Immortality is a concept humanity has dreamed of for as long as it has existed. Indeed, most religions are founded around fears of death and ideas of an afterlife. We’re terrified of death – a throwback to the evolutionary extinct of staying alive, which tends to come in useful from time to time.
But where we differ from animals is our fear of growing old. This is the theme which The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde tackles. In the novel, Dorian Gray is the subject of a picture by a painter called Basil Hallward who develops a level of worship for the young man’s beauty. Corrupted by the ideas of Basil’s friend Lord Henry, Dorian makes the wish:
“If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that… I’d give my soul for that.”
His wish is miraculously granted, and Dorian discovers that he has gained eternal youth while the portrait ages in his place. But the portrait not only ages, it also shows visible signs of Dorian’s sinful life of corruption and, eventually, murder.
The moral of the story seems to be that a narcissistic obsession with youth and leading a hedonistic lifestyle is a sinful way to be. However, I would argue that Dorian’s downfall is not his desire to stay young or to be immortal, but his selfish approach to life. His rejection of sibyl’s love as a result of her bad performance on stage causes the first trace of ugliness to mar the portrait’s face as she consequently commits suicide. Dorian’s beauty is shielded from this trace of sin. But this isn’t a result of his gift (or curse) of eternal beauty. His decision to squander his life in the pursuit of pleasure without ever doing a day’s work, lavishing in luxury surrounded by a city of poverty, is not due to any concept of immortality. Youth does not cause him to murder Basil, rather, his obsession with his own beauty and hatred of the sinned portrait Basil created.
My point is, Dorian is a very flawed character. Either due to his own personality or the influence of Lord Henry’s corrupt ideas, Dorian becomes a despicable person as the novel progresses. And it is this, not his eternal youth, which leads to his downfall. Imagine Dorian had led a virtuous life, perhaps spending his time in philanthropy or in the pursuit of knowledge, using his beauty, youth and possible immortality to the world’s advantage? The portrait would still have aged and lost its physical beauty, but would have kept another kind; a wise, kindly beauty, the beauty of a man who’d led a worthwhile life. Maybe even this would be too hideous for Dorian to have coped with.
I won’t deny it: if offered the chance, I would accept immortality. How could I not? I will miss so much by having the misfortune of dying: all the books yet to be written, ideas thought of, paths for our species to take, scientific discoveries to behold… My reasons would be different to Dorian’s. It is never explicitly stated that Dorian gains immortality, but I believe he did. One day the man in the portrait would die and become a pile of decaying bones and Dorian would live on, young as the day it was painted.
Dorian’s unwitting suicide is not, I believe, caused by the curse of youth and immortality, but by Dorian’s corrupt and sinful lifestyle it allows him to lead. Perhaps immortality must inevitably lead to a worldview similar to Dorian’s, but The Picture of Dorian Gray gives no indication that this is the case. His eternal youth formed as a consequence of his narcissism – not the other way round.