I chose to cover “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (TPoDG) by Oscar Wilde in my debut post as, despite all its flaws, it has left a deep impression on me. There are perhaps other books with more fully fleshed characters, more exciting plotlines, or more subtle messages and themes. Heck, I even feel that Wilde’s signature style of bitingly witty epigrams and ironic statements work far better in his plays, rather than this novel. But somehow reading TPoDG was an oddly intimate experience, as though Wilde was simultaneously baring his soul for the world to see and expounding on how the theory of Aestheticism might play out in practise.
At the start of the novel, Dorian Gray was young, beautiful, rich. And innocent. Basil Hallward, an honest and conventional painter and Dorian’s friend, worshipped Dorian for the vitality, which he gave to his art, and the goodness, which Dorian seems to represent. Lord Henry Wotton, Basil’s friend, came to know Dorian and introduced him to ideas that the power of youth and beauty, as well as the pursuit of pleasure and sensual experiences/ the “new Hedonism” should be the highest goal in one’s life. Disillusioned at the thought that his most important characteristics are his fleeting youth and beauty, Dorian hastily made a wish that a portrait of him painted by Basil would bear all the burdens of age and sin while he himself remained as he was in the bloom of youth.
Somehow, someway, Dorian got his wish: the portrait became a living allegory of the state of his soul: it grew old and ugly in his place. The first wickedness, which it had to bear, was Dorian breaking off his engagement with an actress, Sybil Vane, who lost her acting talent after she fell in love with him, thus driving Sybil to commit suicide. Although Dorian was initially conscience-stricken, he quickly got over it with Lord Henry’s encouragement to see the suicide as merely a romantic and artistic ideal.
Lord Henry then gave Dorian a “yellow book”, which guided Dorian in the pursuit of decadence and debauchery. Over the years, Dorian underwent a rapid moral descent with all his secret (and not-so-secret) vices: opium addiction, ruining many of his friends’ reputations, murdering Basil, blackmailing one of his old friends etc. Yet, as there is no concrete evidence against Dorian, he continued to be welcomed by polite society by virtue of his remaining young, beautiful, rich. And seemingly innocent.
Towards the end of the novel, Dorian became increasingly neurotic about his wrongful acts being discovered. To offset them and make the portrait of himself beautiful again, Dorian tried acting good by not seducing a peasant girl who fell in love with him. But there was no change in the portrait, except that it took on a hypocritical expression. In a last ditch attempt to save himself (or the painting?), Dorian used a knife to stab the painting. Alas, Dorian and the painting were one and the same and he ended up killing himself. What’s more, in his death, his corpse looked aged and hideous, while his portrait regained its unblemished looks.
Good VS Evil
The age-old battle between good and evil is the overarching theme in the book. Not only does it take place within Dorian’s own conscience over his lifetime, it is also clear from his friends’ influence: Lord Henry played the Devil’s Advocate while Basil was on the side of the Saints. Yet was it so clear-cut? Dorian took Lord Henry’s idea of the “new Hedonism” to heart and became increasingly corrupt over the years. However, the fact that Dorian so readily adopted Lord Henry’s stance suggests that perhaps they are subconsciously Dorian’s real thoughts and that he was never truly innocent. Moreover, as Lord Henry’s role was generally passive after he first mentioned his concepts to Dorian/ gave him the book and Lord Henry did not seem to have committed as many wrongs as Dorian did, it seems that Dorian’s moral decline was inevitable anyways.
I have blended together gray, black and white shades to suggest the fluid state of Dorian’s morality. To highlight the diametrically opposite roles, which Lord Henry and Basil have played in Dorian’s life, I used winged and studded accessories to represent the former and soft ethereal details to symbolise the latter.
Paradoxes are a huge part of both the characters and the plot. An example would be, as Basil puts it in not so many words, Lord Henry only talks superficially of the daringness of the “new Hedonism” at dining tables and cynically dismisses conservative moral norms, but never puts his supposed ideals into practise by giving up his conventional lifestyle as a fashionable man-about-town.
Another example would be the moralistic contents of the 2 main works of art in the novel: the painting reflects the dissipation of Dorian while the yellow book leads him to further degeneration. Despite Wilde’s support of the Aestheticism/ Decadence movements which believes that art has no purpose other than to be beautiful, these works of art seem to be more in line with the wider Victorian beliefs that art is morally instructive and arguably serves as a cautionary tale against the overzealous quest of aestheticism itself.
To bring out the essence of paradoxes, I have juxtaposed elements that are suitable for different occasions and weather conditions in the same ensemble. It cannot be conceivably be worn anywhere but simply creates new associations between familiar elements.