Wilde’s only novel is a complex labyrinth about art, corruption, morality, sin, and society’s idolatry of the sensual world. The novel caused a sensation when it was first published in 1890, the response bordering on hysteria, according to John Drew (Wordsworth Classics edition, 2001). It’s therefore fascinating that the themes Wilde explores in this exquisite novel still resonate today. The young and beautiful Dorian Gray, like Narcissus, falls in love with the power of his own beauty after seeing a portrait of himself. He uses his supernatural charm and influence over people to live life to the fullest: he denies himself no earthly pleasures, regardless of the cost to himself and others.
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
– The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Everyone loves a good Oscar Wilde quote.
Initially, Dorian’s youthful beauty is described as innocent and pure, like a white rose, and he’s adored all the more for these qualities. But after a disappointing love affair, Dorian reveals a different side of his character. His unkind and cruel behaviour leads to his love interest’s suicide and Dorian shows little remorse over his role in the incident. But there is a price for everything. When Dorian looks at the painting of himself again, he sees the result of his callous behaviour. The Dorian in the painting has altered to reveal his cruelty and selfishness. Dorian, horrified and delighted by this discovery, decides that the painting will carry the burden of his sins, while his boyish good looks will stay untarnished. The painting remains locked away for years as Dorian indulges in every sensual pleasure and experience, living a bourgeoisie life of decadence and luxury. People marvel at his unfading beauty as the years pass, none the wiser about Dorian’s secret.
“I am tired of myself tonight. I should like to be somebody else.”
– The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
It’s easy to lose yourself in Wilde’s circular philosophies or his carefully crafted prose but the parallels with today’s culture are difficult to miss. The unblemished, youthful images so prevalent on social media keeps coming to mind as you read about the influence of Dorian’s timeless good looks. Like Dorian, we love a good filter on reality. This extends beyond the ‘portraits’ we create of ourselves. Lifestyle images are artfully created to evoke a certain mood or way of living. These distilled images are often devoid of ugly realities like pimples, wrinkles, and dirty dishes in the background. I’m not suggesting that, like Dorian, these images hide sin and corruption. In fact, can’t these pictures be seen as works of art? It’s a representation of reality, it shows us what we value, and what we desire. They fill our social media feeds because people like looking at beautiful things and beautiful people. In the introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition, John Drew notes ‘Wilde’s sincerely held belief that in artistic matters style outweighed sincerity or substance.’ Wilde clearly appreciated form and style, like the beauty of written words, and he uses his novel, sometimes ironically, to explore our fascination with aesthetics and art.
“All art is quite useless.”
– The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. You’ve got to smile at Wilde’s entangled wit and irony
Dorian believes his lack of empathy and self-obsession is cultivated by the idolatrous painting and the society he keeps. And, to an extent, he’s right. Dorian, though not exempt from his decisions, is shaped by his sycophantic admirers and his close friend, Lord Henry. The internet is filled with witty quotes from Wilde’s novel and I’ve included a few here. These quotes often speak to some universal truth despite, or perhaps because of, their paradoxical nature. Many of these quotes are delivered by the devious yet, charming, Lord Henry and should perhaps be read in the bigger context of the novel. Like a devil on Dorian’s shoulder, Lord Henry fills Dorian’s mind with temptations which he justifies with lengthy monologues and intellectual blabbering. Even this reminds one of the voyeuristic pleasure of social media. As Lord Henry tells Dorian: ‘You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.’ But I won’t moralise. We live in a world of social media, selfies, and filters and the extent to which we partake, and are influenced by it, is the only thing that varies. Is society more amoral and corrupt because of this? If you read The Picture of Dorian Gray the answer is ‘no’; this has always been part of society. But art, far from being useless, allows one to take a step back and to view this phenomenon as a curious bystander. In allows us to see how we construct and reconstruct our lives in this virtual space. This, incidentally, is also why I believe people need to read as much as they can: ‘The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame’ – to quote yet another universal ‘truth’ from Wilde’s novel.
Wilde’s novel won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; with is decadent descriptions it’s definitely for literary lovers and those willing to explore something a little out of their comfort zone. If the witty quotes haven’t convinced you, it might tempt you to know that Wilde’s novel was used as evidence in the trial against him which led to his imprisonment in 1895 (according to Drew). The Picture of Dorian Gray is beautifully crafted and, for this reason alone, it’s worth your time. Wilde himself said: ‘My story is an essay on decorative art… it is poisonous if you like, but you cannot deny that it is also perfect, and perfection is what we artists aim at.’
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