Words! Mere Words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! One could not escape from them. And yet, what a subtle magic there was in them! They seemed to be able to give a plastic form to formless things, and to have a music of their own as sweet as that of the viol or lute. Mere words! Was there anything so real as words?
Oscar Wilde celebrated the power of words in one breath even as he brushed it away in the next. In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he scoffs at the idea that books could influence anyone. “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Regardless of what he believed, he wielded words like the sharp edge of a sword or like an artist, remaking the world in his image.
I first read this book when I was in high school. I know…a long time ago, but the book made an impression. We had a rousing debate in class. Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? It’s a debate that can make you crazy because it’s circular, like the chicken/egg question. There are good arguments on both sides, but neither can be proved. Of course Wilde said it is the spectator, and not life, that art really imitates.
I re-read the book after a conversation with my friend and beta reader, Amanda. My recent blog on Karma created the seed of a story that was pinging around in my head. I asked her if she could think of another story based on the idea I outlined (albeit vaguely) to her. She mentioned a movie, but the movie’s premise was different from what I had in my head. When I tried to articulate it on paper, I found myself writing in block letters, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY.
No. I’m not rewriting the story, modernizing it, romanticizing it or any other equally bad idea. Oscar Wilde has done it already. However, I couldn’t quit thinking about it, and it became clear I wasn’t going to conceptualize my idea or get words on the page until I re-read it.
All I really remembered from high school was the whole art/life debate and Dorian staying young and hot while his picture got old and ugly. I forgot all about Harry and Basil which is to say I forgot the most interesting characters in the story.
Basil and Harry are the artists. Together they “create” Dorian, but they separate his body and his soul. Basil, the painter, is morality. His painting becomes Dorian’s soul, but Harry is the real artist. He molds and shapes Dorian in a way Basil can’t. Basil wants Dorian to be as good and pure as the painting initially reveals him to be. Harry wants to dominate Dorian…to remake Dorian’s spirit in his image. Harry indoctrinates Dorian to his Philosophy of Hedonism. “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses.”
Harry (Lord Henry Wotton) is the voice of the novel. His cynicism permeates the story. I hesitate to call him evil. He’s more amoral than immoral, but then, amoral can be scary as hell. He espouses hedonism, but doesn’t leave the trail of ruined lives in his wake that Dorian does. Harry grows old, but not hideous like Dorian. Of course, Dorian might be a reflection of his soul just as the painting is a reflection of Dorian’s.
Harry is smart and cynical and somehow damaged. Those qualities make him the most interesting character in the novel. He is certainly the most quotable. My Kindle app has a feature where you can highlight bits of text you find interesting. I highlighted the shit out of this book, and when I went back and re-read the highlighted quotes, they were all Harry’s. Here are some of my favorites.
On beauty and sensuality
- It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But it is better to be good than to be ugly.
- It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
- But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face.
- 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.
As a bonafide member of the he-man woman hater’s club.
- My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.
- Women love us for our defects. If we have enough of them, they will forgive us everything, even our intellects.
- A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.
- A woman will flirt with anybody in the world as long as other people are looking on.
- And in reference to the only woman in the book with a brain -- Her clever tongue gets on one’s nerves.
On romance and marriage
- The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.
- Those who are faithful know only the trivial side of love; it is the faithless who know love's tragedies.
- Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.
- The people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect - simply a confession of failure.
- The things one feels absolutely certain about are never true. That is the fatality of faith and the lesson of romance.
Oscar would roll over in his grave, and I’m proving Harry’s point about women loving men more for their faults, but I think he would make a great romantic hero given the right catalyst. He has a past that has molded him as surely as he molded Dorian. No one is born a cynic. It would be so much fun to see him eat his words. He is absolutely certain in his cynicism, and as he says, “The things one feels absolutely certain about are never true.”
I’m not planning a romanticized version of Wilde’s story. Harry was consistent in his cynical hedonism from beginning to end, so as much as I would like to change him, I’ll let him be.
I could care less about changing Dorian. He is flat and ultimately uninteresting because he suffers nothing. He leaves a trail of shattered lives in his wake, but never experiences his own external consequences. The only internal consequence is being forced to suffer the painting’s existence, the fear that it will be discovered. How many sins can you commit with impunity before you become boring? There has to be something at stake for us to care about a character.
Dorian does serve an important purpose, though. He is the work of art, and through him, Wilde both emphasizes and contradicts his statements about art. Dorian emphasizes the “all art is useless” philosophy. Harry notes that Dorian has never done anything or produced anything outside himself. Dorian also emphasizes the idea that art is sterile. He loves a woman only in the context of her art, when she is on stage as Juliet, Rosalind, or Imogen. The moment the woman becomes real and the art/artifice is gone, he loses interest.
Ironically, as Dorian emphasizes the sterility of art, he simultaneously contradicts it. He no longer loves Sybil because she is real. His callous words destroy her, and the painting changes for the first time.
The idea that “Art has no influence upon action” is convenient, but Dorian’s influence ripples across his sphere like something poisonous being thrown into a pond. The work of art experiences no consequences, but everyone it touches does.
I think Wilde enjoyed yanking his audience’s chain with his comments about art as surely as Harry enjoyed yanking Dorian's. He doesn’t care if it’s true or not or if we believe him or not. He just wants a reaction.
The real truth is in his story. The very soul of his protagonist resides in a painting. “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” Wilde paints a portrait of art as both inspiration and corruption.
Oscar Wilde is a cynic, and I am a romantic, and yet I am inspired. The Picture of Dorian Gray sparked my intellect and my imagination. Wilde’s story is not my story, but my story will be better because I read his.