Dorian Gray is the handsome young protagonist in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian is given eternal youth by placing his suffering and stress into a portrait and magically sparing himself the toll of his indulgences. Without experiencing the due rigor for his gluttony, Dorian embarks on a crazy course of consumption, which eventually leads him to increasingly heightened levels of moral decay. The growing insanity and paranoia that surround his hidden powers ultimately drive him to murder.
Wilde’s work poses the question: what price do we pay for our indulgences? He also spends considerable time analyzing what is it that makes us old and sick. The plot made me seriously contemplate aging and the toll our stress, lifestyles, etc., take on us; serving as a reminder that the individual cannot hide from oneself. It also got me thinking about the role the United States plays in the world, which led me to write this article exploring the parallels between the story and the diminishing status of the United States.
How can such a relatively young nation, born through colonial liberation, could continue to be in a state of near constant warfare, causing great pain to other people in the world? It is a country where individuals gorge themselves, causing an unprecedented rate of obesity. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with the decline of the Roman Empire. A once pristine land of farms and hope is now cut across with highways filled with automobiles spewing pollution and a government that has ceased to function.
Dorian’s power comes from the painting and the United States’ power comes largely from having the strongest military in the world. Both powers exact an exhausting toll on the vessels. To a great extent, the U.S. and its military are fueled by foreign resources. America’s addiction to hegemony and dominance over foreign entities has caused the U.S. to indulge its own preferences at the expense of other nations. The collateral damage of a war waged in Iraq has led to the death of thousands of U.S. troops and hundreds of thousands of private citizens who have had their lives destroyed or ended by war efforts and occupation. Iraq is the most poignant example of the many nations victimized over resource lust and strategic military intervention, but it is far from the only one.
What is Revealed in Dorian Gray and how does it relate to the United States?
Toward the end, Dorian finds himself in front of the painting and he can see how his internal ugliness has manifested itself in a once beautiful piece of art that has become a dilapidated reminder of his true self. Like Dorian Gray the internal cracks in the U.S. have remained hidden or simply unacknowledged by most people but are now being revealed in economic unrest, diplomatic struggle, unemployment, underemployment, violent crime and unhealthy lifestyles.
Opulence and inordinate consumption could easily be argued as core human traits; greed cannot be separated from the fiber of humanity. But it seems that excess and degrading consumption are so intertwined with the fabric of American society that there has been a rapid expansion of it to incredible heights, most conspicuously enjoyed by the wealthy elite. Their gross overconsumption borders on the absurd: sixth homes, multiple luxury cars, private islands, fleets of airplanes and ships. The immensity of wealth possessed by the elite is far more than enough to “live worry free;” it is piggishness.
In the United States, certain individuals enjoy far more wealth than entire nations, possessing the kind of abundance that could sustain multiple families for generations. The elite live wealthy lifestyles to the extreme and the average U.S. citizen has latched on to the concept that gaining celebrity and immense wealth is ideal.
As Dorian’s internal decay is mystically attached to the painting, he does not feel the effects and continues to consume. The people of the United States have mortgaged their future (international debt, deregulation of markets, belligerent foreign policy, unsustainable consumption habits, etc.) for the sake of excess. America’s situation is a rubber band effect where running accumulated deficits triggers a backlash. This also happens on a human physical level and manifests itself in forms of suffering: alienation, diseases, depression, and death. As a society, the cumulative impact of social ills also manifests in our personal lives: lost jobs, increased crime, abuse of governmental control, etc.
Now a major shooting takes place in the United States every other week. These are symptoms of the uncontrollable desire, rampant in the United States, appearing like the fissures that were hidden from Dorian in the painting and are now being exposed. A façade of normalcy allowed Dorian to continue his maniacal plunder, but he could not be spared from the greater karmic reality of his place in the world.
What Can we take away from Oscar Wilde’s Vision?
Like Dorian Gray, the United States has reached a moment where too much suffering has been inflicted under the guise of progress, national security and economic growth. Now society is beginning to devour itself from within. The many signs of degeneration: crumbling infrastructure, murderous rampages, overpacked prisons, an increased disparity between rich and poor, are reducing a once pristine and beautiful land into a potentially dystopian version of its former self.