One hundred twenty-four years after its original publication, this poetic tragedy still effervesces with cynical epigrams and thought-provoking ideas.
I remember being curious about this book while I was growing up, looking time and again at the cover of the paperback edition in the living-room bookshelf, which showed what appeared to be a painting of the grimacing face of an angry old man. I was reminded of it recently while reading The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker, who lists it among the examples of the basic plot of Tragedy. Here, I thought, was an opportunity to finally satisfy my youthful curiosity.
I’m glad I did, for Wilde’s story is a simple, imaginative, and well-written work of fantasy. In it, a beautiful young man, Dorian Gray, is having his portrait painted by a noted artist, Basil Hallward. Under the influence of their mutual friend, the irreverent aesthete Lord Henry Wotton, who urges the young man to live life to the fullest before his looks inevitably fade, Dorian passionately wishes that the portrait might bear the signs of aging and vice, while his own body might retain the unchanging perfection of the painting. To his great shock, his wish comes true.
He discovers it when, under the influence of his new friend Lord Henry, he coldly casts aside a young woman he has thought himself in love with, an actress named Sibyl Vane, breaking her heart. After doing this, he notices a change in the portrait, a slight, cruel turning of the lip, and realizes what it means. He struggles inwardly over what to do, but finally decides to take advantage of the incredible opportunity that has been presented to him: to lead a life of indulgence and self-seeking while keeping the unmarred beauty of his youth. Lord Henry, for his part, while he knows nothing about the portrait’s supernatural power, is delighted with his protege’s change of course from middle-class virtue to sophisticated vice, and becomes his inseparable companion and world-weary cheerleader.
Hallward’s picture, by absorbing the results of its subject’s sins, provides the ultimate in what economists call moral hazard for Dorian Gray: it separates him from the consequences of his actions and thus gives him licence to act selfishly. The young man makes full use of this licence, turning to a life of sensuality and pleasure.
I knew little about Oscar Wilde when I started this book, but in reading his Wikipedia article I saw that he himself was a dandy as a young man, and a founder of the movement called Aestheticism, which was the drive to turn one’s own life into an art form, to make one’s lifestyle itself a thing of beauty. Wilde himself was obsessed with youth and beauty, and died, bankrupt and disgraced, when he was barely 46 years old. The Picture of Dorian Gray is written with the passion of one who feels its issues deeply, even as Wilde’s prose is urbane and aesthetic. My impression is that the three main characters, Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward, represent three different personalities present within their author. Hallward is a talented artist, but is also mature, humble, and reasonable. Lord Henry is a witty, cynical bon vivant and a star of fashionable London society. The soul of young Dorian, beautiful and impressionable, is the battlefield where the forces of virtue and vice clash. His life and his story are the outcome of that battle.
Along the way, the narrator injects some opinions of his own that make him seem closer to Lord Henry in his outlook than to the other characters. For instance, in describing Dorian’s obsessive fastidiousness over his dress and comportment, he offers an interesting definition of dandyism:
And, certainly, to him Life was the first, the greatest, of the arts, and for it all the other arts seemed to be but a preparation. Fashion, by which what is really fantastic becomes for a moment universal, and Dandyism, which, in its own way, is an attempt to assert the absolute modernity of beauty, had, of course, their fascination for him. His mode of dressing, and the particular styles that from time to time he affected, had thir marked influence on the young exquisites of the Mayfair balls and Pall Mall club windows, who copied him in everything that he did, and tried to reproduce the accidental charm of his graceful, though to him only half-serious, fopperies.
Here the narrator is looking on his subject with the admiring eye of Lord Henry Wotton.
It was interesting for me coming to this book only shortly after having read Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, another fantasy, published just five years earlier. It too explores the moral effect of a split in personality in which the light portion is represented by one half and the dark by another, separate, and secret half (for Dorian Gray locks his painting in an attic room). But where Stevenson’s novella to me reads more like notes toward a finished work, Wilde’s novel is fully fleshed out and well crafted. It would seem that the two artists were sensitive to a spirit of the time that placed heavy emphasis on one’s outward appearance, and where the evil that lurks in men’s souls had to remain shut up and unacknowledged. Both are concerned specifically with the pleasure of wrongdoing, and indeed that is exactly its lure. In a way they are echoes of the fable in Plato’s Republic about the ring of Gyges: a ring that confers invisibility on its wearer, so that he may do whatever he pleases with impunity. Socrates’ specific task is to show that the lure of such a ring is not irresistible, that the just man would not be tempted by its power. In Wilde’s book Dorian Gray is in a sense invisible, in that his beauty dazzles people, making them blind to who he really is.
I must admit that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a more substantial book than I was expecting, both artistically and thematically. I was prejudiced by its author’s reputation for urbanity and foppishness. And, in truth, the book is rather theatrical and flowery here and there. But it is also the product of a sharp and brilliant mind engaging with difficult conflicts in human experience, conflicts that were to define and even destroy his own life. The battlefield of Dorian Gray’s soul, I have no doubt, was the battlefield of Oscar Wilde’s soul, and in this work, his only novel, he has sent us a sobering report of the life-and-death struggle there.
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