The Picture of Dorian Gray: how do we *see* ourselves today?

It is very interesting to read this novel in such a day and age. I think one of the most titillating things about literature is that even if it’s dated; there is so much interest in examining how the author wrote about the human condition; about love, pain, hate, and hope, in particular time periods or contexts. Because either one of two things has happened: the context has changed the way we view the human condition; or the human condition has changed the context.

So, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only full novel by Oscar Wilde (what a dreadful shame, too!) is a beautiful example of one of my favorite genres of literature; the Gothic novel. Up there with Hawthorne, Poe, and Shelley, Wilde enters the annals of the creepy and supernatural with the story of Dorian Gray; a young man who realizes that eventually, his youth will fade and he should pursue a life of hedonism and fulfillment of physical wants while he still has his good looks. The novel takes a turn for the creepy when a portrait of him, painted by a dear friend/artist named Basil, becomes the fulfillment of Dorian’s wish that the picture would grow old, while he would not. Thus, as Dorian’s life goes on, he retains his youthful good looks and charm whilst leading a life of debauchery, revelry, and indulgence; and the painting grows old and ugly.

Now, I recall a time when I was a young girl of the tender age of 17. It was right after I had lost my virginity to my boyfriend; late at night, alone in the bathroom I stared at myself in the mirror for nearly an hour. Looking at all the little details of my face: from the scar on my upper lip to the ridges of my teeth, every freckle and pore; and finally, at all the little shards of gold scattered in my dark brown eyes. I kept looking and looking, because I felt that there had to be some sort of physical marked change in me that other people would see; that I had changed because I had lost a big part of me, and that there must be something definitive and physical that would loose my secret to those around me.

Now, years later, I still have those moments every once in awhile of having to check my reflection time and again; just in case. Nowadays it’s more checking to see if people can see the large bags under my eyes from too many late night Blues dancing house parties, but that’s a different story. Nevertheless, whilst I don’t pay quite as much attention to my looks now, I’m sure in the future there will be a day when I look in the mirror and realize just how old I’ve become.

What’s interesting, however, about The Picture of Dorian Gray is that no one has portraits painted of themselves anymore. Unless you are the president of Yale or Cambridge or you took a really crappy portrait class in high school like I did, you probably don’t have a painted representation of yourself. This removes us from the story a bit, because what we do have is hundreds and thousands of photos.

We have phones that can take photos. Computers that can take photos. Even glasses that can take photos (yay for Google). It’s ridiculous the amount of photos we take. And our culture shows it, too. What do we upload onto the internet, the majority of the time? Is it blogs like this? Is it your personal writing? Is it audio recordings? No. It’s pictures. Pictures are the most popular part of Facebook, even. My favorite pastime is to creep through old photo albums of new friends, or revisit albums from days gone by. And every day, I would not be the least bit surprised if 100 new photos, at the very least, were added to my Facebook stream. And that’s just from the small amount of people we care about.

So, unlike dear Dorian, we have nearly limitless amounts of reproductions of ourselves; all of them in bright colors and showing exact details, without the bias of brush or artist to stand in the way. And we can look at the progress of our lives through this slideshow of nearly daily photographs. We can see exactly how we change. Does that make us like Dorian Gray? I would like to think so. In any case, it certainly will make rereading this book very interesting.

What also struck me is how Dorian watches the change of his portrait as time wears on, and he marvels at how without manipulation, the picture changes to reflect his personal hideousness. It made me realize that nowadays, how nearly impossible it is to find an un-touched image. Even my friends use Instagram to “glam” up their photos and remove defects, and I use Photoshop on a near daily basis for work. I bet if I wanted to, I could take a picture of myself and add lines, wrinkles, frown marks, and gray hair, all in the space of an hour. And whilst it doesn’t contain the magical qualities of Dorian (alas, I will still age during that hour), it’s interesting to think that our perception of art has become so much more fluid, through the rise of instantly gratifying photographic reproductions: nostalgia for things that are only seconds old.

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About Angela

Editor, bookbinder, and writer.

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