The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself. The reason I will not exhibit this picture is that I am afraid that I have shown in it the secret of my own soul.
And that’s how a tale of sin and art began.
Before I elaborate more on the ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, a little context about the place I come from when it comes to Oscar Wilde’s writing style. His short stories and plays have been an integral part of my childhood. ‘The Canterville Ghost’, ‘The Happy Prince, ‘The Selfish Giant, ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ – permanently readable classics that are etched in my memory. But barring a few of his works, Wilde’s biting-wit style has never been a favourite of mine. In fact, to an extent that I sometimes wonder what is it about him or any of his works (which, in my opinion, are less superior to any of his contemporaries of the time) that justify the sort of reputation Wilde retains till date. True that each one of his stories and plays are sharp and observational, depict his versatility as a writer but a gaping imperfection that stares at me every time I read any of his works is that no matter the theme, Wilde, in what maybe an unintentional attempt to follow the Russian writing style, ends a lot of his stories contrary to what a reader would expect and most often in misery. While not essentially criticising the plots of his many stories, I always found missing, a smooth, satisfying storyline transition.
A couple of days ago, while rummaging through my bookshelf, I came across one of his works ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, his only novel. A hardbound edition of the work had been gifted to my grandmother in 1953 for one her many achievements during her school days. I looked up the plot over the internet and it seemed promising. Being his only novel, and possibly his highest rated work, I decided to give this book a shot. And the right decision did I make!
Wilde’s novel made me take notice, for the first time, his conversational style of writing. A rather peculiar, interesting piece of exchange between a Duchess and one of the protagonists Lord Henry, on whether he liked his country (England), runs as follows:
“Threads snap. You would lose your way in the labyrinth.” The novel is filled with little gems in a Q and A form like this. In fact it is like a mini desktop calendar, so quotable and so relatable that it’d be impossible for the reader to pick one favourite line. Readers familiar only with Wilde’s plays and other forms of write ups will be surprised by this novel, which demonstrates a superior expertise in classical literature, both in the form of a narrative as well as little threads of moral advices, observations and dilemmas sprinkled over the two hundred and fifty odd pages, of the book.
A bit of a research into Wilde’s personality and one finds that at his peak, Wilde was famously known as a conversationalist. The men who knew Wilde personally, thought highly of his abilities as a raconteur. George Moore, a famous contemporary of Wilde’s and who was also known to hate him with an unusual intensity, is supposed to have agreed after a dinner, where Wilde presented some fun anecdotes, that a conversation with the latter was one of the most delightful moments of his life. Yeats, who thought little of Wilde as a writer, was equally enthralled by his company and had the following to say
I had never before heard a man talking in perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous.
Revisiting Wilde’s world, I noticed that while his may have been (in my opinion), a pursuit of personal fulfilment through many of his works, but his ideas at that time were mostly original and daring. And if we consider the Victorian world he lived in, he more often than not challenged the strange and sometimes absurd notions that was required of the society members to adhere to.
For instance, this novel’s underlying theme, of what I understated was a person’s descent into madness and ultimate loss to his self-constructed societal image.
The opening passages of the book have one of the three lead protagonists Basil Hallward, a painter, remark
Your rank and wealth, Harry (Lord Henry) ; 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.
And suffer terribly did the characters in the book.
When I entered the world of Basil, Henry and Gray, little did I expect the underlying themes of the book to deal with homosexuality (albeit, in the most subtle way possible, with all overtly hinting dialogues and expressions of passion either removed or revised by subsequent publishers), hedonism and superficiality, to the given extent it did. The main plot deals with Lord Henry introducing and making Dorian realise that his only claim to societal relationships, fame, name and other bounties is his beautiful young face. Dorian’s appearance was his singular quality. When there’s the one thing in the world that is a sure-shot way to propel you to multiple stages above your existing level, one does everything in his/her capacity to protect and nurture that thing, in the same state, for as long as possible (and in this case ‘forever’)
And therefore, Gray too went to desperate lengths to retain his only “worthy” quality from the scars that various life experiences tend to leave on our faces.
When Lord Henry initially enlightens and hints for Dorian Gray to possible become a new symbol for ‘Hedonism’, a perfect way of life in his opinion, Dorian is still an unspotted, untouched, pure soul with all the candour and youth’s passion filled within him. He is portrayed as the poster-boy with all qualities that the Victorian society held dear at the time. Under the terrible influence of Lord Henry, Dorian slowly loses his individualism and his ability to establish his own moral code in life, to live by. In influencing and driving Dorian to do the things he did, a more careful reader would also realise that Henry too is the same person that he creates out of Dorian (albeit, again a devil more in words than action). One of the more pertinent statements from Henry justifies this observation.
All kind of influence is immoral. To influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He doesn’t not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed.
When Basil first shows Gray his completed portrait, Gray comes to realise the sense of his own beauty. But Henry’s word-play on the charms of youth and warnings of its brevity played on Gray’s mind and he exclaims
How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day in June…If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that—for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!
Dorian thereby delves into depravity and into the world of sins, that he never actually recovers from. His wish comes true, in the sense that for every sin or every crime committed, his portrait begins to show changes accordingly. When he first drives the girl he loves, to suicide, his portrait develops cruel lines surrounding his scarlet lips. And once Dorian realises this, he begins attributing every wrong thing he does, to the painting. All his malices, evils and sins are projected on to the canvas. His soul essentially is captured in that portrait. And with the soul gone, there is no longer a human being, just a being – bent on satisfying all of his/her needs and vanities. In this case, with nothing greater to lose, Dorian occupied himself with art, music and every beautiful luxury known to man. In the name of intellectual development and uncovering of spiritual mysteries, he studied perfumes and their sercrets of manufacture, devoted himself to music and collecting of various instruments from across the world, he took up the study of jewels, and embroideries and tapestries, and all he lived was for perfect moments in life.
He also ends up ruining lives of “friends” he associates with and is quite oblivious to the effect of his influence on them. As Basil tells Dorian,
One has a right to judge of a man by the effect he has over his friends. Yours seem to lose all sense of honour, of goodness, of purity. You have filled them with a madness for pleasure. They have gone down into the depths. You led them there.
If one has to imagine a set-up with these three characters, Lord Henry could be the devil, the very embodiment of temptation, sitting on one side of Dorian’s shoulder, and Basil, the level-headed counterweight on the other side. Henry is easily able to overpower and corrupt Dorian’s thought process, ultimately leading him down the dark side. Amongst the many strange, and at times offensive theories (particularly to the women category) he holds, Henry somehow is able to make the most skeptical of the readers (me, in this case) to ponder upon his many statements. To be fair, he also does come across as a wise man, with accurate representations of people’s inner desires, fears, societal expectations and pressures, value systems, etc.
For as long as their association lasts, Basil tries to function as Dorian’s consciousness, to remind him of the person he once was.
”He won’t like you the better for keeping your promises. He always breaks his own. I beg you not to go.” Dorian Gray laughed and shook his head.
“I entreat you.”
The lad hesitated, and looked over at Lord Henry, who was watching them from the tea-table with an amused smile.
“I must go, Basil,” he answered.
In one of the key moments in this book, a keen reader can experience Oscar Wilde’s stroke of brilliance here. Without any signs of physical or verbal confrontation or agitation, without any overtly suggestive dialogues about Henry’s apparent immoral influence, Wilde beautifully depicts Dorian’s standing at a cross-road, from where he ends up choosing a wrong path, and Basil’s love for Dorian that wants him to be the same uncorrupted soul he was then. With the flow of conversation, one may not find this scene extra ordinary but this is the very first time Dorian is faced with a choice between the good and the temptation, into which he eventually gives in. Quite a powerful scene in my humble opinion!
Wilde’s writing, for this particular work of his, is akin to honey flowing down a wooden table. Smooth transitions, premonition of fate of every character bought to a conclusive and satisfactory end and morals and theories to take away and debate upon. The book, much like the plot, is a perfect amalgamation of art, life and representation. The artist’s work has become obsolete, when it is remarked that his painting had gone quite off. It seemed to me to have lost something. It had lost an ideal.
With the artist out of the picture, the representation cannot hold on much longer and gets corrupted in the process. The sitter is no longer captured the way the artist meant to and instead the soul of the sitter splits.
A wish for eternal beauty seals the pact and the canvas grabs the final prize – the soul of the sitter.