What would you give for perfection? Would you sacrifice your money? Your possessions? Happiness? How about your soul? Think twice, because perfection is impossible. What may outwardly appear as perfection is never so. Underneath a pristine surface will always be found some form of corruption or imperfection.
Oscar Wilde explores the idea of perfection, beauty, sin, hedonism, accountability, and aestheticism through The Picture of Dorian Gray. When the story was first published in an 1890 edition of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, it received a lot of backlash due to content deemed “objectionable”, ““vulgar”, “unclean”, “poisonous”, and “discreditable” by the British press. However, the version published in the magazine had already been heavily edited by a Lippincott editor without Oscar Wilde’s knowledge, and was further edited before its publication in book form in 1891. The first unedited version was not published until 120 years after the story’s initial publication. Why was Dorian Gray so heavily edited? Due to the excesses, corruption, and indulgences held within its pages. The beauty of the novel lies within this very decadence.
The story centers around three main characters: Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton, and Dorian Gray. Basil Hallward is an artist who develops an infatuation for Dorian Gray, a young member of London high society who often sits for his paintings. Lord Henry is an established society member and friend of Basil’s whose entire moral code is based on his conviction that “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”. When he asks Basil about Dorian, the artist responds that he “knew that [he] had come face to face with some one whose mere personality was so fascinating that, if [he] allowed it to do so, it would absorb [his] whole nature, [his] whole soul, [his] very art itself”, and passionately states that Dorian “is all [his] art to [him] now”. Lord Henry asks to meet Dorian, but Basil resists, insisting that Lord Henry is sure to corrupt him with his hedonistic values.
Despite Basil’s objections, Lord Henry and Dorian meet. That very afternoon, Basil finishes a portrait of Dorian that he believes to be the most beautiful work he has ever created. While admiring it, Dorian states that he wishes his physical self could remain as lovely and untouched by sin as the portrait, while the painting ages and corrupts. Dorian’s wish is granted, and he subsequently falls into a life of sin and opulence. As the years pass, his obsessions over the painting tear him apart from the inside, while his appearance remains spotless.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, of course, carries all the trademark wit and mastery of Oscar Wilde. There is an epigram on practically every page (a notable one is “we can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless”), and the dialogue is clever, thought-provoking, and at times humorous. Every word in the novel is deliberate, and Wilde’s prose is lyrical and absolutely beautiful. The Picture of Dorian Gray reaches into the (deep and dark) depths of the human soul and examines what is to be found there while asking a question – what does it take for man to become monster?
Reviewed by Tara F ’18