Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dorian, You'd be Right at Home in the 21st Century

This asylum we’re investigating must be a rather posh place. Look at the beautiful high-society gentleman up ahead. One such as he wouldn’t be caught dead in a low class establishment. Odd how he’s covered the painting in his room though.

Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is interesting in that Wilde wrote a novel in which he can examine good and evil, and allow his characters to monologue on the subject. However, I would argue Wilde’s interest in, and words devoted to, evil is far more developed than his interest in good.

My evidence? Lord Henry/Harry and Wilde allowing him page after page of eloquent sounding rubbish. Harry’s value system, which quickly becomes Dorian Gray’s value system, is one of debauchery, worship of fleeting things (art, beauty), and self pleasure to the detriment of everything else. In short, Harry is a Hedonist, and a very good one. He disguises his massive appetites behind a hypnotic voice and a quick wit that leaves his fellow characters, and the reader, wondering if he means what he says or is just trying to be provocative.

His counterpoint in this novel is Basil Hallward, an artist of some talent who recognizes the basic good in the world. But his good is fleeting and really only is featured in spots. He too slips over to the dark side of the equation, though, in his devotion to Dorian Gray, whose beauty overpowers and inspires Basil.

Then we come to Dorian Gray. Wilde is wonderful in naming his main character “Gray” as he intends for Dorian to be in the middle of these two counterpoints (Harry and Basil). However, Wilde never really gives the good side of the equation much stage time. After the title “Picture” is painted Dorian essentially shuns Basil and allows his way of thinking and his life to follow Harry’s Hedonism. Dorian could very easily have been called “Dorian Black,” but of course that isn’t nearly as interesting.

Wilde does an excellent job of showing all three of these main characters vacillating between their positions on the moral scale. In Chapter One Harry says “I don’t suppose that ten percent of the proletariat live correctly.” Earlier he says “The masses feel that drunkenness, stupidity, and immorality should be their own special property,” Harry is telling Basil that people are generally bad, and that high society people are looked upon as worse when they do bad things, which is ironic and hypocritical since the common folks are at least as sinful as the upper class.

To this Basil replies “I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.”

Throughout this book Harry makes statements that truly demonize society. From marriage to art, Harry has a quip or a theory, and all of them paint societal norms as a sham, a façade, something only dull or stupid people engage in or believe in. For example, when Dorian tells Harry he plans to marry, Harry has many comments on marriage. In chapter six, Harry tells Basil about Dorian’s actress/fiancé “Oh, she is better than good – she is beautiful,” and later in the same chapter he says: “You know I am not a champion of marriage. The real drawback to marriage is that it makes one unselfish. And unselfish people are colourless. They lack individuality.” Harry also says: “I hope that Dorian Gray will make this girl his wife, passionately adore her for six months, and then suddenly become fascinated by someone else.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of marriage, and that is the essence of Harry.

He is fascinated by fleeting things: youth, beauty, fads. If alive today he would be a Hollywood fashion reporter or a person who compiles lists of “what’s hot and what’s not” for some fluff magazine. He is all style and no substance. Throughout the book Wilde softens this cynicism by providing dialogue partners to counter his points or brush off his rhetoric as balderdash.

But the reader wonders: is Harry truly speaking to be provocative or does he believe the things he says? Wilde provides an example for both options. For the evil, Harry counsels Dorian to stay clear of the investigation into the death of Sibyl Vane and feeds Dorian’s ego further by having Dorian romanticize his role in her death into something of a little play. Sibyl was nothing more than an interesting plaything that is now broken and must be forgotten. For Harry she was pretty, yes, but she couldn’t act so she isn’t worth mourning. To the good, in Chapter nineteen Dorian essentially confesses to murdering Basil: “What would you say, Harry, if I told you that I had murdered Basil?” To which Harry replies: “All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. It is not in you.” Again, not exactly an angelic attitude from Harry, but at least he couches his dark side somewhat.

Dorian Gray certainly believes what Harry says. From the day he meets Harry to the day he takes his own life Dorian is living his life according to Harry’s code (if you watch “Dexter” you understand a double meaning here, if not, don’t worry, not central to the reading of this novel).

The other side of this equation is Basil. On two separate occasions he comes to Dorian Gray’s home and there is a chance his influence may help, or even save, Dorian from the path he is on. The first time is in Chapter nine, shortly after Sibyl Vane has committed suicide. Basil had heard that the night after her death Dorian had gone to the Opera: “I called last night, and they told me you were at the Opera. Of course I knew that was impossible.” Basil can’t believe that such an event (death) would be responded to with such indifference by Dorian, especially after so short a time (a day). Basil continues: “You can talk to me of other women being charming, and of Patti singing divinely, before the girl you loved has even the quiet of a grave to sleep in?” And later in chapter nine: “You were the most unspoiled creature in the whole world. Now, I don’t know what has come over you. You talk as if you had no heart, no pity in you.”

Dorian responds to Basil’s horror still later in chapter nine when Basil remarks “How fearful,” upon learning Sibyl’s death was suicide and not accident. “No … there is nothing fearful about it.” Then Dorian explains: “I suffered immensely. Then it passed away. I cannot repeat an emotion.” Dorian reveals himself to be void of empathy or sorrow here.

Basil then tries to take the picture that ages while Dorian remains young in appearance, and this is what drives the two once close men apart. Basil can’t have the picture, and Dorian will never sit for another one. Basil leaves confused and hurt. Later, in unlucky chapter number thirteen Basil is going to Paris, but stops at Dorian’s home again to quell his own fears as he’s heard dreadful things about Dorian Gray. Dorian shows Bail his painting, and how hideous and deformed the image has become.

Thank God Wilde gave the reader a second witness to the portrait changing. Had only Dorian put eyes on the picture after moving it upstairs to his childhood study/library, the reader could surmise the eternal youthfulness and the changing in the painting as all in Dorian Gray’s head.

But Basil sees it. He sees it and is horrified. Instead of fleeing, or threatening to reveal this terrible secret to the world, he tries to put Dorian Gray on the right path. He tries to save him. In chapter thirteen: “Good God, Dorian, what a lesson! What an awful lesson!” Basil continues: “Pray, Dorian, pray, … What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered also. I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.”

Basil recognizes his sin, and tries to help Dorian recognize his sin. Basil’s reward? To be stabbed to death in the same library, left dead slumped over a table, then to be melted away to hide the evidence by Campbell, one of Dorian’s old friends (lovers?). Dorian’s reaction to Basil is hatred, and then murder.

So, why the title of this blog? As a person reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in 2009 my mind kept equating Dorian’s eternal beauty with our current societal obsession with youth and beauty (and sex), and how accurate a picture Wilde’s novel paints even today.

Today Dorian Gray would simply be known as “Dorian.” He’d live in Hollywood and be addicted to plastic surgery. Instead of jewels and tapestries he’d collect high end European sports cars and would be one of the people who just had to have the latest tech gadgets first so he could show them off. Instead of opium he’d prefer crystal meth.

Our present day Dorian Grays go by the names Paris or Britney. We have an entire class of people who exist in that rarified air known as celebrity who don’t have a discernable talent or contribute one iota to society. Dorian can play the piano a little, but he never is shown to have a job or a purpose other than fulfilling his every whim.

But even in this Wilde couches the evil in Dorian. Up until Basil confronts him and is shown the picture Dorian’s sins are mere rumor. Wilde gives us the dreadfully dull chapter eleven that painstakingly catalogues fad after fad, shallow interest after shallow interest that Dorian tries to lose himself in. Chapter eleven could have been a catalogue of visits to opium dens and Dorian Gray stealing into high-society homes to ruin reputations. Instead of seeing these sins directly Wilde has the reader learn after nearly two decades that Dorian has been a very bad person. Would the book have been too horrible if the reader could see what eternal youth can grant a person of standing?

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” was published in 1890/1891. Oscar Wilde is rebuking the nineteenth century as one filled with debauchery and decadence. He takes shots at society, art, vanity, relationships between men and women, and the classes. I bet even he didn’t know how accurate a portrayal of twentieth/twenty-first century society this would still be today.

1 comment:

  1. A very thorough analysis of the characters and the way Wilde has fun playing them off each other. Hedonism indeed. I like how you connect all this to the empty celebrity fetishism of today. It's hard to tell if Wilde is really "rebuking" these things...his moral stance on all this is a little uncertain, I think (see his philosophical statements in the prologue, for instance). I think he's more of a Harry than anyone else, but perhaps that's just my view. Good study here...thank you!