Whispering sounds of silence

January 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

(Warning: this post might not make a lot of sense if you haven’t read or at least watched Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”.)

I realize this blog might not be the ideal platform for this – maybe, just maybe, I should start another blog for my reading, since I plan on doing that a lot this year. But for now, you’ll have to choose between reading all of this or simply ignoring it (I’m putting most of it behind a jump just in case). I need to share this.

Because today, I was sitting in a Starbucks and I suddenly got what Dorian Gray was all about.

In my effort to read at least one book a week (which isn’t too much of a problem, I’m realizing, since I read slightly more than a page a minute), I’ve been devouring Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, which is meta on so many levels (and some besides), and it got me thinking about Dorian Gray. Which is just as well, I suppose, since I’ll be needing to think about him quite a bit this year.

The thing about Dorian Gray is that how good it is largely depends on the way you read it. If you read it for the language and aphorisms and witticisms, you’d hardly be disappointed, but I always found the characters rather one-dimensional. Merely a vehicle for all the wit, so to speak – also, the story, while based on a terrific idea, is kind of thin on the details, and seems more like a canvas than the picture. Not much happens in Dorian Gray.

But then, I’m realizing, this is Oscar Wilde we’re talking about. If his characters seem flat, they’re probably so intentionally. Maybe I haven’t been looking deep enough, or in the right places. The whole book is about outward appearance in contrast to the inner workings of humans, so…

First, Basil Hallward, I think he is the only one in the book who doesn’t really hind behind a mask, which, I think, is why he ultimately has to die. Basil pours his whole heart into his paintings, and thus proudly displays his feelings, his heart, his soul to the world. It’s funny how the Portrait, then, contains both Dorian’s and Basil’s souls to some extent (how romantic), and both of them are entirely unmasked. The difference is that apart from a certain superficiality, which may well be a professional hazard of painting, Basil has nothing to be ashamed of, no need for a mask – whereas Dorian, well. But Basil has retained a certain childlike purity. Innocence, if you will. In the narrative, he is perhaps the externalization of Dorian’s childhood and subsequent innocence (which would fit well with the fact that he’s the first one Dorian meets in London), and by killing him, Dorian ultimately kills these parts of himself.

I know Sibyl’s death is generally considered to be the great turning point of Dorian’s character, but really I think it’s just the beginning of a phase. The slow build-up to the climax, the very beginning of the end.

Sibyl is the mask incarnate, the harsh counterpoint to Basil. She carries so many masks that her own personality has had neither time nor space to grow and expand; that once you see thought the mask, she is essentially worthless to both Dorian and the narrative. Her death, perhaps, is part of the catalyst for Dorian’s change because he realizes you can’t hide behind a mask, for sooner or later someone will see through it. You have to, ultimately, become  the mask.

Which brings me to Henry. Sir Henry Wotton. So witty, so charming, so wise and grown-up, such a hypocritical ball of mush. If Basil is the symbol of Dorian’s childhood, and Sibyl represents adolescence (in the way that as a teenager, you try on different personalities, but ultimately you have to develop your own, or despair), then Henry is adulthood, firmly rooted in cynicism, hedonism and world-weariness. Which is funny, because I think Basil is quite right when he tells Dorian not to ‘believe everything Harry says – he doesn’t.’

So here’s the conundrum: Dorian has outgrown – pushed along oh-so-helpfully by Henry – the innocence and masklessness of Basil. He could have been like Henry – not quite living and breathing doublespeak, but definitely skirting the edge. A great big ball of mush inside a cynical, egotistical shell, a mask of hedonism and aphorisms that seem deep and even wise, until you start to think about them.

Bu Dorian doesn’t become Henry, for one simple reason: if his rapid falling out with and subsequent demise of Sibyl Vane have taught him anything, it’s that masks can only hold up so long. After his adolescence has landed in the Thames, it’s only a matter of time until the last influences of his childhood have to go up in flames. Basil dies, and Dorian transforms himself into the only thing he knows that is left: Henry’s mask.

And here’s the funny thing: he only gets away with becoming this twisted, ugly version of adulthood because (oh, this is brilliant) he can still hide the true extent of his transformation into that hideous, ugly thing behind the exterior of youth, beauty and innocence.

He literally gets away with murder because he basically gives the policeman his best puppy dog eyes, and the officer simply can’t believe that this charming young man should have done anything even remotely illegal!

Basil is a person without a mask. Sibyl is a mask without a personality.

Henry is Basil with a mask. Dorian is Henry turned inside-out.

Dorian is masked, somehow, in the most literal sense of the word: unchanging, ethereal, while the person behind it shrivels and withers, unnoticed by the audience, until he tears off the mask, and can only be identified by his ring.

(Sometimes, people are layered like that. – And sometimes there’s a third, even deeper layer that’s exactly like the first. Like with pie.)

So, if Basil, Sibyl and Henry are all externalizations of Dorian’s phases of life, they’re not flat characters at all. Well, they are if you view them separately, but if you consider them part of a whole, it gives a whole new depth to the story. To Dorian’s distortion. Suddenly there’s logic, and reason, and an overwhelming sense of the brilliance of Oscar Wilde.

Sit down more often with a good book. Or any book. Just take care… once you step out of your front door, you never know where your feet may lead you.

(on a related note, I seem to have misplaced my copy of Lord of the Rings. How do you lose a book that size?!)

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