On June 20, 1890, people were outraged. They were scandalized, shocked, and even in disbelief. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine had published a short novel which we now know as the timeless classic The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. The morals of the novel were up for debate and readers were clearly offended. The novel follows Dorian Gray, a young and handsome man whose beauty is the subject of the other characters’ attention and moral musings. It contains commentary on beauty’s purpose in life (or its lack thereof) as well as “scandalous” behavior swiftly condemned by the public. If the people of the 1890s had Twitter, Oscar Wilde would have trended immediately with descriptors like “immoral,” “stupid and vulgar,” and even “poisonous” in the top tweets.
Some understood it as criticism of Victorian-era morality and social priorities warning of the dangers of putting too much importance on aesthetics. On the other hand, readers interpreted the story as celebrating beauty to an extreme and throwing out “proper” morals in the pursuit of beauty. Both conclusions caused an uproar among those of Victorian society whose entire lives revolved around appearances – both physical and social. But neither one is wrong depending on who you ask. In fact, many of its points are applicable to aesthetics and social expectations today. Perhaps this is why the 132-year-old novel remains alongside the top literary classics.
Take Generation Z, for example. It’s safe to say our generation is responsible for many of the latest beauty trends and is actively changing social norms. On top of that, the rise of our widespread nothing-matters-so-anything-can-matter-if-you-want-it-to mindset and ironic sense of humor make Wilde’s writing much less upsetting. Let’s look at a few quotes:
“All art is quite useless.” – Oscar Wilde
At first, it makes sense to feel angry about this claim especially if you’re an artist. But with the context that Wilde provides, it’s clear he meant art exists for the purpose of being admired – and that’s it. No other purpose. Of course, what readers made of that point was out of his control and it turns out the reaction was all-around negative. Modern-day readers (especially younger ones) bask in the idea. Though we were raised to crave social approval in the form of likes and comments, there’s a new emphasis on capturing beauty for the sake of beauty. Endless Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok posts romanticize extravagant makeup looks and cinematic scenes for the sole purpose of appreciation. Like I said, Gen Z is the generation that believes nothing matters. We tend to have that kind of optimistic nihilism.
“Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.”
“I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world.”
– Lord Henry
Lord Henry would fit right in today. Both of these quotes carry the same mischievous tone that shocked high society when Wilde wrote them but they are hilarious. These are on par with the dark, ironic humor we see all over social media. It’s almost eerie how reflective they are of the carefree image Gen Z created for ourselves. One of the defining factors of Gen Z is our ability to poke fun at things that our older counterparts show genuine concern about. That’s not to say we aren’t concerned ourselves, but jokes make it easier to cope with the endless issues we have with our society. Something there definitely mirrors Wilde’s criticism…right?
Society shifted so much that it came around to an entirely different understanding of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The “immorality” and perceived criticism of beauty is actually how the new adult generation thinks. So rather than take to the streets to hurl criticisms at Oscar Wilde, today’s readers might agree with his writing because, honestly, it was eons ahead of its time.
And if you love The Picture of Dorian Gray, we’ve got twelve little known facts about the work here!