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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray

Father Dowd (Waiting in Joyful Hope) posts his reflections upon reading The Picture of Dorian Gray:

It had been said that there are, in fact, three phases to moral corruption: the tempation itself, the delectation, and the consent. When repeated often enough, the actual sins become habitual, and a vice is formed. This book is a record of one man's descent into vice, his conscience gradually shutting off until even his good resolutions are tainted with evil. More than this, however, the book is an example of the "delectation". People do not generally leap from gross temptation to gross sin all at once -- there needs to be an intermediate phase, in which the sin is made to appear attractive, and its negative consequences themselves negated (at least to the mind). Lord Henry is a master at this, sucking in Dorian Gray and, quite possibly, the reader as well.

Which, it would seem to me, is part of the intent of the author. While many hold that the book is an ironic indictment of the hypocritical immorality of the English aristocracy, I think it is more. The simple fact is that Oscar Wilde (the author) lived a lifestyle that, in many ways, matched that of his characters. I can see many people reading this book and actually agreeing with Lord Henry and his ideas -- because after all, it isn't he who pays for them.

The book does portray the possibility of repentence and forgiveness from God, but even this fails, in a most brutal and bloody way. It is as though the author is telling the reader, "Don't bother believing that stuff, it can't help you." The end result, of course, is an awful portrayal of final impenitence.

The twist is that the author of the story, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), was himself a penitent "deathbed convert," holding a lifelong fascination with the Catholic Church in spite of his infamous reputation of being "Apostle of Aestheticism," personal decadence and a martyr for gay rights. For further details on one of most fascinating Catholic conversions, see Jeffrey A. Tucker's Oscar Wild: Roman Catholic (Cisis 19, no. 1 April 2001), and The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde, by Anddrew McCracken, which contains further background on Dorian Grey:

As for Dorian Gray and its connection to Wilde's eventual conversion, the novel sits at the intersection of several fictional and actual spiritual paths. The fictional Dorian is partly coaxed into his amoral aestheticism and self-regard by reading a "poison book," a yellow-backed novel written by a Frenchman. The book he had in mind, Wilde later affirmed, was a novel of the French Decadence published in 1884 entitled A Rebours (in English, "Against the Grain" or "Against Nature"). A Rebours chronicles the life of a fictional aristocrat who gives himself over to the most perverse pleasures he can dream of. A Rebours was a daringly new sort of fiction and worked powerfully on Wilde's literary imagination. He wrote, "the heavy odor of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain." The fictional hero of A Rebours, as Wilde well knew, ends contemptuous of everything and unable to have faith in anything except -- perhaps -- "the terrible God of Genesis and the pale martyr of Golgotha. . . ." The novel ends with his prayer, "Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe. . . ." Seven years after A Rebours was published, its author, J.-K. Huysmans, sought out a priest. In 1892 he returned to the Church and in 1900 became an oblate at a Benedictine monastery. His last three works were religious novels with Catholic settings. As for the sincerity of his religious faith, a modern editor of his work attests that he "put the doctrine into effect . . . in six months of atrocious agony, heroically borne, that preceded his death from cancer."

And for an in-depth treatment of Oscar Wilde's life and thought, see The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde, a spiritual biography by Joseph Pierce. From the publisher:

Vilified by his fellow Victorians for his sexuality and dandyism, these days he is hailed as a sexual liberator. Yet this is not how Wilde saw himself. His lifestyle and pretenses did not bring him happiness and fulfillment: his art did. And this is where Pearce's search for the man behind the masks is centered. Rather than lingering on the actions that brought him notoriety, Joseph Pearce explores the emotional and spiritual search.

Joseph Pierce is himself something of an expert on literary converts to the Catholic Faith and I highly recommend his books. See, among others, his excellent Wisdom & Innocence: A Life of G.K. Chesterton, Old Thunder: A Life of Hilaire Belloc and Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief (Ignatius, 2000).


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