Friday, April 24, 2009

Dorian Gray

Was it really true that one could never change? He felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood-- his rose-white boyhood, as Lord Henry had once called it. He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy in being so; and that of the lives that had crossed his own, it had been the fairest and the most full of promise that he had brought to shame. But was it all irretrievable? Was there no hope for him?

Ah! in what a monstrous moment of pride and passion he had prayed that the portrait should bear the burden of his days, and he keep the unsullied splendour of eternal youth! All his failure had been due to that.
- Oscar Wilde (p. 164, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde, was published in April 1891. The novel tells of a young man named Dorian Gray, the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is greatly impressed by Dorian's physical beauty and becomes strongly infatuated with him, believing that his beauty is responsible for a new mode in his art. Talking in Basil's garden, Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton, a friend of Basil's, and becomes enthralled by Lord Henry's world view. Espousing a new kind of hedonism, Lord Henry suggests that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and the fulfilment of the senses. And so Gray, it appears, becomes a sort of Faust, and that evening he goes to the opera with his Mephistopheles, Lord Henry. In the following days, Wotton indeed proves a “bad influence,” for Dorian begins following him in the pursuit of pleasure for the sake of pleasure. They engage in scandalous activities which erode Dorian’s innocence. Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian cries out, expressing his desire to sell his soul to ensure that the portrait Basil has painted of him would age rather than himself. Dorian's wish is fulfilled, subsequently plunging him into a series of debauched acts. The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin being displayed as a disfigurement of his form, or through a sign of aging.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a classic example of the Victorian novel and one of those books that can effect the reader in a powerful and unique way. The idea of selling your soul to the devil, like Faust as related by Marlowe, Goethe and others is an image that intrigues. But there is in Wilde the focus on the purity of innocence (as seen in the passage quoted above) that is lost as one lives a life, whether filled with licentiousness or mere everyday experience. Wilde gives the story his own imprimatur with the artistic twist and thus adds to the evidence of his genius that includes the drama, stories, poetry and criticism that he created.

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems & Essays. Perennial Library, 1989.


candyschultz said...

I love Wilde so much and this is one of my favorites. Since I have always looked younger than I am by quite a bit I always say I have a picture in my attic.

You are so right about the erosion of innocence as one gets older. You would have to live as a hermit in a cave to hold on to innocence in today's world. During the Victorian era it might have lasted a bit longer.

James said...

Innocence also seems to be inversely related to knowledge, whether it is the symbolized by the serpent (which pops up in Green Mansions) or the contrast between innocence and experience, good and evil, as depicted nowhere better than by Melville in Billy Budd.

candyschultz said...

Ah Melville. I have an aversion to him without having ever read him. Which really makes me a philistine I know. Someday I will get to him. Perhaps I should start with Billy Budd on the basis that it is shorter than Moby Dick which I do have.

James said...

Yes, Billy Budd is a good place to start along with his other short works, like Bartleby or Benito. Eventually you might consider Ahab and the Whale.

candyschultz said...

On your advice I will do that. Thanks.