As I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray, I kept thinking back to its preface. As we’ve discussed in class, what Wilde writes in the preface seems to contradict the content of the novel itself. There are many potential reasons for this discrepancy. It could, as we focused on in class, be a means to protect Wilde from the content of the novel. The Picture of Dorian Gray is very personal and it does reveal Wilde in a variety of ways. Although Wilde’s queer identity was not my main focus as I read the novel, it is clear that Wilde’s queerness made its way into the story and shaped it in a revealing way. Perhaps the preface is a means of protection, a way for Wilde to tell a story of himself without being damaged by it.
That reasoning is compelling to me, but I think that there is another key value for the preface. In my opinion, the preface is intentionally ironic. It praises the values of aestheticism in order to open a story about a man whose obsession with his beauty leads to his downfall. Dorian values his beauty above anything else, to the point where he sacrifices his soul in order to stay physically beautiful together. More than anyone else in the story, Dorian lives the values of aestheticism. He buys into “art for art’s sake” so much that he starts to view his life as a kind of art. He considers joining the Roman Catholic Church because “the Roman ritual had always had a great attraction for him.” He loves Sybil because of her artistic talent, and as soon as that talent is gone, he loses interest in her. He says he would “give everything” for the portrait to grow old as he continues to be young and beautiful, and he does.
Dorian actively believes in the aesthetic values listed in the preface, unlike a character like Lord Henry who constantly contradicts himself and seems more interested in entertaining himself than anything else. Rather, Dorian embraces the value of beauty above anything else until it corrupts him so thoroughly that he ends up dead in his attic. To commence The Picture of Dorian Gray with a preface about art being valuable for its own sake and the danger of looking beneath the surface seems to poke fun at aestheticism in general and at the audience for taking what Wilde says seriously. How can it be that the artist’s aim is to conceal himself when the greatest art Basil ever did revealed too much of himself? How can there be no such thing as an immoral book when Dorian is corrupted by a book? Perhaps we are not meant to take the preface seriously, but to use it as a reminder of what aestheticism states and where it falls short.
I wanted to make another post related to my previous one. For those who didn’t read it, I made an argument that Basil keeps Dorian physically confined by demanding him to sit for his portrait. At the same time, Lord Henry, who is epitomized as “Life,” renders Dorian physically mobile (70). He gets integrated into society: attending plays, dinner parties, and other outings. Initially, I thought the argument was odd; I spent some time reconciling with it. Lord Henry is the one who influences Dorian, who is a significant contributor to his corruption. How is somebody who makes Dorian more mobile somebody who also makes him immobile by implanting his ideas of influence? After finishing the novel this week and thinking my argument did not make sense in the grand scheme of the story, I found out it did have a place with a queer reading. The discussion on Wednesday in class about concepts such as the closet helped me arrive at this conclusion and look deeper into the confession scene I pointed out in class.
Again, a lot of the language in the confession scene was overtly queer, with Basil making “a strange confession” about how he “was dominated, soul, brain, and power by [Dorian]” (93, 94). However, the most explicit part in this scene for me lies when Dorian says, “you and I are friends, Basil, and we must always remain so” (95). Basil then says, “You have got Harry” (95). I found it interesting that both of these situations are incompatible, according to Basil; Dorian, for some reason, cannot both be friends with Lord Henry and Basil. I also found it intriguing that Basil states he will be exhibiting the portrait in Paris close before the confession scene. Dorian is entirely against it: “Was the world going to be shown his secret? Were people going to gape at the mystery of his life?” (92). One could read it in the light that Dorian does not want the world to see his aged, disfigured self in Basil’s portrait. However, the proximity of both pieces of text in the narrative is too close not to correlate them together. I read it to be that Basil exhibiting the portrait to the world is an allegory for displaying his true self and homosexuality; Dorian does not want to be a part of this due to his fear and the “corruption” that life has inflicted upon him. This is supported because Basil says, “’ every flake and colour seemed to me to reveal my secret… I felt that I had told too much, that I had too much of myself in it’” (94). Since Dorian is hiding the portrait in his childhood schoolroom, where nobody can access, and only Basil sees, it operates similarly to the metaphorical closet. It reminded me of Giovanni’s Room (a fantastic novel, and James Baldwin is a great author!). At first, Dorian is confined to the studio with Basil, sharing a secret and creating a truly beautiful portrait. Then “Life” or Lord Henry comes in all his influence, and Dorian becomes corrupted in his integration into society, no longer confined to the room where virtually no public perception exists. Dorian’s killing of Basil reflects this decay of that part of himself, the part he wants to hide.