“All art is quite useless”; in his short yet extremely powerful tale of human hypocrisy, Oscar Wilde ingeniously explores the perils of vanity and moral corruption.
Set in late 19th century London – in the illustrious world Wilde himself inhabited – the novella follows the life of the young Mr Dorian Gray. Dazzlingly beautiful and exquisitely innocent, Mr Gray is sitting as a model for the eccentric Basil Hallward, who is painting his portrait. Hallward has already taken a considerable fancy to the angelic Mr Gray, obsessed with his seemingly incorruptible beauty; in him he sees his ‘ideal’ in art. It is his continuing infatuation with him that excites the curiosity of his good friend Lord Henry Wotton, a man who is to have a fateful influence on the young Gray.
Wotton is a nobleman; fabulously wealthy, carefree and self-assured. It is in the idyllic garden outside Basil Hallward’s painting studio that Wotton reveals to Dorian Gray his philosophies on beauty, and the true meaning of life: “there is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!”. It is this particular doctrine that enraptures Dorian, taking root in his soul and – unbeknownst to him – determining his wild future.
The two men return to Basil’s studio to finish the painting, Dorian finding it so tragic with its eternal preservation of his perfect youth that he becomes jealous; recklessly he proclaims that he would give his soul for the kind of immortal youth the painting holds. Ironically, his wish becomes reality. As he ages in years, so does the painting, yet his face retains its flawless beauty. All the sins and cruelties that might mar his face with lines and wrinkles – as the Victorians believed would happen – are inflicted not upon his own face but upon the portrait. And so he attains a kind of immortality and, in his mind, happiness. Predictably, this is not the case in reality.
The novella moves quickly through the vanities and hypocrisies of Dorian’s life, reprimanding yet simultaneously endorsing his arrogance and indifference. Scandals evolve into unforgivable crimes, ultimately culminating in one of the most satisfying yet ironic endings I have ever encountered in any work of literature!
Needless to say, this is an undeniable must-read. Wilde is like no other writer I have ever experienced. Even the preface to the novella – famous for its pronouncements such as “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” – is intriguing. His exploration and biting satire of the seemingly egocentric world he lives in is fascinating, doubly so as it becomes clear he is not merely criticising it, but indulging in it and adoring it for its innate hypocrisy.
Its only criticism could be that at times its moral philosophy and pronouncements on art are quite complex – I would need to re-read it numerous times to fully comprehend the meanings and implications of Wilde’s ideals. Additionally, it doesn’t present women in the most favourable light, so don’t be surprised by its blatant – although admittedly eloquently and humorously expressed – sexism!
Homosexual themes also run throughout the novella, subtly underpinning the ever-growing sense of doom that follows Dorian Gray throughout his reckless way of life. Ultimately it seems the portrait is a tragic symbol of conscience and how we approach it, though perhaps when reading this book we should abandon unnecessary conjecture on its messages and merely accept Wilde’s own philosophy:
“Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”