Thursday, October 27, 2011

Beauty is only skin deep

They were talking about immortality on the radio the other day - if you could, would you want to live forever? Although there's about a million books I'd like to read, I'm not sure that's worth sticking around for. As a kid all you want is to grow up but once you get there you find it's not everything you thought it would be. Even though the voice inside my head is the same as when I was a teenager, everything on the outside has changed. As a kid I could eat as much as I wanted and still be skinny, but now it's a different story and taking that weight off seems almost impossible. And let's not even talk about the responsibilities - youth really is wasted on the young! When you're young you worry far too much about appearances - yours and everyone else’s - never realizing you're better looking than you ever think. I guess if I could be young forever, it might be tempting.

It's with these thoughts in mind that I found The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde so interesting. Dorian is an exceptionally handsome young man, but when he sees his portrait and realizes just how handsome he is, he wishes for the painting to grow old while he remains young - and that's what happens. At first he is mortified when he finds changes in his painted image, but under the influence of his friend Lord Henry, Dorian begins to seek the worldly pleasures in life. No matter what depths he sinks to, his handsome face remains unchanged while the portrait grows uglier and more hideous, burdened not only by age but by his debauched lifestyle as well.

I don't know if this book is as widely read as it maybe once was but I was quite taken in by the story. It's interesting that Dorian, instead of using the portrait as a conscience to correct his actions, takes a strange delight in observing the change to his painted picture. He revels in his freedom from outward consequences and sinks deeper, delving into every debasing pleasure. In some ways the separate manifestations of the individual reminded me of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where Dr. Jekyll sought to separate his sinful side from himself. Likewise, his recognition of how his outward appearance and appeal would fade with age seemed to have similar shades of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine. And the character of Lord Henry is interesting, always in the background congratulating Dorian and playing the devil's role by encouraging his sensual hedonism. But it's also a critique of Victorian society, although it's still applicable today: we spend our time and money trying to reverse the effects of age (the gym, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery, etc.); companies spend billions idealizing (or idolizing) "youth"; and some even seek to excuse away weakness and place blame elsewhere. At any rate, I recommend it as an interesting and thought-provoking story.

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