Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Book Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Has Oscar gone Wilde?

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Barnes & Noble Classics Edition: New York, 2006. Introduction and notes by Camille Cauti. ISBN 1-59308-025-5.

Oscar Wilde is an enigma. Champion of the Aesthetics Movement, sharp-witted dandy, deathbed Catholic convert, and the original flamboyant homosexual, Wilde was by all, or at least most, accounts an immoral man, yet he left behind a small body of literature--particularly his fairy tales and his one novel--that appear to be deeply religious morality tales, though Wilde claims, right in the foreword to Dorian Gray, that art is neither moral nor immoral.

Better people than I have tried to unravel the paradox that is Oscar Wilde. We'll talk about how Cauti does it and offer a few suggestions. We'll also ask for input from you, our readers.

This novel is one of the great works of proto-sf that came out of the Victorian era (see the website of Jess Nevins for a compilation). Victorian England has come under the eye of sf authors of late, many of whom have chosen to depict Victorian England with advanced technology it didn't have, in a sub-genre of alternate history sf typically called Steampunk. Probably the best-known work of Steampunk is Alan Moore's comic, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which depicts not only a high-tech (and extremely polluted) Victorian England but brings together mostly disreputable figures from Victorian novels as a team of superheroes led by Mina Harker from Bram Stoker's Dracula.

League is best-known of this genre thanks in large part to the atrocious movie adaptation (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), which would have no interest for us or anyone else except that the film version added Dorian Gray to the League, though the movie's immortal and unambiguously evil Dorian is very different than the fearful and subtly sinister protagonist of Wilde's novel.

Dorian Gray's plot is well-known, classic, and original. Dorian Gray is youthful and unusually handsome to the point that famous painter Basil Hallward has a (possibly homosexual) obsession with him. Hallward paints Dorian's portrait; under the influence of the witty, Wildeian bon mots of Hallward's incorrigible friend Lord Henry, Dorian wishes he could have his youth forever, and that his age and the outward signs of his sins might transfer from him to the painting. Dorian gets his wish and for several years remains youthful and seemingly innocent as he leads a double life. The painting, meanwhile, grows ugly and decrepit. Though Dorian has escaped the appearance of sin, it remains on his soul, as indicated by his obsession with his own portrait.

Most of Dorian's crimes are insinuated, and only three are spelled out. We know that he becomes infatuated with a young actress, then callously spurns her, leading to her suicide. Wilde handles the depiction of Dorian's growing infatuation and its sudden cessation brilliantly. Though classic in its basic themes, this subplot is unique in its subtle exploration of Dorian's psyche. Later, Dorian commits his greatest crime, a murder. We learn also that he smokes opium and hangs out in disreputable neighborhoods where he presumably takes drugs and employs the services of prostitutes. Wilde once stated that Dorian's sins are unknown and that the reader really brings his own sins to the novel. This isn't entirely true: Some of Dorian's possible sins (Cauti stresses--and stretches--the book's homosexual themes) are matters of speculation, but others, such as the drugs and murder, are plain.

Hand-in-hand with Dorian's increasing vice are his increasing indulgences in aesthetic pursuits, and here the novel appears autobiographical. Dorian becomes obsessed with a "poisonous" book, which Cauti identifies, almost certainly correctly, with Joris K. Huysmans's Decadent novel, A Rebours, which was one of Wilde's favorites. Dorian also shares Wilde's fascination with Catholicism, though the fascination has more to do with aesthetics than with belief or repentance.

The novel ends (SPOILER WARNING for this paragraph, but do you really not know how this novel ends?) when Dorian feels bad about the murder and resolves to "be good." He gives up one of his love affairs before leading an innocent girl into sordid disrepute. He rushes upstairs to see if any change, perhaps a hint of virtue, has come into the painting, but finds only a new expression of hypocrisy. He realizes that the painting is his accuser and that he cannot be good without confessing his crimes. Incensed, he takes a knife and stabs the painting in its heart. Later, his servants find the painting restored to its original beauty, but lying on the ground before it, dead, is a shrivelled old man with a knife in his chest. The Portrait of Dorian Gray is an exquisite tragedy: Like all the best tragedies, it lays out a plain moral in the self-destruction of its hero, but does so without preachiness. It is interesting that in the famous 1945 film version, as Dorian lies on the floor, dying and acquiring the painting's ugliness, he says over and over, "Oh, forgive me my sins," a sign of repentance not evident in the novel.

Wilde's novel is similar to a couple of other works from around the same time, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, both of which are morality tales depicting characters consumed by secret sins. Dr. Jekyll, of course, has a method of covering up his evil deeds much as Dorian does--by transforming into the villainous Hyde. Jekyll's sins find him out when he is unable to transform back into his usual self. Unlike Wilde's masterpiece, Stevenson's novel is unsuccessful as an artwork and unconvincing as an exploration of good and evil. It is no doubt a household name because of its bold idea rather than because of its execution.

Hawthorne's novel is an exquisite piece. Its exploration of a man consumed by secret sin is as believable as Wilde's, though Hawthorne's novel is ultimately a comedy rather than a tragedy, and its moral echoes through the ages: Be true, be true, be true. In the opinion of some, Hawthorne may have been on the verge of his own conversion to Catholicism.

But what to do with Wilde? How does a man like Oscar Wilde, the champion of art for art's sake who praised homosexuality as the ultimate form of love, write works like Dorian Gray or "The Happy Prince," a beautiful story that actually made me weep? Cauti presents in the back of the novel a few provocative quotes and a few loaded questions.

The first quote, from Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde's lover, may hold the answer. Douglas separates artists from their art, much as C. S. Lewis later would with his so-called Personal Heresy. Douglas proposes that, though Wilde was indeed immoral, Wilde's art was always moral. There may be truth to this; after all, the autobiographical elements of Dorian's life are unmistakable. Perhaps the novel is a sort of confession--a defiant confession, perhaps, for though Dorian feels guilt, he never experiences contrition. Even as Wilde championed Aesthetics in his speeches, he may have condemned it in his writing, unable to do otherwise when peering into the depths of his soul to bring forth his art and finding there a hidden accusation.

Another possibility, of course, is that proposed by many of Wilde's contemporaries, that the novel is full of evil all the way through. As we are separated by time from Wilde and his controversies, that uncritical attack appears unsatisfactory because of the book's clear moral.

The third, unlikely possibility is Cauti's proposal, which she delivers in a series of questions, that the novel is relativistic, that the signs of sin on Dorian's portrait are the symbols of condemnation by a backwards-thinking society or Dorian's own pesky conscience, signs of sin that would never have shown up if everyone could just get over this whole "sin" concept. Presumably, then, Cauti would have Dorian committing murder without regret. Given the discord between Wilde's life and Wilde's novel, the proposal is nominally appealing, but it simply does not fit the book. I grant that Wilde may have intended this relativistic message, but he certainly failed to deliver. He could hardly be blamed, for relativistic messages are hard to deliver in fiction. Neil Gaiman, for example, tried it in his pseudo-tragical comic book series, The Sandman, but all he got were internal inconsistencies, plot holes, and a lot of undeserved praise from critics.

Perhaps readers like I who consider The Picture of Dorian Gray a moral work have been duped, but there are worse things to be duped by. Read this book.
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