So, thanks to extended Jury Duty, I’ve had the opportunity to finally read Dorian Gray. Whee!

The premise is that Dorian, an intensely beautiful young man, stays beautiful and young no matter what he does while a portrait of himself grows older and more hideous as it reflects the ever worsening state of his body and soul.  The artist who painted the portrait, Basil, looks at Dorian as the ultimate muse – the thing that gives his art a soul. Basil’s friend, Lord Henry, looks at Dorian as an intriguing young man who can be influenced, and Dorian, in turn, looks as Lord Henry as a fascinating older man who should be emulated.

It’s a fun story – very atmospheric and creepy. A bit verbose at times, but that’s all in the style of the day, so it’s not too bad. The various allusions and themes within it are fun and not always what you expect. See, you’d think, being a story about a young man’s fall into a life of debauchery, we’d have a focus on sin, redemption, and damnation – and we do, to some extent, but  I found the theme of art and aesthetics to be the real focus.

See, it all hinges around Dorian (as the name of the book implies) and how he is viewed and used by other characters. Basil looks at him as a wonderful aesthetic to be captured while Lord Henry treats him as a lump of clay to be molded. These two attitudes shift Dorian from a living character to a representation of art itself.

Art is shaped by others and shapes others. In this same fashion, Lord Henry shapes Dorian into a selfish and depraved man and Dorian influences his friends and shapes them into various forms of ruin – Alan Campbell commits suicide, another friend becomes addicted to drugs and lives a half-life in a seedy opium den, and every woman Dorian touches leaves with a sullied reputation.

Art is also an entirely neutral entity – it stimulates others, but cannot be stimulated itself. Dorian captures this in his absolute naivety. He blindly emulates everything he sees in Lord Henry, seeming to be incapable of making any sort of judgement about what he is doing. Everything simply is. While he claims to be enraptured by all of life’s sensations, Dorian really drifts through life rather matter-of-factly, often projecting indifference and boredom with everything around him while he fascinates and inspires everyone around him.

It is said throughout the book that Basil’s painting of Dorian has become a visual representation of his soul and this continues the theme as Dorian as art. Art itself does not have a soul of its own, but people often see bits of their own soul within it. Dorian is able to live his life of vice without any pangs of conscience for most of the book because he has given up his soul. In the end, conscience intrudes, his soul wakes up within him in the recognition of how evil he has become. This almost instantly drives him mad and destroys him because art is not a thing that can have a soul of its own. As soon as Dorian connects with his, as art, he ceases to be.

So, intriguing stuff. 🙂 I know, I know… I am such a Lit. nerd – I do this stuff for fun. Now I have a solid basis for an interesting paper, should Dorian Gray ever be assigned in one of my English classes.