In spite of being an Oscar Wilde fan for years, I cannot believe that I finally picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray just recently. Yes, it also took me a long while to finish reading as I did not always have the time to continue poring through this enormously engrossing piece of work without missing out on vital details.
Wilde’s only known novel, which is considered to be a fine example of gothic horror, is a completely enchanting book, filled with questions about morality, the self, truth, wisdom, art, and I think most of all, what constitutes ‘true beauty’.
This book has not been without controversies, much like the author himself. Wilde, who completed the book in 1890, had to face criticism for the book being too unclean, immoral, and filled with homosexual connotations. Wilde however lashed back at his critics saying:
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
And that in short, is what The Picture of Dorian Gray tries to explain. Is the novel immoral? I did not think so. Is it a work of art? Without a shred of doubt.
The protagonist of this satisfying, yet disturbing book is the young and dashing Dorian Gray, who is described to be nothing short of Adonis, forever beautiful and youthful. When the incorruptible 20-something lad is painted by Basil Hallward, a budding artist of great talent, who is completely taken in by this ethereal beauty, Lord Henry Wotton, a rather witty, yet unforgivably influential man, takes interest in meeting Dorian, much to the dismay of Basil.
Lord Henry befriends the aristocratic and nonchalant Dorian, drawing attention to the transitory nature of latter’s youth and beauty, which he says will fade and will change into wrinkles and lines of age in time. Dorian is plagued by these painful thoughts, quite aware that his youth and beauty are two things he would never want to lose.
Basil finishes painting his magnum opus, which is a portrait of the delicate-faced blond-haired and blue-eyed Dorian, which he later admits ‘had too much of himself in it’. Charmed by the unchanging and magical portrait, and fazed by Lord Henry’s haunting words on youth and old age, Dorian wishes that he could stay young and unchanging forever, while his portrait (now gifted to him by Basil) bears the brunt of his hideousness, assimilating all the signs of sin and the signs of age within it.
A horrible misdeed, followed by exacerbated guiltlessness reveal to Dorian that his wish has been fulfilled, and that the marks of his misdoings will henceforth be etched on his portrait instead of on him. This begins Dorian’s fall from grace and entry into the world of immorality, as he commits sin after sin, knowing fully well that these evils will mar only his portrait and his soul, but will not touch his ever-beautiful face.
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY – IMMORAL?
One of the major discussions that stemmed from the publication of this book is how is it that Wilde chose to put forward such immorality in a work of art? Wilde explains this beautifully in his curt, yet powerful preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. He writes:
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. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.
It is not on the subject matter of this book that we can choose to criticise, as the artist (in this case, Wilde) has carved a field of multiple interpretations. Wilde only subtly points out instances of immorality to make you realise what morality is, without force-feeding you ideas of what is right or what is wrong in the process.
I for one do not see how The Picture of Dorian Gray propagates any form of immorality. As readers, we sympathise with the symbolic downfall of our hero, who becomes a sort of anti-hero as he delves deeper into the world of vice. We wait for some kind of redemption for Dorian, who at various points in the book shows that he has deep regrets for things he has done in the past. As Dorian reaches a point of no return, with blood on his hands, we are not only completely horrified, but heartbroken. How does that glorify immoral acts?
Wilde reveals that pure beauty lies not only in the face or in physical immortality, but in actions. The misdeeds Dorian indulges in, most of which are merely insinuated in the book, rebound during the climax and denouement, where the protagonist seeks to destroy all traces of his hideous secret.
Indifference, opium dens, murder, and a host of other evils that we are left to wonder about are just some of the facets that Wilde chooses to show us about the life of the otherwise ‘incorruptible’ Dorian Gray. There is no manner in which these acts are shown to be beautiful, providing a strong contrast to the physical beauty of Dorian himself. Whilst Dorian remains youthful and untainted as the years fly by, his horrible actions grow worse, corrupting not only himself, but affecting the lives of others close to him.
Wilde shows there is nothing glorious in misdeeds, and that in the end, this leads to the symbolically Faustian fate that mars the life of the ‘beautiful’ Dorian Gray.
This is definitely a book I would recommend. It is filled with Wilde’s wit and humour, as well as some very significant questions about life, age and morality. The characters are beautifully fleshed out and there are many moments that feel sinister, yet utterly atmospheric, and highly irresistible while reading. Though the book could offend some readers (though I doubt it could in this day and age), it is also likely to satisfy debates about the meaning of beauty and age.
For Wilde’s sake – do not judge the book based solely on its content. It is meant to be read, not torn apart bit to bit by people who do not know that it is not meant to be the end-all statement on what is moral and immoral in life. Judge it merely as a work of art – ‘l’art pour l’art’ – without anything else in between. It is written wittily, beautifully, and is a pure work of art, without a doubt.
Pure art is not created in the pursuit of effect and action. It is what the artist releases as part of his or her innermost emotions. It is only meant to be a testament of the artist’s thoughts and expressions. When I look at the book in this manner, I can completely agree with what Wilde says at the end of his provocative preface – “All art is quite useless” – and it truly is.