By Oscar Wilde
I take issue with this book on several points:
Conceptually, it has an interesting premise: A young man’s impulsive wish/prayer to trade roles with a portrait of himself is granted. He will stay eternally beautiful, never age, and his handsome face will never show the effects of thought or action. The portrait will take on the appearance of his body and soul as he goes through life, with changes appearing upon the canvas.
The problem is, while the book sets forth a spiritual concept, that of “the soul,” it doesn’t apply any spiritual thought or instruction to this idea. It’s not clear that Wilde actually believes in the soul as a real entity, as anything more than an abstract concept to provide contrast for his convoluted discussion of “beauty” and “the senses.” It’s as if Wilde believes the two, senses and soul, can’t co-exist. He’s chosen to focus on the senses, he can tell you all kinds of information about those, but when it comes to the soul you’re on your own. We don’t really learn much about the soul from the characters, either.
Lord Henry, who is pretty much the villain as far as I can tell since he initiates the corruption of Dorian’s “soul,” has no humane qualities that we can relate to, empathize with, or even hate. Apparently he doesn’t have a soul himself, since his behavior and attitudes don’t change from the beginning of the book to the end. He doesn’t learn anything or exhibit any change as a result of the events surrounding his “friends” Basil and Dorian.
Basil is evidently a sensitive, morally-tuned artist. He grows to understand himself and his art, his motivations and obsessions. Or at least, he tells us about this – but we don’t get to experience any of it with him or understand anything about ourselves in the process.
Then there’s Dorian. What does he learn? Well, it’s obvious that it was a bad idea to sell his soul for eternal beauty. But all we get is lengthy descriptions of his depraved lifestyle, and some dramatic scenes of terror in beholding the painting, showing in the image of his face what ravages he’s enacted on his soul. We don’t get anything about repentance, gaining moral maturity, looking away from self to care about others, no glimpse of what Dorian should or could have become if he’d made different life choices.
Stylistically, I grew weary of Wilde’s endless use of the “witty paradox,” mostly employed by Lord Henry but not limited to him.
“‘What nonsense people talk about happy marriages!’ exclaimed Lord Henry. ‘A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.'”
“‘Stop, Basil! I won’t hear it!’ cried Dorian, leaping to his feet. ‘You must not tell me about things. What is done is done. What is past is past.’
‘You call yesterday the past?’
‘What has the actual lapse of time got to do with it? It is only shallow people who require years to get rid of an emotion.'”
Clever, huh? But every 5th sentence in the book is something like this. I’m just saying – it gets old fairly quickly.
On the book jacket, Wilde is quoted as saying there is “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray.” But I’m not sure what he was referring to. Perhaps: It is a mistake to separate the senses from the soul. Well, then, what of Lord Henry? He apparently pulled it off successfully. His mantra was, “To cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.” But I don’t see either of these “cures” coming to pass during the course of the story.