By Nathan Jekel
If you have ever been a student, chances are you have been instructed to read a book that you had no interest in. One such book that is often assigned to students is The Picture of Dorian Gray. Though this may seem at best a waste of time and at worst a pernicious attempt to disrupt your life, I am going to suggest that in reflecting on certain themes that it raises, you may reap spiritual benefits from Oscar Wilde’s novel. By interpreting the story of Dorian Gray through the lens of our faith, we can gain insight into how indulgence of the senses harms the soul the how one can receive spiritual healing.
The novel takes place in London in the late 19th century, chiefly among members of the upper class. The story begins as Basil Hallward, an artist, finishes a masterful portrait of Dorian Gray, a beautiful young man whom he has recently met. When Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton, sees this portrait and expresses a desire to meet Dorian. Basil is reluctant, but Lord Henry soon achieves an introduction. Lord Henry is fascinated by Dorian’s innocence and avails him of his own worldview wherein the distinction between good and evil is unimportant and the purpose of life is the pursuit of sensual pleasures. Dorian, being young and naïve, is quickly captivated by Lord Henry’s lifestyle, and we see him begin to live solely for the indulgence of his senses.
The senses are our means of receiving information from the world around us. Every good thing and every evil thing that we encounter enters us by way of our senses. St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain says this in his Handbook of Spiritual Counsel: “Life enters when [the senses] are governed well and do not partake of their usual passions. Death enters when they partake of “corpses” as do the birds of prey; …when they eat rotted food as do the flies.” If we expose our senses only to good things – e.g. nature, scripture, and the divine services – we keep our minds and souls pure and unblemished. If we allow our senses to be barraged by the evil things of this world – e.g. violence, sensuality, and idle gossip – then we become enslaved to passions and worldly lust.
As Dorian becomes thus enslaved, he begins to destroy people’s lives through his cruelty and selfishness. He notices that for every terrible act he commits, his portrait – with which Basil gifted him – undergoes a physical change. Scars appear on the painted visage and the expression becomes cold and cruel. As the years pass and Dorian blackens his soul with wicked deeds, the portrait – which Dorian hides away in his attic – becomes ever more hideous, while Dorian himself remains unnaturally young and beautiful. How relevant this is to our own lives! The things of the world appeal to our senses, but under the surface they are “corpses” and “rotted food.” Likewise, the world teaches us to care painstakingly for our outward beauty and to ignore the corruption that lies within us. Let us waste no time in denying the world and confronting ourselves. As St. Isaac the Syrian says, “This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits.”
When Dorian finally faces the reality of his situation, he does not repent but attacks his portrait in anger and despair. Like Judas Iscariot, who, racked with guilt for his betrayal of Christ, hung himself, Dorian felt remorse for his actions but did not seek forgiveness. St. Paul says in his Second Letter to the Corinthians: “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance… For Godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, …but the sorrow of the world produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10). When we examine our souls and see our sinfulness, we pray for Godly sorrow that we might repent and be forgiven. “Are you a sinner? Do not become discouraged, and come to Church to put forward repentance” (St. John Chrysostom).
The Church’s message to sinners – let us not tell ourselves that we escape this category – is not one of condemnation, but of hope. Christ himself said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). “I do not will the death of the ungodly man. So the ungodly man should turn from his way and live” (Ezekiel 33:11). The Church gives us many opportunities to retreat from the sensuality of the world and examine our lives. By following the prescribed rules of fasting, prayer, and scripture reading; and by attending the divine services, we will begin to detach ourselves from earthly cares and instead fill our senses with “every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17).
Having explored The Picture of Dorian Gray from the perspective of an Orthodox Christian, we have found that it has relevance to our own spiritual journeys. By enumerating Dorian Gray’s mistakes, we can be on guard against making similar ones in our own lives. So, whether you are a student faced with a reading assignment or anyone with an obligation to read a book, I encourage you to approach your reading with a mind that is open and yet firmly grounded in the teachings of Jesus Christ and his Church.