A Perilous Look at Dorian Gray

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The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, 1890

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

Those lines from the preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray resonate with me right now. My thoughts on this book are so jumbled and difficult to articulate, which is appropriate. I suppose. Oscar Wilde wants us to be baffled by the paradoxical nature of his writing. I guess I will just start spewing some thoughts at you. . .as if that’s any different from what I normally do.

There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

  • This too is from the preface. It reminds me greatly of Mark Twain’s preface to Huck Finn in which “persons attempting to find a moral [. . .] will be banished.” Both authors command their readers not to look for morals, which is the height of irony given that these books are more explicitly about morality than other Victorian classics. And Victorian novels are generally very concerned with morality. I don’t know who Twain and Wilde thought they were fooling with these “don’t look at the man behind the curtain” exhortations. If you write a book about a character’s ethical rise or fall, be prepared for readers to notice that.
  • Yet, I personally value the book almost exclusively for Oscar’s (we are on a first-name basis) beautiful writing. I don’t care about Dorian all that much. I’m much more interested in the butterflies in Basil Hallward’s garden, because they are so beautifully described. Or the bees. Listen to this: “The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive.” That sentence is so perfect, I want to live inside it. I want to rub my face on it, lovingly. Ok, I just did. Sometimes I’m overcome with affection for a snippet of writing and feel an urge to press the page to my face as if it were a cute kitty.
  • These overwhelmingly beautiful descriptions of sensual experiences persist throughout the novel and they are rather persuasive arguments in favor of the aesthete lifestyle that Oscar himself symbolized. However, the plot overtly condemns a life of pure artistic pleasure. Dorian’s Hedonism destroys many lives, including his own. What a tragic foreshadowing of Oscar’s early death, which was arguably caused by his own unwise decisions. I don’t exactly see it that way, but some of his biographers do. I think I will wait until another post to discuss my deep existential sadness about Oscar Wilde’s life story.

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I have to mention that this is the first time in this literary journey that I have encountered a male character who is anxious about maintaining his youth and beauty. Generally, in literature, men don’t worry about that, because they have other ways of proving their value to the world. Other ways of obtaining their ends. It’s not insignificant that when the male gaze turns on another male, he starts to feel the same anxieties that plague female characters throughout literature.

I worry about the implications of this book as a work of gay literature. Lord Henry’s influence leads to Dorian’s complete moral degradation. The idea of an older man corrupting a beautiful youth is a depiction of homosexual love that makes me profoundly uncomfortable. Thank goodness for the counterpoint of Basil’s more enriching love. Still. . .look what happens to Basil. Also, I can’t help but wonder how much Oscar internalized the Victorian attitude toward homosexuality. In many ways, he was an outspoken advocate for the beauty of homosexual love. Yet, Dorian Gray can be interpreted as belying that message. I don’t like to interpret it that way, because I hate to think that Oscar Wilde felt any shame about his gayness, but the possibility of that interpretation is difficult to miss. Of course, it wouldn’t be Oscar Wilde’s life or literature if it wasn’t paradoxical.

On a very different note, this is an excellent horror novel. I don’t know if I have said that about any other book on this blog. Have I? Oh, yeah. Jekyll and Hyde of course. Anyway, my point is that excellent horror novels are rare in the cannon. So, hooray for Dorian Gray. Good job, Oscar.

Final Thoughts: There is so much more that can be said about this book, but others have said it. Really, you should just read it or reread it and think your own thinky thoughts about it. It is a masterpiece.

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