The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
by Oscar Wilde
edited by Robert Mighall
When I settled in for a semester of exchange, one of the courses that interested me at the University of Melbourne was a course on Decadent Literature, a turn-of-the-century movement that can apparently be boiled down to “elites having massive existential crises and destroying themselves to pass the time”. However, soon after sitting down to my first lecture, I realized that this course had a HUGE amount of readings and unlike my (censored) course, it would be extremely difficult to bluff my way through not reading the set texts because everyone was extremely hard-working. So I ditched it during Week Three, just before they came round to this book. (For the record, I have no regrets.)
But this book’s reputation preceded it. Even the week before it was taught, there was already one thing that everyone kept talking about: “the moral of Dorian Gray is not as simple as it seems”. As I do not pretend to accurate, scholarly analyses in my articles, I thought I might have a look at what this moral really is.
Before we do that, though, let’s discuss what the moral isn’t. Even to our modern sensibilities, Dorian’s life is outrageous — I mean, he can go to parties and take opiates without having to work? HOW DARE HE — and his death at the end of the novel seems like a complete rejection of the lifestyle he’s chosen, the author presenting a strong moral agenda by obliviating him: his beauty vanished, his reputation among the social circles destroyed. Burn him and all he represents in the deepest armpits of hell, restore the normal moral code, job done.
But this is Oscar Wilde we’re talking about, and Oscar Wilde does not go out so meekly. In fact he doesn’t go out at all, but rather demolishes the door and then brags about his reasons for doing so. In the preface, one of the most famous in literary history, he writes:
The artist is the creator of beautiful things. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book — books are well-written, or badly written. That is all. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for art. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
(He may have been both witty and concise, but I still can’t understand him for the life of me.)
Although he says it quite lightly, this bunch of aphorisms certainly causes a massive earthquake as to how we think about works of art. We’re accustomed to seeing a book as a glimpse into the artist’s own views and life/lives. We think the writer writes these things because he believes in them or wants to make a point about them.
Oscar Wilde gratifies us on this, but he adds a creepy twist that is suspiciously akin to the reader-response theory: it is the reader’s life, rather than the writer’s, which spills onto the text and gives it meaning. As Basil himself says, “we live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography”. The writer only gives you something beautiful to look at — what subsequently happens with it is entirely up to the reader. And being a magnificent work of art (as Oscar Wilde would have no doubt found his book) it is of course revelatory and reflective of life — to be precise, the life of the READER. Conclusion: “you say my work is immoral? Then you must have some kind of hidden sin you recognize in yourself, you hypocrite! Hee hee hee.” (Another conclusion: in the 19th century, “genius” was apparently a synonym for “irritating little sot”.)
But let’s take a step back and examine this connection a little closer: the connection between art and the soul. For all his apparent malevolence, Wilde’s words do have a ring of truth: art is indeed a pathway into our own souls, just as Dorian’s picture is his soul visualized. In fact, people in Dorian’s circle, regardless of their morals, see it as fashionable to cling like a lovestruck puppy to a pursuit of art.
The trouble is, they’re not content with finding it. Subtle contemplation is all very well for the common folk, but this is the gentry, and they feel they deserve better. They want to engage with art as much as they can, imbibe every single thing they THINK is beautiful from it, and in Dorian’s case, even become art themselves. As Dorian settles into his life of debauchery, Oscar Wilde tells us (not without a hint of glee in his voice) how:
He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth…
The usual mortal, upon seeing his corruption visualized so, would immediately supplicate himself/herself before the Lord Almighty (or at least cry “OH GOD NO” a la Michael Scott). Not Dorian — he’s fascinated by the extent to which decay can happen in a person. Because decay is beautiful at times as well, a feast for the senses. The wonderful piece of art is now literally a window into his own soul.
And since his soul is now wonderfully detached from his body, all bets are off. Dorian, being a self-centred prat, cares only about one thing: what is his to give and take, or more accurately, to gain and squander. His soul now being none of his business, he can afford to live in the material world (oh hey George Harrison reference), being as spontaneously depraved as he wants to be. He sees the connection that his pursuit of “art” has on his soul, but now that the connection has apparently been severed, he doesn’t really need to care about it except as another of his playthings.
Really, though? It’s worth noting that though Dorian tries distraction after distraction, none of them really do work for him — no sooner has he discovered some form of what he deems “art” than he immediately tires of it, seeking newer pleasures and more sensory delights; meanwhile, his nicely framed soul quietly rots away in the attic, the only thing that truly fascinates him. And I think it’s because it’s the only thing he gets to know well: seeking but a superficial knowledge of most “art”, he never gets to know them deeply, and so they all mean nothing to him. The sensual delights are all very well, but they don’t really bring him the satisfaction he craves. Only by reaching deep inside himself — experiencing the withering of his own soul — does he get a slight bit of sustained pleasure, and even then it’s a twisted sense of pleasure (I mean, I don’t know a lot about art, but for me decomposition is not the most beautiful thing in the world). There’s no doubt about it: you need a soul to experience “good art”. It’s no wonder he got a knife in his heart when he decided to destroy one half of the equation.
So what do we learn from Dorian Gray? Like the things he pursues, the way he pursues art is thrilling, sensual, amazing. But in the pursuit of art, shouldn’t we give a little more love and care to our own souls? After all, we seek art as a way of enriching our lives — the humanities are all about making ourselves a better person — and we need to find ways to make sure that we don’t just enjoy it, but also learn from it. Dorian, just like all the other novels we read, cannot merely be a story of a person, but a lesson. To me, pursuing art for art’s sake is a nice idea, but in my humble opinion, physical gratification can only be a first step, allowing us to appreciate art for its worth — in every realm. If we don’t learn from art, then what are we?
I realize the more I write, the more I become incoherent (not that I wasn’t incoherent in the first place), so I’ll leave you all to the words of one of my favourite authors, G. K. Chesterton. Writing twenty years after Oscar Wilde’s death, he said of the latter’s philosophy:
“It is the carpe diem religion; but the carpe diem religion is not the religion of happy people, but of very unhappy people. Great joy does not gather the rosebuds while it may; its eyes are fixed on the immortal rose which Dante saw.”
And I think I’d rather be happy than have a bunch of withering, hastily gathered roses at home.
I hereby submit this to my professors at UniMelb. Hopefully they will laugh at it.
Next time: The dense fogs of the city bring sin and misery to Dorian and his friends. So let’s escape that by heading out to the countryside for our next book, “Far From the Madding Crowd”, where… oh.
(Quotations from the Penguin Classics edition of “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, edited by Robert Mighall, published 2003, featured photo from cover of said book.)