Eternal youth: it's the Holy Grail of anti-aging. Everyone wants it, but so far nobody can figure out how to get it. Sure, we've got plastic surgery to help with the wrinkles, but that can only do so much before you start looking like a wax figure on the verge of melting—or worse.
But seriously, some people have gone to great lengths in search of never ending youth. Ponce de Leon even sailed all the way across the Atlantic after hearing a rumor the legendary Fountain of Youth might be hidden in Florida of all places. Have you ever been to Florida? There are more senior citizens there than at the World Series of Bingo, for crying out loud!
So we don't like the idea of getting old. Maybe we even think it'd be nice to just be immortal and never age. But if there's anything we can learn from literature, it's that we definitely don't want to live forever. Just look at Tuck Everlasting, or even Twilight. The immortal souls in these books tend to be more troubled and moody than wise and transcendent. What gives?
The same can be said for Dorian Gray, the titular character from Oscar Wilde's one and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the century or so since its initial publication in 1890, the fate of poor Dorian Gray has taken hold of the popular imagination.
Dorian's story plays upon the timeless theme of selling one's soul in exchange for earthly pleasures (see other classics like Goethe's Faust or the musical Damn Yankees), and the inevitable disaster that results. Mix in a magical painting and a pinch of eternal youth and you've got the makings for this classic, fabulous story.
Wilde's version of this narrative is particularly notable for its embrace of the hedonistic lifestyle of the Decadents, a late nineteenth century artistic movement that prized beauty and aesthetic experience over pretty much everything else—even bacon. Dorian Gray and its protagonist have become synonymous with the pursuit of pleasure, regardless of its moral consequences.
As with any good book, this novel raised quite a blizzard of scandal in its day, and had critics denouncing Wilde for what they perceived to be his own innate immorality—and as a result, he responded with the famous "Preface" to the novel (published in its second edition) that explained his artistic beliefs. (Check out more discussion of the Preface in "What's Up with the Epigraph?") Altogether, The Picture of Dorian Gray reveals Wilde's philosophy more than any of his other works; reading it is an essential key to understanding his artistic mission as a whole.
So lay off the Botox and inject yourself into this eloquent and poignant story—you just might appreciate a few wrinkles and gray hairs once all is said and done.
Botox, liposuction, lip plumping injections, silicone, hair plugs...we go to extraordinarily bizarre measures just to hang on to fading youth and beauty. Our society is so obsessed with youth that there's a multi-multi-million dollar industry simply devoted to making us look younger (or weirder, as the case may be).
And why? Because we live in a culture where youth is idolized and age is the enemy of the people—the goal these days seems to be not just to stop aging, but to get younger.
We're not the first culture to embrace this cult of youth, though. As we see in The Picture of Dorian Gray, our predecessors in the nineteenth century also longed for undying youth and beauty. In fact, the quest for the Fountain of Youth is one of the oldest stories there is; apparently, humanity in general has had a hard time getting over the fact that we all grow old and die.
For this reason, Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel never ceases to be relevant—until we finally discover the secret of real eternal youth, we'll always be interested in Dorian's quest for it.
This theme is exemplified by the titular portrait. Dorian Gray's image reflects his conscience and his true self, and serves as a mirror of his soul. This fact echoes Wilde's statement (found in the preface) that "It is the spectator...that art really mirrors." However, this theme first appears earlier in the preface, with Wilde's contention that "the nineteenth-century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass." Realism is a genre of artistic expression that is said to have shown the 19th century its own reflection. The fear that Dorian expresses when viewing the painting, and the emotions that he seeks to escape through sin, drug addiction, and even murder, might be considered an expression of his rage at laying eyes upon his true self. The idea of reflectivity also recalls a major mythical influence on the novel: the story of Narcissus. Dorian, like Narcissus, falls in love with his own image, and is ultimately destroyed by it.
This theme is expressed most prominently in the character of Lord Henry, and in the "new hedonism" he espouses. Lord Henry openly approaches life as an art form, seeking to sculpt Dorian's personality, and treating even his most casual speeches as dramatic performances. Most notably, he pursues new sensations and impressions of beauty with the amorality of an artist: as Wilde writes in the preface, "No artist has ethical sympathies." This latter characteristic is the one that leaves the deepest impression on Dorian's character. However, although both men fancy themselves artists at living, their flaw lies in their blatant violation of the rule given in the first line of the preface: "To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim." Dorian and Lord Henry both strive to reveal themselves in their "art."
Wilde also explores this theme by blurring the line between life and art. Characters in the novel include actresses who live as though they are constantly on stage, and a painter who values a friendship predominantly because the relationship improves his ability to paint. Dorian himself consciously bases his life and actions on a work of art: a book given to him by Lord Henry.
Dorian's physical beauty is his most cherished attribute, and vanity is, as a consequence, his most crippling vice. Once a sense of the preciousness of his own beauty has been instilled in him by Lord Henry, all of Dorian's actions, from his wish for undying youth at the beginning of the novel to his desperate attempt to destroy the portrait at the end, are motivated by vanity. Even his attempts at altruism are driven by a desire to improve the appearance of his soul. Throughout the novel, vanity haunts Dorian, seeming to damn his actions before he even commits them; vanity is his original sin. Dorian's fall from grace, then, is the consequence of his decision to embrace vanity - and indeed, all new and pleasurable feelings - as a virtue, at the behest of Lord Henry, his corrupter. In the preface to the novel, Wilde invites us to ponder the inescapability of vanity in our own relationship to art when he states that "it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors." If we see ourselves in art, and find art to be beautiful, then it follows that we, like Dorian, are in fact admiring our own beauty.
This theme is prominent in much of Wilde's work. It plays a central role in The Importace of Being Earnest, and is prominent throughout this novel, as well. In addition to the protagonist, many of the novel's characters are greatly concerned with their reputations. Lord Henry and Basil Hallward both counsel Dorian on how to best preserve his good status in the public eye. When crimes are committed, it is not personal absolution that anyone is concerned with, but whether or not the guilty party will be held responsible by the public. In this way, each character in the novel possesses an awareness of a split identity: one that is defined by the public, and one that they define themselves. The figure of Dorian is an allegorical representation of this condition. The portrait is a literal visualization of Dorian's private self, the state of his soul, while Dorian himself looks perpetually young, beautiful, and innocent.
Much of Wilde's social commentary in the novel springs from his manipulation of this theme. People's responses to Dorian constantly highlight the overwhelming superficiality of Victorian London (if not people in general). Because Dorian always looks innocent, most of the people he encounters assume that he is a good, kind person. Dorian literally gets away with murder because people are automatically more willing to believe their eyes than anything else.
Lord Henry claims to value beauty and youth above all else. It is this belief, when imparted to Dorian, that drives the protagonist to make the wish that ultimately damns him. When Dorian realizes that he will keep his youthful appearance regardless of whatever immoral actions he indulges in, he considers himself free of the moral constraints faced by ordinary men. He values his physical appearance more than the state of his soul, which is openly displayed by the ever-increasing degradation of the portrait. This superficial faith in the ultimate value of youth and beauty is therefore the driving mechanism behind the protagonist's damnation. In this way, The Picture of Dorian Gray may be read as a moralistic tale warning against the dangers of valuing one's appearance too highly, and of neglecting one's conscience.
It is important to bear in mind that the beauty that Dorian incessantly pursues is a beauty defined by a purely artistic sensibility, as opposed to a humanitarian one. When faced with the news of his fiance's suicide, Dorian views the event as satisfyingly melodramatic. His obsession with aesthetic beauty prevents Dorian from attending to the pangs of his own conscience.
Dorian begins the novel as an innocent youth. Under Lord Henry's influence he becomes corrupt, and eventually begins corrupting other youths himself. One of the major philosophical questions raised by this novel is that of where to locate the responsibility for a person's misdeeds. If one engages in a moralistic reading, The Picture of Dorian Gray can be seen as a lesson in taking responsibility for one's actions. Dorian often points to Lord Henry as the source of his corruption. However, when contemplating the plights of others, Dorian lays the blame at their own feet rather than considering the role that he might have played in their downfall.
This is the theme that Wilde was alluding to when he wrote of the "note of Doom that like a purple thread runs through the cold cloth of Dorian Gray" in a letter to his young lover, Bosie, following his ruinous court appearances. He calls the theme of homosexuality a "note of doom" because sodomy and homosexuality in general were severly punishable offenses in Victorian England, and it was under such charges that Wilde was brought to trial.
In the novel, there are strong homosexual undertones in the relationships between the three central characters (Dorian, Lord Henry, and Basil Hallward), as well as between Dorian and several of the young men whose lives he is said to have "ruined", most notably Alan Campbell. In his revision of the novel for its official release, after it appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, Wilde removed all of the most blatant references to homosexuality. However, the idea of sexual affection between men proved too integral to the characters and their interactions to be entirely expunged from the novel. This theme has prompted many critics to read the novel as the story of a man's struggle with his socially unacceptable proclivities. Indeed, some feel that Wilde was working out his own conflicted feelings on the subject through the novel.