Dorian Gray and Immortality (contains spoilers)

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.

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5 thoughts on “Dorian Gray and Immortality (contains spoilers)

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  2. I would have to agree with the former posts.
    The drive for immortality may be intrinsic to all living things; a consequence of natures recipe for motivation towards continued survival.
    Even so, if Entropy reigns in the cosmos, one cannot live forever unless one has the ability to either change the cosmic behavior of entropy, or leave the cosmos entirely.
    Such abilities would be on par with “The Gods”, and only with such power could one skirt inevitable obliteration.
    The Cosmos itself could very well have a finite existence, and if one could not achieve the power of Deities, then death would be the eventual result, albeit some hundreds of trillions of years hence.
    That would at least permit some entities the privilege of witnessing the death of their own birth star, and watching the last rays of light shine from its Dwarfed corpse, finally blink out.
    A fitting end to a very long life, methinks.
    Since that wont happen for at least another 4.5’ish billion years, one would do a disservice to their own home Star to live shorter than that if one were able to.
    There is no curse in immortality, only the true freedom to exist for as long as one wishes, for which until such time as that is achieved, we are all cursed by entropy to die young on on the Cosmic scale of time.

  3. Among the circles I travel in, immortality is considered, in turns, “selfish”, “a road to overpopulation”, and “a terrible curse once you grow bored of all possible outcomes”.

    These are all fair points, but I am capable of imagining an immortality that skirts all of those issues. For the “selfish” part, I don’t think it is my place to deny someone life (otherwise known as murder, if it was indeed possible to gain immortality but people were prevented from doing so because it would be “selfish”), no matter how I would think it might “corrupt” them. It is no different than considering any other form of life extension (such as life saving surgery) to be “selfish”.

    As to overpopulation, if those bestowed with immortality could continue to breed, I would agree. However, I suggest a “Highlander clause”. If you undergo the process to become immortal, you sacrifice the ability to breed. You could still raise children you adopt, but no making more immortal people. In that way, even if everyone became immortal, the population would merely remain static.

    As for the “terrible curse” part, the “ultimate boredom” notion. Well, that’s a possibility. However, consider this. Immortality wouldn’t necessarily mean you couldn’t be killed, or “opt out” later on. My version of immortality would include an “off switch” that someone could use later on, should they decide they really have had enough of living. In that case, they could live as long as they could bear and eventually die at a time of their choosing. That sounds ideal to me. Further though, I don’t usually think of immortality as a lone innovation. I usually package it with massive overhauls of our minds. I can envision some overhauls of how our brains work that allow us to always be interested in things, for countless eons.

    (None of this is to say that such innovations are anywhere close to ever being realized. From where I stand, we’re looking at centuries of research for us to even approach the understanding needed to realize such things. None of us reading this will ever live to see immortality. To the future: Funny and sad right? Tell your classmates that, you immortal JERKS!

  4. “I won’t deny it: if offered the chance, I would accept immortality.”

    You’d accept immortality would you?

    Immortailty memerely emeans never dying. Nothing about growing old. Don’t forget about Fuastian pacts. A woman got her wish of immortality granted…but forgot to ask to have eternal youth. ss she was consigned to unending years of torment on earth – ugly as fuck.

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