Wednesday, 28 March 2018

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde - Review

242 pages
Publisher: Penguin
Reading Group Read


Dorian Gray is young, rich and beautiful. When he sees an exquisite portrait of himself, he is bewitched and offers his soul in exchange for eternal youth and good looks.

Under the corrupting influence of his friend Lord Henry Wotton, Dorian becomes drawn into a double life, indulging his every desire in a secret world of pleasure and excess, while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence.

And as Dorian’s behaviour sinks further into debauchery and cruelty, the bargain he has struck looks set to destroy him …


“Like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart.”

Technically, this was a re-read for me. Given that I was a teenager when I first (and last) read this book, it is hardly surprising that I didn’t remember much about of the story except for the main storyline in the broadest of terms.

I’m not quite sure what to say about this book. I can’t honestly say I liked it, in the literal meaning of like. The book’s theme and main character are too depraved to use that word. Having said that, it was a great read; fascinating in a car-crash sorta way. I found myself both horrified and fascinated most of the time, eager to keep on reading despite the fact that I knew how the story was going to end.

The following is not so much a review as a collection of thoughts that occurred to me while reading.

I do wonder what would have happened to Dorian if he hadn’t been so easily influenced by Basil Hallward’s statements about the temporary nature of beauty and Lord Henry’s overall irreverence and bad influence. Lord Henry is the sort of person who manages to sprout all sorts of nonsense in such a way that at first glance it all sounds credible, if not deep and profound. In fact, I think Henry is the real villain in this story since it is his desire to corrupt Dorian and watch what will happen, that pushes the story into gear.

“Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect — simply a confession of failure.” – Lord Henry

What struck me about this story, or rather, the way the main characters approach life, was the frivolity of it all. No feeling, experience, or even thought seems to linger or hold its value for more than a few hours at best. When Dorian first discovers Sybil has killed herself after his careless dismissal of her, he is grief-stricken and filled with guilt. But, only a matter of hours later Dorian discovers the first, subtle, change in his portrait and he decides to abandon his morals.

“Eternal youth, infinite passion, pleasures subtle and secret, wild joys and wilder sins — he was to have all these things. The portrait was to bear the burden of his shame; that was all.”

It’s impossible to read this book and not marvel at how times have changed. Dorian is supposed to be evil, or at least corrupted and guilty of corrupting others, and yet, to modern eyes, we do not see any evidence of that (although there’s plenty to prove his selfishness). Sure, breaking up with Sybil was cruelly done, but considering they only knew each other for a matter of weeks it was the haste of their engagement which startled me more than the fact he changed his mind (be it for frivolous reasons, as his falling in love with her had been). Other misdeeds are referred to but with so little detail that you couldn’t even call it hinting at misdeeds. The only other less than respectable thing we witness, is Dorian visiting an opium den. Opium use may have been something which was frowned upon in Oscar Wilde’s time, but these days drug use, while under certain circumstances certainly harmful, is nowhere near as shocking. The only proof we have that Dorian has lead a less than positive life are his own proclamations of the same and, of course, the portrait. Having said that, there is something to be said for undisclosed (dark?) secrets; it’s impossible to deny that they’re both frustrating and enticing. And of course my imagination is a wondrous (horrendous?) thing. Of course, censorship being what it was, Oscar Wilde couldn’t have gone into the details of Dorian’s misdeeds if he’d wanted to.

And morality is not the only thing that has changed over time. If I were to submit a story written the way ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ is to my editor, she would tell me to scrap whole chapters. These days writers just don’t get away with long sections, never mind whole chapters, filled with nothing but introspection.

I have plenty more thoughts and quotes, but I’ll keep them to myself; this review is quite long enough. I’ll end it with the following.

That the novel was a success de scandale does not surprise me at all. I am however mystified as to how the book was later used as evidence against Wilde at the Old Bailey in 1895. It really requires a rather determined form of reading between the lines in order to conclude homosexuality. Then again, maybe this too is a sign of the times. It is of course quite possible that sentences that I read as straightforward would have had a different or double meaning in Wilde’s time.

I started the book with a quote, so I’ll end it with one as well. This one was picked because it gives me great comfort, even if I’m inclined to think it means no such thing. J

“Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex and vital.”

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