Re-reading the Picture of Dorian Gray
I’ve never really been attracted to the horror genre. The story invariably seems too contrived to be plausible. I need the horror to be real. The Picture of Dorian Gray is definitely a horror story. It, too, is contrived in a very literal sense — paintings don’t respond to the lives of their sitters. But the horror of being fixed in time, of choosing not to change, seems very real to me. In fact it seems perfectly current and familiar. Think of the beauty industry, with its generally narrow, vicious, indiscriminate command to “stay young”; there’s plastic surgery.
But the more penetrating horror in Dorian Gray goes beyond the visual. It becomes a commitment to a a particular self-image in the sense of identity. In his case, the image was established early, in the company of his alleged friends, built up as the painting was in-progress. The words tied the painted image to a concept, an ideal of the consummate aesthete, living a life of endless pleasure, appreciation of fine objects and immersion in exotic experiences, disdainful of others, their hopes, fears or needs, resistant to obligation or constraint. And if his friends in some sense “put him up to it,” suggested and promoted the connection between the painting and life experience, it was Dorian himself who wished it to be permanent.
Commitment to a fixed self-image is, I think, not uncommon, arising in the context of family or early work or romantic experience, becoming “fixed” through some early endorsement, some memorable resolution or satisfaction. It need not have anything to do with a life of aesthetic pleasure — it could centre on athletic skills or wealth or power. It could be negative — a picture of a victim who “wins” by remaining one. In any case, the horror is that it is fixed. Real human beings, whatever they do, are resourceful, inventive, imaginative, open. They interact with others, learn, adjust. They change. They evolve. If they don’t, they aren’t human. And that is a horror.