“‘How sad it is!’ murmured Dorian Gray, with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. ‘How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June…. It if were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!’”
~ Chapter 2, A Picture of Dorian Gray
I have a major problem reviewing this book. You see, I have this weird verbal tic wherein I can’t pronounce certain names correctly, but tend to switch the first letters of the Christian and surnames, or add letters in inconvenient places. This book is an example of the latter: I consistently want to call this guy Dorkian Gray.*
Oscar Wilde’s novel about a young man obsessed with never aging is not so much about immortality as it is about morality and beauty. Dorian Gray is a very beautiful young man: not only in outward appearance, but his manners and education make him instantly attractive to everyone he meets. To Gray, to become old and…er…gray is a crime against his beauty, and any crime is evil. To be old is to cease to be good, because it would have destroyed the goodness of his youthful appearance.
In order to allay his mortality, Gray makes a Faustian deal with no one in particular, wishing that his recently completed portrait would age instead of himself. The concept of giving up one’s soul has already been discussed in the story before this idea even crosses Gray’s mind: the artist painting his portrait, Basil, has introduced Gray to his friend Lord Henry, who plants not only the idea of fleeting mortality in Gray’s mind, but also the philosophy focused on beauty that Gray should adopt as his worldview.
Gray doesn’t quite trust Lord Henry, asking if he is a bad influence. Lord Henry says there is no such thing as a good influence, because whenever one allows influence on his life, it is like giving one’s soul to that influence. Thus, in giving his soul for eternal youth, Gray is allowing himself to be influenced by a sort of worship of beauty.
Yet, as he soon discovers, eternal youth is not all it’s cracked up to be. Even as his appearance doesn’t age, Gray starts to feel old, tarnished, and jaded to the world. Evil and depravity grow within him until he seeks it and takes pleasure in the corruption of others. Yet no one believes he is evil, because he looks so good. “He had told her once that he was wicked, and she had laughed at him, and answered that wicked people were always very old and very ugly.” (Chapter 20)
In some ways this novel seems to be Oscar Wilde arguing with himself. Wilde was a self-proclaimed Aesthetic, meaning he lived valued “beauty for beauty’s sake,” and to him a thing only needed to be beautiful—without any other purpose—in order to be useful. As Lord Henry says in Chapter 2: “Beauty is a form of Genius—is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs not explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty.”
This is just the sort of thing that Oscar Wilde would be expected to write. This is the sort of thing he lived his own life by…and yet in Dorian Gray he lets this worldview run its full course to its ultimate despondent end. Gray is not happy even though he has all the time to live his life, all the resources to seek beauty and pleasure. His beautiful looks don’t make him a beautiful person. If anything, this unnatural prolonged youth brings him more unhappiness than age and decrepitude would have done had time taken its course. Because he faces no superficial consequences to his actions—his face doesn’t harden or his body suffer any ill effects of his libertine lifestyle—he has not deterrent from becoming, on the inside, a vicious and cruel old man, self-loathing and tired of life.
*Two unfortunate examples of the former are "Parry Hotter" and "Kellen Heller." One of the more hilarious is "Wuce Brayne."
Recommended Reading Age: High School
Parental Notes: Some homoerotic subtext can be inferred from some of the scenes, as well as the general thematic creepiness. Since it deals with philosophies like aestheticism and morality, it’s more geared toward adults than children anyway.
Availability: Free on Kindle, you can also buy it from Barnes and Noble in a nice pretty shiny thick Leatherbound volume along with some of Wilde’s other works.
Adaptations: Legend speaks of at least six movies based on this story. Now if I could just find one of them at my local library. Except I’m not so sure about this latest adaptation:
You can’t fool me, Caspian. I know it’s you.