Portrait of Iniquity: Sin and Redemption in The Picture of Dorian Gray
“Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices; there are no such things. If a wretched man has a vice, it shows itself in the lines of his mouth, the droop of his eyelids, the moulding of his hands, even.”
– Oscar Wilde
In the main, the more scandalous aspects of Oscar Wilde’s life are the ones that have been widely publicized, even celebrated. Relatively few people know about his other side—that which sincerely struggled with questions of faith. For example, it’s true that he went to prison for moral misconduct; it is also true that he read the works of Dante, Newman, and Augustine while incarcerated.
Wilde demonstrated a lifelong fascination with and attraction to Catholicism, ultimately leading to his deathbed conversion. His work and witticisms clearly demonstrate familiarity with and fondness for Catholic teaching and tradition, and The Picture of Dorian Gray is no exception. Most of us are at least vaguely familiar with its plot. In 1945, MGM released a film adaptation; this review addresses the film as a stand-alone work.
There are three principal characters: Dorian Gray himself; Basil Hallward, painter of the picture referenced in the title; and ne’er-do-well gadabout Lord Henry Wotton. Basil and Lord Henry are Dorian’s closest associates. For Dorian, their function is parallel to that of the cartoon angel and devil that appear over Daffy Duck’s shoulders when he faces a dilemma. Basil is Dorian’s shoulder angel. He has “a passion for virtue” and dispenses sound advice founded on solid moral principles. Lord Henry, on the other hand, is Dorian’s shoulder devil, forever smooth-talking him into sundry mischief.
Unfortunately for both Dorian and those within his orbit, Dorian almost always listens to the silver-tongued devil rather than the less eloquently cunning and more innocently wise angel. Granted, Lord Henry makes his case in so shrewd and slick a fashion, one might easily conclude that nothing sounding so good could possibly be bad.
For example, Lord Henry is apt to drop quick quips such as, “I like persons better than principles, and persons with no principles better than anything”; and, “No civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man ever knows what a pleasure is.” His wordplay is first-rate, but, as the Duchess says, “Lord Henry’s ideas are … delightful, but they are not to be taken seriously.”
Dorian apparently didn’t get that memo, because Lord Henry easily convinces him that “youth is the one thing worth having.” When Dorian first sees his portrait, he laments that the youthful image thereupon will remain unchanged, while he will grow old, and causally remarks that it would be nice if things were the other way around. Lord Henry warns Dorian that the cat statue on a nearby table is actually “one of the 73 great gods of Egypt,” and advises Dorian not to express such a sentiment in the idol’s presence, because it “is quite capable of granting your wish.”
But on the single occasion where Dorian actually should heed Lord Henry’s advice, he chooses instead to double down on his original statement. He repeats the wish—now a prayer because it is purposely directed to a supernatural entity—and escalates the gravity of the petition by offering his soul as payment.
The ill effects of this idolatrous act begin immediately. Restless and insatiable, Dorian starts spending his evenings “wander[ing] through the half-world of London,” attempting to put Lord Henry’s hedonistic philosophy into practice.
It is on one of these nocturnal prowls that he makes an unlikely acquaintance—a kind, pure-hearted vaudeville singer named Sibyl Vane. Sibyl sees only good in Dorian, and her own simple virtue inspires him to reform. The two fall in love, and Dorian proposes marriage.
Enter the shoulder devil. Lord Henry is ultimately successful in his bid to snuff out Dorian’s budding virtue; indeed, Dorian behaves so cruelly toward Sibyl that she is driven to despair, and meets a tragic end.
At this point, we see the first change in the portrait. Dorian notices “a touch of cruelty in the mouth.” The shocking revelation that the painting is “an emblem of his own conscience” inspires Dorian to “let it instruct him.” He resolves to make amends; meanwhile, he screens off the portrait.
Like clockwork, his shoulder devil again arrives on the scene. With his signature cajolery, Lord Henry convinces Dorian to forget the whole episode with Sibyl, and instead occupy himself with pleasurable diversions. Dorian doesn’t require much coaxing to return to his intemperate ways.
Time passes, and rumors spread. Basil is deeply troubled by the gossip about Dorian’s behavior, and confronts him. He names a litany of people who’ve been harmed by Dorian. Basil supposes there is no way to know what really goes on within Dorian’s mind and heart. To know that, he says, he would have to see Dorian’s soul.
“You’re the one man in the world who is entitled to know everything about me,” Dorian replies, alluding to Basil’s role as creator of the portrait. He decides to show Basil the transformation that has taken place thereupon.
This is the third time we, the audience, see the painting. This time, the figure it depicts is a brutal monstrosity. However, the hideousness is not used gratuitously or for mere shock value, but, rather, is employed with calculated purpose. It’s intended to drive home the theme of the film: sin is grotesque.
Like Dorian, we rarely confront the full scope of its ugliness, preferring to screen off its unseemliness and avoid facing our true selves. This is why we need tools like the examination of conscience to help us assess our standing in the eyes of God. For Dorian, the portrait serves this purpose; although his specific deeds are not depicted, their spiritually disfiguring effects are illustrated in disturbing detail.
“It was as if some moral leprosy were eating the thing away,” Basil thinks as he inspects it. Aloud, he says: “If this is what you’ve done with your life, it’s far worse than anything that’s been said of you.” Basil then offers the obvious solution: “Do you know how to pray, Dorian?” His words fall on deaf ears, however, and yet more casualties are added to the heap of Dorian’s victims.
Everyone Dorian touches is led to ruin, and he couldn’t care less … until he decides to marry Gladys, Basil’s daughter. This is a bit of history repeating. Like Sibyl, she is kind and pure-hearted. Also like Sibyl, she sees only the best in Dorian. Ultimately, her presence in his life starts to bring out what little good is left in him. As their marriage approaches, we find him musing, “I sometimes think I’d give anything if I could change and grow old like other people.” This is the exact opposite of his original wish/prayer in the first act of the film. His nights are haunted by guilt and nightmares about past misdeeds.
He decides to confront the painting, confront his conscience, confront himself. As he examines the monstrous image, he resolves to destroy the painting in order to break the spell, and take back upon himself the effects of age and sin. However, there is a connection between his body, his soul, and the painting, and when he slashes the painting, his body is mortally wounded.
He uses his dying breaths to pray, “Pray Father forgive me for I have sinned, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” And as he prays, the painting is restored to its original unbesmirched beauty, while Dorian’s face metamorphoses into the grisly visage it ought rightly to be.
Boiled down to its essence, this film is an exploration of, and cautionary tale against, the spiritually mutilating nature of sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that mortal sin “destroys charity in the heart of man” (1855). As Dorian’s sins grow increasingly grave, he becomes ever more callous–even hateful–toward others, even so-called loved ones.
Born of two acts of idolatry–Dorian’s prayer to the false Egyptian god and his narcissistic worship of his own youth and beauty–the portrait is a prison which both incarcerates and exhibits Dorian’s disfigured soul. Dorian feels contrite each time he sees the portrait—and who among us, if we could see the marks of sin upon our own souls, would not feel likewise? And just as we ignore and hide from the full effects of our sins by means of countless justifications and obfuscations, Dorian conceals his portrait with a screen, mortified at the thought of anyone seeing his true face, which even he finds repugnant.
Ultimately, Dorian repents, and throws himself on God’s mercy—so, in a sense, the film has a happy ending. Nonetheless, Dorian dies alone in a terrible fashion; his life as a whole does not provide an example anyone will likely wish to imitate. His deathbed prayer to the one true God is quite possibly his sole thoroughly well-intended and praiseworthy act—and it is presented as such.
In terms of suitability for children, the pronounced grotesqueness of the painting (and some of Dorian’s misbehavior, though the majority is merely suggested) is probably sufficient reason to forestall showing this film to children until they are a bit older–perhaps teenaged? As with all media, it’s best to watch it yourself first, and thus make a fully informed decision. Happy screening!