Reflections: A Picture of Dorian Grey

Art by: Unknown (( please leave a comment if you do know so I may credit ! ))

Throughout my later adolescent life and early adulthood, I gorged on classic literature; from the sordid angst of ‘Madame Bovary’ to the, admittedly dry, journey of ‘Dante’s Inferno’. Some novels I hated some I loved. Some, even now, stand out in memory though I have not read them since that first time. In particular, there is ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’. This was the first work of Oscar Wilde I read and found myself immediately enthralled by his way with words. Writing that flows, has a rhythm and grace of its own beyond base description and dialogue. I do not know if I was more enamored with the story he told or how he told it.

Encountering such a style fundamentally altered my own approach to writing. Where before I considered description in terms of the concrete, my eyes were now opened to a whole other way of seeing things. While I understand much of Wilde’s style can be attributed to a standard of writing pervasive in his era of life, it inspired a hunger to improve my own writing in a way other works had not.

“He is all my art to me now,” said the painter, gravely. “I sometimes think, Harry, that there are only two eras of any importance in the world’s history. The first is the appearance of a new medium for art, and the second is the appearance of a new personality for art also. What the invention of oil-painting was to the Venetians, the face of Antinous was to late Greek sculpture, and the face of Dorian Gray will someday be to me. It is not merely that I paint from him, draw from him, sketch from him. Of course I have done all that. But he is much more to me than a model or a sitter. I won’t tell you that I am dissatisfied with what I have done of him, or that his beauty is such that Art cannot express it. There is nothing that Art cannot express, and I know that the work I have done, since I met Dorian Gray, is good work, is the best work of my life. But in some curious way – I wonder will you understand me?- his personality has suggested to me an entirely new manner in art, an entirely new mode of style. I see things differently, I think of them differently, I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before. ‘A dream of form in days of thought:’ – who is it who says that? I forget; but it is what Dorian Gray has been to me. The merely visible presence of this lad – for he seems to me little more than a lad, though he is really over twenty – his merely visible presence – ah! I wonder can you realize all that that means? Unconsciously he defines for me the lines of a fresh school, a school that is to have in it all the passion of the romantic spirit, all the perfection of the spirit that is Greek. The harmony of soul and body – how much that is! We in our madness have separated the two, and have invented a realism that is vulgar, an ideality that is void. Harry! If you only knew what Dorian Gray is to me! You remember that landscape of mine for which Agnew offered me such a huge price, but which I would not part with? It is one of the best things I have ever done. And why is it so? Because, while I was painting it, Dorian Gray sat beside me. Some subtle influence passed from him to me, and for the first time in my life I saw in the plain woodland the wonder I had always looked for, and always missed.”
– Oscar Wilde, ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ Pgs. 11 – 12

Basil’s dialogue with Harry about Dorian Gray was my first encounter with seeing a muse described. Before then it wasn’t something I understood to exist in writing or in art. Beyond that, this is, I think, one of my favorite moments in the early part of the book. Despite my unfamiliarity with a muse, I could, in a way, understand what was being said. After all, reading the book left me with the most intense hunger to be able write like that and evoke such profound, I suppose feeling with words the way Wilde was able to achieve.

It was also about this time in their discussion that Harry’s irreverence really began to sink in. He is, to me, a hedonist. I found it curious, how he seemed to seek only pleasure or entertainment from life. While many of his statements were profound to a degree, I found them to be interestingly rationalized. Excuses, justifications for his amoral actions, although I do not think he was truly a bad person. In comparison to Basil, and his rose colored idealism, Harry is almost shockingly down to earth. Well, as down to earth as any aristocrat could be, I suppose. Lord Henry Wotton, Harry, an incorrigible character who seems to delight in pulling Dorian Gray from the pedestal Basil sets him upon. Almost from their very first interaction, it was as if he settled himself in pruning every bit of extraneous naivety and innocence he could find out of the young man.

“There’s no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral – immoral from the scientific point of view.” 

“There’s no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral – immoral from the scientific point of view.” “Why?” 

“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.”

 ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ Pg. 20

The irony of Lord Henry’s statement is galling even now. What better way to hook someone in than to completely refute things society accepts as common, normal even? I was terribly frustrated when watching Harry break down Dorian, but fascinated as well. There’s just something interesting about watching characters break, watching what once was picked apart – or perhaps it is so simple as uncovering something always there, but hidden.

Either way, Lord Henry’s role in this novel as something of a ‘should devil’ is irrefutable. He was a catalyst through which Dorian could be thoroughly corrupted, and poor, poor Basil, losing his muse to such darkness. Perhaps neither of them were meant to present such a dichotomy, but I cannot help but to see it. In a way, I wonder if the entire thing isn’t a commentary on human nature.

What would we all do, if offered freedom from repercussion? If we would not (could not) die; if we never aged? Is it in human nature to remain upstanding, righteous – admittedly naïve even – when faced with such power? I admit, I am somewhat jaded to as to the existence of inherent goodness, so I can definitely see where most people would give in. Perhaps not at first, but as one watches family, friends, or children age and fade and die – what would be left? What would fasten a person to humanity, to humility when all they have is themselves and their secrets?

All of this brings me to the most fascinating plot point in A Picture of Dorian Gray, his portrait. Basil claimed it as his greatest achievement yet, feared it for how much of himself was in it, feared it for how much of Dorian’s essence he captured. I have heard that people once believed painting portraits, like making dolls and taking photographs, could steal the subject’s soul, trap it on the mortal plain. While I think many of these were whispered by fear of drawing ghosts after death, I find Wilde’s more literal translation of that so very interesting. It wasn’t something I had read as a plot in anything before this novel.

I adore the concept of a portrait which takes on the true essence of a person, reflects their soul to them. I dread what this would do to a person, however. It is difficult to fathom having something so intangible, something ethereal made concrete. The soul isn’t something anyone ever really thinks about, not immediately. Even the most devout religious followers,  I would imagine, think of it as something disconnected from themselves. They think of going to Heaven, or being reborn in a better life, but that is different than imagining every bad thing they’ve done as tarnishing their soul.

Dorian loses that luxury, though he doesn’t think so at first. Until every cruel thought, every capricious action begins to change him. He doesn’t see it in the mirror, but every time he looks upon his portrait, his soul, stored in oil on a canvas, it’s different; a blemish here, a wrinkle there. Perhaps the eyes are hollower; perhaps they’ve lost a bit of that boyish light Basil so adored in the young man Lord Henry introduced to sin. He stops aging, but the painting grows old and withers, but people still adore him. After all, his face is beautiful, youthful as Adonis and immortal. No one believes anything truly bad about him because how can someone so angelic possibly be vile?

I think, perhaps, the portrait would only make it all worse. It became an object to display all his inhumanity, a perfect show of what a monster he is beneath flawless skin. Paranoia, in such a case, would only make sense. What with an ageing Lord Henry still whispering in his ear, doubts and jaded musings. Then there is his own fear, after all, if he can’t see a change in himself obviously it isn’t happening. So long as Dorian isn’t confronted with the effects of all his sin, he can deny it, pretend it doesn’t exist. His paranoia increases, his trust decreases – and then he begins to grow bitter, jaded to life and other people. Dorian begins the story as a naïve boy, and ends it as a twisted up, bitter man… but he was never really bad, not evil. Not really, though he did make so many terrible mistakes. Dorian was human, after all, and had he been completely bad, he would never have ended himself . I believe his guilt over Basil’s death to be selfish, less about killing the man and more about how it would affect himself.

It paints an interesting psychological event, although I doubt such was really Wilde’s intention when he wrote the novel. I wonder, should such circumstances befall anyone else, how different their actions would be. Would they regret an unchanging life? Would they fear laying eyes on their soul, marred by whatever decisions they made? How many would slow down, or consider their actions more heavily if they could actually see what affect their actions had on themselves?