Did anyone else always think it was Portrait of Dorian Gray? I kept turning to the cover page in wonder as I read this book. Picture seems like such a pedestrian word for the likes of Oscar Wilde. Also, that stupid movie with that Narnia guy follows the book more closely than I would have guessed, at least in the beginning.
Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales sustained me during a bad period in my life. Everyone knows Wilde is funny and analytic and good at turning phrases, but what made me love those stories was their heart, their moral center.
The book, like its protagonist, is without one. That’s not exactly a bad thing. Picture of Dorian Gray is an examination of heartlessness, and it doesn’t miss its intentions. It is hard to read, however. I didn’t like anyone in it, and wasn’t supposed to. Its analysis would be useful to these times. After all, in this age it’s enough to achieve something more or less good even if the aim is not goodness but self-aggrandizement (looking at you, Bono, you tax-evading Africa-infantilizing hypocrite). So long as you’re not Charlie Sheen, we’re willing to find a lack of something to condemn as commendable. In Wilde’s world, though, character begins in the center, and not in its effects. When Dorian Gray vows to change his way more out of fear and curiosity, the blood on his portrait’s hands shines more. Also instructional is the poison of influence. Look at the debates about guns and everyone agrees that the responsibility lies ultimately in the wielder of them. We may disagree about the degree of influence entertainment or the media or the NRA has, but we can all agree that they are not the end, and thus find it easier to dismiss them as any kind of means at all. Wilde illustrates exactly how strong influence can be, however, and while I agree with personal accountability, Wilde makes it clear how far astray weak people can be led, how powerful influence is, and how much more appealing bad influences are than good.
I do believe Oscar Wilde was a good man, and goodness was important to him, and is at the center of everything of his I’ve read. Bad is still more appealing these days, and a lot of people are drawn to Wilde’s writing because he captures the humor and glamor of bad people so well. They seem to miss that Wilde isn’t holding them up as examples of what to be, but what should be avoided. They might make you laugh, but it’s the emptiness of the laughter that is important, not the cleverness of the joke.