Classic in Focus – The Picture of Dorian Gray


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You may fool the whole world down your pathway of years,
And get pats on your back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartache and tears,
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.

– Peter Del Wimbrow

The lines taken from the poem ’The Man in the Glass’ bring out the crux of ’The Picture of Dorian Gray’ written by Oscar Wilde. The author included a preface to the textual revisions of the book so that he could address the criticisms lashed out against his art in an attempt to defend the reputation of his brain child.

A painter, Basil Hallward, paints the most exquisite portrait of a handsome young man named Dorian Gray. During the last session of painting, Dorian, who has until this point been completely innocent of both his beauty and the world, meets Basil’s friend Lord Henry Wotton, who shows him the nature of his own beauty and tells him that he should attempt to experience life to the fullest. Upon the completion of the portrait, Dorian wishes that the painting would grow old, and not he. Due to Lord Henry’s influence, Dorian goes out looking for passion and falls in love with Sibyl Vane, a young actress of considerable talent. When she falls in love with him, she realises the falseness of her stage life. She performs very poorly in front of Basil and Lord Henry when they come to meet her. Due to her performance, Dorian is thoroughly disappointed, loses all respect and love he had for her and breaks his engagement with her. He goes home to find that the painting has become slightly more cruel-looking, and the next morning, just after resolving to go back and marry her, finds that Sibyl has killed herself. The painting fills him with fear and he has it locked up in his house.

Dorian finds a certain joy with the passing of time, in committing sinful or pleasurable deeds and watching the painting change; he loses none of his beauty or youth, but the painting grows old and ugly. He is constantly in touch with Lord Henry, whose hedonism influences Dorian Gray terribly. One day Dorian runs into Basil, having not seen him for a long time and finally shows him what has happened to his portrait. Basil is horrified and tries to make Dorian repent, but Dorian kills him. He gets an old friend to burn the body and to get rid of the evidence.

1 - CopyTime passes and Dorian becomes increasingly anxious and fearful that someone might discover his secret. He goes to an opium den to try to forget his anxieties. Sibyl’s brother James, who has been searching him for eighteen years to avenge her death, finds Dorian and threatens to kill him. He lets him go when Dorian tells him to look closely at his face and says that he isn’t Dorian, as he could not have been more than twenty years old. While at a hunting party a few days later, a man is accidentally shot and killed. Dorian finds out that this man was James. He decides that from that time on, he would be good; and to do this, he must overcome the constant anxiety and fear he has been feeling. He must destroy the portrait. He stabs it, with the same knife he used to kill Basil, and when the servants enter, they see the portrait as it was when it was new and a horrible, old, ugly man lying dead on the floor.

Metaphorically, the picture of Dorian Gray is a representation of the man in the glass, the beauty of which depends on the individual’s self-esteem. Henry’s beliefs are based on the assumption that there is no moral order and the universe is purposeless and thereby indifferent to human needs. The self is not only multiple, but at war with itself being driven by forces beyond its control; and that morality is an arbitrary and a relative construct. This moral position leads to a withdrawal from human engagement, the pursuit of pleasure as a distraction from disillusionment and the manipulation of others for one’s own enjoyment and edification. Henry represents the scientific character whose understanding of metaphysics makes him a perennial pessimist. How does one live in a world in which nothing can be believed and no one can be trusted. He encourages Dorian to follow his own example of pursuing his own self-interest, which means seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Henry believes that the quest for pleasure is natural because it is an expression of the quest for life, a response to a basic impulse.

Basil is the representative of morality and Henry is that of intemperance. Basil’s morality comprises a set of values that supports repression of desire, low tolerance of crime, and a strong social ethic. Lord Henry’s intemperance is rooted in the assumption that there is no moral order and the universe is purposeless and thereby indifferent to human needs and that the whole purpose of life is to fulfill one’s desires. Dorian Gray is every individual who doubts the very way one lives in a world in which nothing can be believed and no one can be trusted? The whole purpose of life is to traverse the journey from the purposelessness of Lord Henry to the morality of the artist.

3 - CopyThe duplicity of one’s public and private self plays a central role in both Lord Henry and Basil Hallward, who counsel Dorian on how to best preserve his good status in the public eye. The figure of Dorian is an allegorical representation of this condition. The portrait is a literal visualisation of Dorian’s private self, which is a result of an unhealthy self esteem. While Dorian himself looks perpetually young, beautiful and full of life on the outside, the portrait reflects his true self – insecure, diffident and lonely. Dorian Gray’s fundamental shortcoming is his inability to integrate his public self with his private self. The gulf is so threateningly wide in his case that it has led to self delusion on his part.  He has very conveniently ignored the portrait which is a reflection of his true self. Whenever circumstances arise when he has to confront his true self, he turns a blind eye. This finally becomes the reason for his downfall. Victory, therefore, lies in a person’s ability to preempt and gauge this difference wisely and align both these selves as close to one another as possible.

The non-alignment between the two selves is in fact a predicament faced by people in general. Many corporate professionals will tell you with utmost certainty that their personal life and professional life are two parallel dimensions which exist in total isolation with each other. And this schizophrenia carefully gets nurtured in the way organizations define and reward performance. For leaders, it is a herculean task to do the balancing act between achievement orientation and empathy, as most organizational leadership competency frameworks would demand of them.

I was once told by a very successful coach, “there is no country for the introverts”. In a world spinning around the elevator speeches, this cannot be any truer. And these moulds in which organisations are pushing people are the new age portraits of Dorian Gray.

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