I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the story of Dorian, a young man who is corrupted by his narcissistic society. Once an innocent adolescent, he becomes an obsessive Machiavel who will do whatever it takes to hold onto his youth. He achieves this with the help of Basil, an artist who produces a detailed portrait of Dorian. Upon looking at the portrait, Dorian realises that, although he is young in the painting, he will not stay this way: over time, he will wither and die. In his misery, he cries out, asking the open air whether the portrait could age in his place.
His prayer is granted: as the years pass, Dorian grows older, yet no signs of age appear on his body. No lines gather around his features, and his eyes shine just as brightly as they did on the day that Basil painted his portrait. Meanwhile, up in Dorian’s attic, Basil’s portrait sits hidden away. It is the same picture with the same frame, yet its subject has changed. Instead of depicting a glowing youth, it displays a withered, decrepit man. It bears every pain Dorian inflicts on himself, a fact that Dorian takes full advantage of. He follows a path of sin, drinking to excess, spending time in opium dens, and abusing those around him. Yet despite these actions, his face remains pure and youthful. No one blames Dorian for his sins, for how could such a beautiful, innocent-seeming youth commit such atrocities?
Wilde’s novel weaves a dramatic tale of identity, sacrifice, and cruelty. As it considers the underlying principles of human nature, it uncovers our narcissistic habits, exposing our own superficiality, whilst weaving a fantasy tale that aligns itself with gothic imaginative works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinand Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is not only a story about art: it concerns individuality, materialism, conscience, and pressures regarding a person’s appearance. At least one of these issues is still a big concern today, which is perhaps what makes this novel so interesting. Dorian’s fears about growing older are shared by many of us, including a number of poets. Yet unlike the rest of us, Dorian discovers a way of combating age. Whilst his portrait bears the signs of his crimes, Dorian walks around unscathed, able to beguile, trick, and murder without any hint of cruelty showing on his face.
Of course, many of the themes in this book are based on superficial constructs. There are characters who naturally assume that, because Dorian doesn’t look cruel, he is incapable of cruel actions. Nowadays, such logic can be easily dismissed as foolish, yet it is very real in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde reveals how important our appearances can be to us; Dorian is genuinely terrified of losing his youthful demeanour, even though growing older is a purely superficial transformation, and one that is natural for all of us. The materialism that we associate with modern society fully emerged in the Victorian period; Wilde lived during a time when material possessions passed easily from one hand to another, and The Picture of Dorian Gray comments on this burgeoning commodity culture: Dorian sees his youth as a precious commodity, and although he possesses an assortment of books, jewels, and fine clothes, it is his appearance that he values the most.
Although this novel considers a number of complex themes and ideas, its true beauty arguably does not lie with its content. The story is incredibly dramatic, and is sure to satisfy any reader: there are memorable characters, fascinating plot twists, and an element of the supernatural that adds a layer of mystery to the novel. Yet Wilde’s greatest skill arguably lies with his style of writing. This book is filled with a descriptive language that surpasses all expectations. When you read it, you may just wonder whether you are reading poetry, rather than prose. Wilde has a powerful command over the English language and it is thoroughly reflected in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
This is a novel that will really make you think. Its characters are so boldly imprinted on its pages that they become easy to picture. It raises a lot of questions, but rarely answers them. This results in a sense of mystery that hangs over the narrative, causing readers to question what Wilde really believed, as well as what he intended for his novel. Yet one of Wilde’s core principles is that a books do not have to mean anything. At the beginning of the book, he considers how art can exist for art’s sake. It does not have to mean anything and it does not have to question contemporary ideals. As a result, The Picture of Dorian may not have a true meaning; exists as it is: as an incredible work of literature.