Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Source of book: Borrowed from the library. I haven’t found a good used hardback yet…

This book is the October selection for the Reading to Know Book Club, hosted by my friend Carrie at This will be my final book club review for this year. Next month is Little Women, which I have read, but didn’t find all that interesting, so I’m skipping reading it again. December is A Tale of Two Cities, which I read just a few years back. I liked it, but decided to skip reading it again both because I did recently read it and because December is my most insane music month, so I seriously doubt I would have time to tackle a Dickens novel. I will note in advance that A Tale of Two Cities is only novel for which I can quote the beginning and the ending. No other novel has such memorable lines at both ends. So, if you haven’t already read it, this might be a good chance.

This book also fits into the category of “Books I Should Have Read in High School.”

Photograph by Napoleon Sarony, 1882

I should point out at the outset that I love Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest is, hands down, one of the wittiest and most quotable plays of all time. Any time one needs a pithy - or poisonous - quote, Wilde is always a good bet. So I rather expected to find some good lines in this book, and I was not disappointed.

The central idea of The Picture of Dorian Gray is so well known that it isn’t much of a spoiler to disclose it. Dorian Gray remains young and unspotted by his vice while a portrait of him suffers the consequences of his debauchery.

The plot is also a variation on the age-old story of Faust. The German legend is best known through the plays by Christopher Marlowe and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the earliest versions, Faust sells his soul to the devil for early knowledge (contrasted with heavenly wisdom). In Marlowe’s version, Faust seeks power as much - perhaps more than - knowledge. Goethe makes Faust’s bargain to be the result of his quest for something that transcends the limits of human knowledge and experience - almost the flip side of the original. (I am currently reading part two of Goethe’s Faust, so I will have more thoughts on this soon.)

Wilde makes Dorian Gray rather more shallow than Faust. Where Faust seeks knowledge, power, or transcendence, Dorian wishes to look pretty. He is horrified initially at the thought that he will age and become ugly. At one point, he cannot decided which is worse: to show the signs of cruelty and debauchery, or to simply look old.

He grew more and more enamoured of his own beauty, more and more interested in the corruption of his own soul. He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age.

This vanity, combined with the new-found temptation of the experiences of hedonism, leads him to wish that the portrait would age, rather than himself.

The part of Mephistopheles is played by Sir Henry, who resembles Algernon Moncrief (in The Importance of Being Earnest), except more jaded and worldly-wise. He tempts Dorian (and everyone who will listen) with a delightfully witty never-ending stream of paradoxes and repartees that contain a mixture of truth and poison. He is a living representation of the hedonistic philosophy. Pleasure is everything. Aesthetics is everything.

And he does have some pleasing lines.

I make a great difference between people. I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies. I have not got one who is a fool.

Or this one, which has more than a grain of truth in it:

Each class would have preached the importance of those virtues, for whose exercise there was no necessity in their own lives. The rich would have spoken of the value of thrift, and the idle grown eloquent over the dignity of labour.

It’s hard to believe this wasn’t written yesterday. (Do a web search for McDonalds and how to live on minimum wage.) And there are many, many more. In most cases, there is a grain of truth, mixed with an utterly selfish and self absorbed view of life. At its core, however, it is an empty philosophy, as Wilde makes utterly clear by the end of the book. Henry, and eventually his acolyte Dorian, are incapable of love. Infatuation, yes. (Dorian’s passion for and eventual destruction of, Sybil parallels Faust’s relationship with Margaret.) True love in the sense of believing others exist beyond their capacity for giving one gratification, no. Sir Henry has disdain for his wife (who eventually leaves him for another man) and indeed women in general. One of many examples:

My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.

This inability to love results in one of the most disconcerting scenes in the book. Dorian tells Henry that he is reforming, and that he did a good deed. Henry (and the portrait) reveal that Dorian has merely done good out of vanity and a quest for sensation. Exactly the same reason he engaged in his life of pleasure and debauchery. Although he feels that true repentance would give him freedom, Dorian resists to the end, and eventually destroys himself as a result.

The Picture of Dorian Gray caused a huge scandal when it was published. Before it even made it there, it was revised in part to get past the censors. The revisions seem rather minor to us in retrospect. They were primarily the modification of certain homoerotic elements which might lead to the idea that the painter Basil and Dorian were sexually involved. Nothing even remotely explicit. Perhaps the strongest line was Basil’s remark, “It is quite true that I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man usually gives to a friend.” Actually, this isn’t any stronger than the words King David and his friend Jonathan say to each other in the Bible, but the interpretation of the words was undoubtedly colored by Wilde’s own homosexuality. Wilde was pretty widely suspected of homosexual relationships when he wrote Dorian Gray, but the real scandal came later. As a result of a public accusation (in a manner that would have led to a duel a few decades earlier), Wilde sued a man who accused him of sodomy. In the course of the trial, some of Wilde’s letters came to light, and he was eventually convicted and sent to prison for a couple of years. So yes, the censors seem to have overreacted a bit to some fairly mild elements.

While the reaction to the homoerotic undercurrent was understandable, the work was also condemned by many who felt it condoned hedonism.

One wonders if these critics actually read the book.

If anything, Dorian Gray is a compelling argument against hedonism. It is hard to think of a better vision of just how empty selfish pleasure really is. Sir Henry sounds great. One can see how the naive and vain Dorian would become attracted to his ideas. But the point isn’t that Dorian is punished by a cruel society that doesn’t understand him. Because society loves him, for the most part. He gets his way, and does what he wants. He even seems to escape conscience itself until he crosses over his own line and commits a murder.

And yet he becomes increasingly empty and unhappy. He escapes the physical consequences of his sin, but continues to pay the price in his soul - and indeed in his very essence. That which he believed would lead to happiness destroys him inside long before it leads to his final destruction. “"Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, borrowing from Samuel Johnson’s Latin aphorism.) It is difficult to imagine a more unhappy man than Dorian. And this encourages debauchery?

Perhaps one like Miss Prism (also in Earnest) might interpret it that way. (Such people as my wife knew from her teen years - see the note at the bottom of this review - definitely fell in this category.) If one cannot abide the idea that anyone would ever do anything wrong, even in literature, then this book would be dangerous indeed. (And heaven forbid anyone of this opinion would actually read the Bible. Good lord, there is a lot of sex and violence in there!) But, if one looks beyond the presence of genuine evil in this book, one might note that Wilde’s point is the vanity of, well, vanity and hedonism. As Wilde himself puts it, "The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”

At his best, Wilde is perceptive in his criticisms of the hypocrisy of society, not because he comes out and says “society is bad and hypocritical” but because he strips away the pretty veneer. Sir Henry isn’t really saying things that we don’t all think. He just says them outright rather than coating them in a shell of respectability. Dorian isn’t doing anything we don’t do. He just does them to the extreme. We are all Dorian Gray - and Faust, which is why the legend endures. All of us have our moments of compromise when we think we will not be caught. If we are honest with ourselves, we would undoubtedly discover that Dorian’s bargain would be hard to resist. If our selfishness were truly hidden, and we would never pay the consequences, what would we do? The answer lies in the everyday actions we take to reduce others to means of our fulfilment. (This one thing alone keeps divorce lawyers in business.) And then we justify our selfish actions in ways that seem to leave our own souls unspotted. But what if someone could look at that magical portrait of our souls. What would they see? Would we really want anyone to know what we really look like? Do we really want all our motives laid bare? If one can answer “yes” to that question, one must be a thorough hypocrite indeed.

Note on the ennui of debauchery:

Another quote that I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the main body of my review:

There were sins whose fascination was more in the memory than in the doing of them; strange triumphs that gratified the pride more than the more than the passions, and gave to the intellect a quickened sense of joy, greater than any joy they brought, or could ever bring, to the senses.

Wilde is on to something here. Dante, for example, distinguished between the sins of passion and the sins of deliberate planning. Francesca da Rimini and her lover Paolo are in the outer circles because their adultery was a sensual affair, while the worst punishment (being stuck in Satan’s mouth) was reserved for infamous traitors such as Judas Iscariot. Somehow, the line between sins of a lack of self control and sins purely to gratify the ego are different in our minds. (Perhaps they are different in an absolute sense too.) This is a powerful description. The acts no longer bring pleasure to the senses, but they feed the pride. An interesting idea to ponder.

Note on the most famous quote from this book:

I had heard this numerous times before, but did not realise it came from Dorian Gray - and was one of Sir Henry’s fun lines:

When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs.

Now, confirmation bias is a legitimate problem here. Still, my own practice indicates that Wilde (and Sir Henry) were speaking at least a partial truth. In my experience, one facet in particular does appear to be nearly universally true: A man who has had a long and happy marriage either dies soon after she does, or remarries quickly - and often unwisely.

The other parts of this are less universal. I do see a general tendency after the breakup of a bad marriage. Women tend to think that they just picked badly and will do better next time. And then, they seem to pick, as we lawyers say, “The same person, with a different face.” And men, while they may enter a new relationship after a bad breakup, are more resistant to marrying and having children with a new woman. Once bitten, twice shy. Finally, I do think that one finds more women who remain widows after the end of a good marriage. Although, this may also be due to the fact that men generally tend to die earlier - so there may not be much to choose from after a certain age.

Note on Wilde’s view of his own book:

I am hesitant to take anything Wilde said entirely at face value, because his tongue was pretty much grafted into his cheek. That said, this is Wilde’s statement about Dorian Gray, in a letter to an admirer of the book:

I am so glad that you like that strange coloured book of mine: it contains much of me in it. Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks of me: Dorian what I would like to be - in other ages, perhaps.


  1. I need to read this. I have thoroughly enjoyed *The Importance of Being Earnest* and his short stories are wonderful (even for children, some of them).

  2. I have read and reread Dorian Gray. It has so many great lines and word pictures. One of my favorite classics!