The Picture of Dorian Gray: Forever Beautiful, or Forever Good?

Alt Text: Graphic of novel cover with article headline and journalist name.
Alt Text: Graphic of novel cover with article headline and journalist name.

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Would you give up your soul to remain beautiful forever?

There are so many ways one can describe this work by Oscar Wilde, the Irish playwright and poet. This work is primarily a tragedy, but it is also philosophical; it is elegant, and it will make you feel for the characters. It is a story of vanity, corruption, beauty, philosophy, murder, deadly devotion, and hypocrisy, all told elegantly and beautifully imaginable.

Oscar Wilde was most known for his wit among other notable characteristics, and he is also known best for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was published in 1891.

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This is the story of a young, innocent, and beautiful man. He is also incredibly naïve, and easy to influence. This is a trait of his that leads to his inevitable demise. More specifically, it is Dorian’s naïveté, paired with Lord Henry Wotton and his influence, a friend of artist Basil Hallward, who is a close friend of Dorian’s.

On the day that Dorian and Lord Henry first met, it was because of Basil Hallward’s portrait. Basil was a painter, and on that day, he was finishing his masterpiece: A portrait of his dear companion, Dorian Gray.

Lord Henry and Dorian met, and they talked for quite some time. It was mostly Lord Henry doing the talking, which is what Basil feared would happen. Basil knows that Lord Henry is a horrible influence, as he influences people in not-so-positive ways, and his ideologies are a bit controversial and problematic. Basil fears Henry will taint Dorian’s innocence and his ideologies, and unfortunately, this is the case.

Henry convinces Dorian, once the painting is finished, that it does not seem fair the portrait remains the best version of Dorian, forever. Dorian realizes: “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will always remain young.”

This was the first sign of the corruption of Dorian Gray’s soul. He wished he and the portrait could essentially switch roles, that he could remain forever young, while the portrait carries the burden of aging. As the saying goes, however, be careful what you wish for.

This sets up another motif for the rest of the story: Beauty versus morals. Is it better to be good and ugly? Or is it better to be beautiful, but horrible?

Oscar Wilde himself had very interesting views on life and society, especially when it came to English society. His views and ideologies can be seen throughout his works, especially this novel in particular. His beliefs when it came to art, in general, are the ones I find most interesting. Wilde is most known for quotes such as:

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last,” and, “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

Many of his views on art can be seen throughout the novel, and they are all (mainly) voiced by Lord Henry, which was an interesting choice made by Wilde. Henry focuses mainly on the aesthetic side of things, more than morals or principles. There was, however, a notable opinion voiced by Basil.

Basil, after finishing the greatest painting he has ever created, refuses to let anyone other than Henry or Dorian see it. He says, “…The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on colored canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown it in the secret of my soul.”

People would see that Basil holds Dorian in such high regard by looking at his work, and he does not want that. He prefers to keep the people he holds dear to himself: “It is like surrendering a part of them. I love secrecy.”

He is upset that critics viewed art as an autobiography of the artist. Oscar Wilde said something similar himself, similar being in the way he felt about art critics. He felt that critics should not look too much into the work, saying: “A critic should be taught to criticize a work of art without making any reference to the personality of the author.” and, “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it’s dead for you.”

Basil’s devotion to Dorian is a theme carried throughout the novel, mainly throughout the beginning and middle chapters, but is also a prominent theme throughout the story. This devotion was inevitably part of both Basil’s and Dorian’s downfall. He says to Dorian that he, “…worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.”

Basil and Dorian’s friendship and its consequences is, to me at least, part of why the story was tragic. Basil was also a favorite character of mine, and seeing him and Dorian’s friendship be torn apart was quite sad.

In the end, it was both Dorian and Basil who suffered, while Lord Henry got to live on. Of course, he had to live on without his friend and  “experiment,” but he got to live. While my feelings for this story are overwhelmingly positive, the one aspect I hate about it is Henry’s character overall, but not for a lack of being badly written. The one who started the corruption of Dorian’s soul, leading to the deterioration of his and Basil’s friendship, who had such shallow beliefs at times, got to live and go unpunished.

Along with incredibly well-written characters, Wilde’s work includes wonderful symbolism. Sometimes, the sentences or dialogue seem so simple, but they carry so much weight. Notable examples and my personal favorites include (the context being, Dorian is now even more corrupt, and there is no going back to who he used to be):

“Years ago, when I was a boy,” said Dorian Gray, crushing the flower in his hands…”, and, “The wind had blown the fog away, and the sky was like a monstrous peacock’s tail, starred with myriads (a great number) of golden eyes.”

Dorian crushing the flower symbolizes the innocence and beauty of his soul being crushed or destroyed, and it is irreversible. As for the fog, which is something that appears with Basil, and leaves with him as well, I believe it symbolizes (especially Basil) the “gray”, or the bit of “good” that was still left within Dorian. Once the flower is crushed, the fog is gone, and we can see the permanent damage that has been done.

As for the peacock sky, starred with many golden eyes, peacocks symbolize pride, and vanity. This is now Dorian, who was too prideful and cared too much about his beauty. The eyes could be a form of judgment, golden meaning divine usually, as in a “religious” sense, or just judgment in general.

The themes of The Picture of Dorian Gray, such as vanity, innocence, and influence are still themes that, if anything, have become only more relevant throughout time. Younger generations are becoming increasingly aware of things they shouldn’t be, some caring too much about their looks already.

Dorian feeling his only good quality was his beauty, and being taught by Henry that beauty was all that mattered, might be a relatable concept to some. Some may feel their only value lies in being beautiful and pleasing to others. Ultimately, being pleasant to look at has no value if you feel terrible about yourself, and it shouldn’t matter what others think of you, appearance-wise.

Social media, toxic friends, or those of another relation is the Lord Henry in this case, the one with power, influence, and shallow beliefs said so proudly and confidently. The duel between morality and beauty is something that will continue to evolve with time and go on.

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