The picture of Dorian Gray
“There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral—immoral from the scientific point of view.”
“Because 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 not 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. The aim of life is self-development. To realise one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one’s self. Of course they are charitable. They feed the hungry, and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it.”
In 1890, Oscar Wilde’s first and only novel was published in Philadelphia-based Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, at the request of its editor, who offered a dinner in London, bringing together Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle on a mission to produce stories for the periodical.
Prescient about criticism, the editor removed 500 words from the novel’s original version, which could be assumed as sexual or homo affective content, yet some bookstores still refused to distribute that month’s edition.
But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place.
Wilde was already acknowledged at the time, as a journalist, essayist and poet; having attended Trinity College Dublin and Magdalen College Oxford, he also won the sympathy of the academic milieu and began to have fame and literary projection for his witty playwrighting and elaborated comedies of manners.
The publication of the novel in a book form followed with repeated alterations in search for a ceasefire with the critics, to whom Wilde elegantly replied in a preface that became iconic as a manifesto of art for art’s sake, free from moral interpretations and causalities.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Dorian Gray, the main character of the plot, is no less mysterious and complex for us readers than for the entire fictional cast of the novel.
A young heir of the British aristocracy, endowed with rare beauty and fascinating personal magnetism, introduced to London high society by none less than a prominent painter who idolizes and makes him the muse of his art and by a cynical intellectual mentor, epigrammatic speecher who openly defends the supremacy of experience over reason, satisfaction of the senses and pursuit of pleasure, although frustrated for denying his own passions and impulses.
“Pleasure is the only thing worth having a theory about,” he answered, in his slow, melodious voice. “But I am afraid I cannot claim my theory as my own. It belongs to Nature, not to me. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy.”
“To be good is to be in harmony with one’s self,” he replied, touching the thin stem of his glass with his pale, fine-pointed fingers. “Discord is to be forced to be in harmony with others. One’s own life—that is the important thing.“
Under these influences, Dorian falls in love with the charm of his own youth and beauty, portrayed by the painter in a masterpiece, and surrenders to the life of experience beyond moral judgment and the unbridled pursuit of pleasure associated with sensations. Not only does he want that fate, but fortune allows it, since he brings together, at his disposal, three essential conditions:
- Inherited wealth and social status.
- Physical beauty and personal charm.
- Eternal and immaculate youth, granted in a fantastic bargain, when he, at the height of his vanity, futility and immaturity, offers his soul in exchange for adamant, irreproachable appearance.
“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. . . . If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”
“I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me, and gives something to it. Oh, if it were only the other way! If the picture could change, and I could be always what I am now! Why did you paint it?”
“But, if one lives merely for one’s self, one pays a terrible price for doing so?”
“Yes, we are overcharged for everything nowadays. I should fancy that the real tragedy of the poor is that they can afford nothing but self-denial. Beautiful sins, like beautiful things, are the privilege of the rich.”
Dorian watches with painful anguish the degeneration and decay of his living soul, trapped in the portrait. Let us remember the pact.
He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sins; that the painted image might be seared with the lines of suffering and thought, and that he might keep all the delicate bloom and loveliness of his then just conscious boyhood.
His façade remains pure and unblemished and there are countless situations in which his appearance or a stroke of luck saves his skin from any type of retaliation or punishment. He is invulnerable and immortal in his lack of consideration and compassion. For those who do not see the consequences of their actions, self-indulgence is absolute.
But Dorian owns a portrait…
There is something fatal about a portrait. It has a life of its own.
A picture that reveals the corruption of his soul, the gravity and the consequence of his actions, as well as his most concealed excuses and hypocrisy.
The surface seemed to be quite undisturbed, and as he had left it. It was from within, apparently, that the foulness and horror had come. Through some strange quickening of inner life the leprosies of sin were slowly eating the thing away. The rotting of a corpse in a watery grave was not so fearful.
Dorian is not only vanity, arrogance and disdain, he also suffers some level of martyrdom. Hidden in his childhood room, the portrait denounces him, not to the eyes of the world, but to his own judgment.
For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.
The portrait is his conscience.
The picture, changed or unchanged, would be to him the visible emblem of conscience.
The burden of his sins, if they exist, are unbearable for Dorian’s conscience; the dichotomy between good and evil, the core of his existence. He wants to be good and start a new life, the freshness of the dawn. But, something prevents him – his anxiety of conscience.
For Dorian, it is not possible to start again with the weight of his past eroding his portrait, eating his soul away. A past that began long before the picture, in the tragedy and lack of love of his childhood, in the snobbish, pompous insanity of his peers, in the privilege and self-absorption of his status. How much did he corrupt, how much was he corrupted?
The picture of Dorian Gray, in the light of its time, was an insurgent, controversial and damned work. If there were still bonfires, it would have been burned, in public square, for indecent exposure – “gross indecency”.
Who was exposed? The novel’s fictional characters, the writer, the readers, the critics, the society, the human frailties?
Indecent exposure – gross indecency.
The picture of Dorian Gray is a work of magnificent consistence and strength, beautifully written, sharply critical, caustically lucid; an ode, not to perversion, but to the intricacies of human vulnerabilities and conscience. It was representative of its age, but with universal appeal.
Wilde took his highway to hell, soon after its publication, at the peak of his literary career. He was defamed, convicted for sodomy, arrested and jailed for two years. The Picture of Dorian Gray was used on trial, as evidence against him.
Actual life was chaos, but there was something terribly logical in the imagination. It was the imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin. It was the imagination that made each crime bear its misshapen brood. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak.
Wilde never recovered. He died in Paris at 46, far from his family, in poverty, using another name.
He aimed to start anew. Perhaps he found redemption, in the immaculate portrait he left through his work.
Shallow sorrows and shallow loves live on. The loves and sorrows that are great are destroyed by their own plenitude.
Reference: Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (Wisehouse Classics – with original illustrations by Eugene Dété). Wisehouse. Kindle Edition.