L460 Senior Seminar
December 10, 2001
Beauty Gone Bad
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a story about the pleasures of youth, sin, and beauty intertwined in such a way that results in beauty becoming both powerful and dangerous. Both John Berger and Elaine Scarry discuss beauty in terms of its vices and virtues and both come to very different conclusions concerning the value of beauty. Both of their theories can be applied to Wilde’s novel and the also to the film American Beauty. One thing both Berger and Scarry agree on is that beauty is a tool to attain other forms of pleasure. Whether or not the use of beauty is justifiable, however, depends on what that pleasure is and the motives behind it.
In chapter three of his Ways of Seeing John Berger argues that men and women are assigned different roles in society. He claims that life imitates art in a similar way that paintings portray women. As paintings portray women for men to look at, so too does life. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at” (47). It is this idea of the surveyor and the surveyed that can be applied to The Picture of Dorian Gray. To do so, it’s both necessary and important to examine the characters’ responses to beauty. While the beautiful object for all of them is one young man, Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian himself all have different reactions to the presence of his beauty.
For Basil, Dorian’s beauty represents an avenue by which to create his art. In his portrait of Dorian, he has painted “the secret of his own soul” (4). Basil describes to Henry his revelation caused by the beauty of Dorian Gray, “I see things differently, I think of them differently. I can now recreate life in a way that was hidden from me before” (8). For Basil, art is the most important aspect of life, and because Dorian can inspire his art, Basil uses beauty as a tool for his own creativity. Of the three main characters in the novel, Basil is by far the most sympathetic of them because his motives were the least harmful to the other characters. In inspiring Basil’s art, Dorian’s beauty was not damaged in any way, but Dorian himself learned to love the way he looked. In painting his portrait, Basil may have led Dorian to water, but he didn’t make him drink. So he is only partly responsible for Dorian’s vanity, and his responses to beauty are still justifiable.
Assisting on Dorian’s path to vanity to a much greater extent is Lord Henry, who sees Dorian as a person to be molded into a younger version of himself. Lord Henry’s amoral philosophies are carefully planted into young Dorian’s head and then carried out with his flesh, all by way of Lord Henry’s dangerous influence. But Henry would not have been so inclined to sculpt just any young man. It’s Dorian’s beauty that appeals to Henry’s less than admirable motives. In the young Mr. Gray, Lord Henry sees the capacity to carry out his philosophical beliefs. He says to Dorian, “With your personality there is nothing you could not do... the moment I met you I saw that you were quite unconscious of what you really are, of what you really might be” (18). Henry’s charm and wit make him attractive to listen to and convincing to Dorian. Thus, he and his unique ideas are irresistible to Dorian’s young mind.
Dorian is really two characters in one, as he initially sees the portrait as a younger version of himself. His response to his own beauty, not surprisingly, quickly turns to vanity. For this he blames Basil, but the painter is hardly responsible for Dorian’s worship of himself. Dorian should have been able to take pleasure in his own good looks without turning it into self idolatry. Dorian’s vanity rears its ugly head again at the end of the novel when he realizes he only spared Hetty Merton from ruin (a fate he’d driven many to) through vanity (183). Dorian’s pleasure in vanity, while not entirely his own fault, does not justify his internalized response to beauty. Nor is his response to Sybil Vane’s beauty justified because he only loves her when she’s acting on stage.
Dorian’s double nature as both the surveyor and the surveyed is similar to the story in Greek mythology of Narcissus. The story of Narcissus and Echo begins when Hera gets jealous of Zeus amusing himself among the mortals. Zeus desires and pursues pleasure in the mortal world much like Dorian does. Hera would follow him onto Earth and scold at him until he returned to Olympus with her. Once Zeus had the nymph Echo distract Hera so he could return to Olympus undetected. Echo was the wittiest and most cunning of all the nymphs and she effectively distracted Hera long enough for Zeus to make his return. But Hera grew wise to Zeus’s scheme and took her wrath out on Echo. Never again was Echo able to use her tongue to deceive others. The power of speech was taken from her, so she could only repeat what she heard others say.
By then Echo had fallen in love with a beautiful boy named Narcissus. But without the powers of speech, Narcissus disregarded her and broke her heart. She withered away, her bones becoming rocks and eventually all that was left of her was a voice haunting caves and cliffs, answering back the calls of others. But before she was completely gone, she prayed Narcissus might someday feel a sorrow such as hers. The prayer was granted. Narcissus found a pool one afternoon, bent to take a drink and saw himself reflected in the water. Not knowing it was his own image, he tried to reach out to it, and to kiss the beautiful thing it was, but to no avail. Each time he’d try to touch it, he’d scare it away. So the rest of his days were spent, peering at his own image in futile fasion, until he eventually withered away and died, a flower left in his place (Pyle 54-58).
In describing Dorian, Wilde makes references to this myth more than once. Their similarities are apparent. Both Dorian and Narcissus are blessed with almost god-like beauty and cursed with god-like vanity. Both are caught up in a distorted reflection of that themselves which leads to their tragic deaths. But there are also similarities between Echo and Sybil Vane. Like Echo, Sybil possesses a talent like no other. She can act magnificently on stage, just as Echo’s wit was no less sharp than anyone else’s. Both characters have their abilities taken from them as a result of something they had little control over. In Echo’s case, Hera’s curse changes her destiny for the worst, and Sybil loses her ability to act after she falls in love with Dorian. All either one of them has left is their love for someone who cannot love them back. These attractions prove fatal for the both of them.
There’s also another aspect of the myth of Echo and Narcissus that bears resemblance to The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the novel, Dorian’s image serves as a reflection of himself. When first painted, it reflected the young and innocent Dorian and while its youth never left, the painting soon lost its innocence. Dorian’s reflection is like that of Narcissus, unattainable and forever out of reach. Berger discusses reflections in terms of the functions of mirrors in reflecting women. A mirror “was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight “ (51). By the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray Dorian has fallen into this typical female role. He realizes his portrait is really a “mirror of the soul,” revealing only vanity, curiosity, and hypocrisy (183).
Berger emphasizes that the perceiver is in a more dominant and preferred position than the perceived because the one perceived is harmed by the act of looking. Specifically the perceived is made vulnerable because he or she is seen as an object and not a person. An illustration how beauty makes the perceiver vulnerable can be seen in the film American Beauty when neighbor Ricky Fitts films Lester’s daughter, Jane. His filming her makes her very uncomfortable, even if he sees his photography as a way to preserve the beauty in the world. When Ricky’s camera zooms in on her from across bedroom windows, “She stands there with her breasts exposed, trying to look defiant but she’s achingly vulnerable” (Ball 94). Concerning nakedness and nudes, Berger writes, “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself” (54). In this way, the nude Jane is objectified by Ricky’s camera. Her body is seen as beauty, but her being is not seen at all. But Jane uses her nudity to expose herself both physically and emotionally to Ricky. At one point in the film, she reverse the roles, and turns the camera on him. “How does it feel now,” she asks him, not understanding when he answers a genuine “Fine.” “You don’t feel naked?” she asks, and Ricky replies, “I am naked” (103). This illustrates that Ricky doesn’t feel the same vulnerability that Jane does while naked. Berger might say Ricky’s right. He is naked, and never nude. And Jane? “The nude is condemned to never being naked,” according to Berger (54). It isn’t about not wearing clothing for women, it’s about opening themselves to a new vulnerability, but it’s a vulnerability Jane uses to make her life better. Jane uses her nudity to expose herself both physically and emotionally to Ricky. Her initial act of stripping in the bedroom window begins her relationship with Ricky, allowing her to open up to him in a way she’s never opened up to anyone. As a result, he begins to see her as more than just an object of beauty. He begins to love her being as well. At the beginning of the story, we learn she wants plastic surgery on her breasts, and throughout the story, she dismisses the reality of her own beauty until Ricky comes along. Jane, therefore, is made vulnerable and powerful by her own beauty. Exposing a vulnerability is the very risk that also gives Jane power. Ricky’s response to her beauty is much different from Dorian’s response to Sybil’s beauty in Wilde’s novel. Dorian only loved Sybil for the beauty she portrayed while acting, but Ricky recognized the beauty beneath body, the beauty of Jane’s being. In this way, beauty became a tool for Jane to overcome her own sense of ugliness. By losing the shame she felt for her body (by the end of the film she’s even willing to sacrifice the money she’s saved up for her boob job), Jane is able to recognize the beauty in her that before only Ricky could see.
While Berger sees beauty as an potential obstacle leading to danger, Elaine Scarry, doesn’t see beauty that way at all. To her beauty is power - power to awaken, power to aliven, and power to be lifesaving. The very first page to her book On Beauty says “Beauty brings copies of itself into being.” In Wilde’s novel, Dorian Gray’s beauty is replicated in many ways. He is obviously recreated by Basil’s brush. According to Scarry, beauty requires us to replicate it to preserve it for a moment that never stops, and this is beneficial because replication not only immortalizes beauty, but it also makes beauty more available to a greater number of people (5). In the case of Dorian’s portrait, beauty is preserved, but it’s not replicated with the purpose of distribution. In fact, Basil initially doesn’t want to show the painting, for fear that others would discover the secret it hides. Although Lord Henry urges Basil to show his great art in order to share it with others, Basil insists the painting belongs only to Dorian. Since Dorian soon hides it for fear of his own secret being exposed, the beauty of the picture is never shared with anyone. But it can be argued that once Dorian wished that the picture should age and he should not, the physical beauty of the painting was transferred to the physical body of Dorian, which was not and could not be hidden. Scarry would see the distribution of beauty as good, but Dorian’s beauty was so tainted by vanity and self pride that the optimism of Scarry can not even justify its presence.
Scarry also believes that beauty is watching, and unlike Berger, she believes watching is good. This relates to the idea of replicating beauty because by watching, or staring at something beautiful, one is replicating its beauty in the mind (6). Instead of making the perceived person vulnerable, Scarry says, vulnerability is more likely to occur to the one doing the perceiving (73). Furthermore, the perceiver envies the perceived of its beauty. “If today’s beholder were suddenly offered the chance, while keeping his own features, to have a beauty as great as that of the person looked at, would the beholder decline the invitation?” (76) It’s in this way that the perceived holds power right along with the gaze of the perceiver, like Angela in American Beauty using her beauty to seduce Lester, or Ricky filming something he finds beautiful. For a long still moment as he films, the beautiful thing holds him under a spell in which nothing but it exists. Furthermore, one who perceives beauty responds by seeking to bring more beauty into the world (88). The power of beauty has resulted in the ability and the desire to recreate itself. Basil paints beautiful portraits. Ricky films every instance of beauty he can find. Both are responding in a similar way, by recreating beauty.
Beauty also de-centers the one who gazes, according to Scarry (111). By recognizing beauty, a perceiver must yield his or her position as the center of the universe to make room for the beauty. Objects of beauty “lift us, letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before” (112). The new center to the world is this beautiful object, demanding all our attention at once. This is similar to the revelation Basil describes having when encountering Dorian’s beauty. It’s also apparent when Basil describes meeting Dorian for the first time. “A curious sensation of terror came over me,” he says (5). Dorian’s presence de-centers Basil to the point that he feels he’s growing pale. Scarry would not associate terror with beauty’s power to decenter, but Basil feels it because not only does he feel captivated by the enormous power of Dorian’s beauty, but also because in response to that power he has become the vulnerable perceived and Dorian, his perceiver.
Judging by the responses to the characters in both Wilde’s novel and Alan Ball’s film, it can’t be said either Berger or Scarry’s critique of beauty is right and the other is wrong. Berger is right when he points out the potentials for danger that exist within the act of seeing beauty. Scarry is also right when she assigns a power to possessing beauty. They are both right because the dangers of beauty can also be powerful. But in order for beauty to be powerful, it needn’t necessarily be dangerous. When Jane is first being filmed by Ricky, she’s made to feel vulnerable, yet curious, and she later uses her own vulnerability to her own advantage. The same could be said of Angela. By using her attractiveness to help validate her sense of being, she exercises power over older men like Lester. Her friendship with Jane is equally as deceiving because to some extent, she holds power over her as well. Ricky described it well when he says to Angela, “She’s not your friend. She’s somebody you use to feel better about yourself” (129). Power even reaches Jane’s dad, Lester. As he begins to work out and broaden his spirituality in the film, he acquires a new optimistic and powerful attitude about life. He has the courage to quit his job, start smoking pot, and buy the car he’s always dreamed of having. When he hears Angela tell Jane that he’d be good looking if he built up his chest and arms, he is no longer too cowardly to begin working out (54). Like Ricky, he begins seeing beauty beneath the surface of the world and after encountering Angela’s beauty he describes himself, “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for about twenty years, and am just now waking up” (28). This is Scarry’s awakening beauty at work.
The power that Lester feels is a result of what Scarry would call the ability for beauty to be lifesaving. “Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living” (24). But this is not an injuring power that poses the possible dangers of beauty. “Beauty is pacific,” Scarry writes (107). Beauty also possesses the power to be life inspiring, re-awakening us to other beauty in the world, offering a sense of universal aliveness that wasn’t otherwise known to us. An example of this is Dorian’s beauty inspiring Basil’s art. When he meets Dorian, Basil begins seeing beauty in all of life. He describes a landscape as one of his best pieces of art because Dorian Gray sat beside him as he painted it. “Some subtle influence passed from him to me, and for the first time in my life I saw in the plain woodland the wonder I had always looked for, and always missed,” he explains (9). Basil’s discovery of other beauty is a clear example of beauty awakening us to other beauty in the world. Another example of this theory is when Ricky Fitts in American Beauty sees beauty in a plastic bag floating in the wind. He tells Jane, “That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever” (88).
Assisting the idea that beauty has the power to become dangerous is the philosophy proposed in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Lord Henry’s New Hedonism identifies as its primary goal to cure the soul by means of the senses. In discussing two types of Hedonism, J.C.B. Gosling differentiates between hedonists who identify pleasure with a feeling, where the intensity of pleasure could be qualitatively determined and those who believe pleasure to be the satisfaction of the senses. To the latter, the best life will be when one’s desires are as adequately satisfied as possible. A good life lacks desires that can’t be met, while the first class of hedonists might allow for unsatisfied desires (25). It is to the second class of Hedonists that Lord Henry belongs. By its very definition, this New Hedonism, because it seeks to satisfy all desires, is confined to those whose desires must be met. “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself,” he teaches Dorian (15). To cure the soul by means of the senses is “one of the great secrets of life” (17). Lord Henry believes that to resist temptation is to resist one’s own nature and he teaches Dorian accordingly. This is why Dorian acts on his impulses throughout the book. There is a certain amount of selfishness about this philosophy because a Hedonist isn’t willing to satisfy desires unless they’re one’s own. With no one in mind by himself, Dorian goes from person to person, using each as a means to his own ends. In his Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant wrote that we should always treat all persons as ends in themselves, never as means to something else. This means that, at least according to Kantian ethics, Dorian’s hedonistic response to Sybil’s beauty is not justifiable because he disregards her feelings and future in his own pursuit of beauty and experience.
This pursuit of beauty is important part of Lord Henry’s New Hedonism, placing a supreme importance on the value of the experience of beauty because beauty gives him pleasure. To Dorian and Lord Henry this experience is primarily sensual. Dorian’s belief in Aesthetic Hedonism can be seen in the following passage.
“It appeared to Dorian Gray that the true nature of the senses had never
been understood, and that they had remained savage and animal merely
because the world had sought to starve them into submission or kill them
by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic” (106).
Ideally, Hedonism ought lead one to self fulfillment. “To realize one’s nature perfectly,” Henry says not knowing that by chapter eighteen, his philosophy will lead Dorian to lose the ability to feel passion and forgotten desire (168). Dorian feels shame for who he is when he visits an Opium den. “He wanted to be where no one would know who he was. He wanted to escape from himself” (154). In these ways, Dorian has become much like the women John Berger wrote about. “And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman” (46). Dorian has become both the surveyor and the surveyed, aware both of how he appears to others and how he appears to himself, through his portrait. He longs for eternal youth because if he ages, he won’t appear beautiful to himself and others. Once the picture is painted, he is not one person but two. With his personhood bisected, he often fails to recognize the contrasting images of himself. He envies the boy’s image in the portrait as if it’s not his own. The longer he lives, the more he envies it because the image is always younger than he is. But as Dorian soon realizes, he is the portrait, and there’s no cheating the passage of time. The wrinkles he would acquire with age appear to him in grisly detail in the picture. He’s so repulsed by the effects of aging, that he equates age with sin, sometimes wondering “ which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age” (105). As if aging isn’t devastating enough to Dorian, the picture becomes the manifestation of his sins. When he indirectly causes Sybil to commit suicide, the portrait sneers at him with a cruel smile. When he kills Basil, the portrait drips with blood. The portrait reveals to Dorian who he really is, which is why he hides it. He becomes one of those people Henry earlier referred to as being afraid of themselves. This double identity turns him into an object, a sight to be beheld by others. Basil was right when he referred to the painting as the real Dorian (24). Dorian the Being had become a creation, painted by Henry’s philosophical brush to make him appear beautiful to the world. Like Basil recreating the beauty of his face, Henry wishes to replicate the beauty of Dorian’s character. But in doing so, his beauty is lost, replaced with a cruel sneering grin, and wrinkles exposed harshly in the portrait that would not lie.
In American Beauty, Jane’s friend Angela also experiences a sense of lost identity similar to that of Dorian’s. Angela has a reputation as the easiest girl in school. She gossips about sex and takes pride in being called a prostitute. “That’s how things really are,” she tells her classmates (38). Only, they aren’t. Revealed at the end of the film is the truth. As Lester is removing her clothing, she says, “This is my first time.” Alan Ball’s screenplay offers this new version of reality from Lester’s point of view. “Angela lies beneath us, embarrassed and vulnerable. This is not the mythically carnal creature of Lester’s fantasies; this is a nervous child” (138). Although her reputation signaled otherwise, Angela was nothing like she seemed. Like Dorian, she was ashamed of her true self, so she hid it, but nothing can stay hidden forever. Her physical beauty is never in doubt, but when Ricky calls her ordinary, she considers it the worst insult she could possibly be given. Lord Henry and Dorian would agree. There is nothing unique about being ordinary.
The loss of identity can even extend to Lord Henry, who charms his audiences with witty remarks expressing his unorthodox beliefs but does not live by his own principles. Basil tells him “you are thoroughly ashamed of your own virtues. You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing” (4). Although he may be the closest character the novel has to a villain, Lord Henry lives a faithful, if boring, life. Like Angela, he hides his true self for fear the world may know the awful truth of his morality. Always aware of how others seem them, both Henry and Angela adapt accordingly to their own respective cultures. Henry’s philosophy doesn’t only corrupt Dorian. It also perverts the goodness of Henry’s moral life so that he is ashamed of his true identity.
Lord Henry’s corruption doesn’t stop with himself. As he convinces Dorian to see Sybil’s death as the final act in a stage performance, Lord Henry claims that life sometimes imitates art. By implying that Sybil’s death possesses artistic elements of beauty, and therefore should not cause Dorian sorrow, Lord Henry again oversteps the boundaries of a justifiable response to beauty. His New Hedonism, while it emphasizes the importance of pleasure, should not be so determined to find pleasure in a tragic event like death. Again, how beauty is used to attain pleasure determines whether or not it’s justifiable. Kant wouldn’t see Henry’s behavior any better than he saw Dorian’s. By psychologically sculpting Dorian, Lord Henry uses him as a end to his own means, treating him not as a person but as an object.
Lord Henry himself admits that “to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul... He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him” (14). But Henry presents the reader with a paradox. The reason, he says that people are prone to being influenced is because they are afraid of themselves. By this he means that people feel restrained in satisfying their own desires because they lack courage. In satisfying one’s desires, Henry seems to be preaching the value of self identity, for how can one satisfy one’s own desires without knowing what they are? Yet he continues to influence Dorian to live life that robs the young Dorian of his own identity. Dorian possesses Henry’s soul, becomes an echo to Henry’s music, and an actor who plays Henry’s part. Because of Henry’s influence, Dorian is not given the chance to be himself.
The loss of identity doesn’t only affect those who adopt Lord Henry’s philosophy. Sybil, too, suffers a loss of identity after meeting and falling for Dorian. When Dorian first encounters her on stage, he describes his new love to Lord Henry, emphasizing that Sybil is Rosalind one night, and Juliet the next. He brags, “I have had the arms of Rosalind around me, and kissed Juliet on the mouth” (63). Lord Henry asks him, “When is she Sybil Vane?” “Never,” is Dorian’s answer (44). Outside of the characters she plays on stage, Sybil doesn’t exist to Dorian. After meeting Dorian, she says “to be in love is to surpass one’s self” (55). But surpassing herself is really losing herself. Her love results in her loss of acting ability, which has been for all her life how she identifies herself. The only thing left validating her sense of being is Dorian’s love for her. When Dorian tells her he no longer finds her beautiful., she is beyond the hope of returning to her former life. She has loved and lost, but for her it wasn’t better than to never to have loved at all. “I believed in everything,” she described herself before knowing Dorian (70). But by loving her, Dorian made her believe in nothing.
While he might resemble Narcissus in many ways, Dorian does not so resemble another Greek legend, Midas. In fact, he is the Anti-Midas, bringing a curse of tragic death to nearly everyone he touches. Sybil, as already noted, commits suicide when Dorian can’t love her anymore. Sybil’s brother James dies in a hunting accident while trying to avenge his sister’s death. Basil is murdered by Dorian. And Alan Campbell, whom Dorian blackmails into getting rid of Basil’s body, also commits suicide. This is a telling sign of the destruction Dorian causes in other people, and later in himself. In all the murders he either directly or indirectly causes, Dorian robs these characters of not only their identities, but also their lives. Basil is not only murdered by Dorian, his body is completely disintegrated in acid by Dorian’s order. In this metaphorical way, Dorian obliterates his former friend off the face of the earth. Not even his corpse remains.
A critical aspect of Lord Henry’s New Hedonism is the importance of experience. After falling in love with Sybil, Dorian admits to himself that his love was a “psychological phenomenon of no small interest... of which curiosity had much to do with, and the desire for new experiences.” He believes experience demonstrated “that our future would be the same as our past, and that the sin we had done once, and with loathing, we would do many times, and with joy” (48). It is, after all, on a quest for experience and a search for beauty that Dorian discovers Sybil. After Sybil is gone the book implies that Dorian ruins many others, both men and women. Elaine Scarry emphasizes the importance of experience in her theory of beauty, but this is not the experience she has in mind. For Scarry an experience of beauty is life saving, not life threatening.
Hedonism, defined simply as the pursuit of pleasure, isn’t necessarily an immoral philosophy, assuming that gratifying one’s desires doesn’t result in the loss of identity or the degradation of the character of others. In Wilde’s novel, the practice of Hedonism is perverted by Dorian’s vanity and by Lord Henry’s desire to manipulate other people. If one pursues pleasure genuinely, making sure to avoid the temptation of selfishness, Hedonism is a strong and justifiable philosophy. But since the characters fall into these traps, their Hedonism aids in making beauty dangerous. Hedonism’s weakness is revealed by Dorian at the end of the novel when he speaks about love. “I seem to have lost the passion and forgotten the desire” (164). Dorian’s life of eternal youth and pleasure has numbed his senses, so that pleasure has lost its meaning. His Hedonism has destroyed itself, much like Dorian destroys himself by the book’s end.
Dorian’s inability to deal with the effects of aging may root in a deep rooted fear of his own dying. With his suicide at the book’s end, Dorian is attempting to rid the world of the last piece of evidence against him. The evidence is himself, as represented by his incriminating image. Dorian becomes a man haunted by himself and the creation he has became. Dorian’s haunted psyche is apparent when he’s tells Alan, “The dead linger sometimes. The man upstairs will not go away” (139). Even after Basil’s body is gone, Dorian seeks to forget because he can’t forgive himself what he’s done (151). Later, he tells Henry “I have no terror of Death. It is the coming of Death that terrifies me” (167). The coming of death had been going on ever since his portrait was painted, but his eternal youth has caused its journey to be long. Reminded of his evil every time he sees his reflection, eternal youth robbed Dorian of his preserverence to go on living. By stabbing the portrait at the end of the novel, even if he doesn’t realize it himself, he is attempting to end the suffering brought on by his vain beauty. In a way, Dorian’s already dead long before he pierces the canvas with the knife.
Lester also dies in American Beauty, but his death is presented in a much more humane way. Attitudes toward death are very different in Wilde’s novel than they are in American Beauty, as well. Ricky describes seeing a homeless woman who froze to death as “amazing.” He tells Jane, “When you see something like that, it’s like God is looking right at you, just for a second. And if you’re careful, you can look right back.” When Jane asks him what he sees, “Beauty,” he answers. This sounds similar to Lord Henry telling Dorian that Sybil’s death ought not be mourned because of its artistic qualities, but the two are very different. Sybil, even in death, is reduced to an actress playing a part, and her sense of identity is once again ignored. The homeless woman’s death in the film, on the other hand, is an opportunity for Ricky to look God in the eye. By looking the homeless person in the eye Ricky is not finding pleasure in death. Instead, he is finding a reassurance that beauty doesn’t end when one dies. At the film’s end, Ricky and Jane look her dead father in the eye, again seeing the peaceful beauty that only shows itself in unusual circumstances. A dead man’s eyes, a dead bird, a dancing plastic bag, all represent some deeper sense of beauty only available for an enlightened few to see. We know what awaits Lester after death isn’t nothing at all, or else he couldn’t be telling us his story. Life after death also isn’t anything to fear, because he says he’s not angry at what happened to him. Wherever he is, enough beauty exists to fill his heart like a balloon. One final thing we know is that death has left him with a gratitude for “every single moment of his stupid little life” (149).
When Dorian Gray dies, the viewpoint of the story shifts drastically, and he is not heard from again. There is no peaceful look of contentment on the face of Dorian. He is a withered and wrinkled body, recognized only by the rings on his fingers. There is no cheating death, and when it arrives, Dorian’s soul jumps back in his body, disfiguring the youth and beauty he was so known for.
In discussing beauty as seen by both Berger and Scarry in response to Wilde and American Beauty, we’re presented beauty with two very different fates. Elaine Scarry’s beauty is benevolent, seemingly unlike Berger’s idea of a possible dangerous beauty. But with Berger, it’s important to remember that the beauty itself is not dangerous. Only its use as a tool to attain pleasure in an unjustified way makes beauty for Berger potentially dangerous. If beauty is responded to by a perceiver and the perceived is made vulnerable, then the use of beauty is dangerous. The contemplative benevolent beauty as seen in the film American beauty is the opposite of the terrifying Hedonistic beauty in The Picture of Dorian Gray because, like a plastic bag dancing in the wind, it wants us to know there is no reason to be afraid.
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