The Picture of Dorian Gray
© 1890 Oscar Wilde
Dorian Gray is the picture of youthful innocence, but his portrait is one of deathly corruption. After sitting for a painting rendered by his friend Basil, Dorian becomes a source of infatuation for himself. Awed by his own beauty, Dorian is driven to angst by the sight of his own beauty and confesses that he would do anything, even give his soul, if the figure in the painting would age instead of himself. Through such a Faustian bargain, the portrait becomes Gray’s hidden self, his conscience reflecting the ugliness within as he becomes increasingly self-obsessed. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a tale of sin and degradation, of a man’s destruction — the fulfillment of the teacher’s exhortation in Ecclesiastes that all is vanity.
Although The Picture of Dorian Gray ends in death, being the literary account of a moral crash-and-burn, Wilde’s wit makes for numerous fun moments. There is a bitterness to the laughs, the vicious humor; the many stabs taken at society and middle class morality are strikes rendered by truly vicious men, individuals who commit murder and abandon themselves to moral chaos. Many witticisms attributed to Wilde are placed in here the mouth of the malicious Lord Henry, like “The only way to get rid of a temptation is yield to it.” One hopes that few readers look for wisdom from the likes of Henry, who is such a profoundly dismal influence that the painter Basil begs him not to corrupt young Dorian. (Alas for Bas, soon Dorian will be doing the corrupting…and to such an extent that many of his deeds can’t be named directly, but alluded to only by the fact that people leave the room when he arrives.) During at least two points in the work, Dorian wavers at a moral crossroads, but at both times he only slides further into the pit, unable to free himself from his one fixation: self-adulation.
Gray is a curious accomplishment, humorful but with a great sadness. Gray’s obsession with himself, his surrounding of himself with trivial amusements, are haunting. For all his pleasures taken, for all the pursuit given to making himself feel good, Dorian at the end is worse for the wear. The one character who remains interested in his person — Henry again — does so because Dorian is an amusing spectacle. Even the man who encouraged him on his descend will not accompany him on it, merely watch coldly from above. Selfishnesss reigns. In a world filled with trivial amusements, and now more than ever obsessed with perpetual youth, Dorian Gray remains a warning. In both art and substance, Wilde’s sole novel commends itself to the modern reader.
Mephisto, Klaus Mann