“Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” -Jean Paul Sartre
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde proffers a prescient warning about the evils of human nature. In it, the protagonist, Dorian, sits for his portrait painted by the talented Basil Hallward. The young man is admired for his unblemished physical beauty while his personality reflects caprice and impetuosity. He is naive and superficial, though not malicious. He enjoys the freedom and rank that good looks afford until confronted with the manipulations of Basil’s friend, Lord Henry, who asserts, “Time is jealous of you [Dorian]…you will become sallow, and hollow-cheeked, and dull-eyed. You will suffer horribly…realize your youth while you have it. Don’t squander the gold of your days, listening to the tedious, trying to improve the hopeless failure, or giving away your life to the ignorant, the common, and the vulgar. These are the sickly aims, the false ideals, of our age” (27). Dorian is crushed by Harry’s implications and rages, “I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me and gives something to it” (30). So moved by the future loss of his youthful beauty, Dorian is willing to trade his soul should the portrait manifest the passage of time if he could remain untouched. That desire is fulfilled. Dorian maintains his physical perfection through the years; the painting assuming the taint of his soul and the wrinkles of time.
Cognizant of this miraculous exchange, Dorian’s behavior shifts; his actions become unrecognizable. He assumes a new approach to life claiming, “A man who is master of himself can end sorrow as easily as he can invent pleasure” (113), a sinister utterance foreshadowing the vile deeds to come since he cultivates the penchant of easily shedding all semblance of shame, sorrow, and guilt. Behind the facade of beauty, Dorian acts as if “[s]in is the only real colour-element left in modern life” (33), another lesson gleaned from his interactions with Lord Henry. Thus, Dorian is alienated from high society. However, they shun him only after being ensnared by his newly acquired, lascivious nature, initially too incredulous to believe the rumors true of someone so fair of face.
Lord Henry’s cunning words shape Dorian into a perfect horror just as Basil wields his brush to fashion a painfully beautiful painted likeness. At Basil’s, the two men meet and become immediate friends, Dorian falling prey to Lord Henry’s philosophy and novelty. The relationship deepens, Lord Henry continually espousing ridiculous perspectives that Dorian internalizes as wisdom. At the end of the novel Lord Henry lashes out with his final, decimating blow, “What does it profit a man,” he asks Dorian, “if he gain the whole world and lose-how does the quotation run-his own soul?” (224). A quip so uncharacteristic and inconsistent of him, suggests he has been orchestrating Dorian’s transformation from the start. Such precision and probing coupled with ease and nonchalance (delivered after Dorian secretly kills Basil and blackmails an acquaintance to dispose of the body), so unnerves Dorian that he determines to destroy his sordid past. He returns to the scene of the crime, a locked room which also harbors the ageing portrait, and raises the knife “that had stabbed Basil Hallward…It was bright, and glistened. As it had killed the painter, so it would kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead, he would be free…he would be at peace” (234). The peace that is wrought is his own demise. By stabbing the picture, Dorian breaks the spell that bound him to the portrait so that in the room, his servants “[find] hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor [is] a dead man in evening dress, with a knife in his heart… withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognised who it was” (234).
The reverence of beauty is powerful. It emboldens people who possess it and misguides those who do not. It creates the illusion of invincibility and purity of soul. It reinforces the need to feed one’s vanity. Lord Henry understood this and used it to destroy a young man who, possessed by his youthful image, could not resist his own temptation.
As Basil expresses to Lord Henry early on, “The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world…They live as we all should live-undisturbed, indifferent and without disquiet. They neither bring ruin upon others, nor ever receive it from alien hands. Your rank and wealth, Harry; my brains, such as they are-my art whatever it may be worth; Dorian Gray’s good looks-we shall all suffer for what the gods have given us, suffer terribly” (9).
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. IDW Publishing, 2015.
Painting: Paul Christina