“Charm is deceitful and beauty is in vain.” -Proverbs
The words rung in my soft, delicate, 7-year-old ears. It was like a chorus, worshiping modesty until the words sounded strange, as if they belonged to a different dialect. Other times they sounded like a chant, waking me up and lulling me to sleep again. Still other times, the words screamed in mind any time my eyes grazed past a mirror, as if an alarm. Even when I was young, my relationship to beauty was complicated. Was vanity a sin? And if so, was beauty the same? What is beauty anyway, what can be defined as beautiful and should it be pursued? Such were the torments of my mind as I entered my teens. And charm!? Oh, dear dear charm, you fickle thing. The opposite of charm, well I’d say it’s something between disagreeableness and rudeness. So, do we throw out charm and become the worst sort of people? That is the definition of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so no. I do not think this is the answer.
These were the complicated thoughts of a teenager girl, trying to find a place for herself in a world of standards and opinions coming from every person that had a voice, both loud and soft. And these were the thoughts that swirled on the surface of my brain as I perused my father’s modest library and picked up a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. I couldn’t tell you what it was. The name certainly intrigued me. I’d never read anything by Oscar Wilde. Maybe it was the cover, black with white feathers, that drew my eyes to its binding. I’d welcome the explanation that there were additional forces at play, nonetheless, I was intrigued and I sank into the big leather arm chair with my brown eyes fixated on the narrative that lay within the thick, creamy pages.
I was instantly taken by the flow of words and the story and the description. Wilde could not have said it better himself, “Words! Mere words! How terrible they were! How clear, and vivid, and cruel! And yet what a subtle magic there was in them.” The magic, of course, is the worlds that they create and I learned the responsibility I had to take for my words.
As I read, I began to feel like I was Lord Henry's (Dorian’s “mentor”) pupil, hanging on every word he said. I sat and observed Basil’s (friend of Lord Henry and Dorian) art work in his naturally lit studio with white walls and green foliage. An oriental rug of scarlet and salmon with touches of deep blue and faded gold sat under an ornate walnut chair, with Dorian seated for his portrait. His face pure and untainted, as well as his mind, much like my own. This was a coming of age story. And all the while, Lord Henry was there, practically perched on Dorian’s shoulder, with his words, his reason, his world, seeping into Dorian’s ear. Was he the angel or the devil, I did not know, but I carefully read his words, sometimes twice over.
I observed Dorian’s decay as if watching an older brother. I noted his faults and his mistakes and nodded when he declared, “Anything becomes a pleasure if one does it too often,” and I learned moderation.
As his feet turned down a path I did not want to follow, I touched the bridge of my nose in disappointment when he questioned, “Which were more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age?” And I learned how to love someone, despite having little respect for them.
I felt compassion for his lost soul and begged him to reconsider when he said, “There is always something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom one has ceased to love.” But my head darted up at this statement. I wondered if I myself were any better than Dorian, because I too found them ridiculous, and suddenly I was overcome with a desire to remedy myself and I learned how to validate people’s emotions.
I continued to read and became more and more grieved by who Dorian was becoming. And then Lord Henry said this, “Every effect that one produces gives one an enemy. To be popular one must be a mediocrity.” And I learned to be brave, even if it meant not being liked.
In the end, Dorian chose beauty above all else, and when I reached the final page of the book, I learned that charm is deceitful if we think it will bring happiness and beauty is in vain if we pursue it like we do fulfilment.
I am still learning these things, but I hope as I pursue these lessons, the world I am creating is little less addicted and distracted and a little more compassionate and empathetic and brave.