Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?
-- Claudius, in Hamlet IV.vii.3251-2
Appropriately enough, those are the lines Dorian Gray chooses to encapsulate the man he has become by the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray (Part One, Part Two reviews). He has let the corruption of his life run its course and, not unlike Shakespeare's tragic heroes, he now realizes what he has become, what harm he has done. Oscar Wilde, though, is no Shakespeare, and while his story is an interesting one, the execution leaves much to be desired.
Through the middle part of the classic book, Dorian Gray comes off as a rich man living a life of leisure, with only a faint hint of scandal about him. Rumors are mentioned by the narrator and other characters about Dorian being seen in seedy parts of town, or having a bad influence on other rich, young men. Years pass in a chapter's time, and the focus stays entirely on Dorian. Lord Henry and Basil vanish from the scene. In the descriptions of Dorian's life, it becomes increasingly clear why this was Wilde's only novel. Chapter 11, which moves the reader from Dorian's youth to his middle age, features no dialogue, and becomes a sort of laundry list of Dorian's changing interests. The hints of infamous behavior are not expanded upon; rather we are treated to a tedious description of the character's study of sensation. He immerses himself in music for a while, then jewels, then tapestries, etc., etc., etc. When the reader surfaces from the chapter, Dorian is 38, and apparently a very evil man.
In the last quarter of Picture, the reader finally has a chance to see Dorian act out the vileness which has been rumored about him. He irrationally murders Basil Hallward, blackmails a former friend into disposing of the body, flees to opium dens in an effort to forget, and goes back to parties joined by Lord Henry. Throughout it all, he shows little remorse and actually seems to enjoy himself in parts. The problem, from a story perspective, is that it is all too sudden. The reader never had a chance to see Dorian's descent; we are only really given the bookends of it all. In not experiencing the fall, there's no sympathy developed for him, and I was a little sad when he escaped justice at the hands James Vane, Sybil's avenging brother (who suddenly appears in an opium bar and is shot accidentally before he has a chance to kill Dorian).
What interested me more than anything about the book, in the end, was a passing comment made by Basil shortly before his murder: "But you, Dorian, with your pure, bright, innocent face, and your marvelous untroubled youth — I can't believe anything against you." If there is a heart to this story, that is it; it's what makes the story relevant. It's not gone into as much as I would like, but Wilde gives the suggestion that Dorian was able to get away with his escapades because of his youthful appearance. When people looked at him they saw a 20-year old, unlined by age, worry, or sin. They simply couldn't believe he was bad. At first, I was incredulous. Letting him off the hook just because he's pretty? Even as I finished the sentence, I knew it wasn't that outlandish. How willing is American society to forgive celebrities (especially the young, pretty ones) when they bomb out of rehab, again, or run down some shmo from Cincinnati who was walking across Hollywood Boulevard? Even as they age, the permanence of film, not to mention plastic surgery, lets the rich stay young much longer than the rest of us. They may not have an unexplained, supernatural connection with a painting, but celebrities can distract us just as much as Dorian Gray does those around him.