Saturday, November 1, 2008

Sure, I Know the Queen

By Jodie

At the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’ the main character makes a wish that ensures his life will follow an evil path. Confronted with a portrait of his beautiful youth he wishes that the painting may age while he remains forever young. It is a thoughtless wish, made with no expectation that it will come true but his wish is granted, by some force and every experience that should age and warp its owner mars the portrait instead. It sounds like a dream situation for Dorian Gray, a young socialite, blooming and admired but all well read people know that a gift of eternal anything is never simple.

Dorian realises that the picture will take on all the sins that would brand his appearance after he ends an affair cruelly. After breaking off an engagement with an unworldly actress he notices that the portrait’s mouth has a new cruel set to it. Upon discovering this he has to make a decision, he can continue to live a life according to his pleasures at the expense of others or he can use the portrait as a spur to be virtuous, knowing that it will become uglier with every crime he commits. At first he plans to follow the later course but when he finds his jilted fiancée has killed herself he loses his willpower and embarks on a life of hatred and decadence. At intervals throughout his life he tries to become good but always fails.

While the decision to let his portrait bear the marks of his sick soul seems to have little outward effect on Dorian’s life it quietly destroys him and those around him. He is shunned in some society, his friends and lovers mostly meet terrible ends by being associated with him and the twisted portrait sits upstairs in his house filling his mind with paranoia and disgust. Everything in him seems ruined because of the wish he made and the fact that he allows the painting to be a deposit for his sins instead of a visible conscience. But was this decision such a dramatic cataclysm in the young man’s life? Although Dorian is described in glowing prose by the enamoured Basil at the beginning of the book he is hardly an angel made flesh in character. He is cutting about Basil and worships him, painting the cursed portrait and he is weak under the influence of society, especially the devilish Sir Henry. This makes it hard to believe that Dorian would have been able to live a strict, moral life. He is vain and wants to preserve his looks but this alone could not have kept him from vice as it would be inevitable that he age. Perhaps he would not have indulged so excessively but it is likely that he would have found it hard to keep himself from the pleasures he loved.

The writing and publishing of this book also involved some fateful decisions that led to terrible consequences for its author. Oscar Wilde decided to publish the novel, which talks openly about scandalous subjects like ruined women, opium and prostitution and contains extremely broad hints that the main characters may be gay. This novel went on to be material evidence in the trial that set him to prison in 1895 and effectively ended his career and life, as he died three years after being released. He could be seen as an activist, reaching a point in his life where he could no longer hide who he really was or as someone who believed his celebrity would protect him from charges.

After first publishing this novel Wilde came to realise his mistake, perhaps becoming more cautious as he grew older and yet never withdrew the novel from circulation. In 1890 and 1891 Wilde made many changes to the book to tone down and disguise the references to homosexuality but never went quite hid them altogether. Although many minute changes were made to passages in the book to obscure more open references to the intimacy of key male relationships much obvious attraction still remained in the book’s atmosphere. Wilde’s editor also made changes in 1891, which were in some cases much more certain than Wilde’s. His editor changed some passages to make it unquestionable that the mysterious outrages Dorian and his friends commit are against women’s reputations rather than men’s. However he does not change scenes where the romantic feelings of the men are quite obvious, at least to a modern reader. Was this because Wilde and his editor misjudged society, believing they would not spot the allusions or notice the tone of the book or were they trying to get as much subversion in under the radar as possible?

This is a formidable novel with a gothic atmosphere full of an air of seduction and scandal. It is one of the sexiest, sharpest classics I have ever read and looks set to live on my shelves for many years. Decadent, irreverent and dark I am very glad that Oscar Wilde held his nerve and published ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I loved this book as well. It's definitely a classic.