I teach a high school literature course and one of the texts that is a favorite of students and a favorite of mine is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. This novel is primarily about the human conscience, and if it were visible, what would the bearer see? The novel contains many allusions to the Bible, as well as to Greek and Roman mythology. It is this use of allusions that form this novel into one that holds a poignant Catholic message.
The novel begins with a beautiful young man who sits for a portrait by a talented artist. This painting turns out to be the artist’s finest work. The painter performs his work in a garden quite like the Garden of Eden. Like God, the Creator, Basil, the artist, creates a beautiful masterpiece. There is gorgeous flower imagery that hints at the difficulty of “bearing the burden of beauty”. The branches of the trees tremble under the weight of the flowers. This parallels the protagonist, Dorian, who is unable to responsibly manage his beautiful facade. Keeping with Garden of Eden allusion is Lord Henry, the novel’s version of Satan. He is a strong influence who feeds Dorian’s pride and confounds him with twisted paradoxical pearls of “wisdom.” Dorian’s immaturity mirrors that of Adam and his inability to avoid temptation. Lord Henry plants his seeds of influence, but it is Dorian who acts on his ability to convince others of his innocence, while committing atrocious, destructive sins.
As the novel progresses, we see the painting suffer the destructive effects of sin, while Dorian’s face and exterior remain unscathed. It forces us to ask ourselves the question: Would I want a picture of my own soul? Dorian thinks that he can control what happens to the image, but he cannot. His attempts at recompense never revert the painting to its former perfection. How often do we attempt to justify our actions and believe that in doing so, we can purify ourselves. What Wilde, a deathbed convert to Catholicism, is missing here is that the only way we can make our ugly souls clean again is through the sacrament of Reconciliation. Truly contrite reconciliation with our Lord and His mercy bring us to forgiveness and purification.
Wilde also discusses the Eucharist and how mesmerizing it is that Catholics can believe in something so contrary to our senses. I really love this observation. While Dorian embraces all that is decadent and worldly, he does acknowledge the beauty of the Eucharist.
In addition, Wilde explores aspects of faith in the novel and truly seems to be searching for a way to make sense of guilt and pride. He is spot on as he reveals that these two things are lethal to our souls. However, he conveys hopelessness and cannot imagine redemption and forgiveness. As Dorian falls prey to evil, he slips into the inability to redeem himself through a loving God, who is never present in the novel. I think, as believers in Christ, we can read this as a cautionary tale as to what occurs when we do not have true contrition, true faith, nor a true God. No matter how beautiful our surface is, we remain hopeless without the Lord.