There are books which you like and make you exclaim in wonder after you are done reading them. These are good books and we have written about some of those here. They touch you, move you and leave you in applause.
Then, there are books which elevate your tastes a notch higher, making it a tad difficult to appreciate lesser statured books thereafter. The Picture of Dorian Gray is precisely that. A book which pushes the boundaries of literature and greets you in territories you never knew existed before. And, at the end of it all, leaves you with a warm feeling, as you become aware that there are pleasures in reading which are yet unexplored.
The book opens in the home of a London painter, Basil Hallward, an artist with decent reputation of his works. Lord Henry Wotton, his friend, is present and they both are looking at the recently finished painting of Basil’s. It is the portrait of a young lad, Dorian Gray. A lad, whom Lord Henry describes as “made out of ivory and rose-leaves”. The beauty of Dorian Gray is such that every one who crosses his life is enamoured by it. During the discussion between Lord Henry and Basil over the painting, Dorian Gray himself walks in. In an ensuing conversation, which is perhaps, one of the best in the book, Lord Henry talks to Dorian about the virtues of youth and beauty.
Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid. Look at the successful men in any of the learned professions. How perfectly hideous they are!
And then he goes on to say this:
“I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream–I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediaevalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal–to something finer, richer than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind and poisons us. The body
sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. 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. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also. You, Mr. Gray, you yourself, with your rose-red youth and your rose-white boyhood, you have had passions that have made you afraid, thoughts that have filled you with terror, day-dreams and sleeping
dreams whose mere memory might stain your cheek with shame–”
This conversation has a very deep impact on Dorian. He looks at his wonderful portrait created by Basil and instantly wishes that his youth remains forever. This wish, in a strange manner, comes true and Dorian never ages. He indulges in all the pleasures of youth and vanity, mostly ghastly acts, and yet, none of his acts affect his soul. Instead, they show up on the picture. Every act that is supposed to age his soul, has an illustrated impact on the picture. Seeing this, in turn, gives Dorian a “terrible sense of pleasure” and fuels his ambitions. How far does he go in this space of narcissism is the story of this book. The separation of the actor and the result is a beautiful concept of the book, which in effect, keeps the soul separate from the human form. The soul corrupts and the human body does not. How does this influence a person’s behavior in society? How does he use this extraordinary power, which removes any stains of guilt from his heart and brain and instead darkens the picture alone?
The plot of this book is unique in the sense that it explores the deep annals of the human mind and at the same time keeps the virtues of conscience aside. The ending of the book is exceptional. It is perhaps something you can anticipate, but yet, it leaves you with a feeling of being highly surprised. That is the power of Oscar Wilde’s prose. And that is the power of a book which, unfortunately, raises the bar of literature higher. Unfortunately, because it is difficult to then read any literature without comparing it to one of its own pinnacles.