Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

13 Jan 2012

(Novel) The Picture of Dorian Gray by: Oscar Wilde

(Reaction) The Fairest of Them All by: Antonio Conejos

Dorian Gray (the novel) is a mess of contradictions, almost as if it was plotted by the paradoxical Lord Henry (whom the reader senses is a voice for the author's personal thoughts). Unfortunately, just as Lord Henry seems to wrongly equate wit as the sum of two contradictory thoughts, so too does Dorian Gray (the novel) assume that writing about art is the same as creating art.

Art, its creation and effect, is certainly the primary focus of the novel. Notably, the novel argues (as do most artists) that only art speaks the truth. After all, Dorian's portrait ultimately comes to accurately reflect his corrupted, base nature. While the eyes still behold a beautiful lad unblemished by age, a look at the portrait reveals the true beauty of Dorian Gray. Thus the portrait is an illustration of pure truth, As it had revealed to him [Dorian] his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.

Art too is also literally life. When Dorian Gray takes a knife to the painting, effectively killing it, he also ends up killing himself. In marring art, Dorian mars himself as the foul image of the painting finally transposes itself on him, He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage.

However the novel should not be mistaken to be a glorification of art. Rather, it is an admonishment against the idolatry of all form of beauty or expression, including art. For idolatry (of his own graven image at that) is the chief sin of Dorian Gray. This is fittingly realized by the artist himself, Basil Hallward, when he pleas to Dorian to reform his life, I worshipped you too much. I am punished for it. You worshipped yourself too much. We are both punished.

Truth does not sit well with Dorian though and soon after he slays Basil.

The cloaking or hiding of truth is a necessary corollary to the portrait's stark revealing of the truth (ie. while the painting reveals Dorian's depravity, the painting itself is hidden). Ironically, while Dorian has the truth staring him in the face, he refuses to acknowledge basic truths about himself and the flaws of his character. Dorian Gray is not a disciple of Polonius who of course admonished, to thine own self be true.

The theme of self denial, of Dorian's conscious refusal to acknowledge that he himself is at fault for the death and depravity around him, runs strongly throughout the novel. Indeed, Dorian refuses to take the blame for any of the lives he has ruined, including his own. On the sorry state of his life, of his vanity and idolatry, he blames the painting, But the picture... It held the secret of his life and told his story. It had taught him to love his own beauty. For the killing of Basil, Dorian blames the artist himself and the painting, It was the portrait that had done everything. Basil had said things to him that were unbearable, and that he had yet borne with patience. This insistent that he is patient, even merciful with those around him, is also seen how he treats Allan Campbell (who eventually commits suicide because he cannot live with an act forced upon him by Dorian), I tried to spare you. You will do me the justice to admit that. You were stern, harsh, offensive... I bore it all. Now it is for me to dictate terms. Even Dorian Gray's mercy is harsh.

Clearly in Dorian Gray's mind he is always the victim. Dorian is always patient and gives everyone more than their due, and if they fall due to some action of his, it is their fault, not his. There is never any acknowledgement of his role in dragging down the lives of those he cares for. And, in the solitary moments of introspection, Dorian never blames himself for his deeds but lays responsibility on the painting. For all the pleasure he has sought and the rhapsodies of material ecstasy he has endeavoured to lose himself in; ultimately, ironically Dorian Gray is still the naive and scared young man which his face betrays him to be.


Tediously effete. The singly most oft used word in Dorian Gray is languidly as if the author was desperate to emphasize that this is an adventure for the bored, for the pale sort of fellow who is rich in both time and wealth and will squander the latter in order to waste the former.

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