The Not-So-Beautiful Picture of Dorian Gray

One of my favorite novels is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde.  Last year, I tried to force a young women group in my church to read it with me.  The girls who participated are between the ages of 16 and 18, and to be honest, most of them absolutely hated the book.  I’m not sure if any of them finished it, and many of them confessed to not even finishing a couple of chapters.  I admit, such reading may be too dense or old fashioned to understand at a young and distracted age, but there is not a better book for young women of that age who struggle with image, self confidence, and appearances.  When trying to discuss this book with the girls, we ended up emphasizing its ideas about beauty, especially as it relates to women.

The truth is that “When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or have to content yourself with those mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats” (Wilde 30). Instead of focusing on what he can do to make his memories more satisfying, title character Dorian Gray finds a way to cheat the aging process.  He focuses only on outward beauty and maintaining it and therefore loses an ability to be empathetic and compassionate, causing the suicide of his fiancee.  He breaks her heart and doesn’t look back, because to him beauty is all that matters.

For young women, when they focus only on beauty, they can become mean girls and, like Dorian, care more about themselves and having others worship their appearance than about how others feel.  They can lose their purity and eventually their own souls if they focus only on outward appearances.  Such a life would only prove right evil Lord Henry, who says, “[N]o woman is a genius.  Women are a decorative sex” (55).

What should young women focus on instead?   Well, they should first prove Lord Henry wrong.  I like to think that what’s in one’s head is more important than what one looks like on the outside.  Dorian proves this when he decides he’s had enough and “murders” his picture.  He ends up dead on the floor as an old ugly man, with nothing to offer other than his beauty.  Once he gets rid of it, there’s nothing of him left.

Dorian also shows that looks can be deceiving.  He may be beautiful, but the painting tells the real story.  The painting, representative of his soul, has a “loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands” (187).  The true Dorian is ugly, and he realizes that “[t]he soul is a terrible reality.  It can be bought, and sold, and bartered away.  It can be poisoned, or made perfect” (232).  Instead of focusing on this soul, we sometimes judge others based on the way they look.  A girl with stringy hair, buck teeth, and hand-me-down clothes is often scorned by other young girls.  Yet, she may have a nice personality or become a true best friend.  I have many times misjudged people, yet these people often became my good friends.

Despite all of my preaching, the other night I declared to my husband, “I don’t want to be ugly!”  I’m afraid of aging.  This fear was exacerbated when a news anchor that I hadn’t seen in a while suddenly looked haggard and aged.  This change in her seems to have happened overnight, although it has probably been a decade.  Although I know that looks aren’t everything, I find myself intrigued by face lift commercials and anti-aging cream advertisements.  I also wonder what sort of work Nicole Kidman, one of my favorite celebrities, has had.  She has fewer wrinkles than I do, yet she is at least 15 years my senior.  All of these fears obviously stem from my insecurity, but I’m likely influenced by what Naomi Wolf writes about in The Beauty Myth.  For my entire life, the media has bombarded me with images and messages that women are ornamental and important based only on how they look.

As a teenager, I participated in scholarship pageants.  (I know, I know.  Beauty pageants.)   I doubt if I was ever considered to be the most beautiful by judges or an audience, yet ironically I won a pageant based on my talent and brains.  I won the interview portion (worth 30 percent) and the talent competition (worth 40 percent) by being smart, well spoken, and intelligent and by playing well Aaron Copland’s The Cat and the Mouse, a fantastically dissonant piece that always satisfied my desire to play loud and big.  Perhaps what I learned from beauty pageants – that a short, smart, talented girl with brown hair and freckles can win – is similar to what we learn from Dorian.  Beauty is truly within a person, and that’s what we should value.

We are planning to read another book with the young women.  Again, we want to focus on literature, but when we announced the second annual book club as an upcoming event, many of the girls made faces.  One girl said, “I’ll do it as long as it’s not as creepy as that other book.”  Because I’m in charge of compiling a list of great books for them to choose from, dear readers, I need your help.  Please suggest any books you think would be appropriate for this age group and that these young women would like.  So far, I’m leaning toward works like Little Women or The Secret Garden.  Do you have any other suggestions?  And, while you’re doing that, I’ll be slathering my face with anti-wrinkle cream.

Wilde, Oscar.  The Picture of Dorian Gray.  New York: Barnes & Noble, 1995.

Oscar Wilde, public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
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24 thoughts on “The Not-So-Beautiful Picture of Dorian Gray

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  1. Pick a young adult book like The Hunger Games or something more modern. I’ve heard Uglies by Scott Westerfield is good, and it focuses on many of the same themes as Dorian Gray. I might also suggest a book that’s not traditionally a “girl’s book” – don’t want to pigeon hole them into only reading chick lit. 🙂

    1. I have read Uglies, and it does have some of the same ideas, but it glorifies teenage drinking too much for a youth group. I did like it. I love a good dystopia. P.S. Emily you shouldn’t ever be worried about looking old. You look 10 years younger than the rest of us!

      1. Thanks for the compliment, Chaysie! It’s funny, because for all my worry about getting wrinkles and such, I do constantly get mistaken for a teenager at YW events. 🙂 And that irks me even more!

  2. I really don’t have an “appropriate” suggestion other than to offer that A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS really taught me a lot about how good we have it as American women. Jane Austen’s PERSUASION is compelling for an Austen novel and not “creepy” like JANE EYRE. I’d love to know what you end up picking, so keep us posted.

  3. My favorite Jane Austen is PERSUASION for this very reason. I think it has the greatest depth in characters and topic. Even if the girls hate whatever book you choose….. as long as you make them think, they have learned something. Many of the books I read in high school and college that I didn’t like still taught me how to think more independently and analyze situations more thoughtully. You will have much to offer in your ability to lead a discussion. I have always admired Oscar Wilde and his sense of humor, but I admit I haven’t read any of his novels. I think I will give this one a try now.

  4. I loved Little Women; I wanted to be Jo March when I “grew up”. I wonder if your young women would enjoy an older, yet humorous, classic like Cyrano de Bergerac? They could compare it with the movie Roxanne.
    Are these young women strong readers or struggling readers? Karen Hesse has written so many good books that have strong appeal for many ages. I recommend her Phoenix Rising, another book that looks to a scary future but without the blood and gore of Hunger Game.
    If they’re looking for an easy read that is pure fun, try Blue Balliett’s art-based series that starts with Chasing Vermeer. Come to think of it, maybe Girl with a Pearl Earring would hold their attention?
    Good luck, and keep reading!

  5. Hey, I don’t know how I missed this post about Dorian Grey. I loved that book and wrote a post about it of my own about a year or so ago. We’re kind of on the same page here, although I didn’t force a bunch of YW to read it 🙂 Come to think of it, that would’ve have been a good idea though. Interestingly enough, one of my YW wanted to read Vanity Fair because she heard me talking about it. I told her to give it a try, but I don’t know how that worked out. I know you hated that book, but I really enjoyed it. This YW is exceptionally bright and had just finished the complete works of Jane Austen (purchased by her mom on my recommendation….) and she enjoyed them. I should ask her about Vanity Fair…..

    Check out my post if you want 🙂
    http://existentialmarriage.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/to-be-young-is-to-be-everything/

    1. I love the picture you included on your post. I think society truly makes us crazy about being beautiful and young. I’m going through a crisis right now. My face NEEDS makeup, where before it really didn’t. My stomach isn’t staying as flat as it used to. I just feel ugly. But I wish that I could instead focus on more important things and just not care. Does it really matter? Does anybody even notice? Probably not.
      I wonder too if your YW liked Vanity Fair. Let me know. I would be interested.

      1. Well, I think you’re beautiful. I’ve always thought that. I’ve started to freak out about getting older as well but I’m trying to just accept that someday I’ll look like my grandma and I guess that’s okay. I mean, who am I trying to impress anyway? And I don’t think people really notice or care.

  6. I actually have a different perspective on Dorian Gray, afforded to me by one of my English professors. We read an essay by Jean Baudrillard called: “The Precession of Simulacrae”. In short, it detailed a process where nature (that which is natural and unsimulated) not only has duplications in virtuality (anything which is idealized or simulated nature; in the case of Wilde and the aesthetics, art is virtual and improved nature) but virtuality can actually OVERTAKE and DESTROY nature and anything natural.
    Now, Dorian become so obsessed with the idea of transforming his natural beauty into a virtual and permanent art that any remnants of what remained with natural Dorian are eliminated during this Precession of Simulacrae. The lesson I learned from this was that any obsession or fixation with improving that which is natural, or creating a virtual version, may potentially destroy that which is natural.

    This is the story of why I deleted my Facebook account. I didn’t want people’s perception of virtual me to destroy the actual me in his/her mind. I wanted to only be seen as I am, not as I acted online.

    But, I digress….

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