“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
So opens Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. What really captured my attention in this novel was the exquisite descriptions of external settings in what is essentially a novel of internal focus. Handsome young Dorian thinks it such a pity that the portrait which his friend has painted of him will remain young and fresh forever, while he is doomed to age and change. He vainly wishes for the opposite and his vanity is rewarded when his wish comes true. Encouraged by the worldly Henry Wotton, Dorian indulges every passion and vice, searching always for new sensations and sinking into ever greater depravity. He remains superficially beautiful, while the picture locked in the attic displays every mark of his growing perversion.
I often grew frustrated with Dorian's lack of depth, the scorn he and Lord Henry express for anything that fails to accord with and support their cynical quest for superficial pleasure:
“Always! That is a dreadful word. It makes me shudder when I hear it. Women are so fond of using it. They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever. It is a meaningless word, too. The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”
Humph. By the end I was quite fed up with Dorian's determination to sacrifice his own real potential for a good life to Lord Henry's insistence that any experience is better than boredom. Faced with a choice between living well and aging gracefully, or giving in to every passing desire, Dorian chooses desire – on the condition that he can hide it successfully. For me, Dorian is a coward who lacks the conviction to stand up and admit to his own choices. Lord Henry is perhaps the main character in the novel – Dorian is his pawn, a challenge for him to corrupt, the evil genius who encourages Dorian to go further and further astray.
“Because to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly -- that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself. Of course they are charitable. They feed the hungry, and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion -- these are the two things that govern us.”
This is not a story with a moral of redemption. There is no saving Dorian. He kills everything that loves him and comes to hate himself – both the perfect self that he sees in the mirror, and the imperfect, internal damnation embodied by the portrait. He finally decides to destroy the portrait, blaming it for all that is wrong with his life, the wrong for which he refuses, right to the end, to accept responsibility for. When he stabs and slashes at the portrait, he does end the spell, but not in the way he intends. The novel ends with Dorian's body, ugly and debauched, lying at the foot of the once more pristine and youthful portrait.
Much as I like happy endings, I was not disappointed by this one. The climax is perfectly timed and justly deserved, while the complete lack of authorial moralising lets the reader draw their own conclusions about the ambiguities so cleverly presented. Why must youth and beauty be ephemeral? What are the wages of sin? Why is living to excess a bad thing? It is a quick read with questions that linger long after the last page is turned.