One of the interesting things about reading classic novels without any formal training or even informal background in literature (I have taken exactly two literature classes in my life: one pathetic introductory course in high school and a decent introductory course in college) is that you bring only yourself to the book. I don’t approach most of these works (here is a list) with any preconceived notion about the work or the author. I don’t have a template for what the book is “about” or what it is “trying to say.”
This is particularly interesting when it comes to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Because most literary types have a particular view of Mr. Wilde and his writing and likely have a particular view as to the meaning of this book. I suspect that what you bring to the book has a big impact on your reaction/impression. You might want to keep this in mind for what follows as it is really just my initial reaction without a lot of knowledge of its author or its historiography. Spoilers ahead.
The plot at the heart of The Picture of Dorian Gray is not that complex. Dorian Gray is a young, and particularly attractive, English dandy. An artist, Basil Hallward, become enamored with him and paints his portrait – the best work of the artist’s life. In a fit of vanity Dorian wishes that the painting would bear the signs and burdens of age instead of him – he goes so far as to say that he would give his soul for such an arrangement. Unbeknownest to him at the time his wish is granted. The rest of the novel explores how Dorian deals with this unintended bargain.
The dust jacket of the version I read (Barnes and Noble Collector’s Library) the novel is compared to the story of Faust with the artist Basil Hallward portrayed as Dorian’s conscience and Lord Henry Wotton as his tempter. At the time, it was seen as a shocking portrait of the fashionable decadence of fin de siecle Europe. The Picture of Dorian Gray seems a mix of genres: Gothic horror story, drawing room comedy, and philosophical meditation on art and morals. One question that stood out to me was: does Wilde approve or disapprove of the moral anarchy of Dorian Gray?
This is of course not an easy question to answer, and I am certainly not a scholar or one knowledgeable enough to give a definitive answer, but I found the novel to be an interesting commentary on the dangers of decadence. What really drives Wotton to spout all of his revolutionary bon mots and to seek to push Dorian toward a dangerous, almost nihilistic, hedonism is boredom. And this boredom leads to decadence. Wotton has lost sight of the deeper meaning in life. His wealth and his social standing don’t require him to work and he has no interest in being a sort of industrialist or financier. He is conservative by nature but finds himself bored and listless so to make things interesting he weaves these fanciful theories about life and art – although it seems he really doesn’t live them out in his own life. Instead Dorian becomes his guinea pig. He is able to live vicariously through him and push and pull the strings with no danger to himself.
Dorian himself reveals that ideas have consequences. He becomes taken with his own beauty and, pushed by Wotton’s words and influence, he seeks out only his selfish wants and desires. He seems to believe that only sensations, only experiences, are real. The difficulty is that each new sensation eventually wears off and soon he must seek out a new drug – sometimes literally sometimes figuratively. Soon he finds that his perpetual youth is more of a curse than a blessing. The painting, rather than his own visage, reveals his moral lapses and growing degeneracy. Since it reflects the ugly side of his soul, Dorian grows to hate the painting and by extension its creator. Unfortunately, Dorian lacks the character to reverse his downward slide and so becomes embittered and melancholy. When Hallward confronts him Dorian murders him in a sudden rage.
What is interesting is that Dorian largely escapes the consequences of his actions. When he spurns the woman who loves him and she commits suicide he is not implicated thanks to his anonymity. When her enraged brother seeks him out he is able to escape not once but twice. The first time due to his youthful appearance and the second time thanks to a hunting accident. When he murders Basil Hallward he blackmails a former friend into disposing of the body and since Hallward was on his way to Paris no one suspects foul play until it is too late. Although Dorian’s reputation slowly deteriorates in certain circles, he is largely able to go on leading the life of luxury and ease that he seeks.
The problem is that his soul is dead. No matter what he seeks out (he takes up perfumes, jewels, priceless fabrics, even the liturgy of the Catholic Church) it leaves him cold and in search of a deeper meaning. It is this emptiness that begins to drive him mad. In the end he seeks to escape his trap by destroying the painting only to destroy himself.
In his afterword, Peter Harness insightfully ties this theme into the Aesthetic movement of which Wilde was a part. Harness discusses how “life loses its meaning when lived in a moral vacuum.” The Aesthetic movement rejected the Victorian view of art a social or moral tool and instead viewed art as simply an expression of beauty. In the novel Wotton pushed Dorian to take this theory to its extreme, arguing that life should, like art, should simply be lived for beauty’s sake – that life could be art. Despite Dorian’s seeming lack of regret or any real consequences, it becomes clear that this theory leads nowhere. As Harness puts it:
when experienced purely for its own sake, art is utterly unable to provide true happiness: that without a moral framework, it is “quite useless.”
In this way, I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a conservative book – a warning about the consequences of throwing off the restraints of morality and custom, of living only for pleasure. It is also a reflection of the consequences of social boredom and ennui and the resulting decadence.
This is an issue with resonance today. When you combine the lack of social meaning with an increasingly large leisure class, decadence is inevitably the result. Without the necessity to work long hours simply to survive and with most hard labor handled by machines today’s middle class is comparable to the upper classes of the nineteenth century. And since the social, moral, and religious foundations that give meaning to life have only been further eroded since that time, today’s culture finds itself in the same position as Dorian Gray. Rather than make a pact with the devil, people seek out plastic surgeons to look perpetually youthful. There are untold sources of sensation that the bored and socially isolated can seek out to numb the emptiness. Perhaps, the only difference is that hypocrisy is no longer necessary. Our decadence has progressed to the point where the hedonism and sensualism can be pursued in public; in fact it is in many ways the dominant component of our culture.
Well, enough of the social commentary. I found The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a entertaining and thought provoking work. The prose was florid at times, in the Gothic vein, and there were times when it dragged a bit (not to mention the fact that every single person “flung” themselves into various pieces of furniture, no one ever simple sat down) but overall it was a rewarding reading experience. It is a unique work and interesting reflection on a fascinating author and time period.