In July 1890, the Philadelphia-based periodical Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine published a novella by an English author that caused quite an uproar. In many ways, this episode in literary history parallels our own recent concerns about social media and the way in which their influence is coloring our views of the world, and of ourselves.
Back in 1890, the esteemed literary magazine’s editor had anticipated that there might be some trouble; he redacted the novella prior to publication, removing what he considered its most offensive parts. But this intervention was to no avail: the British critics of the Victorian age deemed the story obscene and immoral, an affront to public decency.
The book’s author was Oscar Wilde. Its title: The Picture of Dorian Gray.
In 1891 Wilde’s story was republished as a book, in an expanded format that added several new chapters, and it has become a classic of 19th-century Gothic and philosophical literature. I’ve been thinking about Dorian Gray lately, wondering whether I might know someone like him. Or even, more disconcertingly, whether I may in a sense be him. Join me, if you will, on a brief exploration of inner motives and outward appearances.
A Quick Recap
The original story is by now well-known, and goes roughly as follows. The titular Dorian Gray is a narcissistic young man of extraordinary physical beauty, who is enthralled by the hedonistic philosophy of Lord Henry Wotton. Gray comes to believe that pleasure is the only good worth pursuing, and that all other moral concerns are without merit.
Gray and Wotton were introduced to each other by Basil Hallward, an artist who had found his muse in the young man. Hallward is in the process of completing his masterpiece, a full-length portrait of Dorian Gray. Contemplating the portrait’s singular beauty, Gray expresses a fiery wish that he himself should remain forever as attractive as he is in Hallward’s rendering. It is the portrait, he says, that should age instead of him.
Gray soon finds out that his wish has indeed been magically granted. As he himself pursues a series of base desires, unethical choices and salacious corruptions, the painting is slowly transformed. It reflects all of his depravity and immorality, revealing the inner monster that has come to inhabit Dorian Gray—who, on the outside, remains as youthful and lovely as he was when the portrait was painted. When he realizes how much his heart has been blackened and blames the mysterious picture, Gray confronts and murders Basil Hallward, the painter.
In the end, Gray cannot bear the sight of the horrific portrait anymore. He stabs it with a knife, aiming to destroy this evidence of his inner corruption. When servants hear a deadly cry and enter the room, they find the appalling, disfigured body of an old man on the floor, stabbed in the heart. It is only the rings on the corpse’s fingers that allow them to identify it as Dorian Gray. In the room, they also discover the portrait, which has now been restored to its original exquisite state.
A Victorian Parable
The Picture of Dorian Gray can be read as an exploration of the intersection between, on the one hand, the pursuit of aestheticism and outward propriety, and, on the other, the innate urges and contradictions and that can be found hidden underneath layers of social veneer. It is very much a story of the Victorian era. And like two other great 19th-century British horror stories—Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818) and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886)—it delves into Faustian themes that scrutinize and challenge man’s desire to take on the mantle of creator and reforge the essence of his own being.
In each case, the answer is a resounding “no”: man is not perfectible by his own hand. We must live our lives with all its limitations, making do with our own shortcomings, and embrace our humanity as it is. Progress can be made through ingenuity and hard work, and such advances must be encouraged and rewarded; but trying to cheat our way out of nature’s playbook is a vain and futile enterprise that will end in tears.
And yet, more than a century later… have we really learned our lessons?
Have a look at your Facebook news feed. Check out your latest Instagram updates. Watch the hottest new YouTube videos. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the world was populated by improbably beautiful people, always traveling to exceptionally exotic locations, eating scrumptiously delicious meals, and living a life of thrilling adventure and supreme happiness. Oh, yes, and they have the cutest pets, too.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that if you’re “normal,” your life is supposed to look something like this:
What’s going on here? Surely your and my humdrum existence is nothing like all of this glim-glam excitement? In fact—and secretly we already knew this—it can’t be. And neither can the lives of the multitudes who create this daily avalanche of curated, Photoshopped happiness on steroids.
Let’s not kid ourselves. When we look at the images that flood our consciousness from social media every day, we are not looking in a mirror. We’re not even seeing a representation of reality. We are gazing upon the picture of Dorian Gray.
You and Me and the Magical Portrait
We should be cautious to let ourselves off the hook too easily. We’ve all applied a nice filter to a city-trip picture before posting it. We’ve quickly deleted those awkward failed selfies. And we’ve been disheartened when that cheery photo of our latest dessert didn’t get any likes.
This isn’t surprising; it’s human nature. We want to be liked. Of course we do. We need to feel appreciated. Of course we do.
The algorithms that determine which content gets the most exposure online are mirrored by algorithms in our brains that make us gravitate towards that same information, those same perspectives. The image of humanity projected by the collective consciousness of social media isn’t an attempt to fool others into believing in the contentment myth; it’s how we want to see ourselves. Just like the magical portrait of Dorian Gray captured how he wanted to see himself.
Unchecked by critical thinking and a healthy appreciation of the flawed, chaotic, broken essence of our humanity, Graybook, Instagray, GrayTube and their ilk would have you believe that life is perfectible, that you can remake yourself in the image of your own dreams. It isn’t, and you can’t.
Instead, let’s acknowledge—nay, celebrate—that it not the extraordinary but the everyday that sustains our humanity. As counterintuitive as is sounds, our frailty may be our greatest strength.
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