“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
I wonder, if all of our souls were reflected on a canvas, how would they look? This is the conflict that lies at the heart of Oscar Wilde’s seminal novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and one that is powerful as, through the pages, we explore the downfall of young Mr Gray in dramatic fashion. Sitting idly in the former’s studio, Basil Hallward and Lord Henry Wooton talk about art, life and so on when young, beautiful Dorian Gray arrives to sit for Mr Hallward’s portrait of him, charming both with his good looks and youthful nature. As Basil paints, Dorian is intoxicated by Lord Henry’s cynical view of the world and the idea of hedonism, pursuing pleasure and the fulfilment of the sense, so by the time it’s finished Dorian foolishly wishes that he would not age and that the portrait would bear the burden that comes with growing old and weary. Unexpectedly, this wish is somehow granted and as Mr Gray leads a life of evil and debauchery and succumbs to a life of wealth and sin, the painting takes the toll. An old and hideous parody of himself, the picture of Dorian Gray sits in the darkness and collects dust while he destroys himself and wrecks the lives of those around him.
This being Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, gothic and brooding, sparkling with wit but also smouldering with dark overtones that shadow the humour. But it’s also a keen insight into the human mind, into the way we behave and lots more. Dorian Gray starts off innocent and naïve and ends up bitter and jaded, influenced by those around him and effected by his actions. He’s infatuated with pretty young actress Sybil Vane one moment and when she loves him back, he discards her leading to tragic consequences. Basil Hallward finding out about his distorted painting also has dangerous repercussions. Suicide, murder, revenge, greed, lust… these all play out in Dorian Gray’s world, each adding a new layer of repulsiveness to his portrait.
However, it seems sometimes that Mr Wilde is trying to be too clever, given that when his characters speak they only seem to spout quotable lines that have been repeated ever since to the point of exhaustion. But these lines are good and they work in this context. Lord Henry’s criticism of art fits and the way he goes on about humanity works because he’s saying it all to the impressionable Dorian, who takes all the mention of hedonism and pleasure so much to heart that it is by these he leads his life, reckless and wasteful of his good looks and good upbringing. The tragedy is heartbreaking, the wit sparkling, the irony devastating, and the obsession so true… Like the portrait, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a well-crafted masterpiece and, a few faults aside, it’s definitely worth a read.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is available on Amazon in paperback (£1.99) and on Kindle (Free)