By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Oscar Wilde
Narrated by: Simon Prebble
Though written nine years before his death, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” seems a coda for Oscar Wilde’s life. Having died at age 46, Wilde seems to have lived the life of Dorian Gray.
Wilde died before old age mars the beauty and pleasure of a young life. Born into a life of wealth and leisure, Wilde is blessed with a remarkable intellect that drives him to excel in the arts of literature and theater. Struck down by meningitis (some say caused by syphilis), Wilde dies in 1900. He is purported to have been penniless in Paris; despite his former life of leisure. (Wilde had fled to Paris to escape an English trial for sodomy. Wilde seems to have pursued both sexes in his pursuit of beauty and pleasure.)
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is about a young man whose portrait is being painted in his early twenties. The painting is done by an artist named Basil Hallward. Basil is in love with the beauty and naiveté of Dorian. Basil’s love for his subject is so consuming that it lends a surreal, ethereal quality to the painting that seems to give it an independent living beauty. He realizes this is the best painting he has ever done.
Basil wishes to be a life-long friend to this young man who has inspired his painting skill. He feels protective of Dorian’s naivete and responsible for the preservation of a portrait of beauty beyond his artistic imagination.
As Wilde’s literary creativity would have it, Basil has a hedonistic friend named Lord Henry. Lord Henry stops by the painter’s studio to see the portrait of “…Dorian Gray”.
Henry is astounded at Basil’s improvement as a portrait artist. He asks to buy the painting but Basil refuses and suggests that he will give the painting to Dorian. Henry asks Basil to introduce him to Dorian. Basil, at first, asks Henry not to meet Dorian because he feels Henry will corrupt the endearing naiveté of his model. However, Dorian arrives unexpectedly, and Basil is compelled to introduce the young man to Henry.
Henry’s hedonist view of life becomes apparent in his conversation with Dorian. Henry speaks of his marriage and implies there is sexual gratification; more than love, in his wife’s relationship with him. (Wilde notes that they are in the midst of a divorce before the end of his story.) Henry begins to widen Dorian’s view of the world in ways that Basil had feared.
In passing, Henry’s conversation turns to youth and its loss which changes the pleasure and beauty of life. Dorian listens and makes a silent wish that he would remain young, and never become old. One senses this wish will come true because of the extra-ordinariness of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” painted by Basil.
Henry does become a close friend and confident of Dorian Gray. Dorian begins to turn away from Basil as though Basil is a conscience he wishes to leave behind. Henry’s view of life is to live in the moment because when the moment passes, pleasure and beauty disappear. Gray becomes an acolyte of that belief. He falls madly in love with an actress and proposes marriage within weeks of their meeting.
Dorian explains how he met the 17-year-old woman and was stricken by her beauty, and her extraordinary performances in the theater. Dorian asks Basil and Henry to meet him at her next performance to show them what he means. The young girl’s performance is abysmal. Both Basil and Henry tell Dorian they should leave before the performance is completed. They suggest that his fiance will never be a great actress. Gray decides to stay and see his fiance after the performance is complete. The young woman explains–she no longer cares about her performance because she loves Dorian and nothing else matters.
Before she met Dorian, her theater performance was everything to her but now, it meant nothing to her. Dorian is appalled. Half of what he fell in love with was her extraordinary acting performance; the other half was her beauty. If both could not be a part of who she was, he would not marry her. She pleads with Dorian for him to understand. He leaves after saying the marriage is off.
The girl commits suicide. Dorian is initially bereft and recognizes his role in her death.
However, Henry arrives at Dorian’s house and explains that the death is not his fault. In fact, her death is a peon to Dorian’s impact on other’s lives. Her death is a tribute to Dorian’s great beauty and innate source of pleasure. Henry explains–nothing is forever, forget about her. Henry tells Dorian another woman will enter his life and offer mutually comparable beauty and pleasure.
After Henry leaves Dorian’s house, Dorian ponders what Henry has said. Indeed, the death of the young girl is not his fault. Dorian concludes–regret is an inappropriate feeling. All that matters is–what the future holds and what is next; i.e. what will bring him, once again, beauty and pleasure. At this moment of revelation, Dorian looks at the painting that has been given to him by Basil. He notes that the painting has subtly changed. His face in the painting seems less innocent; less naive, less beautiful, slightly older, and hardened. The portrait seems to be recording the progressing ageing and history of Dorian’s life.
To preclude a listener’s spoiled appreciation of Wilde’s creativity, the remainder of the story will not be divulged. It is a parable of what happens to humanness when ethics and morality are corrupted for the sake of a life that is preternaturally committed to beauty and pleasure.