Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray

In anticipation of reading Richard Ellmann’s much-acclaimed biography of Oscar Wilde, I have been working my way through his poems and plays, either refreshing my memory or encountering, for the first time, the works that justify his fame. Among the latter group, I am ashamed to admit, was his novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray, whose brevity made it a favourite choice for my high school classmates during book reports; it has taken me more than a decade to forget the impressions they gave me, and come at it fresh. It’s fitting, as well, that this should be the last of his works I read before his biography, since, more than anything else he wrote, The Picture Of Dorian Gray played a pivotal role in his own life. When he was brought before a judge, charged with “gross indecency,” the prosecuting attorneys read from Gray, calling it a “sodomitical book” suggestive of its author’s low character. But lawyers, like politicians, make for poor literary critics: far from being immoral, The Picture Of Dorian Gray is a morality tale, written in the guise of a gothic crime novel.

The basic plot is widely known: a young and extraordinarily handsome man, Dorian Gray, makes a Faustian bargain, wishing that the blemishes of old age and decadence would mar a recent and incredibly life-like portrait of him, rather than his own face. “Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasure subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins – he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame: that was all.” Freed to pursue his life of hedonism and mindless pleasure, Gray becomes more and more self-centred, more and more immoral, and the portrait – which he hides in his attic, under a tarp – more and more hideously disfigured. Dorian is encouraged in his hedonism by Lord Henry Wotton, who is something of a stock character in Wilde, appearing, under different names, in some of his most famous plays, who “cuts life to pieces” with his epigrams. Here he is holding forth on the topic of morality:

T0 be g00d is to be in harmony with one’s self […]. Discord is to be forced in harmony with others. One’s own life – that is the important thing. As for the lives of one’s neighbours, if one wishes to be a prig or a Puritan, one can flaunt one’s moral views about them, but they are really not one’s concern. Modern morality consists in accepting the standard of one’s age. I consider that for any man of culture to accept the standard of his age is a form of the grossest immorality.

Need it be said that, however eloquently he expresses himself, Lord Henry is rationalizing a monstrous egocentrism? To harmonize oneself with society does entail a sacrifice, but it pales in comparison to the price paid by those living at odds with society, who treat their fellow men and women as mere means to an end, never modifying their behavior to accord with the wants and needs of others. Dorian Gray allows himself to be seduced by this logic, and becomes the living embodiment of Lord Henry’s philosophy; he is told by Lord Henry that he was “made to be worshipped,” and he comes to assume a position of god-like indifference to the suffering of others. Much later in the novel, when Gray has made giant strides towards the corruption of his soul, Wilde once again connects his immorality with individualism: “On his return he would sit in front of the picture, sometimes loathing it and himself, but filled, at other times, with that pride of individualism that is half the fascination of sin, and smiling, with secret pleasure, at the misshapen shadow that had to bear the burden that should have been his own.” A pure individualism, unfettered by concern for others, can take pride in anything, no matter how vulgar or base, because it is a manifestation of that same ego. Later, Wilde tells us, “there were moments when [Dorian] looked on evil simply as a mode through which he could realize his conception of the beautiful.” Morality, as it is traditionally conceived, cannot exist for a consistent individualist; it is, inherently, a social phenomenon.

At the novel’s close, after Dorian has committed murder, caused a young woman to commit suicide, blackmailed a friend and seduced scores of young men into social ruin, he comes to understand the price he has paid for his egocentrism: “‘I wish I could love,’ cried Dorian, with a deep note of pathos in his voice. ‘But I seem to have lost the passion, and forgotten the desire. I am too much concentrated on myself. My own personality has become a burden to me.'” Love, whose hallmarks are sacrifice and concern for others, cannot flower in the heart of a narcissist. And a man who cannot love cannot be loved. But the book’s most chilling message, to my mind, comes in the voice of Lord Henry, a vehicle for Wilde’s condemnation of his age, that echoes, disturbingly, in our own time:

You are the type of what the age is searching for, and what it is afraid it has found. I am so glad that you have never done anything, never carved a statue, or painted a picture, or produced anything outside of yourself! Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.

To produce anything – from a statue to a family – requires a commitment to something outside of oneself: to a person or an idea, a cause or a concept. All art is a labor of love, and, incapable of love, Dorian is incapable of creating. Dorian is, in Lord Henry’s estimation, a perfect product of their times, revolving endless upon himself – but only he can know how unlovely is the result.