19 May 2011
Originally intended as a light reading for the flights, I only discovered this book in my luggage as we were unpacking here in Majuro. A favorite of mine in high school, this book was bought during our final date in the U.S. (Jamie and I often find ourselves in bookstores on dates.) Rereading this novel during our first few days on the island was a refreshing way to spend some evenings on our deck and appreciate rich, written English at a time when we are hearing less and less of the King's language.
The author describes the descent of a handsome young man from a state of innocence, captured in painting by the enigmatic Basil Hallward, into a depraved hedonist, egged on by the epigramic Lord Henry Wotton. Because of an earnest prayer as the painting was completed, only the painting ages. In his pursuit of pleasure, Dorian avoids all the physical consequences of his actions, enabling him (and the author) to explore the limits of unrestrained sensuality. Under heavy influence from Lord Wotton, the protagonist (if indeed he can be called that) examines the full extent of human emotions with anthropologic curiosity. Gray hurts a lot of people in the process, but that is no matter since he is untouched.
Gray does not truly suffer the consequences of his actions. Indeed, he avoids so doing with remarkable finesse and even sheer luck. I almost feel as though the author wanted to leave the story at that. But no, ultimately Dorian must face himself. Regardless of how the world saw things, he could see things as they truly are. Impunity rarely lasts long, even for Wilde.
Our soul--where does it reside? Is our body a mere outward manifestation of our actions? Can we separate who we are from who we seem to be? And what is the purpose and role of pleasure in life? Such existential questions are to be found on nearly every page of this novel, drawing out an otherwise simple fable into a broader discussion of hedonism and aesthetics. With rich, descriptive language, Wilde writes as though he has a personal interest in the conclusions of the novel. He may have attempted more than is possible in a dime novel. But fun was had by all nonetheless.
Pardon the pun, but the reader cannot read too much into the moral of the story. Rather the novel should be seen as a very intimate view inside the author's own troubled mind. The book is all about uncertainty in mortality. Such uncertainty is amplified when one is unmoored from morals, subject to other's opinions and perspectives, unable to divine the true motivations behind friends, and unable to grasp every physical experience before death inevitably comes.