In Oscar Wilde’s infamous Faustian novel, the Picture of Dorian Gray, a painter named Basil Hallward becomes infatuated with a portrait’s subject, Dorian Gray. Realizing he won’t be young and handsome forever, Dorian states he’d sell his soul if his portrait would age instead. With his wish fulfilled, Dorian takes up hedonistic pursuits of beauty and fulfillment of the senses with his new friend, Lord Henry Wotton. As Dorian continues in his sinful debauchery, his portrait ages and becomes more grotesque.
Some time ago, Uncertainprinciples said:
“It’s an absolutely amazing book, with one of my favorite quotes of all times: ‘I can resist anything but temptation.’ How well does that quote define the actual theme of the book?”
Perfectly, especially because Dorian meets and gives into temptation after temptation, starting with remaining handsomely young. The hedonistic Dorian makes sure he’s seen among Society at the proper events, becomes enamored with a string of women, and takes to visiting opium dens. It is also implied that Dorian’s relationships with some young men goes beyond platonic. With the consequences of an angry well-to-do family and shame and loss of status all around, he blackmails one of them to keep their secret. Even when Dorian knows he’s behaving atrociously, he makes no correction simply because he can get away with it and his secret is safe.
Wilde also comments about the decadence and indulgence of Victorian society in general. Anybody who was anybody was expected to attend extravagant balls and dinners and the opera. If they didn’t, tongues would wag and they would be shunned. Wilde also criticizes such attitudes and social laws in his satirical Lady Windermere’s Fan. The division between the classes and the snubbing of the lower class by the upper class are also apparent. It can be said that Dorian was slumming it when he secretly visited the opium dens in the poor parts of London. Of the opinion that only the lower classes commit crimes, Lord Henry says:
“I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations”.
The Picture of Dorian Gray was ill received and controversial when it was published in 1891. Not only did it portray Victorian society in a poor light, but homosexual relationships were not something to be mentioned. Such topics went against Society’s genteel grain. During the premiere of the Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, Wilde was brought to court by the Marquess of Queensberry for indecent relations with his son and prosecuted, for which he did two years of hard labor. Wilde wrote his last piece after his release, a poem titled the Ballad of Reading Gaol, and passed away in Paris in 1900.
The gothic horror is eerie, phenomenal, memorable, has quite the ending, and I highly recommend it. So far this is my favorite of what I’ve read by Wilde. I look forward to reading more of his works, starting with Earnest. By the way, Gross Indecency: the Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by Moises Kaufman is a great play.
Snippets from the Picture of Dorian Gray‘s preface:
“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things… Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault… There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all… The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium… Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist material for an art… All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbols do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors… When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself… The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.”