The Picture of Dorian Gray Introduction
In A Nutshell
Eternal youth: it's the Holy Grail of anti-aging. Everyone wants it, but so far nobody can figure out how to get it. Sure, we've got plastic surgery to help with the wrinkles, but that can only do so much before you start looking like a wax figure on the verge of melting—or worse.
But seriously, some people have gone to great lengths in search of never ending youth. Ponce de Leon even sailed all the way across the Atlantic after hearing a rumor the legendary Fountain of Youth might be hidden in Florida of all places. Have you ever been to Florida? There are more senior citizens there than at the World Series of Bingo, for crying out loud!
So we don't like the idea of getting old. Maybe we even think it'd be nice to just be immortal and never age. But if there's anything we can learn from literature, it's that we definitely don't want to live forever. Just look at Tuck Everlasting, or even Twilight. The immortal souls in these books tend to be more troubled and moody than wise and transcendent. What gives?
The same can be said for Dorian Gray, the titular character from Oscar Wilde's one and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the century or so since its initial publication in 1890, the fate of poor Dorian Gray has taken hold of the popular imagination.
Dorian's story plays upon the timeless theme of selling one's soul in exchange for earthly pleasures (see other classics like Goethe's Faust or the musical Damn Yankees), and the inevitable disaster that results. Mix in a magical painting and a pinch of eternal youth and you've got the makings for this classic, fabulous story.
Wilde's version of this narrative is particularly notable for its embrace of the hedonistic lifestyle of the Decadents, a late nineteenth century artistic movement that prized beauty and aesthetic experience over pretty much everything else—even bacon. Dorian Gray and its protagonist have become synonymous with the pursuit of pleasure, regardless of its moral consequences.
As with any good book, this novel raised quite a blizzard of scandal in its day, and had critics denouncing Wilde for what they perceived to be his own innate immorality—and as a result, he responded with the famous "Preface" to the novel (published in its second edition) that explained his artistic beliefs. (Check out more discussion of the Preface in "What's Up with the Epigraph?") Altogether, The Picture of Dorian Gray reveals Wilde's philosophy more than any of his other works; reading it is an essential key to understanding his artistic mission as a whole.
So lay off the Botox and inject yourself into this eloquent and poignant story—you just might appreciate a few wrinkles and gray hairs once all is said and done.
Why Should I Care?
Botox, liposuction, lip plumping injections, silicone, hair plugs… we go to extraordinarily bizarre measures just to hang on to fading youth and beauty. Our society is so obsessed with youth that there's a multi-multi-million dollar industry simply devoted to making us look younger (or weirder, as the case may be).
And why? Because we live in a culture where youth is idolized and age is the enemy of the people—the goal these days seems to be not just to stop aging, but to get younger.
We're not the first culture to embrace this cult of youth, though. As we see in The Picture of Dorian Gray, our predecessors in the nineteenth century also longed for undying youth and beauty. In fact, the quest for the Fountain of Youth is one of the oldest stories there is; apparently, humanity in general has had a hard time getting over the fact that we all grow old and die.
For this reason, Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel never ceases to be relevant—until we finally discover the secret of real eternal youth, we'll always be interested in Dorian's quest for it.