Friday, May 14, 2021

A Faustian Bargain

The Picture of Dorian Gray"
The Picture of 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 splendor 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 titular Dorian Gray is a decadent dandy of the Victorian era. Concerned with little but appearances, he lives a reckless, nonproductive existence. A crucial event in his life occurs when Dorian meets Lord Henry Wotton in the studio of Basil Hallward, an artist, who has painted a portrait of the breathtakingly beautiful Dorian, now in his early twenties. Lord Wotton intrigues Dorian with his talk of the New Hedonism, which is reflected in the novel by Lord Henry’s giving Dorian a copy of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (1884; Against the Grain, 1922), a novel that articulates this philosophy, the basis of which is the achievement of a complete realization of one’s nature.

Espousing this 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. 

He is busy courting Sybil Vane, a talented young actress, who falls in love with him. Ironically, Sybil’s being in love with Dorian robs her of her ability to act. In time, the very ability that first drew Dorian to Sybil has disappeared, and he rejects her unfeelingly. Having lost Dorian and her acting ability almost simultaneously, Sybil kills herself. Lord Henry, Dorian’s Mephistopheles, convinces Dorian that, in line with the New Hedonism, Sybil’s suicide is an experience that will help him to feel life more intensely and that it can be viewed as nothing but a source of personal growth.

They continue to 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 the Faust story as related by Marlowe, Goethe and others, is an intriguing image.  But there is in Wilde's version a 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’s novel provoked considerable outrage when it was published. The tenets of the New Hedonism expressed in the book flew in the face of conventional morality to the point that readers were profoundly shocked. Despite these objections, the novel succeeded artistically and attracted many readers. 
Wilde gave the story his own imprimatur with the artistic twist and thus added to the evidence of his genius that includes the drama, stories, poetry and criticism that he created.


mudpuddle said...

i've known about this book for a very long time but haven't read it, mostly because i was a little afraid to, i think... i have a very vague memory of being badly frightened by the movie when i was small, and maybe that had something to do with it... anyway, your fine review reminded me a bit of the tales of the Count St. Germain, who was supposedly immortal, and the many different accounts of his activities...

James said...

The book surely can be frightening in some ways, but in spite of that the wonderful prose of Wilde seems to me to be worth taking a chance with it. I've also viewed the film version more than once although only as an adult. The performance of a very young Angela Lansbury as Sybil Vane is quite memorable (she was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Golden Globe for her supporting performance).

R's Rue said...

I need to read this book.

James said...

I agree with your thought. This is a book worth reading (and rereading).

Kathy's Corner said...

Victorian literature is a favorite genre of mine and your excellent review of The Portrait of Dorian Gray reminds me that I must read this novel before the year ends. I am curious about Oscar Wilde as well. The last few years of his life with the trial and going to jail must have been a nightmare. The Portrait of Dorian Gray has many themes and he may have put alot of his own struggles trying to live as a gay man in an intolerant culture into the book as well.

James said...

Thanks for some interesting observations. This is surely one of the great works of Victorian literature and, as such, I would suggest a comparison with Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The psychological aspects of both are tremendous, providing fodder for the incipient Freudians of the oncoming century.