One of the major themes running through Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the fixation that Victorian society had over surface level qualities. Yet the attention to visuals has hardly disappeared in our own time; in fact, it seems to be increasing with improvements to visual communication technologies. In Victorian society, Dorian Gray’s outer image manages to capture the trust and admiration of all those who meet him. From the moment Basil Hallward lays his eyes on Dorian, he describes the experience as coming “face to face with someone whose personality was so fascinating” that Basil feels his nature will be consumed (Wilde 49). For Basil, Dorian’s beauty equates to being an interesting person, as if hours of conversation could be conveyed through perfect cheek bones. Even more fatal for Basil is his belief that Dorian has a “simple and beautiful nature” (Wilde 55), while stating earlier in the same conversation with Henry Wotton that Dorian “seems to take real delight in giving me pain” (Wilde 53). Wilde is foreshadowing Dorian’s capacity for cruelty, but also Basil’s fatal inability to link Dorian’s actions with the image of Dorian that he has in his mind. Just as nearly everyone else does, Basil projects onto Dorian all the best qualities in a person, even when the young man’s actions clearly contradict this image.
Despite being the benefactor of this effect, Dorian also falls for image as well. When he first tells of his enchantment with actress Sybil Vane, he points out only physical features, and in a twist of irony, judges her character based on her ability to play characters from Shakespeare’s plays (Wilde 90). Unfortunately for Sybil, once Dorian’s presence becomes more beautiful than art, she can no longer take art and acting as seriously as she once could, causing the spell she had over Dorian to break. The carefully crafted image she cultivated onstage—albeit one that was rotating through characters—is ruined for Dorian, causing him to feel angered and even betrayed for shattering his illusions (Wilde 124).
As any reader will recognize, this theme of image and projection is universal to many aspects of life; whether “love at first sight” or the image that parents have of their kids and vice versa, there is often an element of refining one’s image, and assuming people’s nature at the heart of many human interactions. Yet perhaps there is no realm more synonymous with this aspect of human life, than that of politics. In today’s democratic society, the modern political campaign for executive office is heavily geared towards maximizing this effect with individual voters. Each campaign must identify which collection of voters they feel they can appeal to, and carefully tailor the image of the candidate towards the ideals of those groups.
The result of this effort on the part of political parties leads to a growing number of daily photo-ops for politicians, as research has shown humans are better at recalling images and the way they felt about them, than recalling verbal information such as the kind delivered in a speech (17 Grabe and Bucy). This trend has had the arguable effect of pitting style above substance in politics as well as creating elections centered on the candidate, rather than focusing on the issues which demand a democratic government in the first place. Among the reasons that we should give pause to this possibility, is the very lesson at the heart of Oscar Wilde’s novel.
As humans, we cannot fully judge a person’s character based on their outward appearance. Indeed, given the right cultivation of image and good looks, we are prone to think more highly of a person than they may deserve, just as the Victorians did of Dorian. Yet if we go no further than judging the surface, we also risk hurting ourselves when we become cynical and feel betrayed by politicians for breaking the illusion that we had of them, exactly as Dorian felt cheated by Sybil Vane (for being a human no less). This particular danger shows itself in the rising amount of political apathy displayed by decreasing volumes of voter turnout in democracies worldwide (Kopf). Additionally, Dorian’s own spiral into depravity is aided by the fact that nobody cares to dig more deeply into his behavior, allowing him to feel capable of getting away with more reprehensible acts. We ought to consider if a similar effect might not be had on politicians whose misdeeds go unnoticed or unpunished, and the message that sends to the one who will eventually replace them. In the end, characters such as Dorian Gray are shaped by the societies which allow them to flourish.
Grabe, Maria Elizabeth, and Erik Page Bucy. Image Bite Politics : News and the Visual Framing of Elections, Oxford University Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.macewan.ca/lib/macewan- ebooks/detail.action?docID=415422.
Kopf, Dan. “Voter turnout is dropping dramatically in the free world” Quartz https://qz.com/899586/global-voter-turnout-is-dropping-dramatically-across-the-world/
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Edited by Norman Page, Broadview, 2005.