The Way of Beauty'The Picture of Dorian Gray:' A Parable for Lent

The Lenten spring has come as planting and dying give way to rising and harvest.  If we have been buried with Christ, we shall rise with him (Rom 6:4; Col 2:12). The power of Lord’s death and Resurrection makes us new creations. 

Lent is that time in the liturgical year when Christians journey together, as the Body of Christ, toward Calvary and the empty tomb.  It is as individuals however that we take stock of our relationship with God and with others probing it earnestly and sincerely.  This Lent, what do I want?  What do I really want?

In the Christian East

In the Byzantine Church, Great Lent, beginning on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, is a time of strict fast, of hastening to tame the flesh through fast and abstinence.  St. John Chrysostom (d 407) writes in a homily:  “When a pagan asks you why you fast, you do not answer that it is because of our Lord’s passion or for the cross, but for our sins, because we are to approach the holy mysteries.  The passion is not a reason for fasting or mourning, but one for joy and exultation:  we mourn not because of that, but because of our sins, and for this we fast.” 

The Maronite Church puts it concisely:  ‘During Lent, we fast from the world.” 

A Modern-Day Parable for Lent

In 1890-91, Oscar Wilde published his only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” In it, the Irish wit and esthete treats beauty as ars gratia artis, as art for the sake of art.  Beauty is detached from truth and goodness, and for that matter, from love. 

The Parable Unfolds . . . The Beginning 

This novel is a stinging, biting, moral thriller, brilliant and beautifully written. It concerns one man’s desire for eternal youth, pleasure, and beauty, and his obsession about clinging to them at all costs. Like the Greek god Adonis who worships beauty, desire, and pleasure, Dorian will do anything to retain his handsome figure.  Like Faust, he is willing to sell his soul to the devil. And he does.

Dorian is a wealthy, cultivated, and incredibly handsome young man who yields to the seductions of sin with disastrous results.  Not a thought about using his natural gifts, status, or position to help others.  His view of life excludes noblesse oblige.

When Dorian’s artist-friend Basil paints his portrait, Dorian reasons in this way:  ‘Even if I flaunt the acceptable standards of morality, this portrait can never change.  It will retain its pristine beauty.’  Dorian locks the picture away in his childhood play room in a remote part of his palatial home. The picture will soon take on a mystery of its own.

Advancing the Parable

Dorian embarks on a life of sin.   A young actress Sibyl falls in love with him and is devoted to him.  But after he spurns her love, she commits suicide. Dorian begins to check the picture, his soul and visual diary.  As one evil act follows the other, so the painting records his sinfulness.  In fact, the picture begins to sneer. 

For the next eighteen years, Dorian sinks more deeply into a furtive and dissolute life experimenting with every imaginable vice.  Rumors abound concerning his relationships.  Why do they end fatally—in suicide?  Then one night, before leaving for Paris on another escapade, Dorian is confronted by Basil, his artist-friend.  Dorian shows him the portrait.  Basil is startled by his own creation which has become disfigured as though from within.  He sees in it not Dorian’s beauty but a moral leprosy eating away at its own flesh. 

Basil speaks of the rumors. Hadn’t Dorian heard? He admonishes him to prayer.  He pleads with him to repent.  Pointing to the picture, he blurts out: ‘So this is what you’ve become; this is what you’ve done with your life! Come to your senses!’ 

‘It’s too late; it has destroyed me.  It’s no use!’ replies Dorian in a panic.  Then in a fit of rage, he stabs Basil with a knife. 

On examining the picture, he sees that it is dripping blood.   The symbiotic relationship between him and the picture defies belief.

More in The Way of Beauty

To cap off Basil’s murder, Dorian blackmails his chemist-friend Alan into destroying Basil’s body by nitric acid so that it will completely disappear.  Shortly afterward, Alan commits suicide. Dorian goes to the picture, its eyes, bulging out of their sockets, staring in shock.

Next, Dorian hunts down Sibyl’s brother James who has accused him of causing his sister’s suicide years before. Dorian shoots him in a dark alley and returns home. 

Gladys, an attractive young noblewoman, loves him unconditionally and has expressed her desire to marry him. She proposes. His response is a mere velleity, and he remains cold and aloof. Though she is puzzled by his behavior, her love for him remains steadfast.  Unwilling to break her heart, Dorian accepts her marriage proposal.  After all, he still cuts a handsome figure. And she doesn’t know . . . .

Finally . . .

At this point, the picture reeks with depravity. Bloodshot eyes, large red facial blotches, loose skin, swollen lips, parched and blood-curdled—the horror is too much for him. He is on the verge of suicidal remorse and despair, the sin of Judas!  “I cannot change; I’m too far gone,” he cries out.

Taking the knife that killed Basil, Dorian drives it into the picture.  But something extraordinary happens. He is thrown to the ground, the one who has been stabbed. As he succumbs to death, uttering, “Forgive me, I have sinned, through my fault, through my fault,” his face assumes all the horror of the picture.  The wages of sin are now made visible on his face.  But amazingly, the picture reverts to its pristine beauty just as Basil had painted it.

The last words Dorian utters are from Omar Khayyam, the medieval Persian polymath:

(Column continues below)

“And by and by, my soul returned to me
And answered, I myself am heaven and hell.”

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