wild with possibilities?
The novel is a true investigation into the underbelly of humanity. Dorian himself is an example of human greed and suffering. He portrays the animalistic nature which lies, for the most part, dormant in each of us, but which essentially directs us through our lives. Have you ever watched a dog consume dinner? Or lions battle over a carcass in the wild? If left alone, any animal will take as much as they possibly can, even if it’s more than they can handle. Dorian and Lord Henry represent the animalistic nature of humans; the need to consume as much as possible and the ability to do so without boundaries. As humans, we are aware of our innate, animalistic nature— at least, we feel it from time to time— but because we are humans, and not dogs or cats or cattle, we are able to calm the wild [“animal”] part of ourselves.
Dorian Gray is the product of submitting to the wildness and I don’t believe there isn’t a part of each of us that hasn’t felt— in some way or another— a deep seeded curiosity about how it would be to experience life with reckless abandonment; limitless, without consequences, and with no commitment to anyone except oneself.