One of London’s most popular playwrights at the time and a philosophical titan of his generation, Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) has bewildered through a bold, yet emotional approach to complex, already established literary themes, as well as through an effervescent and intriguing lifestyle. A constant presence in the city’s fashionable cultural and social circles, Wilde encountered a peculiar way of living life, which he eventually introduced in his writing and transformed into a provocative background for his philosophical thought. One of the most relevant examples from this point of view is “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, one of his most important literary works, published for the first time in 1890.
The novel is set in Victorian era England and revolves around Dorian Gray, a young man who is the subject of a full-length portrait in oil, painted by Basil Hallward, an artist impressed and infatuated by Dorian’s beauty. His belief that Dorian’s physical appearance has been a great influence on his way of making art is added to Dorian’s entrance in the aristocratic circles of London, where he meets Lord Henry Wotton, a representative figure for this pretentious lifestyle. Dorian is soon enthralled by the aristocrat’s hedonistic worldview, according to which beauty and sensual fulfilment are the only objectives worth pursuing in life. Now aware of the fact that, in time, his physical beauty will fade, Dorian expresses the desire to sell his soul to ensure that the picture will age and fade instead. His wish now granted, Dorian proceeds to pursue a libertine life of varied and mostly immoral experiences, while staying young and beautiful, as his portrait ages and records every soul-corrupting sin.
While respecting Wilde’s distinctive style, a wide and challenging thematic approach lies beyond the actual story of Dorian Gray and his portrait. The picture is intended to be a doppelganger for the main character, a virtual twin that eases his projection into two halves meant to illustrate the conflicting nature of a human being. On one side, we have the young, pure, morally untouched instance of Gray that we encounter in the beginning of the novel, receiving eternity and imperishability through conversion into art (which is timeless and immortal – “ars longa, vita brevis”). On the other side, we have the aftermath of Dorian’s toxic lifestyle, based on his newly acquired hedonistic views: his physical appearance degrades under the great pressure of aging and committing sin. All these major changes are carefully documented by his portrait, which ends up showing an old, heavily disfigured man that holds no similarity to the young boy once painted by Basil Hallward. In the meanwhile, Dorian carries on living life for the sake of fulfilling pleasures, all brought at his fingertips by his disarming physical beauty. His desire to fight the curse of aging comes true through what can be described as a Faustian bargain (a contract with the devil, meaning exchange of the soul for worldly gains); in other words, Dorian sells his spiritual liberty in order to obtain physical conservation. His wish breaks the essential laws of nature and, therefore, God’s will itself; his tragic end stands as an example of what happens to those foolish enough to walk against the current and attempt to surpass their initially established position in the universe: Dorian wanted to become immortal and, thereby, more than just a human being, and he was punished accordingly for his sins. His ending is also symbolical for the character’s development throughout the novel: it is preceded by a revelation of Dorian’s true motives behind his decisions and wrongdoing, when he realises the great amount of immorality he has bathed in all this time. Dorian eventually commits suicide by stabbing the portrait, a gesture he considers to be the last vestige of his conscience. As a consequence, he stabs himself and the contract breaks; the servants entering Dorian’s locked room find an unknown old man lying stabbed in the heart, next to the portrait of young Dorian Gray, reverted to its original beauty. The corpse is recognised only by the rings on his fingers, which illustrates the character’s spiritual downfall and unbreakable bond to the superficiality of the material universe. The ending of the book is concise, almost resembling a newspaper article, and is symbolical for the fact that Dorian’s life did not belong to himself as much as it belonged to the ephemeral dimensions of existence.
The novel offers an extensive depiction of the Victorian society, a cultural and social environment in which the author had developed both his literary style and his philosophical approach. The reader explores a great diversity of social classes, organised in a strict hierarchy, as well as the specific interactions among them. The main character is portrayed as a victim of this repressive system, which obliges him to give in to particular views that erode his ethical code. Public image and social standing do matter to Dorian Gray, and his decisions struggle to meet the expectations society has from a young and handsome man like him. His desire to appeal to these particular circumstances will eventually bring about his downfall in sin and his tragic end. Last but not least, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” outlines an accurate representation of those times, along with the most important activities, interests and traditions belonging to those decades.
The greatest theme of the novel is most certainly a Faustian bargain and its conceptual relation to living a double life. The theme is anticipated in the aphoristic preface of the novel, which represents a defence of the artist’s rights and of art for art’s sake. The content, style and the presentation of the preface made it famous as a literary and artistic manifesto. In the novel, aestheticism is presented as an absurd abstraction, which disenchants more than it dignifies the concept of beauty, an important motif in the book. For Wilde, aestheticism opens the doors for living a double life, for bringing to completion two contrary dimensions of the human existence. From this perspective, the artist can be considered both privileged and cursed. Dorian Gray’s example speaks profoundly about what man can do for art and, most importantly, about what art can do for man.
The message of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” stands up to the modern times as one of the most eloquent symbols for duality through aestheticism. Dorian is a refined aesthete and a crude criminal alike, just like a human being harbours conflicting instances based on the same basic needs, psychologically speaking. A concept that allows an extensive representation, the idea is recurrent in literature. A relevant example is “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” (1886), by Robert Louis Stevenson.
As far as I am concerned, I read “The Picture of Dorian Gray” at a relatively young age, when I was just starting to discover the great diversity of approaches and views offered by modern literature. I was surprised to realise that the novel did fit the idea that I had of Wilde’s literature, based on some fairy stories that I read earlier on. His thematic continuity helped me through my reading, which I eventually fathomed through my increasing knowledge in philosophy. I was mostly impressed by Wilde’s ability to paint an accurate cultural and social fresco of his times, his impressive literary universe therefore gaining immortality. Most of all, his pragmatism struck me as unique, as it seemed to me like coming out of a life of hardships and out of a deep exploration of the unfortunate circumstances of a society unable and unwilling to understand and accept.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray”, by Oscar Wilde, is a disarmingly profound novel speaking of past times and striking a sensitive chord for our times, as well. Its pervasive thematic presentation and use of aesthetic and philosophical motifs will keep the reader engaged up to the very last page. I eagerly recommend this novel to readers of all ages and preferences, who will not regret taking a dive in Wilde’s bright and fascinating universe.