Review of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray - A Commentary on Conscience

I think I had a renaissance at thirty. . .I think.  For some reason I suddenly became interested in art, reading and more thoughtful forms of music.  I became more serious about developing my writing skills, about becoming a better public speaker, about becoming a deeper man.  I can blame my renaissance for not only killing my online XBOX NCAA football career but also for going back to seminary.  Seminary killed the video star (only those of us who watched “Night Tracks” and MTV back in the eighties can really appreciate that line).

My renaissance has also caused me to revisit all the books I was supposed to read in Junior High and High School but never actually did.  Over the last few months I have begun to explore some readings from all the classic literature I once considered about as interesting as a dead bug.  I now realize what I have missed and regret the wasted time.  Vocationally I relegated my reading to only Christian stuff, the ultra expensive shelves at Lifeway kind of stuff, you get the drift.  I realize that was a mistake.  I have found that reading broadly makes one not only a more well rounded individual but in my case, interestingly enough, even more appreciative of Biblical truth.  After reading lots of those type books for the last fifteen years I feel overly saturated.  It may sound a bit pompous because it is indeed a bit pompous, but much of what is being produced in Christian print is not fresh.  At least that’s my opinion.  

So I’m reading old stuff, particularly old short stories and novels.  Some people would call it a renaissance, some would call it maturity.  Either way you put it, it is just a more kosher way of saying I am marching closer to death and that “It is time to use the noggin old man.”

A couple of weeks ago I picked up Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It is amazing how much poetic truth can emanate from tortured souls.  

The young Dorian Gray is a masterpiece.  He becomes the infatuation of artist Basil Hallward who uses Dorian as the object to revitalize his career.  During one of his portrait sessions Dorian meets Basil Hallward’s colleague Lord Henry Wotton, an annoying cynic who introduces the young and innocent Dorian Gray to a hedonistic worldview.  Wilde uses Lord Henry’s character as the philosophical vessel that moves the ideology of the story along, that ascetic beauty is the only nobel pursuit in life.  

Upon seeing his completed portrait Dorian loathes the idea that the canvas will forever preserve his beauty while his own flesh is doomed to fade.  The portrait would become a torturous reminder of what he once was.  Realizing this doom Dorian enters a reckless prayer requesting that the opposite would somehow become reality, that he could forever wear his beauty while the portrait would somehow suffer the strains of life and time.  Dorian’s prayer is mysteriously heard.

The irony of the story is that the portrait would indeed remain a torturous reminder, not of Dorian’s youthfulness, but instead of the corruption of his own soul.  Exploring Wotton’s hedonistic world Dorian’s face remained the picture of innocence while the portrait became a commentary on his conscience.  Without ruining the story for those who have never read the book the conclusion is riveting and becomes a borderline horror flick.

Personally I was struck by Wilde’s open acknowledgment of the corrupting effects of sin upon the human soul and how try as we may to atone for our ways we are incapable of doing so.  I do not have an English degree although I know five or so people who do.  I am not trying to offer a scholarly critique of this book, a task to which I am incapable.  I did a limited amount of research on Wilde and his own ascetic hedonism.  Given that, I did not see a man trying to justify himself but in the story I could almost hear the cry of a man who was desperate to escape his own soul.  Was he like Dorian in the end hopeful for atonement but at the same time far past hopeless?  Kellen O, Shannon S, John Mac, Linda M who has no idea how to use the internet, cuz John John - any English nerd who would like to weigh in on this one I would love to hear your thoughts. 

In any event I thought this book was like the portrait, a commentary on conscience.  I found it timely especially since I will be beginning a series on Romans this Sunday, another commentary on conscience but with a far more hopeful ending in that its author does find atonement.  Paul provides us the picture of one who can indeed rescue the soul.  At this point I would say both, together Ocar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Bible’s Epistle to the Romans are must reads.  


Lucy said…
Hi, this post came up on my Google Alerts as I'm watching for info on the new film adaptation of this book. :)

I really enjoyed your thoughts on reading it for the first time. I think it's fair to say that Wilde himself was a man looking for atonement... he wrote the novel sort of early on in his hedonistic lifestyle, and though it is often held up as a mirror for his life it is more of a prediction, given the date of publication. However he would later write (in De Profundis, if I recall correctly) of how reckless he became in his search for pleasure, how he hurt others and himself without caring. He did regret his behaviour, and he also converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, a desperate last act of penitence, I guess.

Whenever I have read The Picture of Dorian Gray in the past I have tended to focus on the classical themes being used, and the personal relationships of the characters, but I think the capacity of sins to corrupt and affect not just the soul but the body is definitely an important theme. I'll be thinking more about this next time I reread!
Brian Branam said…
If it comes out in a new film version please let me know. I learned last week that they had made one back in the 40's I think.

I did not know about Wilde's deathbed conversion, interesting.

Gal. 2:20

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