WILDE, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Included in: The Complete Oscar Wilde. New York: Book-of-the-Month Club, 1996.
[Oscar Wilde by Toulouse- Lautrec]
What is Oscar Wilde’s proposal with this bewildering book? Which of the various possible visions of life does he emphasize? It’s not so easy to ascertain: he enquires into different possibilities through the three main characters, who are, as Richard Ellmann puts it in his biography of the writer, but refractions of his own personality. Oscar Wilde himself expressed it with these words: “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian is what I would like to be in other ages, perhaps” (p. 301).
The picture of Dorian Gray is a delicate study of life and Art, what they have in common and what separates them. But, above all, the book conveys a deep and intense love for life only comparable to Nietzsche’s, definitely tinged with profound anguish. The conclusion we are left with is that life is a precious gift, like everything it has to offer, although it often brings pain and unbearable sorrow. It is full of wonders, pleasures, subtleties and sublime delights, though often there is a high price to pay for them. We could say it has an inescapable fatal attraction which lures us constantly to taste it.
While reading this book, my mind wandered to Lampedusa and his The Leopard, equally full of love for life. Sicilian nobleman Don Fabrizio Corbera’s passion for life dominates the story, even though his whole world is disintegrating around him and he is becoming an old man. He now can’t enjoy all the pleasures any more but rejoices that his nephew, Tancredi, follows his path and exploits the pleasures of life with eagerness. The scene in which the young man and his beautiful fiancée chase each other around the huge mansion while discovering unimagined rooms, hidden corridors and closets is but a chant to life, beauty and youth.
[The Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. 1907]
We find the same agonic hunger for life in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. There is no happy ending in this book, either, as one should expect. It is the process of living that is emphasized from an aesthetic point of view: no morals should interfere in wandering through life. Only the senses lead Dorian Grey and his mentor Lord Henry Wottom in search for beauty and its exquisite delights. Basil Hallward, the painter, has the opposite view: there are inner rules, certain actions are not acceptable, and there are moral principles. He strongly disagrees with his friends’ anarchic lifestyles and feels great sorrow for his beloved Dorian, who has chosen to follow Lord Henry’s cynical teachings.
Around this triangle Oscar Wilde analyses many other aspects that give this book its full complexity and subtlety, for things are never as easy as they seem. Art surrounds the characters and their lives. All three are sensitive educated men. But we should say that there is one other protagonist: the perfect picture that Basil made of Dorian, a work of art, which remains hidden and unseen, but which seems to have a life of its own: it represents Dorian’s conscience, his soul, an ugly looking one which displays the horrid image of his actions and grows old and sinister-looking while Dorian continues being eternally young, graceful and handsome, a pleasure to everybody’s eyes. All those who meet him are fond of him and admire his fine looks and style. He doesn’t need to make great efforts, everything is granted to him. But he knows, and we know, that his real face is quite another, the one shown in the portrait, which tells of his sinful self-centered life in which there are even crimes: he kills a man, causes others to commit suicide or brings ruin to their lives. What do I care, why should this affect me, he asks himself once and again. But something bothers him constantly: the portrait, the evidence of his inner ugliness. He can’t stand looking at it, it is a mirror of his cruelty and selfishness, as well as his beauty.
[Narcissus by Caravaggio]
Life must be lived to the fullest, drunk till the very last drop, Wilde seems to tell us through Lord Henry and Dorian or… maybe not? There is art, there is beauty, pleasures for the senses. But could it be that something else hides behind? Basil tells us there is more, something even more important: conscience. However, his position offers doubts: he is in love with Dorian, who prefers Lord Henry’s company and guidance. Could Basil be jealous, maybe? And some of Lord Wottom’s mischievous comments linger in our minds: perhaps Basil is not intelligent and strong enough to enjoy life and simply stays away and can’t do much more than reflect it in his paintings. Another possibility is that he feels he shouldn’t dare touch (stain?) beauty and perfection, that he chooses not to mar it, precisely what he had in mind for Dorian.
Both Lord Wottom (meaningful name, which sounds like “bottom”, the deepest and darkest parts) and Basil are fascinated by Dorian’s grace and beauty. Both decide to take on his education and for both it is a sort of experiment, a game perhaps. It is definitely so for Henry, who takes everything in life lightly, as a mere amusement. Basil seems to take things more seriously and respectfully. He would never lay hands on Dorian, he just wishes to protect him and leave his perfect grace unaltered.
But, can this possibly be done? Basil’s acts certainly have an effect: he paints the terrible picture which changes Dorian’s life forever; he is even responsible of Lord Wottom and Dorian’s acquaintance, for they met in his house (though this, too, he tried to avoid, well aware of the impact that Wottom could have on the young man). His worst fears came true: immediately Dorian was lured by Wottom’s influence and practically forgot about Basil. Years later, Dorian would tell Basil that only he could have saved him, but this never happened. His nature and his curiosity led him astray. It couldn’t possibly be otherwise.
[Decalcomania by Magritte. 1966]
Isn’t this what life is all about? One has to follow his own path, Nietzsche was writing at about the same time. Life cannot stay still. Life is change, it’s renewal, it’s enquiry. And it involves “marring” (probably the word that Wilde repeats most frequently throughout the book), which implies getting old, losing one’s freshness and strength, making a lot of mistakes and learning, rejoicing and suffering during the process. Beauty must be enjoyed before it fades, even if this causes it to wither, Wilde seems to say.
Dorian Gray’s name is full of meaning: gold becomes grey, and loses its shine and splendour. Not even Art can prevent that. Nor a Faustian pact with forces of the dark. Life is more powerful than all.
“Beautiful things mean only Beauty”.
“All art is quite useless”, wrote Oscar Wilde in his preface (p. 11).
Art is but a pleasure of the spirit, we could add, one more of the pleasures life has to offer. Of course it, too, can influence and alter minds, just like both Lord Wottom and Dorian were changed after reading a book.
I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works. (Oscar Wilde to Gide).