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.