In architecture and design, there is a principle that compares the form and function of a structure or object. That is, the aesthetic nature and qualities of an object versus its utility. Given that the wondrous Oscar Wilde was one of the great writers of the Aestheticism movement, it is only natural that his sole novel focuses more heavily on his ideas, luxurious prose, and numerous allusions to great works of art and literature. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a unique book—-no other author could’ve written it. There is a sense of richness, opulence, beauty, and pleasure throughout the novel, but it is also tempered by a sense of the sinister. The central theme of the book is aesthetics, and how they relate to life and death: the contrast of Beauty and Death/Evil.
The hallmarks of Wilde are certainly present throughout the book. It is full of his famous witty dialogue and aphorisms: “A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her”, “… his work was that curious mixture of bad painting and good intentions that always entitles a man to be called a representative British artist”, and (my favorite) “Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.” There are long descriptive passages of sheer detail and beauty, right from the opening of the book and all throughout it: “Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow…” or “Delhi muslins, finely wrought with gold-thread palmates, and stitched over with iridescent beetles’ wings; the Dacca gauzes, but from their transparency are known in the East as ‘woven air,’ ” to quote but a few passages.
While on the surface everything seems beautiful, lurking underneath are dark forces that drive Dorian to murder and madness. Once we scratch the surface of stunning beauty, we find horror underneath. We first see this in the death of Sybil Vane. In short, the love struck actress’s artistry is no longer compelling enough for Dorian to love her. Spurned, she takes her life. Her love for him is not enough; he wants her dramatic power and creativity that seduced him. He murders the artist Basil Hallward, who immortalized Dorian in paint, for the portrait has caused him great anguish in his life. Dorian Gray himself dies an aesthetic death: despite his eternally youthful looks, his undiscovered sins, and his wealth, the portrait has caused him too much misery in his life, and so he must destroy a work of art in order to free his soul. Thus we see a trajectory of murders: first for the death of artistic love, next the death of the actual artist, and finally, the death of a work of art (which is really Dorian himself). Art is the driving impulse behind Dorian’s life; art is the motive behind all of his dark actions. This is so uniquely Wilde, an idea no other author could have ever expressed. Its very existence was novel and scandalous (as were the homoerotic dynamics between Dorian and other men).
Countless allusions pepper the book, from Shakespeare to French writers to Marco Polo to Catholicism to Chopin and beyond. It is perhaps a dazzling display of Wilde’s knowledge and love of high culture. Wilde is an aesthete’s aesthete: no stone is left unturned when it comes to great works of art. A sense of voluptuousness pervades The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is reflected by the rich language. Wilde was no mere emotional lover of the beautiful; he was incredibly well read and traveled.
But Wilde, by nature, is not a novelist. He is best known as a playwright, and perhaps the novel reflects why. The pacing is often irregular, and the way in which events unfold is not always entirely smooth. Long passages are devoted to describing things that do not necessarily move the story forward. Transitions are sometimes a bit awkward and clumsy. Naturally, the dialogue is strong, given Wilde’s strengths in writing for the theater. But sometimes the dialogue runs over into extended soliloquies that sound unnatural (even if we factor out our modern linguistic sensibilities). Yes, we understand that Basil and Lord Henry wish to sing the praises of the beautiful Dorian, but the author sometimes loses the reader in endless odes to the title character. Long passages often serve as moral essays on human nature and character, and these also can become tedious to the reader from time to time. The novel does not always stay true to its purpose and its form; rather, it lapses into essays and plays.
Wilde’s descriptions of *things* are very developed, but his descriptions of characters’ inner lives or their motives are sometimes lacking. As a result, the characters can sometimes seem a bit flat. Again, I suggest that this is due to Wilde’s strengths as a playwright, as a play relies on the actors to bring the story alive and to show the audience a more rounded portrayal of what is on the page. While to an extent the reader has to use his or her imagination to conjure up the characters, Wilde expects a bit too much from him or her. There is a flatness to the novel that is a little disappointing, given Wilde’s keen understanding of human dynamics. These, perhaps, come out best in his comic lines, but in a dark, even tragic novel such as this, the reader feels that there are more layers that the author needs to explore. One could argue that Wilde lets tragedy shine best through comedy, rather than through straight-on, pure tragedy itself. The novel is sufficiently, abundantly dark in its subject matter, in the manner of a gothic tale, and yet Wilde does not manage to go deeper than the divertissement of a parlor novel.
As I mentioned above at the beginning of this essay, Wilde stresses form over function. But would we have it any other way? Would we not forgive Wilde of his sins of slightly sloppy, erratic structuring, knowing that he has taken us on an artistic ride in a way that no one else could have done? Can we not forgive him his endless descriptions of furnishings, knowing that these are the things that he holds dear? The Picture of Dorian Gray is, say, that beautiful vase we have on our table that does not quite hold the flowers properly, and yet it is so visually and emotionally appealing that we can’t bear not to display it. That beautiful vase that is one-of-a-kind, made by a potter who normally makes bowls. And would we not forgive Oscar Wilde all of his literary sins throughout the book when he gives us that (pardon the pun) picture-perfect ending where Dorian stabs the painting, and thereby stabs himself? That metaphor alone is worth the whole book.