One of the most gripping and spiritually terrifying novels I’ve encountered is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The story is well known from many film versions, none of which does the story justice, since the visual inevitably puts the focus on the horrors of the painting itself. This is really a distraction, because in the book, the painting is only a device that serves as a metaphor for the soul, which is where the real core of the action takes place.
Wilde’s novel — which, in true Victorian tradition, is only a veneer for a penetrating moral instruction — raises many questions about the effects of sin on our relationship with God and the self that we are created to be, exploring the attraction of evil and how it works in our lives. Ultimately, the story is about both the inevitability of morality and that subject we like to avoid: damnation at our own hands.
(First, a word of caution: I will proceed assuming readers are already familiar with the book. If not, and if you must choose between reading this essay and reading the book, please click on to something else and get the book first.)
The story begins in the studio of the painter Basil Hallward, who is completing what he considers his masterpiece: a portrait of the young Dorian. The painting is great both because the painter himself was inspired but also because Dorian is beautiful — the very embodiment of youthful perfection. Basil doesn’t want to exhibit it, saying, “I have put too much of myself into it.” Here is the first hint of the continuing metaphor in which Basil plays the part of the Creator, in the highest sense in which that word can be used.
Also on the scene is Lord Henry Wotton, who has a dazzling intellect and an attractive way of selling hedonism as a living art. Lord Henry’s words are so compelling that the reader can easily see why, when Dorian finally enters the room, the young man finds himself under his spell. Lord Henry’s words are so smooth that you can’t quite tell what is wrong with them. He flatters the reader. He defies bourgeoisie sensibilities in a witty and urbane way. He clarifies for us the thoughts we’ve only passingly toyed with, and encourages us to go further. He is the Tempter.
“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it,” he says. “Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.” Further: “One of the great secrets of life,” he says, is to “cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul. You are a wonderful creature. You know more than you think you know, just as you know less than you want to know.”
Lord Henry explains to Dorian the glories of his youth and the horrors of aging.
Youth is the one thing worth having . . . . Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible . . . . Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which really to live. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and your roses. You will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly.
In response to Lord Henry’s speech, Dorian takes the pledge that will be his doom: “I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. . . . If it was only the other way! If it was I who were to be always young, and the picture that were to grow old! For this — for this — I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!”
And so it would be. Dorian takes possession of the painting and puts it away the moment that it begins changing to reflect not so much his aging but his sins. This is the crucial thing: The story is not as concerned with physical mortality and the inevitability of aging as it is with the immortality of the soul. Nor is it the case that Dorian has merely made a Faustian bargain; the book is not so simple. The picture changes following Dorian’s first major sin: He entices into love an actress whose heart he quickly and cruelly breaks, but — and this is critical — he feels no remorse for what he has done to her. The picture changes at this point: “a touch of cruelty in the mouth.” It is not so much the sin but the absence of contrition that is his undoing.
Dorian himself doesn’t change; only the picture changes. And here he sees what he is in for. “It held the secret of his life, and told his story. It had taught him to love his own beauty. Would it teach him to loathe his own soul? Would he ever look at it again?”
He has a quick change of heart, and decides that he will not go down this path: He will reject sin, reverse his ways. But the next day, even before he has acted on his regrets, he receives the devastating news: The girl killed herself. Here he again faces the choice between penance and embracing evil. Under Lord Henry’s influence — who is not obviously demonic, but only trying to console in a very clever way — he decides against remorse. “There is a fatality about good resolutions — that they are always made too late.”
As time moves on, Dorian doesn’t age; he retains his face and figure, decade after decade. His sins continue, and worsen. He goes from obsession to obsession, all related to the senses: jewels, perfume, opium. His sins leave many victims, himself primary among them. Many are mercifully left to the imagination. The picture, as an embodiment of what is inside the mysterious region called the soul, takes on an ever more hideous shape.
One day, after a long absence, Basil pays him a visit, and Dorian finally yields to the temptation to show him the painting. Basil is horrified at what he sees in the picture, at what has become of his creation.
He begs Dorian to say the prayer, “Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.” He reminds Dorian that “it is never too late . . . . Let us kneel down and try if we can remember a prayer. Isn’t there a verse somewhere, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them as white as snow’?”
But Dorian is indifferent and suddenly overcome with hatred toward him. He kills Basil with a knife to the vein behind his ear. What has he done? He has killed the Creator who has visited him and called on him to repent. After this death, Dorian’s corruption is fully unleashed.
And what of Lord Henry, the mastermind of this evil? He vanishes from the picture, and when he appears, he is utterly and completely unmoved, sallying from party to party to impart his wisdom and dazzle guests, charming everyone with mildly scandalous utterances, but never destroyed by his own philosophy. Dorian lives it and pays the price.
I’ve only covered the opening core of the book. The remainder is as engaging, if not more so, but increasingly painful, too — the very journal of a descent into the pit of Hell. The end is deeply disturbing, of course, as Dorian finally does what you wanted him to do all along: kill the painting. But by then, he is himself spiritually dead, a reality that is reflected, for the first time, in the physical appearance of his corpse.
It is not a pleasant story — or, rather, it is entirely too pleasant a story, in the sense that the reader actually finds himself at once loathing Dorian but not wanting his sins to be discovered. Lord Henry, meanwhile, retains his beguiling charm long after the reader has finished the book. That is to say, this is a story of good and evil, but the good is never quite as rewarding and the evil is never repulsive enough to let us decisively choose sides. In that way, despite the fantastic premise, the book is an accurate reflection of life itself.
Wilde’s novel demonstrates his highly sophisticated understanding of the drama of sin and salvation. While his decadent style is well acknowledged, less known is his lifetime attraction to and understanding of Christian doctrine, as carried forth by the Catholic faith into which he was secretly baptized as a child. One senses that he knew it to be true. He was granted the gift of faith but not the courage to see it through. In some ways, in his life, he was Basil who preached the doctrine of Lord Henry, but feared he would suffer Dorian’s fate. He didn’t: His last words were the Act of Contrition.