Growing up I surrounded myself by comic books. Batman, Superman, Spider-man, X-men you name it I had it. I had material from some of the greatest writers of the genre such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Grant Morrison to name a few of my favorites. Learning to draw at a young age, I was first attracted to the art that graced each panel. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore was one series that drew my attention to the classics at a relatively young age.
Alan Moore did something unique in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He took pop culture characters from the turn of the century culture such as the Invisible Man, Allan Quartermain, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and incorporated them into a story arch where these characters provide service for the British Government. When the 2003 movie came out I realized that it was an original story that featured Dorian Gray, who was never present in the comic series. Seeing his complex character on the silver screen gravitated me towards Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The story is set in Victorian London and centers around Dorian Gray and his influences in his life. The two characters that seem to have immense influence over Dorian is artist Basil Hallward and Lord Henryy Wotton. Basil is Dorian’s cautious friend who is obsessed with Gray’s youthfulness and beauty. He is also in charge of painting Dorian’s portrait. Wotton is a friend of Basil’s and an acquaintance of Dorian’s. Over the course of the story Wotton reveals to Dorian the darker side of society. Wotton’s lifestyle and half baked philosophies rub off on Dorian throughout the course of the novel. Over time Wotton becomes a sort of mentor to Dorian and reveals to him the darker side of human nature. Dorian and Wotton enjoy lavish parties and explore acts of lust and greed. Despite Basil’s warnings to stay away from Wotton, Dorian further blotches his soul by pursuing his own insatiable pleasures manipulating anyone that stands in his way. Dorian is essentially abusing his gift of beauty and by doing so he is cursed to stay youthful forever. But little does Dorian know that pursuing vices instead of virtue takes a toll on his soul. His physical appearance may stay constant but his soul ages and is damaged by these vices. Basil’s portrait is a glimpse into Dorian’s ugly soul and it ages. The portrait becomes dark and twisted in the place of Dorian. What would happen if he should confront this painting? What would happen if he is allowed to reflect on his misdeeds?
The Picture of Dorian Gray was by no means an easy read and is complex when comparing it to young adult novels. Wilde uses different styles of writing that may not be present in the young adult genre. The story was published by Wilde in 1891 and draws influences from multiple myths such as the fall of man in Genesis or the ancient Greek parable of Narcissus. Wilde also seems to draw influence from plays such as the classic telling of Faust. Wilde also seems to draw inspiration from Shakespeare and Socrates. Understanding the philosophy and themes behind these works of art can help the reader understand Dorian as a character. Understanding a basic outline of these works the reader can truly find out what makes Dorian tick. Seeing all of these influences the reader is able to establish what Wilde did differently in this novel and how it relates to his influences. For example, Faust tells the story of an established scholar who trades his soul with the Devil for a life of fortune and fame. Although the devil is not present in Wilde’s novel, Wotton stands in as a negative force of influence that introduces Dorian to the vice filled life of a corrupt socialite. One such style Wilde uses is epigrams, the story is full of them. Epigrams are short thoughtful statements in prose or verse form. A good portion of epigrams found in Wilde’s novel are developed by Lord Wotton. Wotton’s epigrams seem to play on the meaning of words to create a comic relief or a type of sarcasm.
The underlying themes of Dorian Gray are very mature and may not exist in young adult novels. There has been controversy surrounding Basil’s devotion to Dorian. Some believe that Basil’s fixation and need to see Dorian everyday is a symbol for homoerotic love. Other’s believe that Dorian is a source of inspiration for Basil to become a better artist. Descriptions of Dorian seem to be very detailed and extravagant throughout the novel and Basil may believe that by harnessing his beauty in art form may help him achieve an ultimate status as an artist. Another theme could be indulging of the senses. Dorian and Wotton live extravagant lives similar the characters in F. Scotts Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Wotton would have Dorian and the reader believe that seeking worldly pleasures and living life to the fullest is better then worrying about morals and ethics. I think it all boils down to moderation. Moderation should be the ultimate goal for humanity and something everyone should struggle to achieve. Wotton and Dorian did not live life in moderation and it led to the destruction of their souls in this novel. Wilde’s influences are etched in this theme of this novel.
Make no mistake this novel by Oscar Wilde does not belong in a young adult genre. But I think the appeal of Dorian and the struggles he goes through makes him a character readers can relate to and someone the reader loves to hate because he represents the extreme. Someone who completely gives in to a life of vice. I think that today this character is displayed in our pop culture one way or another. Movies were made about this character stretching back to the early 1900’s. Hollywood is trying to integrate Wilde’s character and the lessons this novel teaches the reader in our culture. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen both in print and film appeal to a younger teenage audience to an adult audience. Both of these forms drew me to this classic. This is the kind of effect pop culture and reiterations of classics can have on someone and provides a strong argument for the support of young adult literature.
To access the complete novel through project Gutenberg for free click here.
For information regarding the latest 2009 film adaption of The Picture of Dorian Gray featuring Colin Firth, Ben Chaplin and Ben Barnes click here. The theatrical trailer for this movie can be found here.