Thoughts on “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

 

I watched the 1945 black and white film “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and it reminded me of some serious questions. The film a perfect portrayal of Oscar Wilde’s famous tale of a handsome young man, living in 1886 London, who looked at a picture painted of him and said sadly that while he would age, the picture would forever remain young. He added that he would give anything, even his soul, if the opposite happened, that he remained young while the picture aged. While he was a virtuous young man, his devious friend, played very well by George Sanders, tempts him repeatedly to spend his life in pleasure. He does so. As he performs one evil act after another, his portrait changes. It becomes more and more hideous, while he remains young. One of the great performances in the film is by Angela Lansbury looking very young and beautiful, and singing delightfully. She was nominated for her performance for an Academy Award and deserved it, but did not get it. I also read the book and enjoyed it immensely.

Oscar Wilde wrote the book. He was a gay man during a period in England when homosexuality was considered both a civil and religious crime, an abomination to God, a destruction of one’s soul. He was imprisoned for behavior he could not control. I feel that Wilde felt that the theological underpinnings of the community’s abhorrence to homosexuality were wrong, and that his book prompts us to ask fundamental questions, such as the following.

Does the Bible clearly prohibit homosexuality and, if it does, was the prohibition made only for the ancient age when it was promulgated, but like the laws of sacrifices and slavery, allowed, even encouraged, to change when society becomes enlightened? This is what the sage Maimonides said about sacrifices in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32. Is there an after-life that one could lose by bad acts? The Hebrew Bible makes no mention of it. Is there a soul? Again, no mention of a soul is in the Hebrew Bible; the term nefesh currently used for soul in Modern Hebrew means a person, as in Leviticus 2:1 where a nefesh offers a sacrifice. What is “sin”? The current notion of the term is that it is an act that can mar a person’s soul and can affect a person’s life in the hereafter. But, again, this concept is not in the Hebrew Bible, which in the Bible focuses on this world. A het means “missing the mark.” It encourages a person who missed the mark to correct the behavior, not to agonize about the hereafter, beat his heart, and say prayers.

As I watched the film, I felt that Wilde was raising these questions and that he was mocking the notions of most people. These notions, he is telling us, are as bizarre as the idea that a picture can portray a person’s soul.

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