Monday, 24 October 2011

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)

The sad irony of pictures is that they always remain young while we grow old.  Wouldn't be better if it was the other way around?  That our portrait should age and wither and bear the mark of our sins and vices while we continue youthful and unblemished is an interesting, though shallow idea.  For Dorian Gray, wealthy member of Victorian London society, it becomes reality owing to a grotesque wish. He becomes a man who never ages and no matter what he indulges in, his face and body always remained as unlined as unscarred as an innocent young man on the doorstep of life.   His portrait, on the other hand, must be kept hidden away from human view because it becomes a testament to the awful state of Dorian's soul

An author often places himself, or at least part of himself, in his works and it's interesting to speculate on whether, how much and into whom Oscar Wilde placed himself in this novel.  It would be very easy to dismiss this book as some sort of veiled autobiography or self-portrait of Wilde just as it would to slap the label "horror fiction" on it and leave it at that.  In fact, Dorian Gray is a complex work that often vanishes under Wilde's premise and his tendency to lumber the text with far too many artistic airs and self-indulgent passages that come across as mere word play.

Dorian Gray is more than a bogey story about an ageless youth or one about a bohemian who hides behind a mask of respectability.  Dorian is more than a mere rack.  He is a man who at a very young age falls under the sway of Sir Henry Wooton; a cynic with a gift for epigrams who covers his utter disdain for the human race with an unending stream of provocative, yet utterly vacuous remarks.  Most people quite rightly dismiss him as an upper class ass, but Dorian takes him seriously and Sir Henry delights in having a protégée whom he can lead astray.  Dorian, on the other hand, thinks he's found a philosophy of life and soon becomes an epicurean of the most extreme liver who embraces a life dedicated to pure sensation and personal fulfilment. Some of this takes the form of artistic extravagances of collecting jewels or studying tapestry.  Others are indulgences of the most hideous vices and low corruption.  And over all of this is a complete self-centredness; the "individuality of sin" that Wilde points out is it chief attraction.

What makes this particularly interesting is that Dorian is eventually revealed as having lost any sort of moral compass.  He spurns a young actress to the point of suicide because she gave a sub-standard performance as if she were a toy that had ceased to please.   He is forever accepting emotional or moral aid from people, yet has none to give in return as he uses or corrupts those around him.  Even when he tries to reform, it is merely another self-indulgence and posturing for effect.  He is, in other words, a man whose face hasn't just remained young.  He is a person who has never and can never mature.  He is C S Lewis's good egg that never hatches, so it must go bad.  In that way, The Picture of Dorian Gray rises comfortably to the level of literature by dealing with a universal about sin and redemption that sits as uncomfortably with the faculty of a modern English Lit faculty as innocence did with Sir Henry and Dorian.

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