Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray”, Brexit and the self-styled virtue of youth
One of the most exquisite books that have ever been written is undoubtedly ‘’The picture of Dorian Gray’’ by Oscar Wilde. The book, the only novel written by Wilde, is not only amusing and relevant for the time it was written; it may be relevant now more than ever.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, I will briefly outline the core of the story. A young aristocrat named Dorian Gray has a portrait made of himself. Upon seeing the portrait he envies the ever-lasting youth the portrait has and wishes that the portrait would grow old, rather than he himself. And thus it happened. Dorian had been granted eternal youth, and the picture, hidden from sight, aged as time passed. Dorian had surpassed mortality, and being an aristocrat he had a guaranteed income from his lands. Although the prospect of infinite life and money sounds appealing to many, during the novel we witness Dorian suffer and succumb to his vices.
”Youth is the only thing worth having.” – Dorian Gray
At the time of Oscar Wilde’s life, the novel was largely a criticism of the aristocratic lifestyle and a humorous way of expressing Wilde’s own thoughts and feelings. The modern-day abundance of wealth, however, has allowed this way of life to spread well beyond the boundaries of the aristocracy.
The novel portrays the obsession with youth and all that follows from it. The novel gives us a preview of what a human would do with such a blessing. The answer? To devolve into a life of hedonism. Dorian turns into a vain, arrogant and ruthless egoistic monster. His life has lost all meaning, all purpose, and he resorts to pleasure-seeking behaviour. Without any responsibility, Dorian lives the life of a child with a never-ending childhood. He wanders from woman to woman, from party to party. And like a child, he has not learned how to be a moral person, he has not learned how to be a virtuous person. He offends and hurts those around him with impunity, he is completely detached from the mortal world he lives in. At the start of the
At the start of the book, Dorian is a regular bloke who falls in love and desires to get married; he orients himself toward a life of contentment and happiness. His friend pulls him away from that lifestyle and takes him on a hedonistic trip to a brothel. Having experienced the highs of such pleasures he tells his lover that he wishes to postpone the wedding; her response is to jump into the river and kill herself. Rather than dealing with the grief, Dorian lowers himself into a life of constantly chasing pleasures.
“I am jealous of everything whose beauty does not die. I am jealous of the portrait you have painted of me. Why should it keep what I must lose?” – Dorian Gray
We may say that currently more than ever before we live in a culture obsessed with youth. History is full of cultures that revere the old for their wisdom and experience, while the elderly are now judged to have opinions that are just no longer suitable for their time.
When the Brexit-vote took place, there were those who claimed that the referendum was invalid because the young had overwhelmingly voted for remain. Apparently the elderly were no longer wise enough, they were ignorant and close-minded. The claim portrays the idea that the youth should have a bigger say in ruling the country, one that is larger than a simple equal representation.
There are even voices that say the voting age should be lowered to 16, to allow the youth to have more influence. Since when do we believe high-school students know what is best, since when do we believe their opinion is equal to that of an adult?
However, I digress, there are plenty of signs in daily life that indicate people are embracing youth. From the plastic surgery and make-up to the image of 50-year olds dressed in clothes designed for teenagers.
Age is something linked to shame, while youth instils pride. There are strong trends in modern Western societies, indicating that appearances are increasingly valued more than content of character. Some desire to remain a student and avoid the daily tasks of adult life. Others postpone taking a job until they have travelled the world. For some, life revolves around parties and videogames. Emptiness filled with alcohol.
None of us have the eternal youth that Dorian Gray has, but our society as a whole convinces us that it is within our reach. As Dorian, some may end up chasing minor pleasures without ever reaching contentment. The immortal, and those who believe they are, cannot be satisfied. It is no surprise that Dorian ends up miserable, alone, and depressed. His life, as well as that of those he has encountered, is in ruins. Devoting his life to pleasure, he received misery.
There is a mirage of immortality that a generation is clinging onto until time catches up with them and forcefully shows them the folly of their fantasy. The mirage ends when Dorian looks at the pictures decades later and sees his withered face;
”For you are made of dust; and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19