“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”
“I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”
“The basis of optimism is sheer terror.”
In the waning chapters of The Picture of Dorian Grey, the eponymous picture’s subject makes the usual token gesture you’d expect of a penitent person, getting into a situation similar to one where he made an awful mistake and making the correct choice the second time around. All seems right at first, to him if not the reader, until he asks himself if his good deed is only a self-serving emotional balm that doesn’t actually do any good. While the narrative confirms this suspicion beyond the shadow of a doubt, my own questions on whether this book was progressive or not weren’t so easily resolved.
As I read The Picture, I thought of a recent essay by Film Crit Hulk about the way Martin Scorcese’s films present a case against something without being the slightest bit ham-fisted, allowing that something every allowance in the case for it before presenting a core flaw in the ideology that makes the whole thing fall apart. In particular, there’s one point he emphasizes about seduction, that in order for a parable against destructive behavior to be effective, it has to be honest about how destructive that behavior is. While The Portrait of Dorian Grey doesn’t manage the elaborate arc of understanding he ascribes to films like Silence and The Wolf of Wall Street, it is nothing if not seductive.
For a few years I’ve felt a deep admiration for Oscar Wilde based almost entirely on a cursory surface examination. He looks handsome and dresses impeccably, to the point where Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor got me on his side just because he looked like Wilde. The fact that his quotes kept making me smile and chuckle didn’t hurt, either. By sheer coincidence, his only novel focuses on the superficiality of surface details like appearances, and provides unflattering context to some of those quotations I liked so much.
The seduction in the book proper begins when Lord Henry Wotton starts talking to Dorian, a young, beautiful, impressionable man who just modeled a painting for Wotton’s friend, Basil. Wotton is a hot-shot dandy who quickly gets to charming Dorian, pontificating in the same facetious, devil-may-care way that I admired about Wilde’s writing previously. This is the most quotable books I’ve read in months, largely on the basis of Wotton’s pontificating. The only problem is that he advocates the pursuit of pleasure above all else, and in his witty reversals of someone’s expectations of wise sayings he advocates amorality, selfishness and vanity. Without Wotton’s prompting, Dorian would not have made the wish that Basil’s painting could keep him young, a wish which unexpectedly comes true.
As Dorian is still coming to terms with the painting, he engages in the book’s highlight, his break-up with Sybil Vane and the aftermath of her death. The way he treats her, insulting and shouting at her because she embarrassed him in front of his friends, is inexcusable, but Sybil also intentionally tanked her performance as Juliet because she thinks that she can’t portray fictional love now that she’s fallen in love with a real person. That logic irritates me just as much as it does Dorian, minus the fact that he was set up to be comically proven wrong in the face of skeptical friends. It triggers the autistic part of my brain that wants to react to people being wrong on the internet, the part that can get out of control without a dose of perspective.
Even though doxing and harassment wasn’t a thing in the late 19th century, I’m still impressed that Wilde would give Dorian a reason for trashing Sybil and causing her to kill herself that his readers might sympathize with. How many of them read the subsequent scene where Wotton talks Dorian out of his remorse by placing the blame on Sybil, complete with sexist talk about how women are inherently irrational and men shouldn’t try to understand them, and nodded in rapt agreement? Wilde once said that art can only be well-made or poorly-made, not moral or immoral. I don’t agree with that sentiment in general—the original Birth of a Nation alone should disprove it—but it’s resulted in a deeper and more interesting scene than it otherwise could have been.
I was somewhat secure in this analysis until the book club meeting, where other people brought up a quote of Wilde’s where he compared himself to the three main characters. Basil is what he thinks he is, which is understandable; they’re both artists, and Basil is infatuated with another man. He might say he has an artistic reason for painting Dorian’s beauty so well, but he’s not fooling any modern reader. Wotton is based on Wilde’s reputation, the same reputation that had him tried in the court of public opinion as an irresponsible provocateur which persisted after the publication of The Picture. What makes me scratch my head is him saying that Dorian is who he would like to be, “in another age, perhaps.” Really, Oscar? You want to be an empty-headed pretty boy who falls under the spell of a Milo Yiannopoulos prototype and becomes a toxic influence on his community?
The Picture of Dorian Grey never reaches the heights of its depiction of Sybil Vane again. From that point on it becomes a gothic melodrama with plot points I recognize from Edgar Allan Poe, culminating in an ending that plays off as a joke. Also, for all that Wilde recognizes the failings of Victorian society, he doesn’t recognize all of them, given a few instances where the text points out that a bit player who isn’t part of the gleaming upper class is Jewish, and in one case a Malay is described in an uncomfortably savage way. Still, Oscar Wilde knows how to turn a phrase, and he remains my gay icon of choice.