Wilde about Christ (12): Dorian Gray

Here is a short and excellent piece by Elizabeth Klein, Assistant Professor of Theology at The Augustine Institute. It was published in their journal, Faith & Culture. Dr Klein refers to an analogy drawn by Athanasius in On the Incarnation: “You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as He says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.'”

Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray has a curious but memorable plot. The protagonist, Dorian Gray (who is young, handsome, rich and almost supernaturally charming) befriends two very different people near the opening of the novel: Basil Hallward, a celebrated but “boring” artist and Lord Henry Wotton, an idle and opinionated man who likes to practice on Dorian the art of his own influence. Basil paints a fine portrait of Dorian Gray, but Dorian, taken by Henry’s exalted Hedonistic ideals, utters these words: “I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose? Every moment that passes takes something from me, and gives something to it. Oh, if only it were the other way! If the picture could change and I could be always what I am now!” The plot twist is that Dorian’s request is granted, and as he falls further and further in love with Henry’s view of the world, he seeks to live his life as a work of art (as he sees it), by doing only what he deems interesting, beautiful and exhilarating, by seeking new experiences at whatever cost – but he never grows older. Rather, it is the painting that bears the imprint of his dissolute and prodigal way of life, becoming old, cruel and wretched. 

In the novel’s final act, Dorian Gray murders Basil Hallward (quite the experience), blaming the artist for everything that had happened to him. Dorian does not regret his murderous deed: “Basil had painted the portrait that had marred his life. He could not forgive him that. It was the portrait that had done everything.” At the very end of the novel, when Dorian finally becomes truly awakened to the horror that is his own soul, he tries to destroy the painting rather than amend his life. This act, however, results not in the destruction of the painting, but in Dorian’s own death: by trying to kill his soul (the painting), he kills also his body. He dies by his own hand and he uses the very same knife with which he had killed Hallward.

There is much to be said about the book’s meditation upon the meaning of beauty, and the capacity of the human being for good and for forgiveness, but I also think there is an allegorical dimension to the idea of a painting that makes the soul visible. In Gen. 1:26 we are told that human beings are made in the image of God, that we make visible in some small degree the invisible. St. Athanasius compares God’s work in us to a painting, and also says that sin is the marring or disfigurement of that painting. The only way, he reasons, for the image of God to be re-made in us after we have distorted it is for the Image Absolute, the exact representation of the Father (cf. Heb. 1:3), Jesus Christ, to come and to display it fully on a human canvas (so to speak).

Understanding this analogy helps to put in perspective Dorian’s seemingly senseless rage against Hallward, the hapless artist. Hallward himself says that the painting is his best work, because he has put so much of himself into it. And so, when Hallward sees Dorian’s altered portrait face-to-face, and how horrid it has become, Dorian also begins to see for himself what he really has done with such a beautiful gift. But Dorian deflects. Just like Adam and Eve in the garden, he strikes out at someone else to blame, and at last blames the artist. Like Dorian, we too can only see our sin in the presence of the creator, and only then can we ask for his pardon (as Hallward suggests that Dorian should do, citing the words of the Lord’s prayer, but this sends Dorian into his rage). We also act like Dorian when we blame God for the evil in our world and the evil in ourselves. We think that by denying God, our artist, our creator, we can destroy the standard of goodness by which we should live. But, as in Dorian’s case, by trying to reject the existence of the soul and the image of God in us, we end up killing ourselves. It is with one and the same knife that we put an end to God and put an end to ourselves, because we are made by God and for him.

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