Book Review: Vanity and Youth in the Picture of Dorian Gray
Updated: Aug 27
By Rachel Nichols, Clarion Opinion Editor
The Picture of Dorian Gray was originally published in 1890 by famously eccentric and flamboyant poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde. It was his only writing in novel form and the summation of his “wilde” reputation - which divided much of the literary and non-literary worlds - as it was a clashing of morals and considered quite scandalous for the time.
The story follows the young and beautiful Dorian Gray as he is taken under the wing of Lord Henry Wotton. Their first introduction takes place in the home of their mutual friend, Basil Hallward, a well established painter finishing up Dorian’s portrait. Dorian is easily influenced by Lord Wotton and adopts many of his views, which are sporadic and have more to do with his own amusement than truth. For example, that beauty should be valued in the utmost regard because it is the highest form of genius, for beauty need not be explained. This consequently leads Dorian to proclaim his hatred (or envy) of his painted “twin”, Basil’s portrait, claiming it to be unfair that the painting should remain young and beautiful forever while he should not.
So begins the battle between vanity and morality. The roles of the painted Dorian and the actual Dorian are reversed - the portrait ages while Dorian mysteriously does not, and his picture takes on a menacing quality. As the true Dorian begins to partake in sin and cruelty, the painted version reflects his actions in its own features, the expression growing more and more hideous until Dorian is forced to cover it with cloth and hide it in the attic.
The idea that an ugly soul is translated into an unattractive face, or even an ugly face, is obviously preposterous. But in the case of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it serves a literary purpose. It is a way for both the reader and Dorian himself to measure the corruption of his soul over the duration of the novel. It is also a commentary by Wilde on how we, as a society, tend to justify our actions or our treatment of others by using a number of unrelated factors. For humanity is different from the animal kingdom; we suffer the curse of rationalization. Wilde himself famously said, “I choose my friends for their good looks.” Superficial maybe, but honest in a way that many would be hesitant to admit.
Wilde claims in the book's preface that there is “no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” This is seemingly contradicted by the fate that Dorian suffers in this novel; Dorian becomes obsessed with his own youth and beauty to the point that he sabotages himself. He cruelly breaks off his engagement to fiance, kills the painter, and then is seemingly stabbed by his own painting. Worst of all he loses the one thing he has given up everything to protect: his youth. A reader could perhaps come to the conclusion that vanity is what led Dorian to his demise, but they would be wrong. What truly placed Dorian on his destructive path is the power he allowed Lord Wotton to wield over him. The power of influence, of one allowing one’s own opinions to be warped and transformed by another.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is an exploration into vanity, and the power or influence we wield over one another. Wilde dives into what it means to live forever, to be young, beautiful, and strong unceasingly. To extend the things that make life so precious and rare. For if we were all to live forever we may not spend the same amount of energy deciding between right and wrong.
After all, we would have a millenia to make mistakes, and a millenia to shrug and carelessly say, “I’ll get it right someday.”