How to be beautiful, by Oscar Wilde

As a fourteen year old reading The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time, I think it’s safe to say that a lot of the veiled references to bedroom-eyes went over my head. Don’t get me wrong, I knew Dorian was having an almost inhuman amount of sex and not a lot of it hetero, but sweet child that I was I didn’t realise just how hot under the collar these characters were getting.

Nowadays we have quite a definite line between someone that’s beautiful, pretty or cute, and someone that’s fit, hot, or just downright sexy. So, when people were harping on about how beautiful Dorian was I thought they meant in the abstract sort of way that you might admire a statue or a painting *WINK. WINK.* I did not realise that they were all driven mad with lust and desperate to sleep with him.

So, what makes Dorian “beautiful”? a) he’s got a pretty face, b) he’s young, c) he starts out very inexperienced, and d) he’s well-liked by a few very well-connected people who all rave about him.

Dorian’s not just a beauty, he’s a classical beauty: astonishingly fair. Unlike nearly all of the adaptions, including the most recent film starring Ben Barnes, Dorian is not tall dark and handsome. Tall, yes. Handsome, yes. Dark, no. In a conversation I had with my sister when the film first came out, and we got to wondering why they never choose someone who matches Dorian’s description, we fell on this conclusion: it’s probably really difficult to pull off brooding when you have bright blue eyes, lush golden locks, and a baby face.

Rest assured dear reader, Dorian is fit. At one point in the novel Basil, the adoring artist and painter of Dorian’s portrait likens him to the God of youthful love, Adonis, and the infamous lover Paris, the dude who eloped with Helen of Troy.

If you hadn’t already guessed it, Basil is in love with Dorian; even after he sees the monstrosity of Dorian’s soul in his hideously deformed portrait, Basil still tries to convince Dorian to turn away from a life of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll and commit to being a good person.

That being said, Basil isn’t a fool. The guy may be in love, but even when he’s describing Dorian as some next-level Adonis, he still calls him a Narcissus beguiled by his own reflection in the “turbid Nile”. As a philosophical novel, the filth-infested waters of “turbid Nile” refers to Dorian living his life of sensual pleasure as a false kind of wisdom… But I think it’s a not so subtle allusion to the fact that Dorian’s probably riddled with STIs.

There is still good news for you if you aren’t a cherub carved by Jesus Christ himself or in the first flush of you, beauty if still within your grasp. The charm of Dorian’s youth, despite the fact that his face doesn’t become a relief map of the Himalayas, is that depravity (at least in the beginning) is new and exciting, but after decades of doing nearly every despicable thing that comes along, Dorian’s passion for a life of sensual pleasure fades. He’s been there, done that, and bought out the merch store. To overcome this in your own life: basically be the titular character in Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography.*

Lastly but by no means least, if you don’t have any of that going for you, befriend the well-connected gossips of high-society. Beauty is backed by hype, and you can’t get any more hype than the unprecedented success of Dorian’s portrait. Overnight Basil goes from a struggling artist to a heralded genius of the art world; his debut is also his magnum opus – Dorian is captured in the same lime-light, as Basil’s muse. As if there wasn’t enough intrigue already, Dorian unwittingly draws even more attention to his legendary beauty when he locks away his portrait and forbids Basil from ever showcasing it, since it’s become a grotesque catalogue of all his sins. Anyone who wanted to judge Dorian’s beauty from that point on, well it would have to be in the flesh…

Dorian is drop-dead gorgeous on the surface, but just like those clandestine STIs, not all is as it seems. The portrait may give Dorian everlasting youth beauty but he lives in fear of it, in other words in fear of himself, his desires, and the immortal consequences on his soul.

When Basil painted Dorian he didn’t just capture an image, he literally captured Dorian; if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a portrait lays out an artists expectations of their muse.

This is just the same leap of logic that Dorian takes as he notices that the portrait always alters when he deviates from Basil’s moral compass. Enraged, Dorian murders Basil and gets rid of his body, but nothing seems to change; his picture isn’t restored to its original beauty, Dorian hasn’t reclaimed his soul or his destiny. The portrait, ultimately, reveals how Dorian sees himself.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a battle for beauty which seems to come down to an important distinction between being aesthetically beautiful, and being beautiful. Hoards of people find Dorian aesthetically beautiful, including Lord Henry, without ever really delving into what makes Dorian human: his hopes and fears. Whilst Henry dedicates his life to hanging out with Dorian, his wife eventually gets so fed up with Lord Henry’s hedonism that she divorces him. Despite the decades they spend together, Lord Henry never engages in a serious conversation with Dorian: he dismisses all of Dorian’s fears and reservations.

Without Basil a.k.a. the only person who tells him to dial it back a bit, and start being a good guy, Dorian has no one in his life to remind him that he could be a nice person if he really wanted to be (he does give being good a shot after he murders Basil but it’s only because he’s scared for his soul, having just murdered his best friend, so it doesn’t work out). Dorian’s essentially left with his very own Mr. Hyde trapped in a flimsy frame, leering out at him.

In the end, Dorian cannot accept himself for the things he’s done and so can’t move on. No longer seeing anything beautiful within him, his aesthetic beauty begins to perish. He doesn’t age, or display any of the fascinating skin diseases the portrait seems to feature, but he does change irrevocably.

He loses his fairness, his life now in perpetual shadow. He loses his youth, his eyes become unnaturally aged. His awe, in other words his fervour for life, is extinguished by a tsunami of “sin” and he becomes utterly desensitised anything life could offer him.

In conclusion: Beauty is how you view yourself. The praise of others is not enough.


* Orlando: A Biography, by Virginia Woolf: a man is blessed with immortality and will remain immortal as long as he seeks out new experiences; there’s love, travel, society, poetry, politics, and a sex change. Also a film with Tilda Swinton, a favourite of mine I watched around the same time that I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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