"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

October 5, 2011

"The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

Oscar Wilde published his only novella, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in 1891. It is the story of "beautiful boy' Dorian Gray, who is taken under the wing of the cynical Lord Henry, who teaches him how to be a cruel hedonist - the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of the senses, he teaches.

Dorian has had his picture painted by artist Basil Hallward, who is infatuated with him, and succeeds in creating a masterwork. Seeing his youthful self on canvas, Dorian wishes that he may always remain young, instead the picture should grow old. Dorian's wish is magically fulfilled...

Under the evil influence of Lord Henry, he plunges himself into debauched acts. He first leads a young actress to her doom, then destroys the lives of several young men. He also becomes a visitor to the opium dens of London. Each time when he views his portrait (carefully hidden from the gaze of others), he sees the effect such acts have had on his soul - the face in the portrait grows dark, cruel and mean. But he himself feels no remorse, or even responsibility.

Finally, Dorian will become a murderer, killing Basil who irritates him with his moralizing, and himself hunted by the brother of the actress who seeks revenge. And then the only solution is the destruction of the portrait...

This is a typical fin-de-siecle melodrama, as intricate as a chalice by Lalique and ultimately as superficial. Dorian Gray leads a double life, like a second Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. But he is totally uninteresting, a type and not a character. I also couldn't care less for his concern of keeping his young looks - it is by growing and developing themselves that human beings become interesting, not by preserving a baby face.

What pulled me through the book were the witty conversations of Lord Henry, who speaks in epigrams and whose every word would fit in a collection of quotations. He glitters in the conversations with Dorian Gray, but even more so at social occasions as dinner parties, and is like a character in one of Wilde's plays as Lady Windermere's Fan. Here are a few (I only endorse the second one about laughter; the third one serves to show how misogynistic the novel is):
"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." 
"Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world's original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, History would have been different."
"My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals." 

There are many editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray available, but it can also be found on Gutenberg or in a free audio-version. It has been countless times adapted for the screen.