“All art is quite useless”, writes Oscar Wilde at the end of the Preface of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. Wilde was a believer of the philosophy of Aestheticism: ‘art for art’s sake’. Art has no purpose, except for being beautiful.
When I sat with the book and read the Preface, I was perplexed and intrigued. What I had begun reading causally, soon took hold of me and I read about a hundred pages in one sitting. It is unpredictable, irresistible and thought-provoking.
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, the only novel written by Oscar Wilde, revolves around Aestheticism. It is a Gothic horror story with an apparently simple plot, yet as you go beneath the surface, you will discover deeper concepts. It will often make you reconsider the way you perceive art and life.
The novel begins at the studio of an artist named Basil Hallward, who is painting a portrait of a young man named Dorian Gray. Basil appears to be so influenced by the beauty and innocence of Dorian, that in his art, he pours out his heartfelt devotion for Dorian. He confesses to his friend Lord Henry Wotton, that he cannot exhibit the portrait to the public since he has ‘put too much of himself’ in it. Lord Henry is a believer of Hedonism. According to him, the pursuit of pleasure and beauty is the only aim of life. He meets Dorian in Basil’s studio, and develops a keen interest in the young man. He praises Dorian’s beauty and youth. He expresses his regret that youth decays and beauty fades with time. Influenced by his words, Dorian watches his own portrait and feels jealous that the painting will retain its beauty, while he will get old and ugly. He even declares passionately that he would give his soul if he can retain his own beauty forever and his portrait bears the burden of age and decay.
Dorian gets enticed with Lord Henry’s words and ideas. He soon acts wrongfully, and discovers that his painting has taken up an expression of sneer. He observes that the more he commits ‘sins’, the uglier the portrait becomes, while he looks as youthful as he had always been.
Realizing that the wish he had made at Basil Hallward’s studio has come true, he hides the portrait in his attic, and resumes to live his hedonistic life. He gets even more inspired by a book given by Lord Henry, which describes a Frenchman’s pursuit of pleasure and beauty. Dorian immerses himself in acquisition of musical instruments, precious jewels, expensive tapestries, scandalous relationships and everything that is beautiful to his senses. Yet the aging portrait hidden in his attic bothers him all the time.
It is quite remarkable that while the author suggests that art is never moral or immoral, the two works of art play vital roles in shaping the character of Dorian: one is the portrait made by Basil, and the other one is the book given by Lord Henry. The portrait reflects the moral downfall of Dorian, and the book influences it.
Again, if we go to the preface, the writer says, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”. The distinctiveness of the book lies in this sentence. It speaks to each individual reader in a different way, as the portrait painted by Basil and the book given by Lord Henry have influenced Dorian in their own unique ways.
There are several dialogues in the book, which break the conventional ideas about art, life and humanity and make you pause and think it over.
“Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”
“Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”
The author attacks the Victorian ideals of morality. The society which condemns the pursuit of pleasure and beauty, has a hard time believing that Dorian can be involved in immoral activities as he looks beautiful and innocent.
Although we get radical ideas from Lord Henry Wotton’s words, he is often observed to make derogatory comments on women. Interestingly, the female characters depicted in the novel are quite different from his ideas.
The three main characters, according to the author, were reflections of himself:
“Basil Hallward is what I think I am; Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me; Dorian is what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”
Basil Hallward’s devotion to Dorian, Lord Henry’s interest in his ‘beauty and youth’ and Dorian’s destructive influence on other young men hint towards homoerotic themes. More than 500 words were removed by the editor of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine before its publication in 1890. It gave rise to controversies and was marked ‘indecent’ and ‘unclean’ by the critics. The revised version was published next year with a preface. In 1895, when Oscar Wilde was convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons”, this novel was used as evidence against him.
It makes me wonder that in a way, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ had influenced Oscar Wilde’s life events, as Basil Hallward’s portrait had influenced his own.