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Art & Culture

Classic Books: ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde

Starting a series of articles about books, some just famous, others true masterpieces, I chose one that I find particularly interesting, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, by Oscar Wilde.
We can certainly say that Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was what could be called ‘‘a character.” He was a leader of the Aesthetic Movement and advocated “Art for Art’s sake.” He valued beauty over everything else but he possibly realized how such passion could also yield bitter results. In his famous novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” in fact, he describes how such passion, becoming an obsession, can entail tragic consequences.
Oscar Wilde was Irish, having been born in Dublin, but he moved to England when he was 20 to attend Oxford University. Besides being a writer, he was also a successful playwright. I personally consider ‘’The Importance of Being Ernest” one of the most amusing and entertaining plays ever performed. Its characters are so Victorian-style and the words they utter are always witty, funny and, to a certain extent, true. Wilde’s epigrams are universally quoted and, besides bringing a smile to your lips, they also invite you to ponder on the many contradictions and hypocrisy of human society.
When he entered the United States, where he later moved, his answer to the custom officer who was questioning him about anything he might have to declare, shows what he thought of himself, “The only thing I have to declare is my genius!” He definitely thought very highly of himself but, unfortunately, the last part of his life was embittered by a two-year prison sentence due to a trial for libel. It seems he believed to be so clever that he could get away with anything. Oscar Wilde wasn’t certainly a flawless individual, but his writings are worth reading. His wit in criticizing the contemporary society’s customs, his acumen in describing characters and the vivid descriptions of places and situations give him a deserved place among the great authors of all times.
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” tells the story of an extremely handsome young man, Dorian Gray, who starts by being a good, kind, loyal individual and, because of vanity, ends his life in the most terrifying way. He has a friend, Basil Hallward, a renowned painter who, charmed by Dorian’s beauty, paints his full-size portrait which arises great admiration. At the turning point of his life Dorian makes a wish. He expresses the desire to have the painting age and become old while he remains as young as he is now. To his great surprise, his wish is granted.
As it happens with every human being, he accepts this amazing situation willingly and soon becomes accustomed to it. Realizing that his appearance does not change, he starts dedicating himself to an extravagant existence, full of vice, selfishness, even crime. Every now and then he checks the portrait, that he keeps hidden in a locked room, and rejoices in seeing how the marks of corruption are visible on the painting but not on his face and body.
It goes without saying that people are surprised that his looks never change with the passing of the years, but no one ever suspects any mystery.
However, when his friend Basil, the painter, becomes aware of the situation, Dorian doesn’t hesitate to murder him. Eventually the weight of his sins starts to burden his mind until he finally, in total desperation, tries to destroy the paining that mirrors the decay caused to his soul by his vicious behavior.
The final scene is dramatic, surprising and moving at the same time. Dorian stabs his portrait numerous times but ends up collapsing on the floor, wounded to death. And, at the moment of his demise, his body changes into the old, wretched being that his crimes have made of him, while the painting resumes its original luminous beautiful shape. This, the story. It is important to also notice that, behind what happened, there is an “evil spirit” in the form of Lord Henry Wotton, a malicious friend who, with his subtle suggestions, sneaky advice and insinuations, indoctrinates young innocent Dorian, bringing him to believe that all is allowed to a beautiful being, that everything is acceptable if it brings satisfaction to one’s appetites.
A final comment. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” is a book that, once you read it, you cannot easily forget, if you ever can. It is extremely well written, the characters are precisely defined, the many different situations are intriguing and often surprising, the whole story is totally fascinating. If you don’t know it and if you don’t get “scared,” go ahead and read it. Oscar Wilde will charm you, as he charmed readers in his days and as he keeps on doing nowadays.

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