The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde offers a compelling take on the old moral that looks aren’t everything.
Dorian Gray starts out as a likable character who is somewhat naïve. He sits for an artist who paints a spectacular portrait of him that captures his youth, innocence, and overall chaste soul. During the process, he meets Lord Henry Wotton whose downright cynical view of society and the world in general taints young Gray’s optimistic perspective. So changed is he, Dorian Gray makes a silent plea that he could trade his soul in order to retain youth and beauty. As fate would have it, his plea is actually heard. So follows a life of despicable acts both great and small. While Dorian Gray remains youthful, charming, and beautiful throughout his life, his appearance is just the equivalent of shiny wrapping paper hiding a grotesque soul. He realizes this the moment his portrait begins to change. With each lie, act of selfishness, and unforgivable discretion, his face in the painting becomes ugly with hypocrisy, deceit, and hate.
Wilde takes great pains to stress that people are much too often caught up in the show that is life. Outward appearances, social status, material belongings, and reputation often steal attention that would be better spent on the soul. Wilde chooses to make this point not only through Dorian himself, but with an intricately crafted metaphor invovling the arts, (i.e. music, paintings, fiction etc.). The surface beauty of all these mediums is treasured and admired with great reverance. Through Lord Henry, Wilde contends this is a great fault of humanity. For we transfer this love of tangible beauty to humans and fail to see the real person.
In Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant presents a sardonic literary exploration of social class and ethics through the antics of Charles Duroy.
Duroy, starts out as a sympathetic individual who lacks confidence and has a starving ego. He is a little down on his luck with no money and no job prospects. A chance encounter with an old friend leads to employment with a Parisian newspaper where he starts out at the bottom and stays there due to his lack of talent. After a few evenings in the company of his friend’s wife, Duroy realizes the sure-fire way to climb professional and social ranks is through the affection of society women. Suddenly, his handsome face and charming demeanor become his most valuable assets.
When Duroy’s desire to make something of himself combines with a society rife with corruption, he loses all sense of morality. A once empathetic and sensitive man degrades into a despicable sack of hypocrisy, lust, greed, and arrogance. He rises through the ranks of society through advantageous friendships, trysts, and marriages, caring very little for the destroyed hearts he leaves in his wake. For Duroy, it’s all about whom he can use next to achieve his aims, even it means lying, cheating, and sleeping his way up to the top. Regardless of his behavior, everyone he meets loves him the moment he puts up a shiny façade to hide his conniving soul.
Through Duroy’s story, Maupassant illustrates the frightening influence of media over public opinion, the inequities of stratified society, and the travesty of fame and fortune achieved without merit. At one point, he artfully uses a quotation from Erasmus “In the country of the blind the one eyed man is king” as an explanation for Duroy’s success. From a modern standpoint, Maupassant attacks the same wanton elements of society that plague humanity today. Amoral beings still gain power and wealth, while the masses watch with envy. Unfortunately,those who embody deplorable traits are often idolized and respected if they have enough money, fame, and reside in the upper echelons of society.
In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov explores dark and forbidden aspects of human behavior.
Nabokov’s main character, Humbert falls cataclysmically in love with Dolores Haze, a twelve-year-old girl. His infatuation is perverse, (which he knows) but he simply cannot help himself. It becomes so overwhelming he constantly looks for ways to justify his emotions and goes as far as citing historical and literary examples of adults who have relationships with children. He knows it’s wrong, but instead of blaming himself he blames the taboos set forth by modern society and nymphets (little girls who purposely tempt him).
When Humbert acts on his obsessions and begins a sordid affair with Dolores, his guilt and subsequent justifications fly wildly out of control. His mind begins to ramble and he can barely string together a coherent train of thought. At one point, the narrative becomes so jumbled and erratic its almost unreadable.
The insane tone of the last quarter of the book casts suspicion on whether Humbert is telling any sort of truth. He even admits to spending time in a mental ward, where he enjoyed duping the psychiatrists. Furthermore, his view of reality is so skewed, there’s no way to confirm his relationship with Dolores really happened. This is a man that often confuses the fantasies in his mind with the real world. And I wouldn’t put it past him to lie to readers.
Ultimately, Nabokov’s narrative posits the idea that perversity is omnipresent — no matter how much it is cloaked. It’s forbidden by morality, hidden under the trappings of modern culture and society, caused and perpetuated by lunacy, and punished by the law. Yet, perversity is and always will be part of humanity (hence Nabokov’s historical references). The question of what truly defines perversity becomes blurred when put under scrutiny as the definition changes over time and cultures, even though the core concept remains the same. In essence, Nabokov is pointing out a paradox that plagues civilization.