Friday, August 22, 2008

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray features a "protagonist" who is an amoral monster and who lacks the tiniest sliver of empathy, perhaps only topped by the Loki character of the story, who may not do as much outright harm, but sets the decadent progress of Mr. Gray in motion, knowing full well what he has wrought. The characters are steeped in the typical misogyny of the era, mostly discarding the female characters as background noise, safe in their little castles of privilege.

Naturally, I'm completely in love with Dorian Gray and the mood of the book. Who cares if the character is despicable, as long as it's done with some charm!
I don't know what separates Dorian Gray, self-indulgent savant extraordinaire, from some other self-indulgent characters I did not have such a positive reaction to. Probably it's a case of judging the author of the piece. Oscar Wilde lets his character run free, destroying lives willy-nilly without much care, without getting his just deserts from society as given in the story, but the author provides an obvious and clear moral message in the text. Now, I read in the foreword that Wilde had been criticized for writing a book that "lacked morals", and he thus added the ending of it. This strikes me as very strange, as the tale up until the final six chapters is full of morals, and I must say that anyone criticizing it for not being moral enough is not really someone I would trust as a moral individual. The six chapters added provides some good writing, to be sure, but it's pretty clear that it's there to provide the 19th century version of a Comics Code ending. Or perhaps it is merely that Oscar Wilde showed what really counted in those circles, and that it is the appearance of a man that is the real value of a person.

Now, the actual book is a story about how Dorian Gray, a beautiful young gentleman
who is preyed upon by London's upper class homosexual men, that is, all of them who is seduced into worshipping aesthetics by what I call the Loki character (I'm pretty sure that people usually call this a Mephistopheles character, but I've never read Faust) of the story, Lord Henry, who gleefully leads the young man astray, feeds his egotism and promotes the value that it is only the aesthetic qualities of people's lives that gives them value. The hitch, if anyone was unaware (which I doubt anyone who reads this is), is that the virtuous character of the tale, the painter Basil, created a perfect, glorious portrait of Dorian, where all his young virility and beauty shines through, and when seeing it, Dorian makes the fervent wish that he should ever remain so, and the lot of aging instead falls on the portrait. This, naturally, happens, and it is the portrait that gets to carry all the weight of Dorian's physical aging and moral corruption.
Dorian thus goes through society, leaving wrecked men and women in his wake, but always maintaing the perfect appearance. He is observed with amused eyes by the devilish Lord Henry, and with a small part of wide-eyed horror by the moral watchman, Basil.
In society, none who lie eyes on him can imagine him being a bad person, so he retains his social standing no matter what corrupt deeds he commits, because he presents such a beautiful front, while the portrait grows ever darker and meaner.

Of course, I suppose the story is thus quite open for criticism. After all, this clearly postulates the existence of a soul and of objective moral standards, something I'm opposed to. On the other hand, one could see it as Basil, having put all the glorious ideals he imagines in Dorian in the painting is the one who has ensouled it, and it is thus his moral standards that judges and smears the portrait based on Dorian's actions, so it is possible to rationalize that part away. It's not really necessary, though. It is written at the turn of the century, after all, and I can find such a perspective rather quaint. Since I find great parts of the book and the characterizations quaint, what's one more? The entire late 18th-century London society is, after all, quite the vision of people blind to their privileges and failings seated on top of a corrupt empire (and indeed, Oscar Wilde was a pretty damn good example of a frivolous fop himself). The book itself is rather misogynist in the treatment of women, also, but since it's all seen rather through a lens of the cheerful selective perception of the era, I can sort of live with it. The proclamations of essential characteristics of different groups of people comes from individuals who aren't really authorities on the topic, in my mind.

As I mentioned above, I wondered if the novel was not criticized so much at the time because it strikes so close to home. Society is always open to a privileged person who presents himself correctly, and the willful blindness to the failings of a charming or "correct" fellow is rather endemic in all associations of humans. And indeed, Dorian Gray is hardly the worst example in this book, as the existence of the portrait in his attic would provide an excellent excuse for a society wanting to say "well, he was only accepted by virtue of devilish trickery." The existence of Lord Henry, of course, is not so easily explained away. He spurs on all the activities that are regarded as moral failings, and yet he is, by virtue of behaving "correctly" in good company, quite accepted.

So we can attempt to see it as but a trifle of little relevance to the world: Dorian Gray, the deviant monster, goes to his death, weighed down so heavily by the just moral standards we uphold, and just think of the horrible effect of drugs, and so on, but the good principles of society were upheld, the monster had nothing to do with us. But I would claim that the author, with a lot of charm and wit, manages to put his finger on a lot of the moral failings of both individuals and, more importantly, that of a privileged society.

In the preface, Oscar Wilde writes several epigrams about the nature of art. They are quite brilliant, and can certainly be used to criticize this review. Most importantly, we must always remember this:
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors

I sort of agree with this (it is through ourselves we know life, so mirroring the spectator is to mirror life, though not in the sense of objective truth), and I would say that my criticism of a certain other book I reviewed is that it felt too much of an attempt to make the art mirror the author. A book, read un-ironically (I look forward to reading Atlas Shrugged), that makes the reader, when looking into the mirror of the book, look too much like the author, is an abominable thing.