Oscar Wilde is perhaps the literary world’s most flamboyant character. Wilde has become a legendary figure, a man who pushed the social barriers of gender and sex in a time when those boundaries where met with fierce resistance. Wilde was a purveyor of hedonism. He believed in seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering as the only proponents of well-being. Wilde landed himself a stint in HM Reading Prison in 1897 for defending his pursuits of pleasure on homosexual offences. As such, Wilde has become somewhat of a LGBTQ+ icon, a man who stood up for his right to love and live freely. Wilde’s work largely consists of poetry, but fortunately for us, he did leave us with a remarkably influential novel: The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.
Oscar Wilde’s tale focuses around the character of Dorian, a young and naïve man who becomes corrupted by the ideologies of his peers. The novel begins with the companionship of Basil Haywood, a portraiture artist, and Dorian Gray, who is acting as Basil’s sitter. Basil is intrigued by the younger man due to his exquisite beauty, and gives Dorian the painting as a gift so he can look upon his beauty forever. Dorian meets Sir Henry Wotten, a mutual friend of Basil who greatly influences the young man. These men, who have the privilege of being older and more experienced with life, bestow upon Dorian their wisdom and Dorian soon becomes taken with their hedonistic view of the world.
The tale is a look at vanity and temptation, and how such elements can shape a life. Dorian spends his life pursuing temptation and earthly pleasures, but in order to do that he must outrun the inevitable process of aging and the ever looming deterioration of physical beauty.
The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.
Wilde is renowned for his hedonistic beliefs, he truly believed that temptation was there to be enjoyed. That we should give ourselves to it completely. His novel reflects his ideals through his characters and Dorian, our protagonist, becomes enthralled by a hedonistic lifestyle — a lifestyle that allows him to pursue pleasure and enjoyment regardless of consequence or indeed conscience.
A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her.
As the story progresses and Dorian becomes more mature, falling in love with female characters that he meets along his journey. He begins to see the flaws of conventional relationships. His companions even suggest that the love for a partner is something that can actually ruin day to day experiences between men and women. Dorian begins to dive further down the rabbit hole of sin, pleasure and temptation after he rids himself of the women of whom he feels are unworthy of his love. Wilde captures a man who flies in the face of conventions, like marriage, and walks into the open arms of promiscuity.
Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed.
These older characters tell Dorian that a lifetime of sin leaves its mark in the bearers face. Through wrinkles and scars the signs of sin are written, marks that cannot be shed or hidden. In Wilde’s gothic novel Dorian engages with temptation and promiscuity, developing a long list of sinful experiences, but he does not age. Through all of his behaviours Dorian remains as beautiful as ever but his portrait, the gift that Basil Haywood bestowed on him, slowly becomes aged, decrepit and mangled. The writings of sin appear not on Dorian’s face but upon his portrait instead. Wilde captures vanity remarkably differently from his fellow writers. The novel received a huge amount of backlash at the time, as many critics believed it would cause the British public to question morality and pursue a life of sin. Many have believed that Dorian made a deal with the devil and the British media believed that Wilde’s novel was sinful and extremely harmful to members of the public.
The novel belongs on a writer’s bookshelf because it is more relevant than ever. We may not have portraits hanging all over our homes but we do have social media. The perfect selfie is perhaps the equivalent of the perfect portrait. In fact to some of us, as long as we look good on social media, our own physical appearance can take a backseat. Such notions say a lot about how the human condition perceives vanity. The Picture of Dorian Gray gives us plenty of food for thought in the twenty-first century and belongs on a writers bookshelf.
What do you think?
Have any of you guys read the Picture of Dorian Gray? What did you think? Let me know the answer to all these questions down in the comments section of this post. Do you agree with Wide should we pursue our pleasures at the risk of moral approval? Let me know what you think!