One of my favourite coincidences in life was stumbling upon this story at the impressionable age of 17. Reading this novella then, all I noticed was the sly sincere words that turned scandalous in context. I was left sometimes blushing, sometimes chuckling like an imbecile but constantly speechless. Later, I saw that what Oscar Wilde accomplishes with his only novel is the feat of giving more than three dimensions to a story. The tale is told with intense, and at the time, immoral sensual depth.
From the very beginning, the story’s words have aimed to be consistently contradictory and incessantly dedicated to aesthetics. The protagonist of the story, Dorian Gray, is on the brink of adulthood and is blessed with paranormal beauty. This striking man is in the company of men who enjoy beautiful things and to each he becomes a symbol. For the painter, Basil, Dorian becomes a talisman, a muse; he is ‘a dream of form in days of thought.’ His beauty is so monumental that he has become the paradigm of enlightenment in regards to art. For Lord Henry Wotton, he becomes the face for ‘New Hedonism.’
Due to Dorian becoming almost a whole new genre of art and aesthetics, Basil paints him. In the process, as he tells him later, he ‘had put too much of himself into’ the portrait. His affection turned into idolatry and as is custom for idols, mortal or otherwise, Dorian forsook him. It is really the painting of Dorian Gray that is the protagonist of the tale, as the title would suggest. For in a ‘mad wish’ Dorian asks the Gods to spare him the ravages of time and make the painting take the brunt of it instead. As is convenient for the plot, the gods grant this request. The picture of Dorian becomes a sentient being, that suffers the degradation a soul marred by transgressions and Dorian himself is spared.
His journey of curiosity, vanity and hypocrisy begins with his attraction to Basil’s ‘incorrigible’ and ‘fascinating’ friend Lord Henry Wotton. Henry grows to become our protagonists’ friend, mentor and greatest enabler. He is Dorian’s priest and psychiatrist. He ‘represent(s) to you all the sins you have never had the courage to commit.’ It is also Lord Henry who opens the wormhole in Dorian’s life that leads to that transient place of sins and all that is sensational.
Through Dorian’s expedition into the passionately taboo and the exquisitely extravagant explorations, the reader is experiencing an intense hedonism as text. It’s as though your eyes and imagination are in sin just through the open pages. However, morality and nature calls back into balance the free reign it had given to the cause of decadence. The conclusion is of course, contradictory. For a novel dedicated entirely to beauty in every sense, it manages to punish all worshippers of beauty. Lord Henry is spared as he does not worship beauty as much as he acknowledges its power and gives it the respect it deserves.
There is nothing about the novel that is not aesthetically sound. You want to write down every sentence somewhere for fear of it flitting away from your mind. Oscar Wilde does not ask you to devour beauty. With a pace that is slowly deliberate, his exotic knowledge of textures, hues, scents and tastes undresses before your imagination. There is a technique that is unique to him, which humanises even the most stationary beauty. He has brought about a way for the reader to want to stand perfectly still and see the gold in dust and taste the sunlight for themselves.
Despite it being published 120 years ago, the attitude and aura of the book could just as well be used to describe this careless age sans the vulgarity. There is no fanaticism, no gluttony and obsession towards the pleasures of the senses. Instead there is solely devotion, a lifestyle that is ready to adapt to the whims of what beauty desires, parallel almost to the Sufi line of thought. It is the lack of choice in controlling ones mysticism towards all that is sensual. It is a spiritual calling from inside, the core of the novel to see in the monotony of routine a nucleus of splendour which proceeds then, to touch all things and like Midas makes them gorgeous.