“Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.”
This quote by Francis Bacon always evokes the memory when I first read the pages filled with “immoral” literature that was dazzling enough that I thought they must be chewed and digested thoroughly to engage my brain with the cynicism and societal disregard.
The saying “men are more moral than they think and far more immoral than they can imagine” seemingly comes to be true in the only novel of Oscar Wilde- The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), a classic instance of aestheticism and Gothic horror fiction of classic English literature.
The Plot of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
The tale of “art for art’s sake” begins with three characters- Lord Henry Wotton, Basil Hallward and Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray, an epitome of youthful male beauty, is taken by Lord Henry to the talented and conventionally minded painter, Basil Hallward. Dorian changes the way Basil sees the art. He makes a picture of Dorian Gray that deeply fascinates him. Young Dorian is then influenced by Lord Henry’s delightful yet poisonous theories that he has only “a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully” due to the ephemerality of his beauty.
Falling under the spell of Lord Henry, Dorian wishes to remain as young and attractive as his picture and desires if his portrait could age and scar instead. Little does he know that his wish would come true but at the cost of his moral erosion. Knowing his actions have no consequences, he starts living corrupted wildlife seeking pleasure, breaking heart after heart- including that of her beloved Sybil Vane. Dorian, with her pleasure seeking nature, oppresses her that she ends up killing herself along with their unborn child. Dorian continues committing immoral acts, and with each such act, his picture becomes more horrific and loathsome. When Basil Hallward, the artist behind the Picture, discovers the horrific side of Dorian, Gray kills him. On the other hand, Sybil’s brother James Vane vengefully stalks Gray as he is the reason for his sister’s suicide.
Tired and terrified by his life spiralling out of his hands, he wishes to give up all his sins and become as innocent, as moral as he was. As he starts moving towards morality, he expects that the picture would return to its original form. But, contrarily to his shocking disbelief, it gets even more grotesque. Is there any way out for Gray of his nightmare?
What are the themes of “The Picture of Dorian Gray?”
The novel reveals several themes. The core theme is ‘aestheticism’ or the purpose of Art. There are two works of art dominating the novel- Basil’s painting and the secret yellow book that Henry gives to Dorian. The former acts as a mirror, reflecting Dorian the physical dissipation of his own body, while the latter acts as a seductive immoral influencer leading the man farther along the path towards immorality.
The second theme is ‘idolatry of youth and beauty’. Beauty reigns throughout the novel. Hallward gets enchanted with Gray while painting him, while Gray, in turn, entertains the narcissistic desire to get his picture to grow old and uglier instead. To distance himself from the horror of his actions, Dorian devotes himself to the study of beautiful and attractive things- Jewels, music, tapestries etc.
The third theme is the ‘superficiality of society’ which puts beauty above everything else. Being handsome, rather than moral and good and heart matters the most to Dorian, Henry and the society they live in.
The fourth and the last theme which is present throughout the novel is the ‘consequences of the negative influence’. The wicked and persuasive words of Lord Henry, the painting, and the mysterious yellow book create an unavoidable influence on Dorian and Hallward. Hallward’s blind idolatry of Dorian becomes the cause of his murder, while Dorian’s devotion to Lord Henry and the yellow book brings his moral erosion.
Oscar Wilde wrote the novel in the late 1800s which may seem far removed from today, but it leaves one struck by the similarities that are present even today. For example, the obsession with self-image, social aspirations, desires to remain youthful and beautiful irrespective of age, and the exploitation of vulnerable through negative influences and ways.
It is one of the literature’s greatest studies of superficiality, narcissism, callousness, hedonism and self-centred pleasure. This exquisite novel left me speechless when I finished reading it. Even while writing this review, I am at a loss of words to express how I felt about this book with my paltry ability.
I highly suggest this towering piece of literature to all the readers. Amazingly written and filled with intriguing philosophy, this would be a memorable and moving journey to read it page after page.
Wilde says “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, let us all look at the stars the universe of philosophical literature has presented in the form of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
Je vous en souhaiteunebonne lecture!
*The article was originally published in the second edition (June 2018) of With The Coffee (Click here to download your free copy of the magazine).
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