Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Picture of Dorian Gray, or 'Twere Beauty, Killed the Beast

So this week, I read The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), the only published novel of the great Oscar Wilde. Not only is it one of his most famous works, but a great many of his quotable quotes comes from this book, and the preface outlines his aesthetic and artistic theory. Nevertheless, for a work that defines art and beauty, the novel seems to be saying quite a few pointed things about Hedonism.

Dorian, of course, retains his outward, youthful appearance as his portrait shifts and alters with time, not only aging instead of Dorian, but also absorbing the ugliness that is the byproduct of sin. In removing the consequences of action, the portrait allows Dorian to act only in pursuit of pleasure, regardless of its effect on those around him. In doing so, Dorian both experiences the supernatural, Gothic element of the work, while allowing himself to become the abhuman figure--as monstrous inwardly as the portrait is outward.

Furthermore, though the novel contends that art must hide the artist to be successful, the underlying gay subtext of the novel leads me to conclude that Wilde is, in some ways, rather close to the surface. Not only does the adoration of Dorian by Basil and Harry seem at least homoerotic, the fact that the majority of lives ruined by Dorian are men cannot be overlooked. Even the description of Dorian's short friendships with other men calls to mind romantic interludes. The stereotypically dandyish behavior that Dorian exhibits doesn't help in this regard.

The novel is also greatly concerned with art and the meaning of art. Whether it is Wilde speaking directly in the preface, or the art theories espoused by Basil or Harry, or the vast differences between Sybil's acting abilities, the treatment of art as valuable for it's own sake is a foremost theme. Dorian's various obsessions in the midst of his societal prominence point toward the enjoyment of art for art's sake, rather than for a didactic or moralistic reason.

As for the Gothic, we again have the motif of the portrait showing the truth, something of a throwback to Otranto and the like. We have also an anti-hero figure; Dorian's slow, tragic fall, I would argue, prevents him from being a Byronic Hero. There is the supernatural element, coupled with a scientific reasoning. It is interesting that, as usual, the supernatural seems to come from a reality of angels and demons. We also have the corrupting influence of the city, albeit in a smaller dose than in Dickens. Rather than concerning itself with the horrors of the Victorian Age, the novel satirizes the upper class avoidance of the topic.

So next week, we'll be reading Dracula (1897), one of my all time favorite books, as well as viewing both Nosferatu and "Buffy vs. Dracula."

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