Aestheticism, morality, and the supernatural: The Picture of Dorian Gray provides it all

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Highly criticized after its release in the 19th century The Picture of Dorian Gray has become a literary classic for a reason. It is the controversial author’s Oscar Wilde’s only novel and was first published in book form with an added preface where the author advocates for art for art’s sake following the initial uproar about the work ‘degrading public morality’. You might wonder why senior high school students should read a book with such a critical reception? Shouldn’t we read something more recent? More relevant to current day issues? But the truth is that the topic of morality is perennial and now possibly more important than ever.

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.”

― Oscar Wilde

The main character Dorian Gray is a dandy through and through, encapsulating the aestheticism movement. His story starts with artist Basil painting a portrait of the young man and Dorian swearing his soul to it – involving a surprising element of the supernatural into a period piece. The book explores the struggles of self-obsession, youth, love, and virtue through interesting episodes of events such as upper society dinners and theatre plays. To read this book is to stumble into 19th-century Victorian society where women are yet to have a say and the upper and the lower class couldn’t be more divided.

“You will always be fond of me. I represent to you all the sins you never had the courage to commit.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Through Dorian’s friend’s Lord Henry’s vast array of monologues and ideas, the author challenges the readers’ stances on beauty, art, women’s rights, and what is right and wrong. Although, Lord Henry can at times seem like the villain, the character of Dorian is the most flawed. He is vile and overcome by self-obsession and doesn’t shy away from manipulation, using people, and even macabre acts.

One of the more engrossing parts of the book features an episode with scientist Alan Campbell where Dorian requires a favor and subsequently blackmails the man. The reader is never told what the blackmail is but it can be deduced that it has to do with a homosexual act which was illegal at the time. Later in life, the author Oscar Wilde himself was put on trial and incarcerated for homosexual acts and in court, the contents of The Picture of Dorian Gray were used against him. This shows how the book is precocious in its social commentary as only now more than a hundred years later the LGBT community is truly gaining their rights to marry.

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The novel takes inspiration from authors such as Faust and Shakespeare which is not surprising to any reader as the work is a masterpiece of both philosophy and language. The intricate vocabulary and topics of arts, lifestyle, and human values are what make the book more than appropriate for high school graduate students as it is mature and suited for the age group. Because of how everything (even descriptions of perfumes) is in some way important to understanding Dorian, any extract gives opportunities for in-depth analysis of themes, characters, symbols, and authorial choices, making this a great choice of work for the Individual Oral.

“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

A novel like this immerses the reader in a different world but still finds a way to relate to issues present in any time period – as long as humans are around there will be virtues, physical urges, love, brutality, and ego. It’s great when a book can give perspective and make the reader reevaluate the importance they place on beauty and youth.

Written by: Annija Dimanta from Riga, Latvia

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