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am 29. Juni 2000
To my mind, this is one of the best works in all of English literature. Oscar Wilde is a artist who uses the page as his canvas and the written word as his paint. His wit cuts at the human condition like a scalpel with depth and precision. Dorian Gray is his finest work.
This is a Faustian tale of a man who utters an oath offering his soul for the youth portrayed in a painting of him, if only it would age instead of he. He discovers that the wish has been granted, only he gets more than he requested, as the painting shows not only the marks of age, but also the marks upon his soul as he slips into a hedonistic and odious life.
I have read a lot of criticism of this book by modern and especially young readers as being slow and boring. This is much like the criticism of a beer guzzler describing a fine wine. "Forget the bouquet and refined taste, just give me my buzz." This story, and the subtle philosophies contained within, need to be sipped deliberately and relished. There is page after page of astute insight into the paradoxes and ironies of society and the mysteries of being human. To be bored with this is to be insensate to life's depth and meaning.
Many have also criticized the book as espousing hedonism and attacking Victorian society especially at the time it was written. Such critics wrongly assume that Lord Henry is Wilde's mouthpiece for a fatalistic and cynical philosophy. Actually, the exact opposite is true. The cynic is the one being satirized, not society.
Lord Henry uses paradoxical aphorisms to bolster his sardonic view. However, they are specious and self validating arguments that look at the small truths about the world and draw the wrong conclusion. Rather than assume that these eccentricities and foibles are things that we can and should rise above, he draws the conclusion that we should embrace and accept our instinctive weaknesses. He ignores the higher truths and points out instead how the capitulation to our own desires sets us free. Wilde's refutation of this philosophical connivance comes in the person of Dorian Gray.
Dorian was Lord Henry's protégé. He was living the life that Harry espoused (but ironically didn't live himself). And what was the result of Dorian's decadence? He lived a life of torment and self loathing. He agonized over the hideous marks on his soul as catalogued by the portrait with each dastardly deed. Wilde is telling us that this is what such self indulgence and cynicism about life and society brings. His message is that a civilized society, with all its inconsistencies, paradoxes and ironies, is preferable and superior to living like an animal. By smiting Dorian, he is really smiting Lord Henry and everything he advocates. He is making a case for the soul over the body; intellect over instinct.
This is an exquisite and thought provoking treasure that is every bit as relevant now as it was almost a century ago when it was written. I have read it a number of times through the years and I never tire of it. As I have gotten older and more experienced, its truths have become more vivid and resonant. If you've never read it, pick it up and savor it. Don't rush through it for the plot. Ponder it as you read. If you have already read it, put it away and try it again in five or ten years. You may discover new meaning, and much that you missed. That's the beauty of a timeless novel. Its wisdom will wait patiently until you've had time to catch up.
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