A picture of social ethics



Bethany Hargrove



The Broadside



SPOILER ALERT: This review reveals some key plot points of “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”

Few literary anti-heroes are as notorious as Dorian Gray. Written by Oscar Wilde in 1890, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a narrative of the seduction and degradation of innocence. Gray, a naive, shy, and strikingly beautiful young man, meets social corruption, falls under its captivating command and finally becomes the reprobate influence.

Although the book is over 100 years old, its social message remains relevant. Wilde uses the story of Dorian Gray as a critique of the ethics imposed by society regarding art and sexuality. The relationships between the portrait artist, Lord Watton, and the title character constantly hint at lasciviousness—relationships that leaned toward social taboos, and relationships that Wilde was known to favor in his personal life.

Guilt or lack thereof and its significance to personal life and society are the other primary themes. The portrait of Dorian Gray, imbued with some strange sort of soul, is like a tangible moral compass to Gray—”As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul,” Wilde’s narrative says. The painting made Gray aware of his unearthly beauty and charm, and thus kept him aware of the state of his inner being.

The artist Basil Hallward’s infatuation with Gray inspires the portrait. Grieving that the painting will remain forever young as he ages and withers, Gray prays passionately to be as ageless as the painting, and pleads that it might take on any of his flaws of time. Gray later bitterly regrets that prayer, but takes thorough advantage of the successful results.

The pivotal point in the story is when Gray’s actress fiancé kills herself. Instead of being fraught with guilt, Gray chooses to see her death as a grand romance. Encouraged by Lord Henry Wotton, with whom he has a particularly close relationship, Gray becomes wildly obsessed with the study of art and different physical, psychological and spiritual encounters. As Wilde puts it in the book, “Its aim was to be experience itself, and not the fruits of experience, sweet or bitter as they might be.” Gray lives without boundaries or limits, eventually becoming the very force that he was changed by.

Dorian Gray is caught by guilt of his lawless life only after murdering the artist who unwittingly entrapped his soul in a painting. Gray attempts to ignore the death of his former friend and worshiper, but becomes paranoid and finally attempts to destroy the distorted portrait.

The book raises interesting questions about the nature of souls, art, and lifestyles. The catalyst of the book is certainly Lord Wotton, who drives Gray’s first ethical experimentation. Wilde at times makes a powerful argument for living a moral life, but also spends a good deal of the book glorifying culturally condemnable behavior. The messages seem at cross-purposes, but somehow manage to work together to attack societal ethics and promote morals from the soul.

Although parts of the book can be dry, Wilde’s brilliant dialogue between characters and vivid descriptions that are nearly erotic drive the book. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is not only a classic, but remains pertinent through the decades, and is an extremely intriguing and thought-provoking read.

You may contact Bethany Hargrove at bhargrove@cocc.edu




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