Last week I downloaded the Kindle App for my iPhone and downloaded a couple of free classic books to read. I was trying to encourage my DS to expand his reading beyond these serial magic/dragon/elf/fantasy type books into some of the classics. I specifically wanted him to read Bob, Son of Battle, a “dog book” I liked better than White Fang.
I recently listened to The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde from Librivox, which I really got a kick out of, and so decided to download The Picture of Dorian Gray. I could hardly put it down! It was great! I love Wilde’s wittiness and his depiction of the devil’s ways of tempting us. I knew Wilde was gay, and I did notice the attraction of the male main characters to each other (and the insulting treatment of women), but I didn’t think it was a main theme. Dorian Gray seemed to me to be an exploration of how people justify sin and an insight into how the Devil may work on us, much like The Screwtape Letters.
After I finished the book I wanted to read some analysis and commentary, so started Googling. There was some information, but not much. Eventually I came upon a book at books.google.com, The Secret life of Oscar Wilde. Now I just feel dirty.
Wilde was a narcissist (maybe even a sociopath) who exploited others for his own sexual satisfaction. He didn’t love the boys and men he — to use his own word — “had”; he used them to serve his own perverted desires and then dumped them like so much garbage after they submitted to his will, or after he broke them. It’s clear from Wilde’s writings he enjoyed pushing his “lovers” to see what extremes they would go to to keep his attentions. The list of boys/men he exploited is staggering. I have no respect for a person who uses others like tissue.
Just as I was about halfway through the author’s interpretation of Dorian Gray, I hit my quota of pages. :( I was disturbed by how differently the author, who is also gay, saw the book than I had. Wilde himself said more people had understood the book than he intended. :( I do think that the author oversimplified the text into a gay-only theme, but since I can’t read farther I don’t know if he offered more expansion later in the analysis.
After reading about Wilde’s personal life, the long list of people whose lives Dorian destroyed (and which seemed so out of place in the pacing of the text) seems now to be a thinly veiled list of Wilde’s personal exploits. Those men must have been able to recognize themselves in the text. Can you imagine how offensive and terrifying and insulting it must have been to read about yourself in that context?
Despite reading that analysis and knowing more about Wilde than I’d prefer, the book seemed — and still seems — to me to be Wilde’s exploration of the decadent movement and its effect on lives. Certainly there is some amount of autobiographical content. Wilde does list women and men whose lives were destroyed by Dorian’s actions, most prominently, the prostitute in the opium den. Dorian was clearly not just gay, he was interested in pursuing any new experience at the urging of his “friend”, Lord Wootton. Ultimately murdering the only person who really cared enough about Dorian to try to influence him for good could cause Dorian real pain. Dorian’s life was the ideal of the decadent movement, of which Wilde was a proponent. It’s interesting that in a book thatwas probably meant to extol the greatness of a decadent life, Wilde shows the ultimate end of such complete decadence: self-destruction.
For me, the theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that no decadent behavior is without consequence. For Dorian, his beauty keeps him from experiencing the direct result of his actions for so long, he feels himself above the consequences. And ultimately it doesn’t matter: in trying to silence his conscience, Dorian destroys himself.
I think this is much like the Book of Mormon idea that we will condemn ourselves at the Day of Judgment. I won’t be able to look at the Savior and pretend my actions do not have consequence or that I didn’t know they were wrong. I will acknowledge that I chose my fate.
As uncomfortable as the nagging voice of conscience is, it keeps us from destroying the good we have in us.