, March 29, 2012
Oscar Wilde’s, The Picture of Dorian Gray, centers on the life of Dorian Gray, an affluent youth living in 19th Century London. In receiving a portrait of his likeness, Dorian wishes the painting would bear the signs of age, and by some supernatural account, Dorian is cursed with eternal youth. Wilde makes a number of dramatic social statements in writing this novel. The most obvious point he was chasing after was the squandering of youth, and the arrogance of beauty. To reach this point, he attacks it from several angles. Wilde introduces a newfound, romantic sexuality to his male characters, an uncommon practice in literature of the period. He also slanders the idea of beauty, turning it into a curse, one that people are fated to carry with them. The characters themselves also serve as mediums of expressing Wilde’s views, particularly Lord Henry Wotton, an interesting representation of cynicism. These ideas work in concert to highlight Wilde’s major idea of the complacency of youth and vitality. It’s a beautiful tragedy of a novel, particularly for its relevance in today’s world.
Wilde’s opinions of sexuality are interlaced into the novel. Wilde was gay, but that’s not what makes the characters different, it’s the way they are romanticized indirectly. For example, the artist, Basil Halward, seems infatuated with Dorian, and the very idea of him, as he was blessed with unparalleled beauty. Basil states, “as long as I live, the personality of Dorian Gray will dominate me. You can’t feel what I feel” (Wilde 13). Dorian is the spirit behind Basil’s art, the foundation, but Wilde introduces this in such an obscure manner. Obviously no homosexual relationship exists, as that would be taboo to publish in the time period. However, male character’s we’re never presented in such manner. Beauty cares little about gender, and this ideas is woven into the novel. Basil wants to preserve Dorian, to keep him innocent to remain an inspiration for his art. This relation of the characters allows the idea of Dorian’s captivating beauty to take the helm.
Initially in the novel, Dorian’s beauty is glorified. Wilde writes, “There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as youth’s passionate purity.” (Wilde 17). People are captivated with him, smitten by his looks, and engulfed by his personality. However, to highlight the effects of vanity and conceitedness, Wilde takes Dorian off the deep end, shattering the idea of his beauty, saying, “What was youth at best? A green, an unripe time, a time of shallow moods, and sickly thoughts… Youth had spoiled him” (Wilde 211). This is a drastic shift from the beginning of the work. Wilde essentially is saying that youth has little to do with good looks. He means that lacking the wisdom to prevent making mistakes will destroy you, and leave you corrupted like Dorian Gray. While his eternal beauty becomes his prison, he never understands that his mind is what is to blame, not his looks. However, the idea of eternal beauty is not glorified, it is presented as a haunting curse, which can shatter your inner psyche. The spark that ignited Dorian’s wickedness was the very character who he became engrossed with.
Lord Henry Wotton, one of my now favorite literary character’s, sheds an interesting light on the books central idea of complacency and vanity as well. Wotton is a particularly selfish character, but that is not his worse quality. Wotton’s hubris is his infallibility, and his incomparable wit. You love him because he’s always right and hate him for that at the same time. He fails to anticipate the effects he has on Dorian however. He is undoubtedly responsible for poisoning the mind of Dorian Gray, as he is particularly impressionable and Wotton’s realism can be hypnotizing. He offers such snippets as, “When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others” (Wilde 50). There is not a truer statement. His blatant realism is destructive, implying Wilde’s opinion that the truest answer is not always the best answer. On occasion, things are not what the world sees them to be, and it is better to believe what would seem unimaginable. Dorian possessed the ability to do this, and Wotton stripped it from him.
Wilde lived a unique life, and an even more unique writer. As Dorian Gray was his only novel, so many of his ideals were packed into this work. They all work in concert, however, to highlight the fault of vanity, as well as the complacency of one’s youth. The ideas compressed into these pages still hold weight today, and that is why it’s not gathering dust on shelves. Take the time to read this novel, perhaps more than once, because I guarantee you will miss certain nuances of the work that add to the experience.