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Dorian Gray and our obsession with the brevity of time

| Wednesday, February 24, 2021

I first read “The Picture of Dorian Gray” when I was on my French exchange trip in high school. Surrounded by beautiful architecture and the roaming plains of Normandy, I was entranced by the idea of reading a novel that took place in Europe while abroad. Little did I know how Wilde would make me question the world around me.

“The Picture of Dorian Gray” follows the eponymous character on his life’s mission to retain his youth and beauty. An artist paints a portrait of the man, which Gray consequently curses, to take the burden of aging. As time proceeds, the portrait grows to become cruel and ugly, while Gray remains youthful in his façade. Although most won’t go as far as to selling one’s soul for such preservation, it is these same ideals that our society operates upon.

In a way, our world resembles that of Lord Henry, a man that influences Dorian Gray to seek hedonism and to use his youth to commit horrid acts. In a similar manner, American society treats the ephemeral nature of youth as a weapon to our sense of self, as though our lives are ticking time bombs. Birthdays become less of a celebration of life, but more of a reminder of our mortality and our fading beauty. We are told that if we are older, we are less valuable. However, Wilde shows that this is not the case. In one particular profound passage, he writes, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

While we seem to notice our external features as those that people value, it is our intrinsic qualities that will withstand the test of time. Perhaps we will grow wrinkles, and in the years to come, we might have harsh lines around our mouths, many years of laughter engraved on our skin. Regardless, we shouldn’t associate growing old as a negative process, but rather, comprehend it as a blessing. Growing means maturing, understanding more and more what is important to us and realizing our place in relation to the world. 

I finished this book near the end of my exchange trip. Every part of me didn’t want to leave. I knew I would miss taking the bus into the city, accidentally stumbling upon the remains of William the Conqueror on one particular trip. I would miss the family dinners, the trips to museums and couch-surfing in Paris. It was everything that I could have hoped, and more. 

My last day, we visited Mont Saint-Michel. The former fortress is an island, only easily accessible at low tide. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to cross the dry path that leads from the mainland to the beautiful abbey. I remember looking out upon the surrounding area when we climbed to the top, and I marveled at the notion that the sandy scape I walked upon would soon be filled with glistening water. While the world outside of Mont Saint-Michel oscillated, visitors coming and going, the water levels altering under the influence of the Channel, what it represented remained the same. Its history of pilgrimage and resiliency provided a refuge for many who were seeking something greater than themselves.  

Driving back to my host family’s house after our visit, I looked out onto the fields of sunflowers, knowing that it would be the last time, at least for a while, that I would see these sights. The flowers almost appeared to wave, their petals bending under the persuasion of the wind. I was filled with an insurmountable feeling of loss. In the moment, I remember thinking that I would do anything to pause that moment — to escape the constraints of time that dictated my departure from a life I so desperately wanted to live. 

Despite my desire to hold on, I began to understand that it was the brevity of these moments that made me want to cling to them more. I am not master of time, and like Mont Saint-Michel, I cannot control the tides that surge and recede. However, I have control over how I treat such delicate moments in life. As Wilde eloquently puts it in his novel, “Some things are more precious because they don’t last long.” 

Instead of fretting about the amount of packing I had to complete later that evening, or dreading my last night in the beautiful town, I talked with my host family in that last car ride home. I don’t recall exactly what we talked about, or for how long, but I remember the way I felt. Not in control, but rather, yielding to the twists and turns of the road. In lieu of looking back at everything I was leaving behind, I sat there and realized how much I had gained. The flowers would eventually wane over time, and Mont Saint-Michel would merely be an image in my mind, but these moments would be engrained forever. 

Perhaps I was looking at life through rose-colored glasses, a trite phrase that is the premise of Edith Piaf’s most revered song. However, I have come to realize that sometimes, we fail to cherish moments by realizing how much we’ll miss them in the future. Let’s not predict our longing for the past, but rather, appreciate the present. Maybe then we will abandon our futile attempts to turn back the hands of the clock, and instead, be content in the here and now.

Elizabeth Prater is a first-year student with double majors in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies. In her free time, she manages her Goldendoodle’s Instagram account (@genevieve_the_cute_dog) which has over 23K followers. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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