Lyceum — The Picture of Dorian Gray

The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.

The plot to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is simple, even cliche by modern standards, "A man makes a deal with a higher power to make his potrait grow old instead of himself, so that he may forever retain his youth." While uninstresting on the surface (at least to me), it's the lyrical storytelling, philosophical conversations and characters that really stood out to me throughout the book.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde reads similar to how I remember reading Albert Camus' works, it's a story seeded with philosophical ideas of the author conveyed through character dialogue, monologue, motivations and desires. In Camus' case, the major idea being Existentialism and in Wilde's, those of Aestheticism.

The Preface to the book consists of a series of epigrams and aphorisms about art. "Art for Art's Sake", the central slogan of the Aesthetic movement embodies the idea that art should not be used as a conduit to educate, moralize, judge or condone. It's purpose of existence is simply to admire and appreciate. The preface ends with a statement reinforcing the same idea with an artistic flourish.

All art is quite useless.

Here the word "useless" is used in the statement in it's literary form, that being "use-less", art doesn't have any "use", it simply exists to be admired, brilliant!

For a book that carries his name I found Dorian to be one of the least interesting characters in the book, it's the eppigramatic ideas of Lord Henry that exert their influence in encouraging a warm, simple and pure Dorian on his hedonistic path for constatnt pursuit for "new pleasures". During the first few chapters as both we and Dorian are introduced to these new radical ideas, Henry's monologues and conversations are endlessly fascinating, I couldn't get enough of them and only wanted more, but as the novel progressed and we see where his ideology has led Dorian, Lord Henry's ideas start seeming shallow, hollow and contradictory to his own actions.

One of the many reasons that the book was shunned during it's first publication was because of quiet references to homosexuality. The book was called indecent and unmanly. The nature of the relationship between Basil, Dorian and Lord Henry has hints of romance throughout the book. This must have shocked a Victorian reader because of the stout sense of respectability and dignity during that era, when homosexuality was regarded as a sin and was punishable by death (a tragedy that befell Wilde himself). Although Wilde never explicitly pens down the nature of the relationship, the language used by both Henry and Basil in their "devotion" to Dorian is unmistakably romantic. The closest thing to a confession is in the lines below

[Lord Henry:] “Tell me more about Mr Dorian Gray. How often do you see him?”

[Basil Hallward:] “Every day. I couldn’t be happy if I didn’t see him everyday. He is absolutely necessary to me.”

The Victorian Era's patriarchal influence is clear in the misogyny throughout the book. Women are treated as nothing more than property and aren't seen as anything more than shining objects for men. Lord Henry, someone whose ideas would be considered, radically sexist by modern standards, when talking to Dorian after the latter tells him that he has fallen in love with Sibyl Vane proclaims,

no woman is a genius: women are a decorative sex

Pretty shocking I know, one of the only things I did not like about the book.

An interesting parallel that can be drawn, is with the movie "Wolf of Wall Street", by Martin Scorsese. Both stories had similar critical reactions, they were denounced for glorifying "a life of excess". Both our main characters give into their hedonistic desires and get away with their actions whether they be cruel or immoral without any consequences or responsibilities. While this might seem to explain the backlash by critics, I belive both Scorsese and Wilde created their works to serve as cautionary tales. We see both characters having to deal with severe stress, existential dread and emotional crisis because of their actions throughtout their stories. While they choose to give into their vices and ego in the moment, they always suffer for it later. As readers/watches as well, their actions seem unempathetic, disgusting, shameful and horrible and hence the stories reveal their character both, themselves and us.

I leave with one of the many fascinating quotes in the book:

It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give us an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that. Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of the spectacle enthralls us.