Here is another entry into the U.L.S., the Underground Library Society by Robbie Cheadle, a long-time member of this unofficial group. I am honored that Robbie Cheadle has written another entry–this one on The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.
To Robbie: thank you!
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gothic novel written by Oscar Wilde and first published in April 1890.
The book opens on with painter, Basil Hallward, a sensitive soul, painting a portrait of a young man of extraordinary good looks called Dorian Gray. Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton is observing Basil adding the final touches to the painting and comments that it is Basil’s best work.
Lord Henry takes an interest in Dorian, a remarkably good looking but shallow young man, and sets about influencing him with his believes that beauty and the pursuit of personal pleasure are the only things in life worth pursuing.
Basil gifts the painting to Dorian who makes a secret wish that the painting could age and change on his behalf and that he, Dorian, could retain his good looks for the rest of his life.
Under the warped influence of Lord Henry, Dorian sets out to explore every emotion and sensation life has to offer, regardless of the cost to others. He meets a beautiful young actress, Sybil Vane, and falls in love with her amazing renditions of the various heroines in Shakespeare’s plays, in particularly the tragic roles. He purposefully meets Sybil and declares his love for her. A young and easily influenced girl from a poor family, Sybil falls in love with Dorian, and it impacts on her acting, rendering her quite unable to perform. Dorian rejects her and Sybil commits suicide in her anguish. After this tragedy, Dorian views the painting and see a sneer of cruelty around the portrait’s mouth. He realises that his wish for eternal youth and beauty has come true.
Influenced by a book provided by Lord Henry, Dorian sets out on a path of debauchery and sin, influencing other young men and women to accompany him in his heinous behaviours. As his life progresses, the painting becomes more and more hideous.
The quote below describes the degeneration of Dorian’s soul as depicted by the painting:
“Often, on returning home from one of those mysterious and prolonged absences that gave rise to such strange conjecture among those who were his friends, or thought that they were so, he himself would creep upstairs to the locked room, open the door with the key that never left him now, and stand, with a mirror, in front of the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him, looking now at the evil and aging face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass. The very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense of pleasure. He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age. He would place his white hands beside the coarse bloated hands of the picture, and smile. He mocked the misshapen body and the failing limbs.
There were moments, indeed, at night, when, lying sleepless in his own delicately scented chamber, or in the sordid room of the little ill-famed tavern near the docks which, under an assumed name and in disguise, it was his habit to frequent, he would think of the ruin he had brought upon his soul with a pity that was all the more poignant because it was purely selfish. But moments such as these were rare. That curiosity about life which Lord Henry had first stirred in him, as they sat together in the garden of their friend, seemed to increase with gratification. The more he knew, the more he desired to know. He had mad hungers that grew more ravenous as he fed them.”
The introductory chapters to this book set the stage for the plot extremely well as it gives a lot of insight into the characters of the three men at that point in time.
Basil is clearly sensitive and creative, an excellent artist and a lover of beauty. Dorian’s angelic looks have captivated him to a point where he is obsessed by the concept and illusion of this young man he has created in his own mind. His painting of Dorian is his attempt to capture the beauty and goodness he believes he perceives in his subject. Basil is delighted by the painting which he believes does justice to the characteristics he has attributed to Dorian.
Basil is also a man of strong morals and principles. All his characteristics are demonstrated by the following quote:
“You don’t understand me, Harry,” answered the artist. “Of course I am not like him. I know that perfectly well. Indeed, I should be sorry to look like him. You shrug your shoulders? I am telling you the truth. There is a fatality about all physical and intellectual distinction, the sort of fatality that seems to dog through history the faltering steps of kings. It is better not to be different from one’s fellows. The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit at their ease and gape at the play. If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat. They live as we all should live–undisturbed, indifferent, and without disquiet. They neither bring ruin upon others, nor ever receive it from alien hands. Your rank and wealth, Harry; my brains, such as they are–my art, whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray’s good looks–we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly.”
Lord Henry Wotton is a self-centred and egotistical man. Spoiled due to his life of wealth, privilege and idleness, Lord Henry proclaims himself to be a hedonist who believes the pursuit of personal pleasure is the most important thing in life. He is a clever man who has channelled his brilliant mind into devising fascinating, poisonous and ill-conceived theories to support his shallow and selfish beliefs. Despite his long ramblings in support of his ridiculous notions about life, he is not actually a bad man and does not indulge in sordid or criminal behaviour. In fact, he believes that criminal activity belongs exclusively in the realm of those he deems to be the lower orders of humanity.
Unfortunately, Lord Henry is charming and worldly in addition to being a great, albeit misguided, intellect and he easily influences the weak and spineless Dorian Gray with his radical theories.
The following quote is an example of one of Lord Henry’s speeches:
““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 realize 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 had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion – these are the two things that govern us. And yet […] I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream – I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all maladies of medievalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal – to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. […] We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. … 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.””
Dorian Gray is a weak character with not ambition to do anything useful with his life. The reader quickly realises that Basil’s romantic ideas about the young man are mere fancies, and that Dorian is not actually a very nice person. He is aware of his beauty right from the beginning of the book, and is very vain, but he is not aware of its lack of durability. It is Lord Henry who draws Dorian’s attention to the fact that beauty and youth are short lived.
Consider this quote:
“The painter considered for a few moments. “He likes me,” he answered after a pause; “I know he likes me. Of course I flatter him dreadfully. I find a strange pleasure in saying things to him that I know I shall be sorry for having said. As a rule, he is charming to me, and we sit in the studio and talk of a thousand things. Now and then, however, he is horribly thoughtless, and seems to take a real delight in giving me pain. Then I feel, Harry, that I have given away my whole soul to some one who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day.””
Is The Picture of Dorian Gray worth reading?
The painting in this story, effectively depicts Dorian’s soul or true self. As Dorian sinks deeper and deeper into a life of debauchery and sin, the effects of his actions show on the portrait making it uglier and uglier. For me, the effect of sin on the painting is an effective metaphor for the effect of selfishness and I-concentric behaviour on our own souls.
In our modern world of excessive consumption, I think this lesson is still vitally important. Mankind needs to look beyond individual wants and desires and set about earnestly saving our wildlife and natural environment as well as uplifting and education disadvantaged people.
In addition, from my personal perspective, I loved the skilful and beautiful writing (although it does require extra concentration effort as the descriptive paragraphs are long and intricate) and an interesting storyline in addition to its focus on questionable ideals that still dominate our society.
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