With Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde captures our obsession with youth

  • Books
  • Wednesday, 04 Oct 2017

Ben Barnes as Dorian, examining his ageing portrait in Ealing Studios’ 2009 movie adaptation of Oscar Wildes The Picture Of Dorian Gray. Photo: Movie still

“Youth is the one thing worth having,” says Lord Henry Wotton to the titular character of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about youth.

I turn 35 next year, one of those age milestones that have somehow come to seem significant to us as a society. It is the official threshold into the mid-30s; a time to mark a whole new checkbox when filling in official forms.

We live more than ever in an age where youth is privileged – through our increasingly visual culture, through products and services aggressively targeted towards younger consumers, through public figures who are judged on how young they appear.

Considering why “You look young”, or “You don’t look your age” is a compliment is enough to show that the reverse is not. This feels particularly acute for women, who are still more consistently judged on physical beauty and youthfulness – though a lot of research shows that men are catching up in this dubious regard.

Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde examines ageing
The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (Vintage Classics, 2007)

And you know what doesn’t help? That damn “On This Day” feature on Facebook, which (in)conveniently pops up every day to show my memories from the last 10 years. There’s nothing quite like watching your years in reverse as you scroll down the page, back to a time when you had more hair, less weight, and fewer lines on your face.

There are certainly days when I look at photos of myself from a decade or more ago and, very conceitedly, admire my own youth and good looks. There are days too, when I look at the young people around me and marvel at what I seem to have less and less of: that indefinable quality of being young that somehow manifests in their faces, body language, and bearing.

And even while I envy them their youth, I am also aware that there are people older than me who would envy my age – which only proves how entrenched this sort of thinking is.

It is through this lens that I re-read The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890).

Youth is the central obsession of Wilde’s only novel. His other works are largely satirical plays like The Importance Of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan; in The Picture Of Dorian Gray, however, Wilde marries his genius for wit to a darker and much more Gothic storyline.

The result is a story that is more akin to the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1886) or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), though still shaped by the aestheticism and satire that were so characteristic of Wilde.

Dorian, who starts off as a pleasant young man in 19th century London, realises that his incredible youth and beauty affords him almost unlimited access in his upper-class British society. A painter, enamoured with Dorian’s looks, presents him with a portrait that stunningly captures Dorian’s likeness.

Soon, Dorian discovers that his looks are somehow untouched by the ravages of time and life experiences – the portrait ages instead of him. This leads him to sink further and further into a debauched and corrupt lifestyle, while continually haunted by the secret portrait he keeps hidden in his attic.

The power of Wilde’s story lies in the way he captures so well both our idolatry of youth and the horror of remaining perpetually young.

Set within today’s context, there is something both cathartic and profoundly sad about reading The Picture Of Dorian Gray. On the one hand, Dorian’s tragic end seems deserved. On the other, it feels like an indictment of a society that enabled his tragedy every step of the way.

Contemporary popular culture has a tendency to turn Wilde’s Dorian into the stuff of monster movies – take, for instance, the character’s incarnations as a centuries-old undead being in the movie The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and television show Penny Dreadful (2014-2016).

The Dorian of the novel, though, is even more disturbing precisely because he is so human. We see him in our own elevation of youth and physical appearances, in our collective discomfort with ageing. His downfall is very much of this world, and it begs us to ask ourselves, “Who would I be if I had eternal youth?”


Sharmilla Ganesan is currently on the Asia Journalism Fellowship by Temasek Foundation International and the National University of Singapore. She is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.

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