Immortal Beauty vs “Natural Life” – Which Would You Choose?
Looking at The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
In the Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all” (Wilde, viii). After reading his novel, and coming back to this statement, I find myself disagreeing with Wilde’s suggestion. This statement is deceiving for many reasons. First, it takes away any responsibility of the author for the effect his/her books have on the public. There definitely are moral books and immoral books, and authors are responsible for the effect their books have on society. Second, when readers discuss works of literature, they do not simply decide whether the book was “well written, or badly written.” Books create whole different worlds within the minds of readers, and each reader thinks differently. A book that seems horrendous to one reader may have the complete opposite effect on another. This is emphasized by the story of Wilde’s novel, which warns against the danger of choosing immortal beauty over natural life, in which nothing lasts forever. In contradiction to Wilde’s statement, I argue that his novel definitely has a moral message, and while I found the novel to be excellently written, there may be others who may disagree.
There are moral books and immoral books, and there are sneaky novels, like Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. While Dorian had successful traded in eternal youth for an entrapment of his soul in Basil’s painting, his life was not what others imagined it to be. His face was beautiful and youthful, but his soul was tarnished and in the end, Dorian regrets making the wish he made many years ago in Basil’s studio. As Dorian stands in front of his painting that shows the blood of his guilt, the narrator says:
He felt a wild longing for the unstained purity of his boyhood-his rose-white boyhood, as Lord Henry had once called it. He knew that he had tarnished himself, filled his mind with corruption and given horror to his fancy; that he had been an evil influence to others, and had experienced a terrible joy to being so…But was it all irretrievable? Was there no hope for him? (162)
By this time, readers are aware of the deaths Dorian has caused, either directly, or indirectly. When Dorian first learns of Sibyl’s suicide, he turns to Lord Henry, who turns Sibyl’s suicide into a beautiful act of tragedy. By the time Dorian stands in front of his pictures, he is only glad to know that everyone who knows of his terrible deeds have been killed, have committed suicide, or have been murdered by Dorian himself. At the same time, Dorian’s own death is tragic and ironic: By putting a knife through the soul that was entrapped in the portrait, he ends up stabbing his own heart, and along with it the eternal beauty and youth, which never really belonged to him to begin with. The eternal beauty and youth is put back to its original place in the painting, where it will hang forever. Dorian’s dangerous wish and the continuous suffering it causes emphasizes the important moral messages in Wilde’s novel. And despite what Wilde says in the Preface, his readers can definitely benefit from these message. Interestingly, Wilde designates Lord Henry Wotton, the character who has the most influence on Dorian, as the character to convey these moral messages. By conveying these messages, Lord Henry indirectly delivers the same messages to readers.
While Dorian Gray is the protagonist, the story could not exist without Lord Henry Wotton, who not only toys around with Dorian Gray’s mind, but with his own statements. In the beginning of the novel, Lord Henry tells Basil Hallward, “…beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face…Your mysterious young friend, whose name you have never told me, but whose picture really fascinates me, never thinks” (2). While Lord Henry praises beauty, he also makes a jab at people who are intellectual, as though they are only pretending to be serious and intellectual. Why else would he say that intellect is a mode of exaggeration that destroys the harmony of any face? Why would he insult people who are intellectual, when he himself seems to be the one of the most intellectual and mysterious people in his society? While Lord Henry’s many satiric statements make the readers reflect on their meanings, they never reveal anything personal about the speaker himself. When Dorian is devastated after seeing Sibyl’s horrendous performance, and he regrets ever having loved Sibyl, Basil says to him, “Love is a more wonderful thing than Art” (61). To his, Lord Henry says, “[t]hey are both simply forms of imitation” (61). Is Lord Henry trying to be flippant? Or could art and love be the same in that they are both just as crucial and wonderful to one’s life? When Lord Henry hears of Sibyl and Dorian’s engagement, he is horrified, and expresses his feelings to Basil. Basil tells him, “If Dorian Gray’s life were spoiled, no one would be sorrier than yourself. You are much better than you pretend to be,” and to this Lord Henry laughs and says, “[t]he reason we all like to think so well of others is that we are all afraid of ourselves. The basis of optimism is sheer terror” (54). Throughout the novel, it is hard to get to know who Lord Henry really is.
Just like Lord Henry’s confusing and sometimes contradictory statements, so are the moral messages of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is clear why Dorian suffers at the end the way he does. He wanted something that was unnatural, and therefore suffered the consequences. However, Basil had done nothing wrong except work on his paintings. He has always consoled others around him, and was there to console Dorian when his heart was crushed after seeing Sibyl’s horrible acting, and was there to remind Lord Henry how much he really cared about Dorian. However, in the end, by trying to remind Dorian Gray of who he used to be, and by trying to set him back on the right path, he was murdered by the very person he worshipped. Throughout the novel, he had been the one who was “boring” and “without a fault”, at least according to Lord Henry’s standards. Therefore, it is interesting that he faces such an unfortunate end when Lord Henry is untouched by Dorian’s actions.
In the end, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a story that provides both entertainment and food for thought. Lord Henry Wotton’s statements that are strewn throughout the novel definitely make the reader pause and reflect on what he said. Through Dorian Gray’s motivations and his tragic end, readers can think about their forbidden desires. Because of the complex characters, their desires, and the decisions they make, the novel provides plenty of opportunities for readers to reflect on themselves as well as on those around them, while enjoying a story about a man who was able to hold on to his beauty and youth until the moment of his death. For these reasons, I argue that Wilde’s novel is more than just well-written, and that it contains moral messages. In contradiction to his own statement, his novel is a novel that is worth being analyzed and discussed by literature lovers.
Wilde, Oscar. The picture of Dorian Gray. Dover Publications, 1993.