What does "The Picture of Dorian Gray" have to say about life?Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
To take an extreme position: nothing.
But that is the extreme position of those who believe in art for art's sake. Rationally, however, one of the purpose of literature is its usefulness in real life (the Renaissance used to talk about "dulce" [the sweetness] of literature, and "utile" [its usefulness]. Thus, "Dorian Gray" must teach us something about life.
Most of the criticism and opinions I have read about this work bring up its social significance. Witness, for instance, the other response by wsetwood to this querry. And that's fine. Westwood's response, I think, is on the money, an eloquent argument on the social and moral values provoked by "Dorian Gray."
The point I wish to make, however, is that Oscar Wilde, by squarely juxtaposing life (the entire plot of the story) and art (the picture) is telling us something fundamental about both. But in order to understand that, we need to understand the NATURE of art (alas, we may never understand the nature of life!)
Fundamentally, all art is an abstraction of life. This is because art, by its very nature, tries to create an ILLUSION presence by making that which is absent, present. That is art whether we are talking about novels, paintings, a film: they all give the illusion of making that which is absent, present.
If we can appreciate this, then let's turn to "Dorian Gray." By a mirror effect in art, Wilde makes the portrait of Dorian Gray become old and decaying, while the subject of the painting -- Dorian himself -- is in a state of everlasting youth!
While this is impossible in real life, Wilde, nevertheless, has given us a fantastic (literally) short story that, when compared to real life, becomes a bitter, bitter irony on life itself. Remember that irony splits being and seeming so that what you read is not what the text means -- sometimes it means the very opposite. In "Dorian Gray" too, the irony is on US, THE READERS. Wilde seems to say, "Ah, you want everlasting beauty! I will give you everlasting beauty! But, be careful! It comes at the expense of life itself!"
So, to sum all this up: Yes, "The Picture of Dorian Gray" is an ironic, cynical comment upon life and its values, especially regarding truth. As westwood and others have suggested in these columns of e-notes, Wilde has given us a moribund world, full of cynicism and despair.
But seen from the perspective of the interplay between absence and present, Oscar Wilde says something very special about both life and art. If an artists can "dress" art to mock at life, then the artist is successful.!
Now, more than ever, is Oscar Wilde's novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," relevant. For, the concern about the external appearance of people, the youth-culture of the United States, is increasing and giving validity to the statement of a character in a Dean Koontz novel who declares, "Perception is reality." In a sense, Lord Henry Wotten's aesthetic ideal of living life as though one were viewing art as "the senses cure the soul" is skewered as modern society's worship of beauty and equating of beauty with reality and with goodness proves to be as Bryan Aubrey, Ph.D., states in the criticism, "The Picture of Dorian Gray: Sibyl, Basil, and Dorian,"
an inadequate guide through the troubled maze of real human experience.
For one thing, the power of beauty thwarts one's ethical balance. As the renowned director, Oliver Stone, has observed, "We worship celebrity....[and] we equate beauty with goodness." Dorian's reprehensible behavior is ignored by Lord Henry who sees no evidence of evil in the beautiful man's face. When Dorian all but confesses to Lord Henry that he has murdered Basil, Lord Henry tells Dorian that he does not have the vulgarity to commit murder.
This statement of Lord Henry's underscores one of Oscar Wilde's in his "The Critic as Artist": art has nothing to do with ethics. The Koontz concept of perception as equal to reality creates illusions of what is actual. Thus, people become spectators in their own lives and detach from ethical values and meaningful personal relationships. And, so, with apologies to John Keats, modern beauty is not necessarily truth.