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The Great Book Adventure: The Picture of Dorian Gray – Part Two

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"For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul … What did it matter what happened to the coloured image on the canvas?"

In the first quarter of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray — covered in Part One of my review, the title character was barely a character at all.  His portrait showed more life, in fact, while Dorian appeared to be nothing but an empty vase, a hollow vessel waiting for someone to pour in an idea.  As I read, however, it was this very vapidity which became intriguing.  Much like Dorian listening to Lord Henry, the more I read, and the more I professed not to like either of them, the more interested I became.  Indeed, Dorian's vacancy in his own thoughts becomes so defined as to be interesting in and of itself.  

Between chapters three and four, a month has passed, and the change in Dorian is marked.  Chapter four begins with him parroting several of Harry's philosophies while talking to Harry's wife.  Finally she responds to Dorian, "Ah! that is one of Harry's views, isn't it, Mr. Gray? I always hear Harry's views from his friends."

Taken in a vacuum the discussion between them leaves Dorian looking rather erudite and well mannered, but it is undercut in the novel by the reader's knowledge that what he is saying is not his own.  Even when he's talking to Harry, Dorian points out when he's quoting.  For his part, Harry goes to pains to reinforce his philosophies, along with the fact that Dorian has and always will accept them.  More than once he says something to the effect of "Dorian will always love me" when Dorian is sitting across the table.  The use of third person further emphasizes his passivity by setting Dorian outside the action.  

The relationship puts me in mind of a lot of the political dialogue being thrown around this country, especially in the mass media.  Dorian saying, "that's one of your philosophies, Harry" sounds a lot like saying 'a source in the Clinton campaign.'  They both reference a sort of vague authority.  On the one hand, Wilde has yet to make it clear where exactly Harry gets his plethora of social wisdom.  Meanwhile, citing a "campaign" in a news story is about the same to me as citing the guy ahead of you in the Starbucks line.

Nevertheless, the reading public seems more than willing to accept this sort of shadowy documentation with a Dorian-esque credulity.  In the same vein is the fervor of some campaign workers (tis the season, after all) for their candidates.  Whether they appear as a talking head or as the more insistent pamphlet pushers on the street, I am always amazed at just how willing people are to pledge themselves to perfect strangers.  When pushed on the topic, I have heard them reply that they believe in what their candidate can do for the country, not just the candidate themselves.  In the end, though, they strike me as no more knowledgeable about their hero's thought processes than Dorian is about Lord Harry's manipulation.

Even through the course of his impulsive and brief engagement to an actress named Sybil Vane, Dorian is only making a poor attempt at living out Harry's ideals.  One night, not long after meeting Harry, Dorian goes looking for "some adventure", and ends up at a run-down, third-rate theatre.  There he sees the young Sybil Vane playing Juliet and immediately falls in love with her, or at least her acting.  He returns again and again to see her play Shakespeare's great heroines.  Dorian just rolls over and gushes effusive praise for her abilities as an actress, so much so that he begs her to marry him.  Significantly, Dorian is falling in love with the facade of a woman named Vane.  She herself is not vain, quite the opposite actually.  Were it not for Wilde dedicating a chapter to following her and her family, we would know nothing substantial about her.  Even when the theatre manager tries to tell him about her background, Dorian dismisses the discussion, focusing only on what he has seen on the stage.  Dorian takes a selfish pleasure in the fact that he has discovered a great actress and that he can be the one to bring her to London society as his wife.

Wilde does something interesting with perspective here.  Dorian invites Basil and Lord Harry to the theatre to see his beloved perform.  This is the only time that we, as readers, see her act.  She's awful.  She's so bad that Harry and Basil leave after the first act.  Even Dorian thinks she's terrible, which he takes as a personal insult. After the play, he calls off the engagement, ignoring Sybil's piteous seventeen year old wails and chastising her for hurting him by acting poorly.  What I can't decide is just how good of an actress she actually was.  We only have Dorian's word that she was any good in the first place and he is unreliable at best.  Could it be that she was actually bad all along, but he didn't realize it until watching with Basil and Harry?  This seems likely, since Harry disapproved of the engagement and rode with Dorian, alone, to the theatre.  Now, we don't know what was said, but it's not hard to imagine, nor do I think Wilde means for it to be a mystery.

The fallout from Dorian's dismissal of Sybil is more tragic than I thought this book capable of, in more ways than one.  First, the supernatural.  When Dorian returns home alone, leaving the girl a slobbering heap in her dressing room, he notices the painting has changed.  Somewhere along the line, Basil's portrait of Dorian was installed at the latter’s house and now there is a "touch of cruelty in the mouth".  In the prose here you can tell Wilde was much more a playwright than novelist.  What I wanted to be chilling and gothic — the shocking realization of ghostly events in a darkened room — comes off mundane.  It had an effect on Dorian, though, which I suppose is slightly more important.

When he returns to the painting in the morning, finding the cruelty intact, he immediately repents of his harshness towards Sybil, locks himself in his room and decides to return and marry her, even composing a love letter along the way.  It is Harry, unsurprisingly, who draws him out of his commitment.  Not only does Harry bring news of Sybil's suicide, but he explains to Dorian that it has all worked out for the best and that Dorian should get over it and come out to the Opera.  For a fleeting moment it seems as though Dorian might hold onto his guilt, pointing out that he was cruel to her and that's why she killed herself, but the remorse is brief.  Harry will not allow it.  He explains that because Sybil was an actress she never really lived and, so, never really died.  "You have explained me to myself, Harry," Doran says.  It's not true, of course.  All Harry did was give Dorian an excuse to think of her death as "a marvelous experience.  That is all."

In Dorian, Harry is achieving what any politician wants, I think.  He is making someone believe he is thinking for himself, rather than actually encouraging free thought.  Dorian has stepped from just mimicking the philosophies to actually living them out.  The decision to let the portrait bear his sins is not his own.  He rationalizes that "life had decided for him" when it was not life; it was Harry or his ideals at least.  The strange connection with the portrait has given him a chance that Harry would seize without hesitation.  What interests me now is that he has not told anyone about the portrait, nor does he seem likely to.  There is some crack in his loyalty to Harry and I wonder if it will bear out as Dorian begins to act upon "his" impulses.  Young Mr. Gray may become his own man yet.

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