The Picture of Dorian Gray
"I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why must it keep what I must lose?"
Gothic of structure, philosophical of question and deliciously homoerotic from start to finish, The Picture of Dorian Gray is as infamous now as it was on publication over a hundred years ago (how many times have you heard someone jokingly remark of someone's youthful looks that 'there must be a portrait in the attic, or something...'?) Generally people think it's a story about getting to retain your youth whilst a picture ages on your behalf, but it is so much more... The 'ageing' that the picture does is more moral than physical- in other words, the novel suggests that its really our transgressions and deeds of character that leave their traces upon our physical form, and not just time and the elements. Who needs suncream when you can just be nice to people instead?! Possibly not at the forefront of Oscar Wilde's mind at the time of writing, but a valid question nonetheless...
Handsome trustafarian Dorian swans around looking fabulous all day and then captures the eye of a painter named Basil Hallward. It is while he's sitting for one of Basil's portraits that he is stumbled upon by Lord Henry Wotton, a morally ambiguous, cynical character who tells Dorian that life will be hard for him unless he manages to retain his beauty. Dorian falls under the influence of Wotton, much to Basil's dismay, and becomes rather too focused on the pursuit of hedonism. After he falls in love with an actress named Sybil Vane and then calls off their engagement because she puts in a bad performance at the theatre, he returns to his house to find that his portrait has altered somewhat, becoming more cruel in appearance. Little does Dorian know at that point that Sybil has already taken her own life, the first in a series of miserable fates that befall many who become involved with Dorian Gray.
As Dorian slips from his twenties to his thirties, he gains a terrible reputation as a breaker of both words and hearts. He brings ruin upon his society friends, he frequents dens on the edges of town (that was about as far as the story got past the censors without saying brothels) and he steals the virtue of many a woman. And yet Dorian's youthful, innocent appearance never changes- unlike the portrait now locked in the attic, which has become monstrous. One evening, Basil, on the verge of relocating to Paris, comes to see Dorian and asks to see the portrait, which prompts Dorian to come clean about the whole affair. However, not long after unloading the burden of his mysterious fate, he's seized upon by a murderous rage- and that, sadly, is the end of Basil. Now that Dorian can add 'murderer' to his list of transgressions, there's no going back. After a turbulent few months that sees Sybil Vane's brother tries to avenge his sister's death by killing Dorian (he fails), Dorian tries to destroy the picture by slashing it. However, the moment he takes knife to canvas, it is he himself that dies by the blade; his servants find an aged, ugly man with a knife in his heart laying beneath the portrait that once again shows Dorian's youthful beauty.
The Body in Dorian Gray
Aesthetic is everything in Dorian Gray. In fact, you get the sense that if Instagram had actually existed in the Victorian era, Dorian may well have been one of its greatest stars, with his incomparable beauty and love of the sensual. This is a man who claims that his fiancee killed his love with her bad acting and then, after she kills herself, tells Henry Wotton that "this thing has happened does not affect me as it should. It seems to me to be simply like a wonderful ending to a wonderful play." And yet the story clearly suggests that it's actually Dorian's innocence and good character at the start of the story that gives him its true beauty. It is this beauty of character that has captured the imagination- and undoubtedly the heart- of Basil Hallward, depicted in the story as a sensitive soul with great depth. By contrast, Lord Henry-shallow and cruel hearted- is interested only in the external value of Dorian, hence his warning that unless Dorian can find a way to keep his looks, his life will get harder. With this counsel, he sets off a chain of events that will see not only the downfall of anyone who gets close to Dorian, but also of Dorian himself.
A central philosophical contemplation in the novel is the separation of body and soul, and indeed, Dorian studies, over the course of time, many forms of mysticism. And yet his findings lead him to discover that "no theory of life seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself. He felt keenly conscious of how barren all intellectual speculation is when separated from action and experiment. He knew that the senses, no less than the soul, have their spiritual mysteries to reveal" In other words, Dorian Gray makes himself a disciple of the path of fleshly pursuits, and ultimately pays the price. Had he been paying attention, he would have instinctively understood that his self and his portrait were as indivisible as he was from his own heart- one cannot be destroyed by the other- or without the other.