This was my first foray into Oscar Wilde, and it was delightful. The book is an excellent meditation on the relation between art and life; but if it were only that, it would be boring indeed. So it’s about equally split between that and scenes of building tension that culminate in some scenes of jaw-dropping horror. I was not expecting the latter. I was expecting mostly Victorian material of the sort that Eddie Izzard described (summarizing the Merchant-Ivory movies) as “Room with a view and a staircase and a pond.” To the contrary, it was actually a page-turner. I wasn’t expecting that.
The basic story is that Dorian Gray is the sort of exquisitely beautiful creature that Plato would have taken as his sexy boy-servant and taught the ways of the world; the earlier parts of the book feature a fair bit of innuendo around Dorian’s ruby-red lips and so forth, which I imagine were fairly titillating when Wilde’s book came out in 1891. The painter Basil Hallward, when we meet Dorian, has seated the boy for a number of sessions, taking Dorian as his muse. Basil’s friend Harry Wotton, being one of those English gentlemen of leisure who spend their days careening from luncheon with the duchess to a cocktail party to the opera, hangs out with Basil and Dorian and drops apothegm upon apothegm about the proper conduct of a life. Should a man be ethical and good and decent? Harry generally finds decent people the most boring, and advocates for sucking the marrow out of life: when you’re young and beautiful, as Dorian is, sin as much as you can. You’ll have time enough to be decent when you’re dead. Harry rejects conventional morality; he’d much prefer to live every moment to its fullest, consequences be damned. Dorian takes this to heart.
One moment Dorian is engaged to be married to a young, exquisite actress. The next moment is just perfectly framed: the next night after he’s proposed to her, he goes to see her on stage, and all the art has drained from her performance; she is atrocious, and most of the audience has left by the time she’s done. When he confronts her about this after the show, she gushes that she now sees that all art is fake, and she wants only to live a beautiful real life with Dorian. He, meanwhile, has sworn himself to a life that is nothing but art; seeing his formerly beloved as the wretched actor that she’s become, he casts her aside, rending her heart in two. You might say that he’s in pursuit of truth through the Platonic forms, and has given up on vulgar reality, while she’s done just the opposite. His rejection of her leads her, that very night, to kill herself in one of the ghastly ways that women in 19th-century novels did (see Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary).
Initially Dorian is shocked. In his shock, he goes to examine the portrait that Basil had painted of him, and he sees that the portrait has ever-so-subtly changed. The mouth has become noticeably more scornful and … evil, while Dorian himself remains as perfect as he ever was. And as he ages throughout the novel, descending into a more and more hedonistic life, paying less and less attention to the destruction he wreaks on everyone around him, the painting becomes more and more grotesque while real-life Dorian still bears the physical perfection of a naïve and unsullied 17-year-old. He jealously hides the painting where no one will see it, in a locked attic to which only he has the key. His soul, which is on display in the painting, blackens, while the man himself is physically as flawless as ever.
There are interesting bits in here that you might call “philosophical” if you were into labeling such things. For instance, the moment when Dorian decides to worship art over life is the moment when the art depicting Dorian comes to be the only source of reality in Dorian’s life. What is art, anyway? And what does the artist depict? What should the artist depict?
Hard to know how much to blame Dorian’s descent into metaphysical ugliness on his friendship with Harry, and his absorbing Harry’s sinful teachings. Harry appears throughout the book, watching Dorian’s debauchery with (we envision) a slight smirk. Harry somehow seems above the fray. He can’t be too upset about anything, because his cynical eye has already foreseen the decline and fall of everything, and the true grotesque nature that lies inside most men. Dorian becomes the sort of dissolute, revolting creature whom respectable people cross the street to avoid, while Harry remains admitted to all areas of polite society. That may be the part of the book that mystifies me the most: Harry is Dorian’s teacher, and to all appearances Harry is satisfied with the progress of his student. Yet the student turns evil in ways that the teacher never would.
All told, it’s an engrossing book: thought-provoking and absolutely gripping. After 100-some years, you don’t really need me to tell you to go read Wilde’s novel; nonetheless, you really should.