Our church has been holding a Lenten Lunch Series. Every week a different parishioner offers a book review as entertainment while we eat a soup lunch. The proceeds are going to help a church in Africa. Today was my day to present one of my favorite books, and here are my eager offerings for anyone who is interested.
I have chosen one of my all-time favorite novels, The Picture of Dorian Gray. I have read and re-read this book probably three or four times now, because of its wit, characters, and accurate depiction of human nature. It shows the depths of our human depravity and the costliness of a life led in the pursuit of pleasure rather than of God. In short, I like it, because it is funny, and because it is true. True, not because the story actually happened, but because it is a mirror that reflects the realities of life. As someone once put it so well, “Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
Just as a little background, the author, Oscar Wilde, was born in Dublin, Ireland in the mid 19th century. He studied at Oxford and settled in London where he fell in with an artistic crowd, which included W. B. Yeats (the great Irish poet). Oscar Wilde began his published career with mediocre poetry; however, he became famous for his comic plays (the most famous being “The Importance of Being Earnest”). The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel he ever published.
Oscar Wilde was immersed in the rising aesthetic movement of his day, which championed the supremacy of beauty and art and advocated the pursuit of all pleasure. This movement became known as the “new hedonism.” His novel, written later in his life, explores these themes and their ultimate ends. To sum it up, it is the story of a man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty.
It all begins in a stately London home with Dorian Gray sitting for the well-known artist, Basil Hallward. Dorian is a wealthy, cultured, handsome young man, and he captivates Basil’s artistic imagination. While Basil is painting Dorian, Lord Henry enters. He is a witty devil figure who amuses himself by scandalizing his friends and propagating a life of pleasure seeking. He admires Dorian’s youth and beauty, but deeply distresses him with a speech on their fleeting nature.
Speaking to Dorian:
“Let us go and sit in the shade,” said Lord Henry. “Parker has brought out the drinks, and if you stay any longer in this glare you will be quite spoiled, and Basil will never paint you again. You really must not allow yourself to become sun burnt. It would be unbecoming.”
“What can it matter?” cried Dorian Gray, laughing, as he sat down on the seat at the end of the garden.
“It should matter everything to you, Mr. Gray.”
“Because you have the most marvelous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having.”
“I don’t feel that, Lord Henry.”
“No, you don’t feel it now. Some day, when you are old and wrinkled and ugly, when thought has seared your forehead with its lines, and passion branded your lips with its hideous fires, you will feel it, you will feel it terribly. Now, wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so?... You have a wonderfully beautiful face, Mr. Gray. Don’t frown. You have. And Beauty is a form of Genius—is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation… Yes, Mr. Gray, the gods have been good to you. But what the gods give they quickly take away. You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you…
The conversation continues and Lord Henry urges Dorian, “Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for a new sensation. Be afraid of nothing… A new Hedonism – that is what our century wants! You might be its visible symbol.”
Finishing their conversation in the garden, they re-enter the studio to see Dorian’s portrait complete. And “the sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation.” Staring at his own image, he began to grieve what time would do to his most impressive characteristics.
“How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June… If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that – for that—I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!”
And so he pledges his soul if only the painting could bear the burden of age and infamy, allowing him to stay young forever. Over the next few weeks, Lord Henry’s influence grows stronger over Dorian as he becomes a disciple of the new hedonism and proposes to live a life dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure. Lord Henry enjoys the almost evil dominance he has over Dorian, and thinks to himself, “Talking to Dorian was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to ever touch and thrill of the bow… There was something terribly enthralling in the exercise of influence. No other activity was like it.”
And so the story continues. Dorian falls in love with a young actress Sibyl, who performs in a theater in London’s slums. He adores her acting; she, in turn, refers to him as “Prince Charming” and refuses to heed the warnings of her brother that Dorian is no good for her. Overcome by her emotions for Dorian, she decides that she can no longer act, wondering how she can pretend to love on the stage now that she has experienced the real thing. Dorian, who loves her because of her ability to act, cruelly breaks his engagement with her. After doing so, he returns home to notice that his face in Basil’s portrait of him has changed.
“As he was turning the handle of the door his eyes fell upon the portrait Basil Hallward had painted of him. He started back as if in surprise. Then he went on into his own room, looking somewhat puzzled. After he had taken the button-hole out of his coat, he seemed to hesitate. Finally he came back, went over to the picture, and examined it. In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream-colored silk blinds, the face appeared to him to be a little changed. The expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange.”
Dorian learns the next day that the actress has killed herself in her grief, and he hides his portrait in a remote upper room of his house where no one can see it. For “it held the secret of his life, and told his story. It had taught him to love his own beauty. Would it teach him to loathe his own soul?” This picture would become his visible conscience, “the symbol of the degradation of his sin. Here was an ever-present sign of the ruin men brought upon their souls.” And so Dorian goes on to delve deeper and deeper into his hedonistic lifestyle, and his portrait bears the image of his choices. “What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty, and eat away its grace. They would defile it, and make it shameful.”
For a brief moment, Dorian wants to repent, but Lord Henry steps in to prevent this. And so the battle for Dorian’s soul will continue to rage, and the bitter lesson will be learned…For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?