I was acquainted with the genre of gothic fiction with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre back in one of the summers of my high-school (I am a little hazy on the exact year). The haunting blend of horror, death and romance promptly drew me in and since then gothic literature made frequent appearances in my reading list. So when I spotted the copy of the only novel written by Oscar Wilde, I knew “The picture of Dorian Gray” was going to be my companion for the next couple of late nights and lazy mornings.
To be completely honest, the ending of the novel failed to surprise me as much as I had hoped, but I believe that is because, over the years there have been several renditions of the story that Wilde had so beautifully concocted. Nevertheless, the characters, and not to mention the exquisitely written Victorian literature, were a pure joy to indulge. For instance, how can some one not fall in love with Basil Hallward’s account of meeting Dorian Gray for the first time:
When our eyes met, I felt I was growing pale. A curious sensation of terror came over me. I knew I had come face to face with some one, whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself […] I had a strange feeling that fate had in store for me exquisite joys and exquisite sorrows.
The novel opens on a beautiful summer day in England, in the studio of Basil Hallward, filled with the rich odor of roses and heavy scent of lilacs. In the room are Lord Henry (or Harry) and Basil Hallward, and clamped to an easel- the full length portrait of a young man of extraordinary beauty — Dorian Gray.
Hallward confides with Lord Henry how charmed he was by Dorian Gray who had such a profound effect on the artist that his paintings now had a soul and a motive. Dorian Gray was his muse, more than that in fact, an unusual artistic idolatry. As lord Henry is intrigued to meet him, Basil warns him to not spoil or influence the young man, thus providing a presentiment to what was about to come.
While sitting for Basil’s painting, Dorian listens to Lord Henry’s hedonistic views — how beauty and and sensual fulfilment are the only things worth pursuing in life and becomes highly fascinated by the idea. He looks at the painting, as his handsome face stares back at him from the canvas, he craves for the portrait to bear all the physical turmoils of age rather than himself.
Very soon, Dorian falls in love with Sybil Vane, an actress of exquisite beauty, who refers to him as her “prince charming”. But the night Dorian invited Lord Henry and Basil to watch Sybil play Juliet, she gives a very lacklustre performance, so much so that his companions believe Dorian fell in love with Sybil’s beauty for she seemed to have no talents in acting. Sybil confides with Dorian, that her love for him transcends her desire to act and that she no longer finds any joy in it. Repulsed by this, Dorian tells her that her acting was her beauty and saying she no longer interests him, he abandons her.
Upon reaching home, Dorian finds a cruel smirk painted across the lips of his portrait. Conscience stricken, he decides to make amends with Sybil, when Lord Henry informs him that she had killed herself out of grief.
Dorian soon discovers, much to his horror, that his acts laden with vice and sensuality will have no bearings on his appearance of innocent youth but will be borne by his portrait. For the next eighteen years he indulges in every form of vice, corrupting his friends and companions, influenced by Lord Henry and a morally toxic novel he had gifted him — still retaining his charming youthfulness as the portrait grew progressively wrinkled and ghastly.
One evening, Basil Hallward meets Dorian and confronts him about the scandalous rumours surrounding him. Dorian does not deny his debauchery and presents his secret — the portrait. Shocked and repulsed, Basil pleads for him to ask for repentance. Blaming his fate on the painter, Dorian, out of passionate anger, picks up a knife and stabs the man to death. He later blackmails a chemist friend of his — Alan Campbell to get rid of the body using chemistry. Later in the story, it is revealed that Campbell commits suicide soon after.
To escape the guilt of his crimes, Dorian Gray goes to an opium den where he meets James Vane, Sybil’s dangerously vengeful brother who begins stalking him. His exit from the plot is just as abrupt, he gets killed by Dorian’s hunter friend while he was hiding in a thicket.
Dorian gets increasingly righteous and decides the only way to absolve himself will be to destroy the very beginning of all the chaos — his portrait. As some kind of poetic justice, he stabs the portrait with the same knife he stabbed its artist with. The servants downstairs are awakened by a deadly scream and upon rushing to the room, they find a splendid portrait of Dorian Gray as they had always known him — in all the wonders of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the ground was a dead man — wrinkled and loathsome, knife in his heart, only after examining the rings in his fingers could they recognize who it was.
Oscar Wilde was tried for homosexuality and gross indecency in 1895. Against the advice of his friends to flee to France, he decided to stand trial and pleaded non guilty. A long drawn out trial culminated in him having to spend two years in prison where his health deteriorated and continued to do so after his release in 1897. Following that he spent three years in exile in France. Wilde died in 1990 in France, in a run down hotel at the age of forty six.
“The picture of Dorian Gray” is one of the most celebrated homoerotic novels of all times. In the early chapters when Basil elucidates upon his feelings regarding Dorian Gray, it is apparent how the painter is in love with his subject, even though Wilde makes contradictory statements in an attempt to mask the obvious. As the narrative progresses, his passion becomes more tangible, Basil says about Dorian, “we were quite close, almost touching. Our eyes met again.” Not only was his attraction towards Dorian made apparent, the secrecy he wanted to assign to his subject was also quite a telling sign, for homosexuality was illegal in Victorian England. When asked if wants to present his portrait, he denies vehemently saying, “I have put too much of myself in it.” Infact, he does not even intend on telling Dorian’s name to Sir Henry because,
When I like people immensely, I never tell their names to anyone. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy.
Secrecy is such an important part of Basil’s life, as if what actually is, is not what seems to be.
When asked how Dorian Gray feels for him, Basil knows that “he likes me. I know he likes me. Of course I flatter him dreadfully. I find a pleasure in saying things to him that I know I shall be sorry for having said”.
Dorian indulges in sensuality and vices that are never really made apparent during the course of the novel, except near the end when Basil pays him a visit and confronts him regarding the rumors and gossips,
There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide. You were his great friend. There was Sir Henry Ashton, who had to leave England, with a tarnished name. You and he were inseparable.
Wilde’s book was infact used as an exhibit at his trial, the opposition reading out loud the excerpts of it, accusing him of flaunting his love for men with Dorian Gray becoming the chief manifestation of this love. After his untimely death — often seen as a martyrdom for his sexuality, Wilde has been touted as a literary icon for homosexual rights. He might not have talked about it openly — for it was anachronistic to do so in Victorian England, but it was definitely euphemistic. It is very tragic, much like in the novel itself, how a man of extraordinary talents — the writer of countless aphorisms and epigrams, faced such an untimely and utterly unacceptable end but may be that is how we treat those who are so ahead of their time, so beyond everyone’s comprehension.
The curious character of Lord Henry
Basil and Dorian Gray both meet unfortunate ends in the book, Basil having been murdered by the very object of his infinite fascination and Dorian being ultimately killed because of his deadly wish and fiendish companion. The other important character, Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton, a self proclaimed, hedonistic aristocrat, however gets out unscathed, a facet of the novel I found very interesting. Lord Henry has been portrayed as a very opinionated person, and being equally eloquent, he is able to awe and influence his listeners into following his views, while keeping himself uninvolved. Early in the novel, Basil correctly remarks,
You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing.
Lord Henry uses Dorian Gray as a surrogate for his immoral ideas and in the process leads a life of perverted moderation — he indulges his mind but not his body. He is capable of looking at everything with a vile detachment, amusing his listeners with his ideas while simultaneously refraining himself from yielding to them.
Apparently, Lord Henry is supposed to be the portrayal of Wilde himself from the rest of the world’s perspective, while personally he identified more with Basil. However hypocritical might he have been, I did find some of his ideas cruelly veracious. For example, in a particular scene, an older widow, Lady Narborough claims she should remarry, to which Harry says,
You will never marry again, Lady Narborough. You were far too happy. When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck, men risk theirs.
In yet another instance, Lord Henry quips,
There are many things we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.
While Lord Henry’s certain perspectives about marriage and love were curiously enlightening, certain others are just outright disgraceful. However, his commentary on the matter is so severely persuasive that it will make the reader stop for a second and ponder. While having a conversation with Basil, where the artist claims his feelings for Dorian Gray shall hold for as long as he lives, Lord Henry says with a very self-satisfied air about himself,
Those who are faithful, know only the trivial side of love; it is the faithless who know love’s tragedies.
In yet another instance, when Dorian Gray proclaims his love for Sybil Vane and considers it the greatest romance of his life, Lord Henry goes on to suggest,
[…]people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call loyalty and fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of intellect — simply a confession of failure.
Romanticising infidelity like this is nothing short of immoral, but Lord Henry behaves he has effectively summed up human life by his epigrams. Such epigrams as this, enticed the young and impressionable mind of Dorian Gray into a life of debauchery. As Lady Henry, his wife remarks, while talking with Dorian Gray, “Ah! that is one of Harry’s views, isn’t it Mr Gray? I always hear Harry’s views from his friends.” thus revealing how easily he can influence people with his ideas and opinions.
However, upon close analysis, it becomes apparent that Lord Henry himself leads a very plain, unadventurous life, surrounded by his wife and friends, attending parties and soirees and frequenting operas — quite far removed from the hedonistic he professes he is. Also, he might try to portray an intellectual and rather philosophical disposition but in reality his understanding of human behaviour is grossly limited, as demonstrated by his claim that Dorian Gray could never commit murder because “[c]rime belongs exclusively to the lower orders”.
Lord Henry represents the class of society — highly opinionated, hence definitely interesting to talk to but at the same time not to be taken too seriously. He is a quintessential hypocrite, one that hides behind a meticulously created persona. In the modern age, he could be expected to spend a lot of time on the internet — so called trolls, who can influence people with their judgement, unaware of the havoc they might create in the lives of unsuspecting and susceptible people.
Before I conclude my gentle diatribe I would like to quote one of Wilde’s that I found quite relatable as an artist myself,
[The public]they are always asking a writer why he does not write like somebody else, or a painter why he does not paint like somebody else, quite oblivious of the fact that if either of them did anything of the kind he would cease to be an artist. A fresh mode of Beauty is absolutely distasteful to them, and whenever it appears they get so angry and bewildered that they always use two stupid expressions — one is that the work of art is grossly unintelligible; the other, that the work of art is grossly immoral. What they mean by these words seems to me to be this. When they say a work is grossly unintelligible, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is new; when they describe a work as grossly immoral, they mean that the artist has said or made a beautiful thing that is true.
Thank you and congratulations for making till the end! Please let me know if you agree with me and if not, we can discuss that as well!