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The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Seduction of the Reader
"To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim," writes Oscar Wilde in the famous preface of his classic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. One might find it a bit ironic the fact that posterity always has looked upon this book as being more or less an autobiography.
Wilde was surrounded by scandals until his death, stirring the strict, Victorian society he lived in with his homosexual bent and libertine views on life. The Picture of Dorian Gray was therefore also regarded by many people as "highly immoral" and has probably earned the title "classic" years after the author's death.
With rarely less than two cogent aphorisms per page, it is hard not finding myriads of subtle meanings in the text, why I am only focusing on the main themes I found interesting.
The obsession of aestheticism and beauty runs all through the story in a kind of contradictory way. Oscar Wilde states in the preface:
"Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope."
With this he means that one should not, for example, judge a piece of art on a moral basis; the art is only there for being aesthetically admired and one should only be enchanted with its beauty, not let oneself be misled by a deeper idea behind it.
At the same time, he lets his protagonist Dorian Gray suffer the penalty for his narcissistic behaviour by killing him off at the end of the book, giving the reader the opposite message - that beauty after all is nothing to strive for. Also, Wilde lets the painting of Dorian become a symbol of the young man's degeneration, showing very well the immorality of his life through a work of art. It is like Wilde means to tell us that art indeed has its important place among people, and beauty is seducing to the viewer. However it is temporary, dangerous, and powerful enough to spoil the life of a man. One must know how to look upon beauty to be able to love it without succumbing to it. As Oscar Wilde was a confirmed aesthete himself, this conclusion may appear paradoxical, but it should be mentioned that not much in this book is not.
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"The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely," asserts Wilde, and this turns on to another apparent theme in the book, being the main characters' idea of living for pleasure. "I have never searched for happiness," says Lord Henry Wotton. "Who wants happiness? I have searched for pleasure." It is Lord Henry who best impersonates this pursuit for indulgence, leading a true upper-class dandy life where every act is superfluous and beauty is exalted for being the most important matter in life. One may be inefficient, idle, unwise, sinful or just indifferent to the important issues of life, as long as one fully enjoys it - this both being a fresh idea of individuality given to the stiff society of Wilde's time, and the advice triggering Dorian Gray's personal decline. Since Henry believes that the only aim in life is self-development and that satisfaction of all desires is the only thing that counts, he draws the conclusion that conscience and morality are the two main obstacles that keep people away from achieving these goals. That man's vices could be justified in such a shallow way was one of the main reasons the book was considered immoral by the author's contemporaries. But Lord Henry's always very sharp observations must also be seen as greatly invigorating and perhaps Wilde's attempt to stress on individuality and complexity.
In the beginning of the novel, when Lord Henry first meets Dorian, he states:
"...to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him."
This is an interesting assertion, because later on Lord Henry himself turns into the Bad Influence, pulling the boy's strings. The more time the two spend together, the more Dorian is affected by Henry's striking statements and is gradually transformed until barely nothing remains of his own personality. Henry's vices become Dorian's and as a reader, one starts to wonder which words or thoughts are really Dorian's and not just something Henry has put into his head. This all shows the feebleness of the mind; how easy it is to unconsciously be controlled by others, mixing other people's impressions and thoughts with one's own, never being able to tell the difference.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, reality sometimes appears strangely unreal. There seems to be an invisible surrealistic filter attached to each and every page, as if Dorian's opium fumes also intoxicates the reader from time to time. It is indeed a fairy tale, although it may take a while before one notices that. It does not contain princes (well, Prince Charmings, that would be...) or frogs, but it has enough mysticism and symbolism in it to obtain a saga-like atmosphere. It also includes the moral of a fairy tale, however it is far more complex than in a children's story and one might have to look carefully to pick the right one; there seems to be several.
Besides the book's message that I, going against Wilde, have tried to take out, one cannot escape the fact that The Picture of Dorian Gray is also a very entertaining novel. Briefly, the plot goes as follows:
After have met the painter Basil Hallward, who is absolutely fascinated by the young man's untouched beauty and his innocence, Dorian Gray is sitting for a portrait in the artist's studio.
One day Dorian, easily suggestible because of his youth, is introduced to Basil's cynical friend Lord Henry Wotton. Dorian becomes more and more dependent on this charismatic man and Lord Henry becomes in many ways a mentor, spitting out wisdom and maxims.
When Dorian's portrait is finished and he gets to look at it, he realizes for the first time his own beauty and is more or less entranced by it. He makes a thoughtless wish that the picture will grow old and bear the burden of his sins, while he himself will remain young and beautiful.
As Lord Henry, who is convinced that conscience is more a weight than a support in life, quite unwarily strengthens his bad influence over the young man, it becomes clear that the wish has been realized. Dorian starts living a life filled with corruption and lies, and as the years pass, he stays youthful, while the face on the canvas alters with every new iniquity, turning crueler and crueler.
It is usually the dialogues, often between Lord Henry and Dorian, that carry the story forward. Every word coming out of the apathetic but witty Henry is wicked and hilarious, it is also from him most of the paradoxes that so significantly color the text originate. I could give an endless list of examples, why a single one would not do them justice.
I want to BE Lord Henry. I know I am cynical, but I think I will how to work on my maxims...
The Picture of Dorian Gray is to be considered as nothing but a masterpiece and not many books have impressed and bewildered me as this one. I would have loved to read it when it was first published in 1891, to see what all the fuss was about. I would probably have appreciated it even more then.
Good books that I have read are commonly divided into two groups; badly written ones with a fantastic message or literary pleasures with a total lack of meaning. The Picture of Dorian Gray belongs to none of these. It is amazing how much Oscar Wilde has to say and how well he does it.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an ardent novel, filled with love, death, sin and dark human psychology. Nonetheless, it is very elegant and it does not jump onto you in any way, rather you are sucked into it through seducing wordings. If dear ole Oscar was alive today, I would not say no to a long chat with the man - Can they speak, I wonder, those white silent people we call the dead?