the cedar ledge

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Date: April 19 2022

Summary: Book review on the extreme hedonism, classist privilege, and complete moral collapse written about Dorian Gray

Keywords: ##summary #review #book #hedonism #privilege #corruption #morality #homosexuality ##blog

Bibliography

O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. OUP Oxford, 2006.

Notes

Introduction

This was a rather odd but enjoyable book. Even though Wilde more depicted this book as the evil and banality of hedonism taken to the extreme, it was a rather nice reminder, for me personally, that it is acceptable to enjoy life. To seek and find new experiences and adventures is perfectly fine, but as Wilde pointed out, there is a limit.

Extreme Hedonism

What I really enjoyed was the characterizations of Dorian and Lord Henry as these somewhat egalitarians with Dorian being the more novice and Henry being the more advanced. Dorian somewhat starts as a perfect blank template - an Adonis ready to be made Henry’s Pygmalion. With Henry’s influence, Dorian starts to shed his “classist good manners” and evolve into a full hedonist to embrace the darker desires unknown to those belonging to “Dorian’s kind of society.”

As Henry points out to Dorian,

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful”

Which has a bit of truth to it. For sure we have all been tempted by that which we cannot have and perhaps we have given into a temptation. It certainly does give a bit of relief but then, we only want more. We are not bidden to ourselves to pursue that thing at all costs - if so, we would be no different than mere animals chasing every desire. Yet, that is exactly what Dorian believes after Henry explains his ideas to him.

Moral Collapse

This begins to manifest in Dorian believing in his inherent superiority due to his charm and good looks that Henry and Basil praises him for. That perspective can be encapsulated in Basil saying,

“The ugly and the stupid have the best of it in this world. They can sit quietly and gape at the play. If they know nothing of victory, they are at least spared the knowledge of defeat. They live as we all should live, undisturbed, indifferent, and without disquiet.”

Although Basil meant this more as a social commentary and not entirely a classist judgement, Henry followed up later with a similar but different sentiment of this same notion. Here, Henry instead says,

“Society, civilized society at least, is never very ready to believe anything to the detriment of those who are both rich and charming[.]”

Essentially, Henry’s view is more of the kind saying, “hey, you have more privilege and power than you think. Use it.” In this case, he encourages the use of this privilege and power at the expense of all others. In Basil’s comment, he more encourages Dorian to recognize his privilege and power but to be a wise steward of it. Instead, Dorian follows Henry’s influence to gratify all of himself.

Before Dorian fully sheds his soul, after the suicide of Sibyl caused nearly directly by Dorian, there is a moment of tragic reflective introspection Dorian has:

“[W]hy is it that I cannot feel this tragedy as much as I want to?”

He says as he nearly begs Henry for an answer. Rather than this being a true moment for introspection, Henry instead just encourages Dorian to brush this off as an experience. Perhaps not the most happy of experience, but one nonetheless. Although Dorian knows he out to feel something, he instead allows Henry to salve his wounds.

In so doing, “the life that was to make his soul,” was avoided and any “[marring of] his body,” Dorian was spared. This enabled him to commit even worse terrors. The murder of Basil, the blackmailing of Alan, and the ruin of many of those around him, Dorian was now fully unchained to pursue it all. Dorian’s moral collapse was well and truly complete.

On Homo-Eroticism

There was a strong undercurrent of homosexuality and homo-eroticism in this book. With Basil’s unreuited love for Dorian, the homosexuality here was shown rather positively. Yet, with Dorian, this was portrayed as predatory to men and youth around him. A welcome change of the oft-condemning of homosexuals in Victorian literature but rather a sort of early value judgement on what was moral and immoral homosexual behavior for that time. Most likely this was a direct commentary from Wilde himself as a bisexual person but it wove into the narrative rather well.

References:

Discussion:

CC BY-SA 4.0 Jacob Zelko. Last modified: June 21, 2022. Website built with Franklin.jl and the Julia programming language.