Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the second book in the Well-Read Man Project to take up the “fountain of youth” theme, the first being Frankenstein. (Other books in the project, such as All the King’s Men, discuss those who try to build legacies that outlive their founders, but not outright eternal youth.) While Victor Frankenstein’s attempt at longevity was an utter failure, the one experienced by Dorian Gray had some success, until it ended in utter failure.
The core premise of Wilde’s only novel is fairly well known: A young man experiences eternal youth while a portrait of him ages vicariously. The magic event isn’t actively sought out, but is thrust upon him by the actions and attitudes of the book’s three major characters.
- Dorian Gray, an innocent youth, is swayed by mentions of his beauty and innocence, eventually prompting him to offer up anything, even his own soul, in order to possess these two traits in perpetuity.
- Basil Hallward, the painter of Gray’s portrait, idolizes Dorian and his canvas doppelganger nearly to the point of veneration. He sees in Dorian the perfectibility of mankind, although this image is ruined (as is the painting) within minutes of expressing this sentiment.
- Lord Henry “Harry” Wotton, a friend of Hallward, whose hedonistic ideas corrupt the youth of his generation (read: Dorian) to an extent that Socrates’ accusers would have never thought possible.
When these three—the worship of man’s potential, the exaltation of debauchery, and the desire for eternal life and power—come together, Eden falls again, with the portrait playing the role of the Tree of Knowledge, and mankind himself acting as his own serpent.
It’s not just Dorian’s youth that the painting absorbs. The image acts as his conscience, expressing in colored oils the ugliness of a life spent in worldly excess and dehumanization. In part, Dorian Gray is a warning against the epicurean tendencies of Wilde’s era, some of which Wilde was accused of practicing himself.
Although the book is classified as a tragedy, its readability is light and easy. Through the simple plot device of an enchanted painting, Wilde delves deeply into the nature of the human soul, sin and salvation, and how different views of morality play out in people’s lives. Although Wilde intended the book to be a commentary on the late nineteenth century, its exposition of human nature lives on as if the book was its own Basil Hallward portrait.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.