On Decadence

A comparative review of Crime and Punishment and The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the limited scope of my reading, if I were to recommend one, and only one, book to a person who wishes to go on a journey of self-introspection, I would have to go on one of my own to determine which of the two aforementioned books bear more significance in my heart. Such was the effect that each book had on me and my sense of morality.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, lauded by many as a treatise on guilt for the guiltless, deals with the life of Raskolnikov, a destitute student who commits a double-murder – one planned and one unplanned. The protagonist deems it a justifiable act, continues with his life remorselessly and what follows is a cat-and-mouse game.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray deals with the double life of the titular conflicted youth. When the unsuspecting Basil Hallvard, an artist, draws a portrait of the handsome and sinless Dorian Gray, he unknowingly breathes life into it. Dorian then discovers that the repercussions of his transgressions are inflicted not on him but on his portrait, rendering it twisted and malevolent in appearance with each sin.

The two stories, while exploring similar themes, differ in setting, in characters, and in approach. After the initial triggering incident – the unplanned murder of Lizaveta Ivanovna in the case of Raskolnikov and the death of Sibyl Vane (his former belle) in the case of Dorian Gray, the two characters take on different mindsets. Raskolnikov is convinced that he hasn’t committed a crime. How can an altruistic, helpful person such as himself commit a crime? He perceives Lizaveta’s death as collateral damage for the death of her half-sister, who deserved to be murdered. However, Dorian Gray drowns in an ocean of guilt, its salt rubbing against the walls of his languid heart. He is unable to grapple with the fact that he, who had been so moral and so righteous in his actions thus far, was the cause of death of a beloved one. He is aware that Sibyl’s blood is on his hands.

From that point onward, both characters tumble down a moral downhill. Raskolnikov’s air changes from that of conviction of his own morality to that of haughtiness. He makes several risky allusions to the crime and even taunts Porfiry Petrovich (the detective on his tail) on several occasions. At one point, he essentially confesses to a friend and plays it off as a prank. He is convinced of the untraceability in his execution of the murder. Dorian Gray, however, lives in fear. He is petrified of the prospect of people tracing the suicide of Sibyl back to him. His apathy towards wrongdoings only sets in later in the novel when he realizes that he is karmically invulnerable.

The primal driving force in the moral decadence of Dorian Gray is Lord Henry Wotton. He is a morally questionable character who acquiesces, and even eggs on, Dorian to indulge. Towards the end, we see Wotton’s influence gradually waning and Dorian’s hedonistic tendencies being entirely his own. He rejects and evades the counsel of Basil Hallvard who, aware of Wotton’s character, warns Dorian about his companionship. On the other hand, Raskolnikov has nothing but positivity surrounding him: a loyal and compassionate friend in Razumikhin, a blindly trusting worshipper in his mother, a firm believer in his sister, and an unconditional lover in Sonya. His sociopathic tendencies arise out of his belief in his own skewed theory – that it is acceptable for extraordinary people, such as Napoleon and himself, to take conventionally immoral measures so as to achieve extraordinary goals. 

However, the influence of the above-stated positive factors is not discounted. Towards the end, Raskolnikov does the ‘right thing’ and confesses to his crime, although he’s still not convinced of the immorality of his action. Even in the confines of prison, he feels that he did nothing wrong. His true punishment arrives in the form of empathy. He sees Sonya through the lens of the other inmates; he sees that she provides for him unconditionally. And only then does he seek to redeem himself. Dorian Gray meets with a tragic fate however. With Hallvard dead, Dorian is left all alone, with no one to re-calibrate his moral compass. He is unsure whether his good deeds arise out of altruism or out of self-interest. Thus, vindication becomes impossible for Dorian, as he is incapable of convincing himself that he is redeeming himself. In the end, he dies a lonely, painful death in his attic as the portrait regains its former glory and Dorian suffers for all his sins at once.
In their own beautifully-worded ways, both novels pulverize the notion of moral grays – that some actions can escape the vice grip of judgment. Crime and Punishment advocates self-correction; Picture of Dorian Gray sheds light on the inevitability of karma. They are thoroughly engaging masterpieces through and through – in their articulation, in their profundity, and in their evocation of the reader’s morality; if you find yourself facing an ethical dilemma, do read these books and follow it up with some good old-fashioned self-introspection.

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Akaash Preetham

A soul trying to escape the maelstrom of engineering by writing and living life to its fullest.

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