Immortal Beauty vs “Natural Life” – Which Would You Choose? Looking at The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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.

 

<Works Cited>

Wilde, Oscar. The picture of Dorian Gray. Dover Publications, 1993.

What Are You Trying To Say? John Dowell’s Unreliable Story As Portrayed in The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

What Are You Trying To Say?
John Dowell’s Unreliable Story
As Portrayed in The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

When we tell a story about something that happened, we often choose to tell it solely from our own perspective – imbuing the story with our biases and often changing or adding details here and there to make the story sound favorable to ourselves. This is what John Dowell does in The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion by Ford Madox Ford. Dowell tells the story of the Ashburnhams, his wife, Florence, and himself not in a carefully-organized, chronological, and factual manner, but in a way that is random and haphazard, completely disregarding the appearance of his tale. Even as he tells the story to the reader, he shows moments of confusion and doubt as to what really happened. In addition to this, throughout his story, he insists on describing Edward Ashburnham is a “good soldier,” even though the readers are aware that this is not true. The effect of all of this is interesting; It makes John Dowell a realistic character, a real person, while at the same time making him an unreliable narrator. In the end, John Dowell does not only fool the readers with his story, but he also fools himself.

It is important to organize one’s thoughts before conveying them to others in order to create clear understanding. If one conveys thoughts in a disorganized, confusing manner, it is easy to lose the listener’s attention, as well as their trust and respect. John Dowell does exactly this, and he does this on purpose so that readers will not be able to tell whether Dowell is a sane person who may be trying to sound foolish, or whether he is actually a fool. Earlier in the novel, Dowell says, “I don’t know how it is best to put this thing down – whether it would be better to try and tell the story from the beginning, as if it were a story; or whether to tell it from this distance of time, as it reached me from the lips of Leonora or from those of Edward himself” (44). Dowell is telling a story of events that took place many years ago. This means that the facts may not be as fresh in his mind as they would have been if the events had taken place recently. In addition to this, he wonders if he should tell the story as he heard from Leonora or Edward, which puts even greater distance from the reader and the actual story. After muddling the facts as much as possible, Dowell tells the readers, “I don’t know. I leave it to you” (Ford, 223).

By the time I finished Dowell’s story, I had to re-adjust some of my perceptions of the characters in Dowell’s story. I also felt confused as to what had really happened, and John Dowell’s gullibility and ignorance shocked me until I found the following quote in Smith’s article. Smith asks, “[d]oes it follow that Dowell, from start to finish, is simply telling a tall tale? This question can be rephrased to come better to the point: does it follow that Dowell is inside, as well as outside, the tale Ford tells through him? Inside it twice, that is?” (327). This seemed very possible. After all, Dowell waits for a long time before telling his story, and even while telling his story, he takes his time. At certain points, he even puts in “knowledge” that are doubtful and questionable. In his article, Smith goes on to explain that only way for Dowell to be both inside and outside the story would be if Dowell were to dupe himself, or as Smith says, “if a dupe can dupe himself” (327). Maybe Dowell truly wanted to believe Edward Ashburnham was a good man, despite the flashing signs that proved he wasn’t. Maybe he wanted to share his story with others to make sense of what happened, but he wanted to make sure he himself sounded like a good guy, and that just wasn’t possible if he told the story straight from the beginning to the end without changing anything. Whatever the case may be, when the readers realize they had been fooled by Dowell by the end of the story, it is possible that they are not the only ones fooled. By telling the story the way he did, Dowell may have also fooled himself.

Stories are interesting because, depending on who tells them, the main message of the stories will be different. This is natural. After all, when people go through the same experience, they all remember different parts of it as being the most memorable. Because of this, John Dowell’s version of the story cannot be fully trusted. We never hear from the other characters. Of course, Dowell does many other things to make himself especially more unreliable as a narrator. He tells a story of events that happened a long time ago, many parts of which he is not very sure of. He switches the order of events in his narrative so that readers are often left with a huge gap that is unexplained. Throughout it all, he makes readers wonder whether his feelings for Edward Ashburnham may go beyond just friendship. By choosing to tell a story without any particular organization, where revelations are made a bit late, Dowell manages to keep the readers in darkness where nothing that Dowell tells them can be trusted completely. Most importantly, Dowell does not just lead the readers into listening to his tale. By portraying himself as one of the characters in his “fabricated” tale, Dowell manages to be fooled by himself. So who do we fool with our tales?

 

<Works Cited>

Ford, Ford Madox, Kenneth Womack, and William Baker. The good soldier a tale of passion. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview literary texts, 2002. Print.

Smith, Grover. “Dowell as Untrustworthy Narrator.” The good soldier: authoritative text, textual appendices, contemporary reviews, literary impressionism, biographical and critical commentary. By Ford Madox Ford and Martin Stannard. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. 325-30. Print.

I Just Want the Best For You

I Just Want the Best For You:
Understanding Mrs. Bennett from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

How many times have we heard our parents say, “I just want what’s best for you, honey”? Often, this comes as their response during an argument when we refuse to listen to their requests. What is hard for us to consider is the fact that, the discrepancy between the cultural and environmental backgrounds of our parents may differ harshly from our own. Therefore, even though our parents really do want what’s best for us, it may not feel that way for us, their children. In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Mrs. Bennet is portrayed as a woman whose only goal in life is to marry off her daughters. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, there are no explanations or excuses provided for Mrs. Bennet’s actions, unlike the other novels, such as Beloved by Toni Morrison or Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin. And yet, Mrs. Bennet shares a similarity with the other mothers; As a mother, she wants to make sure that her daughters live happily in a society where a woman’s happiness is determined by wealth and reputation and wealth of the man she marries.

I believe the reason why Mrs. Bennet is often overlooked is the fact that she does not have any particular traits that encourage readers to become attached to her. How can readers be attached to a woman who is blinded by her ambition to marry her daughters off to any rich available bachelors she meets? What readers need to realize is that this is the only way of life Mrs. Bennet understands. As the narrator says:
[Mrs. Bennet] was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news. (3 – 4)
Similar to Mrs. Bennet, the mothers from The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and Please Look After Mom by Kyung Sook Shin also faced educational, economical, and societal limitations as women. In a way, many of these mothers are women of “mean understanding” and “little information” which can lead to them having “uncertain” tempers. What these women know is that the best thing they can do for their daughters is to make sure that they are married into a rich family. Even though Mrs. Bennet can come off as an obstinate mother to the rest of her family as well as to the readers, her obstinacy comes from her deep love for her daughters. When considering the reason for her actions, Mrs. Bennet becomes a sympathetic woman. What kind of mother would not want what Mrs. Bennet wants for her own daughters? Mrs. Bennet’s concern for her daughters is seen when she asks Mr. Collins about Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter. When Mr. Collins says Lady De Bough’s daughter is “…the only one daughter, the heiress of Rosings, and of very extensive property” (83), Mrs. Bennet’s response is, “Ah!…[T]hen she is better off than many girls. And what sort of young lady is she? Is she handsome?” (83). Therefore, even as she comes up with plans to marry off her daughters, she is constantly interested in the status of other unmarried ladies. When she compares her daughters to Lady Catherine’s daughter, it is obvious that her daughters are constantly on Mrs. Bennet’s mind, and being concerned about their marriages is the only way she knows of showing love to them.

The similarity that mothers share universally is the sacrifice they make for their children. The mothers of The Joy Luck Club had wanted for their daughters to understand the sacrifices their mothers had made for them. In a way, Mrs. Bennet is doing the same thing. She is sacrificing her connections to provide the right connections for her daughters. The unfortunate part of this is that she is so busy thinking of her daughter’s futures that she has no time to sit down and explain to them why she is doing what she is doing. Mrs. Bennet is only satisfied when she believes that “…she might soon have two daughters married; and the man whom she could not bear to speak of the day before was now high in her good graces” (88). Even though Mrs. Bennet might feel content from just thinking about her daughters getting married, her daughters may not feel the same way. This shows that what mothers want for their daughters, and what their daughters want for themselves can be very different. The one pattern that stands out among these mothers and daughters is the fact that they never clearly communicate with each other about what their intentions are. The mothers never really explain to their daughters what they want from them and why. The daughters also never bother to ask their mothers the intentions for their actions, and they never explain to their mothers what kind of life they are envisioning for themselves. What this results in, then, is an inevitable conflict between mothers and daughters.

At some point, mothers need to think about whether their goals are shaped by their own societal experiences, which they then pass down to their daughters, without thinking of the different societal experiences their daughters are experiencing at the current moment. The hopes and goals the mothers pass down to their daughters may no longer be relevant, since their daughters are probably living in a completely different society.

At the end of the novel, the narrator of the novel says:
Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters. With what delighted pride she afterwards visited Mrs. Bingley, and talked of Mrs. Darcy, may be guessed. I wish I could say, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life; though perhaps it was lucky for her husband, who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form, that she still was occasionally nervous and invariably silly. (474)
With her two daughters married, Mrs. Bennet is filled with delighted pride. Even though marriages are not simple, Mrs. Bennet’s goal in life is si
mply for her daughters to marry well. It does not take much to make Mrs. Bennet happy, and her goal in life is not to do anything for herself, but to make sure her children are ensured happy lives. Because women face more limitations than men, the goals mothers have for their daughters may be more particular than their goals for their sons, and this is no different for Mrs. Bennet.  Even though many daughters may be too frustrated with their mothers to realize this, they need to remember one thing, and it is this: The one goal that a mother has is to provide the best she can for her children.

 

<Works Cited>

Austen, Jane. Free EBooks. http://www.planetebook.com/ebooks/Pride-and-Prejudice.pdf.

Mother, Who Are You?: The Role of Mothers as Portrayed in Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

 

Mother, Who Are You?

The Role of Mothers as Portrayed in Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin

“When I was little, my family was so poor that my parents had to send me away to my grandparents’ house,” my Mom told me across the small table. We were at a café that was on the first floor of my college building. It was a Sunday, and my Mom was visiting me because I was going through one of my anxiety-ridden stages. She continued, “I became so used to living with my grandmother, that my own mother felt strange to me.” I looked at her then, because this was the first time I was hearing her share her feelings about this experience. “When my parents came to my grandparents’ house, I would run behind the house to hide up in the hills among the trees. I still remember. My mother would call, ‘Jane! Jane!’ And I would crouch down, blocking my ears with my hands. She felt strange to me.” For some reason, this made me ache for my mom. I looked at my mother, amazed at how she could be such a strong person today despite what she went through. My mother lost her father when she was a teenager, and growing up without a father in South Korea meant you were unintelligent. She is also short, which did not help the way others viewed her. However, as we grew up, she always praised my siblings and me, and always told us that our family – our mother, father, my older sister, myself, and my younger brother – were the only people that mattered among billions of people in the world. She always said to look out for each other because there is no one else who is more important. Living away from her own family in Korea, my mother calls her own mother whenever she can. When my family was still living in Korea, she looked after my dad’s parents as if they were her own. But the point is that, there are so many things I don’t know about my mother, and perhaps, I never will know enough about her as she knows about me. We expect our mothers to know us inside and out, but we don’t expect ourselves to know everything about our own mothers. Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin shows just how invisible the role of a mother can be, despite how crucial and significant her role is for her family.

How well do we know our mothers? In Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Chi-hon, So-nyo Park’s daughter, asks, “Did you like being in the kitchen? Did you like to cook?” (pg. 57). To this, So-nyo responds, “I don’t like or dislike the kitchen. I cooked because I had to. I had to stay in the kitchen so you could all eat and go to school. How could you only do what you like?” (pg. 57). This simple yet significant question reminds us of how we all have memories of our mothers being in the kitchen. We expect them to be everything for us – When we catch a cold, we expect our mothers to measure our temperature, cook us chicken noodle soup, tuck us in, and to stay by us until we feel better. We expect them to provide us food at mealtime, and we expect them to fulfill their “duties” as our “mother.” But we never ask them whether they like this role. We can protest about certain chores we are assigned to do, but we do not expect our mothers to protest about their roles. Interestingly, So-nyo Park in Please Look After Mom seems to feel the same. It is not about whether she likes staying in the kitchen. She cooks for her family because somebody has to. Although I tried to be helpful to my mom whenever I could while growing up, it never occurred to me that I could ask my mom about how she felt about staying in the kitchen and cooking for our family. I think I thought of it as a tacit agreement: She is the mother of our family, and so it is one of her responsibilities to cook for us. When someone else in the family tried to cook something in the kitchen for the family, my mom insisted that they go and do whatever they needed to do, she can do the cooking. But I was wrong in thinking there had ever been an agreement about my mom’s role in the family. An agreement means a mutual agreement. What else have I not bothered to ask my mom?

What do we mean to our mothers? In most Asian countries, sons are more valuable than daughters. In Shin’s novel, this is shown by the fact that So-nyo expects her son to study to become a prosecutor, while she expects Chi-hon to stay behind and help her cook, prepare materials, and even help with field work. Despite of the role her mother expects from her, Chi-hon says to So-nyo, “Mom.” (pg. 18). As the narrator points out, “The word ‘Mom’ is familiar and it hides a plea: Please look after me. Please stop yelling at me and stroke my head; please be on my side, whether I’m right or wrong” (pg. 18). We expect our mothers to understand and forgive our faults, and we expect them to tolerate our tantrums. However, as daughters, if we ever find that our mothers are no longer standing by us, then our world simply falls apart. We feel lonely and unprotected. This is the strength that mothers hold over us.

What do our mothers expect of us? When So-nyo is seventeen, her parents arrange her marriage with a young man whom she has never met. When So-nyo breaks down in front of her mother, saying she does not want to leave her family, her mother tells her:

It’s not a bad thing to get married. It’s something you can’t avoid. You were born deep in the mountains. I wasn’t able to send you to school, so if you don’t get married what can you do? When I matched your horoscope with the groom’s, it said that you two will be very lucky. You won’t lose a single child, and you will have many children, and they will grow up and succeed. What else could you want? Since you came into this world as a human, you have to live happily with your mate. You have to have your babies and breastfeed them and raise them. Stop crying, stop crying. I’ll make you special blankets with willowed cotton. (pg. 131-132)

Like all mothers, So-nyo’s mother wants the best for her daughter. What So-nyo’s mother knows is that a good marriage with healthy children is the best a woman can have. Because she raised her daughter in the mountains without any education, she believes there is no better option for her daughter. Through these means – a good marriage and healthy children – she wants her daughter to achieve happiness of a lifetime. In the end, this is what all mothers want, even if their daughters do not understand at the moment the choices their mothers make for them.

In the novel, So-nyo is never found by her family, who never really realized just how ill So-nyo was. Even though she is dead, she still watches over her children. Watching over her eldest daughter, she says, “I’m going to go now. Lie down, put your head on my lap for a little while. Rest a bit. Don’t be sad for me. I was happy so many days of my life because I had you” (186). Whereas So-nyo reflects on her happiness on living as her daughters’ mother, her daughters do not and cannot feel the same way. If no misfortune happens, then our parents pass away before us, as the cycle of life goes. The ones who are left living are left to face their regrets. Chi-hon’s older sister writes to Chi-hon:

Do you remember asking me a while ago to tell you something that only I knew about Mom? I told you I didn’t know Mom. All I knew was that Mom was missing. It’s the same now. I especially don’t know where her strength came from. Think about it. Mom did things that one person couldn’t do by herself. I think that’s why she became emptier and emptier. Finally, she became someone who couldn’t find any of her kids’ houses. I don’t recognize myself, feeding my kids and brushing their hair and sending them to school, unable to go look for Mom even though she’s missing. You said I was different, unlike other young moms these days, that there was a small part of me that’s a little bit like her, but sister, no matter what, I don’t think I can be like Mom. Since she went missing, I often think: Was I a good daughter? Could I do the kind of things for my kids she did for me? (218)

How is it possible that mothers are capable of everything they do? Of course, not all mothers are the same, and I am very lucky to have been born as my mother’s daughter. But having grown up as her daughter, under her infinite love and care, I never imagined her being anyone else than my mother. When I become a mother myself, could I do what my mother did for my siblings and me?

At the end of the novel, So-nyo becomes so ill that she loses her memory, and never being found by her family, passes away without their knowledge. When So-nyo dies, she returns to her own mother. Walking to the house where she grew up in, she sees her own mother waiting for her. She says:

“My baby,” Mom says, and opens her arms. Mom puts her hands under my armpits as if she’s holding a child who has just died. She takes the blue plastic sandals off my feet and pulls my feet into her lap. Mom doesn’t smile. She doesn’t cry. Did Mom know? That I, too, needed her my entire life? (212)

I believe that it would be impossible to understand the scope of strength and love that mothers possess. Yet, there are so many things we do not know about the woman who is our mother, best friend, teacher, counselor, and doctor. Before it’s too late, it may be good for us to ask our mothers, “Mother, who are you?”

Works Cited

Sin, Kyong-suk, and Chi-Young Kim. Please look after mom. New York, Knopf, 2011.