A few months ago, I had a pretty stark dream that happened during that in-between-place of early morning wake and sleep, just before the alarm goes off. I was back in high school, a student in Literature class, and my wife was the teacher. She was the age she is now (a number I will not divulge) and I was a seventeen-year old. Sitting at my desk in the back row, on either side of me were two pretty young ladies, with whom I was actively flirting whilst my unbeknownst-to-me future wife was trying to teach the class. Three times she reprimanded me; three times I listened to her for a moment and then went back to my burgeoning social life.
Finally, she’d had enough. She marched back the aisle, slammed her hand loudly on my desk, stuck her finger in my face and sternly said with icy glare, “You need to read The Picture of Dorian Gray!”
I awoke with a start, completely skipping that groggy, slow, foggy head feeling and moving straight to wide awake and mildly terrified. Thinking about the dream, I thought for just a second, grabbed my phone, and purchased The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. What choice did I have? My wife told me to do it — and I know that look in her eyes — it was important for me to follow through!
My wife woke up a few minutes later, and as she was still in that groggy, slow, foggy headed place, the dream came pouring out of me and I said, “Why do I need to read this book?” To which she replied, “I don’t know, but you’d better listen to me.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray is widely considered one of the most important short novels of the modern era. In light of this, Harvard Press released an annotated, uncensored edition of the book in April 2011. That being the case, and wanting to get the full experience, I purchased this newly released edition despite its $35 price tag. So glad I did.
This Harvard Press release is more than the text of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it is a full education on the late Victorian era, a systematic explanation of life in Victorian London, an art primer on the pieces and mediums of the time, a captivating background on the nature of meaning, sexuality, depravity and love in this individually repressive culture, and an intimate journey into the mind and heart of the beautiful and tortured soul that was Oscar Wilde.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of Dorian Gray, a wealthy and extremely handsome young man — the Brad Pitt of 1890s London. Early in his young adult years, he is commissioned to stand for a painting by artist Basil Hallward, who paints his greatest masterpiece, the picture of Dorian Gray. It is lovely and beautiful beyond words, and Basil gifts it to young Dorian who hangs it in his home. Enter the presence of Lord Henry Wotton, friend of Basil and purveyor of deception and intrigue, encouraging and influencing young Dorian to a life of experience for the sake of experience, hedonism without vice and vice for the sake of self-actualization.
After the completion of the painting, Dorian and Lord Henry engage one another more and more, causing Dorian to become more and more dark. Falling in love with a beautiful young actress, Dorian spurns her once he learns that she cannot actually act, causing her suicide. More and more he plunges the depths of his own depravity, sensually seeking happiness and fulfillment at the expense of himself and anyone else who may get in his way, all the while spurred on by the beguiling words and philosophies of Lord Henry. Throughout the book, his beauty remains intact, unmarred by the ugliness and deformities of his character. But the painting…as Dorian’s character becomes more ugle, the painting begins to change, slowly morphing into a hideous revelation of the terrible deeds and realities of his inner being. In the end, Dorian kills Basil — the supposed perpetrator and realizer of his inner depraved nature — and then kills himself by stabbing his painting, trying to rid himself of the ugliness of himself as revealed in the art piece. (After reading this book, I realized the movie “Fight Club” wasn’t as original and brilliant as I once thought…though still fantastic.)
The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those pieces of art that became cultural icon and shifted things culturally without necessarily meaning to. It completely changed the way people in the Victorian era viewed themselves and their culture. In case you don’t know much about it or its cultural influence,this book has some seriously homosexual overtones, as well as some sexual emphases that would have made people of the late Victorian era blush in public and masturbate in secret. Oscar Wilde himself was a closet homosexual (as all homosexuals were in that day) who was discovered engaging with male prostitutes and sentenced to two years hard labor in an English prison for his sexual preferences and literary descriptions — lewdness was the actual charge. Wilde was a tortured soul, a sensitive and caring lover of beauty, fashion, art, food and drink, sensation and experience — characteristics scorned by the masculine ideal of his day — truly free only in his writing. Dorian Gray was published by Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (a Philadelphia-based periodical) in 1890 and was edited and censored at that time, producing an expanded, though censored, second edition in 1891. This 2011 Harvard Press edition is the only fully complete work of this book ever released.
But well beyond all that stuff, though, I was struck. Wilde said of this work: “Dorian Gray ‘contains much of me”: Basil Hallward is ‘what I think I am,’ Lord Henry ‘what the world thinks me,’ and ‘Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.'” I would imagine that it is clear to any discerning reader, that Wilde is speaking at least partially (if not in full) autobiographically in The Picture of Dorian Gray. The ecstasy and pain of his experiences are categorically divulged, evident on every page and every sentence, beautifully expressed with lyrical prose such as I have rarely engaged. Seriously, Shakespeare himself can’t turn a sentence or voice a metaphor better than Wilde.
If Dorian Gray can be offered any criticism it is simply that Dorian’s exploits lack the punch and drive of the deep and profound philosophical conversations had by Dorian, Lord Henry and Basil. Then again, that may be Wilde’s whole point, that the philosophies that create the behaviors are what really matter, and he writes it oh, so well. In my opinion, naturally flowing dialogue is the hardest thing to write; it takes a writer’s writer to really get it right. Wilde writes outstanding prose that is like watching a movie in your imagination. I think that in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the dialogue is the point, engaging not just character to character in the pain and experience of young Dorian and his consorts, but the reader as well. That is why the dialogue reads so intensely and fluidly. After a true artist like Wilde has been oppressed, repressed, expressed, censored, betrayed, driven from society and finally asked to live out his days with his person continually under a wink-wink-nod-nod-raise-the-eyebrows stigma, written dialogue is about all he had left to express with freedom his thoughts and feelings.
Oppression will always breed some form of release.
So, back to my dream and my wife’s stern command to read this book. In the dream, I was out of touch, choosing to not be informed by the one who can most clearly and helpfully inform me. Distracted by lesser beauty surrounding me, and enchanted with my own wit and cleverness, I was a seventeen year old Narcissus, peering into the pool, enraptured by my own beauty, whilst my soul missed that which could quench its thirst, all the while telling myself that my enjoyment of the moment was what mattered most.
Self-deception is killing us. Outwardly, we are beautiful; our actions are wholesome, our smiles are white, our clothes are clean, we smell good and look good, the Golden Rule is on our lips as we spiritually masturbate to our selves, staring into the pool at our milky skin and kindhearted features. Inwardly, though, we are depraved and untransformed, all the while lying to ourselves, saying that we are beautiful and good, despite the painting on the wall of every human heart that obviously speaks differently. Wilde is one of the few writers I have read — including Christian writers — with the guts to say (directly and indirectly) that humans are inwardly depraved and broken, distorted and grotesque by their fallen nature. This inward truthful condition will find its outward workings, directly and indirectly.
My wife was right: I needed to read this book. It was a distinct storied teaching of the nature of oppression, the heartache of beauty and love unrequited, the truth of my inner depravity, and my own self-deception that seeks to mask and flee from it.
I strongly recommend this book to you. It is more than a work of great literature, it is a truthful and graceful statement of a timeless and precious truth in a beautiful and masterfully written story.
Only in the presence of truth can there ever be grace.