By Oscar Wilde
Reviewed by Alan Green
Dorian Gray is a fashionable young man about town. He seems to have it all; looks, wealth, wit and he never looks a day older. As you’d expect Dorian has a dark and terrible secret. When his good friend Basil painted a portrait of him he was so moved that he rashly exclaimed,
“If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that”
As the old saying goes it is important to be careful what you wish for especially if you’re going to be really stupid and offer your soul as barter. We soon find out that the devil has taken up Dorian’s generous offer. Dorian never ages another minute but the picture gradually grows older. Even more worryingly the face in the portrait begins to show signs of depravity and corruption. Helped along by his demonic mentor Lord Henry, Dorian rapidly slides into a dark underworld of shady temptations, forbidden sexuality, opium dens and murder.
In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ Oscar Wilde takes one of western culture’s central myths and rewrites it for the modern era. The myth of the Faustian pact is transposed to a society that questions the assumptions it relies on. Does the idea of selling your soul to the devil lose its power if people see the devil and even their souls as just metaphors? It doesn’t have to; it depends on how much significance people attach to poetic images. In ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ Wilde questions whether or not the cherished myths of the past could still retain any significance in a radically changed world.
One of the big differences between this novel and earlier stories about pacts with demons is that any readers who know anything about the author (and most of them do) are likely to assume that he would sympathise more with the ‘satanic’ Lord Henry rather than the moral Basil.
Throughout the novel Lord Henry advocates the pursuit of pleasure and the glorification of youth and beauty. These are ideas that Wilde himself is often associated with. Many of the clever lines that people have been quoting for over a century now were originally part of Lord Henry’s dialogue in this novel.
It is very misleading to conflate a writer and his character. Wilde isn’t Lord Henry or any of his other characters. He was a far more complex person than the literary icon we think of when we hear his name. He created a public persona, the witty aesthete of the ‘Wilde’ myth.
When this book was first published the belief that it was Lord Henry who really represented the author’s views and some passages that were interpreted as thinly veiled references to homosexuality led some people to condemn it as an immoral book. Today that seems strange, despite Wilde’s claim that there is no such thing this is surely a very moral book. It explores questions of right and wrong. It looks at how people should live and ultimately it argues that our immoral actions will always catch up with us, that all sin contains its own punishment because it degrades the soul.
The picture represents Dorian’s soul and his conscience. However hard he ties to hide it, it always torments him. When he finally destroys it, in doing so he destroys himself.
Lord Henry is a very interesting character because like some kind of witty, genteel antichrist he has a dual nature. He is at one and the same time a human character with a human personality and also the devil himself, the tempter of mankind.
In a desperate attempt to escape, Dorian shows Basil the portrait that reveals the terrible secrets of his corrupted soul. Basil tells him to pray for forgiveness. The picture seems to goad Dorian into brutally rejecting his friend’s attempt to save him. Poor Basil becomes a victim of the hideous idol he helped to create.
He is not the only innocent bystander to fall foul of this Satanic bargain. Dorian leaves a trail of destruction in his wake as he whirls through life oblivious to the harm he is causing, interested only in the relentless pursuit of new pleasures.
Later on Dorian has another go at trying to break free. He decides that he is going to start being a better person. His first moral act is ‘sparing’ a young girl he has been pursuing. When he tells Lord Henry about this his mentor argues that he probably just did it because giving something up was an experience he hadn’t tried yet. The next time he looks at the picture he sees signs of hypocrisy. Either Dorian is too far-gone to be capable of a genuine attempt to reform or Wilde is suggesting that all morality is at least slightly tainted by hypocrisy.
Towards the end of the novel Lord Henry asks Dorian,
“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and lose – how does the question run? – His own soul?
Coming from Lord Henry this seems mocking. If we read the book simply as an updated version of the Faust myth then this is the moral of the story. Dorian learns too late that,
“The soul is a terrible reality. It can be bought and sold, and bartered away. It can be poisoned or made perfect.”